Flavour of the Week - In Afghanistan
Regular column report recent developments from different capitals of the world.This time from Kabul
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had stirred a hornet’s nest by his peremptory dismissal of Atta Mohammed Noor the powerful Governor of the relatively stable and prosperous Balkh province. The only reason he gave, while accusing Noor of corruption, was that he had accepted a letter of resignation from Noor, signed earlier last year during negotiations over a possible national role for the Governor who had ruled Balkh for more than a decade. Noor denied the corruption allegations and said that the letter which had not been made public was conditional on certain actions that the President had failed to take.
Noor’s response to his ordered removal was straightforward. He refused to give up the gubernatorial post and also prevented Ghani’s choice for Governor Engineer Mohammad Dawood from entering Balkh. He said that that President Ashraf Ghani did not have the power to unilaterally remove him because his party had half of the seats in the coalition government. Noor said that Ghani’s actions had been motivated by his desire to get rid of possible opponents in the Presidential elections due in 2019. Already Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum was in exile in Turkey following charges by Ahmad Ishchi, a former governor of the vice president’s home province of Jowzjan. Mr. Ishchi said that during 10 days in captivity by Dostum, he had been tortured and then raped by rifle barrels on General Dostum’s orders.. Noor had met Dostum in Turkey in June 2017 and they had formed a “Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan”, uniting figures from the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities. Noor addressing rallies of his supporters said that the Kabul government was weak , lazy and corrupt and warned the government against trying to remove him by force. He also told his supporters that that officials were distributing arms in Kabul to destroy Balkh and people were being armed at two guesthouses in Kabul belonging to the National Security Council and the intelligence agency the National Directorate of Security . Addressing a gathering in Mazar e Sharif , Atta Noor said that the current Independent Election Commission was not acceptable to the people. It needed to be reviewed as the members had been elected by three government leaders casting doubt on the credibility of the election process.
The Jamiat e Islami, Atta Noor’s parent party, had warned the President that it would withdraw support from the government if Noor was ousted. The Jamiat had joined the government on the basis of a deal brokered after the 2014 elections. The Tadjik’s had been chafing since then as the deal made Ghani, a Pushtun, the President while creating a special post of Chief Executive for Abdullah Abdullah also a member of the Jamiat. Noor’s ire at recent events was directed not only at the President. He called Abdullah Abdullah a snake and said the Jamiat would never trust him and he had shown he was weak and a partner in the incompetence and crimes of the government. Abdullah Abdullah had confirmed that he had approved of the decision to oust Noor from Balkh but did not respond to Noor’s vitriolic comments. Discussions between Noor and Ghani’s representatives had yielded to result. Western powers which had been party to the 2014 deal were said to be alarmed about the possibility of a civil war that would undo recent battlefield successes against the Taliban. They were also concerned about how the fractious political climate would impact on the next Presidential election.
There had been reports that the US President had given his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, the mandate to decide on the number of additional American troops that would be sent to Afghanistan. Mattis had merely said it would be more than 3000.The key element in the American’s latest strategy for Afghanistan, that emerged from the talks that Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had held in Pakistan, was to launch a two-pronged military offensive that inflicted a military defeat on the Taliban and forced them to join the Afghan reconciliation process on Kabul’s conditions. But America had squarely laid the blame for failures in Afghanistan on Pakistan and the Haqqani network which was operating from Pakistan’s tribal belt. The Americans had also said that they would take unilateral action, if needed, inside Pakistan.
