Afghanistan’s deteriorating situation

Published: April 28, 2011

The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

There have been repeated statements by American and Afghan spokespersons that, following the ‘surge’ in the American troop presence in Afghanistan and more particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, Isaf forces have reversed the momentum that the Taliban had built up and, while the gains made were ‘fragile and reversible’, the initiative now lay with Isaf and the rapidly enlarging Afghan forces. There were also claims by US General Petraeus that some 5,000 Taliban had laid down arms and returned to their homes or entered into the reintegration programme initiated by the Afghan High Peace Council.

While it was generally conceded that the true test of the success that had been achieved would come after the new fighting season commenced by end April/beginning May, there was the fondly entertained hope that in the southern provinces enough development work had been done and enough good governance provided to ensure that the Taliban would not be able to recreate the local base of support that they had enjoyed in the past, and that the spreading Taliban influence in the north, which was attributed to the pressure exerted in the south, could be dealt with.

Events in Afghanistan over the last four weeks have belied these expectations.

Persons in Afghan army uniforms have, in rapid succession, carried out attacks on Nato bases, on the Afghan defence ministry and on local officials. Two days ago, an Afghan military pilot killed eight Nato soldiers at a Kabul airport. Such incidents have happened in the past but never quite as many in so short a time. It would be logical to assume that the American or Nato soldier would look askance at participating in joint Nato-Afghan operations. How then will Nato acquire the sort of military ascendancy Petraeus is seeking?

The demonstrations in Afghanistan against the burning of the Holy Quran in Florida by Pastor Jones were triggered, according to American observers, by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decision to highlight the issue in his speech in late March, and reflected his desire to win cheap popularity at the expense of fanning anti-American sentiment. But the most serious of these demonstrations — the attack on the UN office in Mazar in which a large number of foreign and local UN employees were killed — had other connotations. Among the demonstrators were a large number of ex-Taliban who had joined the much-touted reintegration programme. Even the limited success claimed by the reintegration programme has thus been called into question and, of course, doubts about the level of trust between Karzai and his American and Nato partners have been reinforced.

But, perhaps the most dramatic development was the escape from Sarposa Prison in Kandahar of more than 475 (mainly Taliban) prisoners through a 320-metre tunnel that the Taliban had dug under the prison over a five-month period. This was a prison where security had been revamped after an earlier jailbreak in 2008. The escape was through a tunnel that had been dug in the heart of Kandahar and from which tons of dirt must have been removed and dumped somewhere in the city. A lot of the local residents must have known that the tunnel was being excavated and chose not to report it. The CIA, MI6, Afghan intelligence, local police and, most importantly, Ahmad Wali Karzai’s own private spy network failed to detect this impossible-to-hide monumental enterprise. One concludes that hearts and minds have not been won in Kandahar, that the Taliban continue to have a hold on the population and that deployed intelligence networks are incompetent. Should these intelligence agencies be relied upon when they offer learned assessments in other areas?

In the northeast of the country, where the Haqqani network’s influence is high, the withdrawal of American troops from Korengal Valley and, more recently, from Pech Valley have opened the way for al Qaeda to set up camps in the area and for the Taliban to become more active. A district headquarter in Nuristan province was overrun by the Taliban and 50 recruits for the Afghan police force were kidnapped. A suicide bomber’s attack on a gathering of pro-government tribal maliks (elders) killed 10 of them and prompted Karzai to assert that the attack was the work of “cowardly foreign agents hired by our historical enemy”. The media, of course, interpreted this as a reference to Pakistan.

The point, of course, is that when the Americans say, much to our displeasure, that “there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan” they should also acknowledge that in the Afghan provinces abutting our tribal areas — Paktia, Paktika and Khost — the situation is far worse.

Elsewhere in the north, local warlords have created or resurrected ethnic militias and their prosecution of the Pashtun minority is giving these Pashtuns fresh incentives to join the Taliban. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, some one million Pashtuns from these areas became internally displaced persons as the Tajiks and Uzbeks, retaliating for past Taliban excesses, forced them out of their villages and took over their land. Can this happen again?

Talk of reconciliation is also fanning the ethnic divide. Now that the Americans seem to be on board for unconditional talks with the Taliban, the Tajiks and other minorities are expressing opposition. Theoretically, they are doing it because they do not want the Afghan constitution to be changed but, in reality, it is because they fear that they will lose the inordinate share of power they now enjoy. Can reconciliation proceed?

Opium prices have risen and, as a result, cultivation is increasing much to the delight of drug dealers and warlords. Will this prompt them to launch a concerted effort to thwart efforts at peacemaking?

The inability of the Karzai administration to find a solution to the near collapse of the Kabul Bank has led the IMF to cut off aid and this in turn has affected the attitude of other international financial institutions and donors. Whether this means a drastic revamping of monetary regulations or not, it is certain that this has made a bad economic situation even bleaker.

What can and what should Pakistan, the country most directly affected, do? A few suggestions will follow in my next article.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Charles Belcher
    Apr 29, 2011 - 2:11AM

    Pakistan, while a partner in our fight against terror, has proven by the facts to be on the same side as the Taliban and terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This article is self-serving to the Dictatorship in Pakistan, who have been bought by the Taliban who HQ and train in their country. If the author had taken a different approach, he undoubtedly would have be jailed or killed. Freedom and liberty are unknown in this part of the world and our country is fighting in a small part of it to stop terrorism from continuing to be exported to the United States. My son is a Marine currently deployed to Afghanistan. My God protect him and others who are fighting for the cause of freedom and liberty.Recommend

  • Apr 29, 2011 - 4:10AM

    The only way out for Pakistan is to disengage gradually from all conflicts and stop taking sides and help Afghanistan achieve peace and stability. We have to work closely with all Afghans and gain the trust of all major stake holders and stop behaving as if we are a regional power which wants to control Afghanistan. We are too poor and too weak to have this luxury of strategic ambitionsRecommend

  • Arijit Sharma
    Apr 29, 2011 - 8:04AM

    @Charles Belcher: ” …. who are fighting for the cause of freedom and liberty.”

