PAKISTAN has handed over a list of 79 persons to Afghanistan asking the neighbour state either to take action against them or hand them over to Pakistan. The listed people have been involved in planning, facilitating, directing and conducting terrorist activities in Pakistan. In all probability, Afghan government will do neither. Afghan government has no pressure from its political master—the US to do so, while India is paying it to continue doing it. Trio’s interests are, instead, better served by off and on highlighting that erstwhile safe heavens of Afghan Taliban continue to exist inside Pakistan; they are always shy of even mentioning Afghanistan-Pakistan trans-border areas for such activities. Recent days saw a series of high profile terrorist attacks in various urban centres of Pakistan. Linkage between the two is quite complicated and very strong.
Commander Resolute Mission Support General John Nicholson has been lobbying for return of additional foreign troops to Afghanistan since Obama days, he has redoubled his effort since change of guards at the White House. To win support for his arguments, he has added another flavour in the curry by floating the opinion that Russia, Pakistan and Iran are pursuing their own agendas with regard to fragile Afghanistan, thus complicating the fight against terrorism and extremism. “We’re concerned about outside actors,” he told VOA’s Afghan service in an interview. Earlier Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had taken along Nicholson, on January 09, to North Waziristan, in a rare visit, this place was once considered a no-go area because of the presence of local and foreign militant groups. Nicholson praised the country’s anti-terror campaign in the tribal areas.
Last year, Senior US politician and chairman of Arms Services Committee Senator John McCain also visited North Waziristan and had heaped praise on the Army for resorting normalcy in the region. Nicholson is concerned about Russia’s links with the Taliban and its renewed effort to exert influence in the region by convening six-country peace talks, excluding the United States. Russian point of view is that it does not provide material support to the Taliban and only maintains contacts to encourage them to enter peace talks in a meaningful way. Nicholson is also of the view that Iran may be supporting extremists in western Afghanistan.
New administration has made a flurry of contacts with top Afghan and Pakistani officials in a run-up to revamping its Afghanistan policy. Two prongs of new policy are now a distinct possibility: pressure on Islamabad to “do more”; and addition of more American/NATO troops to Afghanistan. “We want cooperation from Pakistan against all terrorists…We all hope for a change in Pakistani behaviour…This is in Pakistan’s interest.” Nicholson said. He opined that there was a need for a “holistic review” of the relationship with Pakistan. The general also added that he needed “a few thousand” more soldiers in a “very, very tough fight”.
Afghan forces have suffered twice as many casualties in the last two years as foreign occupation forces did during the preceding decade. According to American figures, Taliban hold and control about 15 percent of Afghan territory; actual figure is much higher, Taliban have effective jurisdiction over large swaths of rural territory where they collect taxes, manage economy and administer judicial courts. The Afghan government controls about 57 percent of the country’s populated districts, down from about 72 percent in November 2015, according to a report released on January 30 by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR).“Our Afghan partners have been sustaining very significant losses,” Nicholson said. “And I’m not sure that’s sustainable.” Nicholson narrated in a recent testimony before Services Armed forces Committee of the US Senate.
True to his track record, former Afghan President Karzai has urged Americans to persuade Islamabad to end its ‘policy of safe havens to terrorist groups’. Karzai is hopeful that there would be an opportunity for the US to reverse its policy on Afghanistan due to Trump induced US-Russia ties. Some people in the new administration had Afghan experience, including Secretary Defence James Mattis, who had served as head of the Central Command that oversees military operations in Afghanistan. General Bajwa and Mattis recently spoke on the phone.” Both reaffirmed their commitment towards the common goal of peace and stability in the region and discussed measures towards that end. Both also agreed on continued engagement at multiple levels,” the ISPR stated. Mattis lauded sacrifices and resilience of the people and armed forces of Pakistan.
Afghan government has spontaneously endorsed General Nicholson’s wish for additional foreign troops ahead of another intense fighting spree—Spring Offensive. “We welcome the proposal of deploying thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to effectively train and advise Afghan forces. The war in Afghanistan is a war against terrorism and we want this war to reach a successful end. In that regard, we think this is a positive step”, Afghan defence ministry spokesman stated. US special operations troops routinely accompany and advise Afghan forces on combat missions, while the US fighter jets and drones provide air support and surveillance. So far ANSF have not been able to take back any territory from Taliban unless foreign troops’ joined the combat. In the meanwhile Taliban have urged President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from the “quagmire” of Afghanistan. In an open letter to Trump released on one of its official web sites, the content stated:” the responsibility to bring to an end this war also rests on your shoulders.” The Taliban warned Trump against relying on the kind of “unrealistic” reports presented to former presidents by their generals: “They would emphasize continuation of war and occupation of Afghanistan because they can have better positions and privileges in war.” Statement also accused the US of imposing a “surrogate administration” on Afghanistan.
Afghan officials are pushing to create a “safe zone” for Taliban insurgents in a bid to wean them away from traditional sanctuaries inside Pakistan, in a radical and contentious strategy to de-escalate the conflict. Strategy aims at undercutting Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban. “I urge the Taliban to return to Afghanistan. We should make a safe zone for them and their families,” Kandahar police chief Abdul Raziq told a gathering in January.” We can no longer rely on foreign governments and embassies to end the war”, he added. Another perspective has it that a former Helmand governor Sher Akhundzada has warned that, “The government shouldn’t be giving safe zones to terrorists.”
Some observers have dismissed the strategy as “illogical” as the Taliban already control vast swathes of Afghan territory. Afghanistan’s National Security Council did not officially confirm the government strategy, however, it confirmed that: “The Taliban are allowed to relocate to Afghanistan under state protection.” With the induction of additional occupation troops, Afghanistan conflict is likely to stay in stalemate for foreseeable future. Pakistan’s viable option is to strengthen domestic counter terrorism measures to sever the terrorism trail originating from Afghanistan right at the international border.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.