In a speech on August 21, 2017 outlining his South Asia strategy U.S. President Donald Trump had said that America could no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that posed a threat to the region and beyond. In its National Security Strategy released on December 19, the US said it would “press” Pakistan to intensify counter-terrorism efforts. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said that “Pakistan has greatly suffered from terrorism, and the security services have been effective in combating the groups that target Pakistani interests, such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Pakistani Taliban. We have now worked closely with Pakistan against these groups,”…“Now, just as we have made Pakistan’s enemies our own, we need Pakistan to deny safe haven to or lawfully detain those terrorists and militants who threaten US interests,”. While Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that American and Pakistani authorities were in regular consultations, the ante was raised by Vice President Pence, making a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he told the troops that Trump had "put Pakistan on notice”. The bludgeoning came in Donald Trump’s comments that the US had "foolishly" given Pakistan over $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years. In a New Year day’s tweet he accused Pakistan of providing “safe haven” to terrorists and feeding the US nothing but “lies and deceit” terminology also used by the American Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. The next move was the suspension of military aid to Pakistan. Prominent among the suspended amount was USD 255 million in Foreign Military Funding (FMF) for the fiscal year 2016 as mandated by the Congress. In addition, the Department of Defense had suspended the entire USD 900 million of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan for the fiscal year 2017. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said “It has been more than four months since the president’s speech, and despite a sustained high-level engagement by this administration with the government of Pakistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network continue to find sanctuary inside Pakistan as they plot to destabilise Afghanistan and also attack US and allied personnel,”.The American action was lauded by Afghanistan with Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US Hamdullah Mohib tweeting, “President @realDonaldTrump’s first tweet of 2018. A promising message to Afghans who have suffered at the hands of terrorists based in Pakistan for far too long.”
Following the American action there was anger and concern in Pakistan. Demonstrators burnt images of U.S. President Donald Trump and the U.S. flag during protests against the aid cuts. Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry warned that Pakistan was a sovereign country and said accusatory statements by U.S. officials would not help to quell terrorism. A statement from Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s office said “Recent statements and articulation by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation Pakistan’s U.N. Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi said Pakistan could “review our cooperation if it is not appreciated” by international allies.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif reminded the United States of the “services” Islamabad had rendered in Washington’s “war on terror”. He said history’s lesson was not to blindly trust the USA. He said that America had carried out 57,800 attacks on Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan and American forces were supplied arms and explosives through Pakistan. Thousands of Pakistan’s civilians and soldiers became victims of the war initiated by America. Asif said “We considered your enemy as our own,” “We filled up Guantanamo Bay, and we served you with such an enthusiasm that we left our country with load shedding and gas shortage.”Asif said Islamabad had tried to please Washington even at the cost of Pakistan’s economy, and provided the US with “tens of thousands” of visas but now Pakistan would no longer compromise on its prestige. Regarding the American strategy for a two pronged approach Pakistan had cautioned that a major military offensive against the Taliban from both sides of the Afghan border, if ending in failure, would have negative consequences for the entire region. The Pakistani’s were said to have told the US Defence Secretary who was very gung ho about the prospects of success that they feared that a major military offensive, without engaging some Taliban factions in direct talks first, could be counter-productive. The Taliban might outlive this offensive too, and deal with it lying low in their mountain fastness, as they did with previous offensives. In the process Pakistan would lose whatever influence it had. With all lines of communication closed, the Taliban would become even more dangerous, particularly for Pakistan, which had always faced the blowback of previous adventures in Afghanistan, whether launched by the Russians or Americans.
After suspending security assistance the Americans had called on Pakistan to come to the table and assist in the fight against terrorism and to take "concrete steps" against terror groups to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. But from Pakistan came word that Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir had said that Pakistan had suspended defence and intelligence cooperation with the US. He said the facilities that Pakistan had extended to the Americans were still in operation. But there was also a wide field of intelligence cooperation and defence cooperation which had been suspended.
There had been no let up in violence in Afghanistan. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that more than 8,000 civilians were killed or wounded in conflict-related violence in the first nine months of 2017. Attacks targeted funerals of officials, Shias, Afghan government establishments including offices of its intelligence agency, America troops, Afghan troops and media groups. Kabul had become one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for civilians in recent months, as the Taliban stepped up their attacks and the Islamic State group (IS) sought to expand its presence in the country. The Islamic State had gained ground in Afghanistan ever since it first appeared in the region in 2015. Since then, it had massively scaled up its attacks in Kabul, including on security installations and the country’s Shiite minority.
It was quite obvious that whatever new strategies the US came up with there was little chance of Pakistan falling completely in line and in the process losing assets it had long cultivated. Nor was it likely that the Taliban would roll over and lie down. They had made it clear on numerous occasions that they would continue the fight as long as the foreigners remained in Afghanistan. Most likely, as already reported in the media, the American stoppage of aid was likely to further bolster China’s influence in Pakistan and by extension in Afghanistan. While Trump might want to be remembered as the President who ended the Afghan conflict, his legacy was likely to be more violence unless he suddenly reversed course, withdrew all American troops and let Islamic State and the Taliban fight for supremacy in Afghanistan.