    I guess you also believe in Santa Claus.Recommend

  • Apr 29, 2011 - 11:30AM

    @Charles Belcher:
    My commiserations on your distorted understanding of freedom and terrorism. Unfortunately, you are immersed in the preponderant propaganda unleashed by your agencies and supported to the hilt by your print and electronic media.
    It seems to me, sadly though, that you have not made good use of the “gray matter” all humans are graced with and so inherently distributed by ALLAH ALLMIGHTY in all humans and other living creatures universally. Please go to a library and read books written by scholars, mind you scholars, and not any ‘flatline’ journalist for a better understanding of Freedom, Liberty and Terrorism. (Start with your late President Dwight D Eisenhower’s opinion on the MIC, Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus MIT University).
    The author is a very respectable and experienced diplomat who has traveled the world over. Please do not compare him to the likes of your diplomats and politicians.
    My sympathies on your son’s presence in Afghanistan. May he return safely to his family. Recommend

  • Apr 29, 2011 - 11:33AM

    The Patriot comments should be attributed to “Nazir Habib.” Salams forever.Recommend

  • John
    Apr 29, 2011 - 11:46AM

    The tips for the suggestions to follow:

    PAK should stop supporting Haqqani network

    Reign in ISI policy of Terrorism is an instrument of war” as sated by its once DG.

    Round up all Special assets.

    Open an honest dialogue with Afghanistan. People of Afghanistan still remember PAK support of Taliban.

    Support NATO efforts in Afghanistan, if you like. If not, do not interfere.

    PAK has to set her house in order first, before worrying about Kabul Bank. Recommend

  • amarjamali
    Apr 29, 2011 - 3:19PM

    @charls belcher. I think in pakistan media has more freedom then other countries in the world.but they only broadcast or publish facts,may they be infavour of govt or not.but on the other when we look on the western media they only represent their govt policies and knowingly hide facts if they contradict with their govt polices and same method was adopeted by western media regarding this so called war on terror.they only pointed out american point of view and never showed the truth that the war has taken place only for making more collonies in the world.in the end i would suggest you to see some pkistani news channels you will certainly oppose your point of view about the freedom of media in pakistan.Recommend

  • Umar
    Apr 29, 2011 - 7:59PM

    @John:

    PAK(US) should stop supporting Haqqani network(TTP and many other militias around the world)

    Reign in ISI(CIA) policy of Terrorism(and covert operations all over the world) is an instrument of war” as sated by its once DG(released documents).

    Round up all Special assets. (From all over the world)

    Open an honest dialogue with Afghanistan(Pakistan). People of Afghanistan(The World) still remember PAK(US) support of Taliban(before 9/11 as well as dictators, absolute monarchs, and Dug/Warlord alliance in Afghanistan).

    Support NATO(Pakistan) efforts in Afghanistan(we will support your efforts in Mexico and Canada), if you like. If not, do not interfere.

    PAK(US) has to set her house in order first, before worrying about Kabul Bank(Pakistan).Recommend

  • Andrea
    Apr 29, 2011 - 8:32PM

    @Charles Belcher: I feel sorry that your son has been sent off to fight a war that is not of your family’s making. If are indeed who you claim to be; namely an American and not one of the countless Indians who pose under other names to distort the news here, let me remind you of some basic facts. The West used Pakistan as a front line state to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. The very groups that make up the Taleban and their criminal allies were all created and supported initially by the West to defeat the Soviets. So many foreign fighters came and destabilized the region. Along with Pakistani support and lives, the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan. In the process Pakistan was left in a bad shape. Also we were stuck with millions of refugees and foreign fighters who were often extremists not wanted in their home countries. Pakistan not only ended the Soviet rule in Afghanistan but effectively brought about the demise of the Soviet Union. We thus ended the Cold War and made the war a safer place from Nuclear conflich between the US and Soviets. Untol damage was done to Pakistan’s economy and civil institutions. Pakistan is owed much by the world because all of our effort was then ignored and Pakistan was abandoned with all these criminals and instability. Now we are trying to clean up our house on our own terms with limited resources. When people fall for empty jingoism of ” do more” whatout really how much Pakistan has done, it only upsets Pakistanis more. More Pakistanis have fought and died in this war than all western forces combined. Also when the West leaves, we will have to deal with the region and the nefarious designs of our enemies on both sides of the border.Recommend

  • R S JOHAR
    Apr 29, 2011 - 10:22PM

    @Charles Belcher:
    I fully agree with comments mentioned in the first two lines but was it not Uncle Sam who put the gun on Musharraf’s head and threatened him to become US ally or else— . Results of the forced submission then are now in front of you, which you should not be complaining. Am I right sir? Recommend

  • abuwajeeh hashmi
    Apr 30, 2011 - 12:41AM

    @Mr respected / distorted Charles.
    Freedom and liberty are the new names of oil and looting world resources . I wish and pray for the freedom and liberty of your son.I am amazed , why the american tax payer cant ask their government that where and why their money has been expended and at the cost of what / whom? are you gonna win in Afghanistan ? please have a safe exit as soon as possible ,this wd be in the best interest of this region , world and america.Recommend

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