Afghan Taliban’s intransigence on the peace process coupled with its attack on civilians in Kabul has forced the four powers initially driving the peace process to increase the pressure on the group. President Ghani’s announcement to initiate a 5-year war strategy against the Taliban, American drone strike on the head of the Taliban travelling through Baluchistan and Pakistan policy of stepping up operations on the terrorist groups have put the group on the defensive. The Americans have been categorical in their statement that the Taliban leader was an obstacle to peace.
Strategists have speculated as to whether the leader was given up by the ISI for reasons ranging from wanting to help the Haqqani network consolidate their leadership to discount on the F16s. However, these arguments pre-suppose ISI as an omnipresent perfectly orchestrated force. US drones have remained in the hunt for high value targets throughout their presence in the region. The Special Forces were restricted due to the so-called rules of engagement, which were changed in January 2015 under Mr. Obama’s plan to scale back U.S. military involvement and to encourage reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Even for argument’s sake, if the Afghan Taliban leader was located by a tip-off from the ISI, it is not necessarily true that it would have been an easy strategic compromise for the ISI to make without fallouts within the organization since there have been reports in the past that he was picked by the ISI.
For all the resilience built in organizations, death of the leader does cause organizational dissonance and a blowback to the motivation of the others. Politically, it makes a counter to the insurgent argument that the insurgent merely needs to prevent state victory rather than ensure his own victory to claim success. The US drone strikes prove that states can still impose substantial costs on terrorists when provoked. The argument of stronger Taliban blowback needs to be looked at in relation with the before and after of such a strike. The Taliban remained and will continue to remain a major obstacle to peace but it’s not the state and public alone that should pay the cost and price for the conflict.
Nonetheless, the defense capacity building of the ANSF remains the first priority as the main strategic objective remains the security, viability and functioning of the Afghan state and people. Prevention of attacks on civilians is an issue area which requires urgent aid and support to the ANSF by major powers including India and China. As the surprise Kerry visit showed, US support in all areas, as in the past decade, remains critical for the survival of the delicate unity government which has shown promise in certain urban areas and wherever corruption could have been curbed.
Historically, stabilization of the country around the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat highway has ensured a viable platform to stabilize the rest of the country. The authority of the Afghan government also stands to benefit from the reconstruction, since a modernized highway would help to tie the country together politically, as well as physically, by connecting the capital with Pashtun-dominated Kandahar, and Herat, a traditional trade center near the country’s borders with Iran and Turkmenistan.
The first priority therefore should be to secure and stabilize Kabul and these primary conflict zones rather than diluting focus by any event that occurs anywhere in the rest of the country. There is no panacea that can stabilize Afghanistan overnight entirely but incremental progress from Kabul to Kandahar to the rest of the country. All countries in the world have had similar trajectories of stabilization from the capital to the rest of the country.
For Pakistan, the strategy of strategic depth has become a double edged sword. With US insistence on drone strikes and peace along with strong Afghan reaction to the terrorist attack in Kabul coupled with a deadly attack in Lahore, the Pakistani military leadership has started to see the costs of allowing non-state actors to flourish. The operations on the Taliban have invited encouragement from all quarters but no one in the region is fooling themselves into under-estimating the long road ahead and enormity of the task ahead for Pakistan.
The Pakistani army remains the primary decision maker which remains impervious to any pressure except from the two major powers- the US and China. The recent campaign in the US media against selling F16s to Pakistan has not helped strategic calculus of the latter and Pakistani efforts to modernize. Pakistan is therefore hedging till the completion of the Obama administration to renew or abandon its commitment to fight non state actors.
India having initiated measures to improve relations with the US through defense cooperation, Afghanistan and Iran with regional connectivity and suspension of the dialogue process has looked to soft balance Pakistani and Chinese shielding of India centric terrorists. Back channels between India and Pakistan therefore become essential during this period to anticipate and influence what Pakistan’s next move might be in her India policy.
The F-16 deal is another critical strategic question for India-US relations to consider. The Indian connectivity to Chabahar is an outcome of 13 years of work but the scale is not in the least bit comparable to the mammoth CPEC project driven by the second largest economy. Strategic coordination, however, in the political relationships of the three countries is the more important incentive which needs to be achieved.
Pakistan might respond aggressively to alter the current state of play because its long term strategic objectives include competition with India and strategic depth in Afghanistan. The Obama administration’s course correction in the last term after few years of equidistance among all actors and reluctance to pressure Pakistan emboldened the Taliban into implementing a series of planned attacks. Anti-Americanism in the region allowed Pakistan army to coopt American foreign policy establishment because the US remains most susceptible to the pressures of democratic decision-making due to its domestic politics. China of course possesses the wherewithal to achieve long term strategic economic objectives unilaterally. An imperative picture for other actors to cooperate is fast emerging.