For a great number of people, the war in Afghanistan has become or started to look less intense given the geo-politically cataclysmic incidents taking place in the Middle East.
Reports of internal disunity in Afghan Taliban and media’s overwhelming focus on Middle East seem to have further influenced their views.
But the war in Afghanistan is losing its ‘independent’ character as wars in the Middle East are going to have a critical impact on it.
As a matter of fact, the so-called ‘jihadi connection’ between the Taliban operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Central Asian jihadists plus these groups’ presence among the various ‘jihadi’ groups in the Middle East (Syria and Iraq) do underscore the hypothetical existence of a ‘jihadi corridor’ in the region, posing a grave threat to the lives of people of the entire region.
The illusion regarding Afghanistan’s peace process that had quite strongly taken hold of a great number of people’s imagination following recent ‘The Heart of Asia’ conference in Pakistan was shattered by the wave of Afghan Taliban’s attacks during last week or so.
On December 21, six U.S. service members were killed in a suicide attack on a NATO patrol near Bagram Air Base. The air base located 40 kilometers north of Kabul is one among several that house some 10,000 U.S. soldiers who happen to be engaged in ‘training and advising’ local security forces in addition to conducting counter-terrorism operations.
The attack came nearly two weeks after a group of heavily armed Taliban suicide bombers stormed a southern Kandahar air base, also housing U.S. soldiers. The siege lasted for more than 29 hours in which over 54 people, mostly Afghan innocent civilians, were killed.
These attacks were apart from the threat the Helmand Province is currently facing. If the province’s deputy governor is to be believed, the Taliban have already captured the police headquarters, the governor’s office as well as the intelligence agency building in Sangin region.
The grim situation in Helmand bears striking similarities to the security situation that led to the brief fall of Kunduz in September — the biggest Taliban victory in 14 years of war. The fall of Helmand would deal another stinging blow to Afghan forces which have struggled to rein in the ascendant insurgency without the full backing of NATO forces.
The attacks, including the latest on Kabul airport, also bear a remarkable dissimilarity to the previous years’ insurgency patterns. While the 14 years of war have seen the Taliban launching ‘spring offensive’, it is for the first time that such an upsurge has been witnessed during winter, a clear indication of their war-preparedness.
While the actual strength of the Taliban cannot be measured, it cannot still be gainsaid that the group might have been forced into launching a ‘winter offensive’ due to the seemingly ever increasing presence of Islamic State (IS) and the threat it is supposedly posing to the Taliban’s own position and interests vis-à-vis influencing Afghanistan’s future.
While IS ‘attacks’ in Afghanistan have been hogging headlines for some time now, some questions remain unanswered regarding the credibility and agenda behind these reports.
For instance, The Times reported that 1,600 IS militants have established control over four districts of Jalabad, the capital of the Afghan province Nangarhar. This makes us believe that the terrorist group is literally trying to create an ‘independent’ province on the Afghan-Pak border.
Such reports and related analysis regarding IS’ objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan seem more a propaganda than a true reflection of reality.
The West is using such reports to present the situation in Afghanistan in the grimmest colors one could imagine to persuade the general public to support the expansion of the US military presence in the country. But the question is: if the West was engaged in sinister propaganda, could it not do so by merely relying on the Taliban’s renewed attacks?
As it stands, relying on IS reports seems to serve the purpose better. If the “Western experts” focus on the Talban’s attack and use these attacks as a means to justify an extended presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, they would not be able to remove the stain of defeat against the Taliban even after 14 years of war. They have found a ‘new enemy’ in the IS and, as such, a ‘new’ threat to the Afghan people and a new pretext to justify an extended stay in Afghanistan.
Already the US President Barack Obama had announced in October that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, back-pedalling on previous plans to shrink the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces were not ready to stand alone.
A clear contradiction is evident here in the West’s approach to Afghanistan. For instance, while Obama made us believe that the situation in Afghanistan was “bad enough”, a month later NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the member states were generally satisfied with the situation there. A senior Italian diplomat, at a recent NATO meeting, even labeled Afghanistan as “NATO’s success story”.
Given the threat the West happens to be facing in the Middle East and the way Russia’s military presence has forced it into changing its erstwhile destructive methods, it can ill-afford to project Afghanistan as yet another failure.
On the other hand, it is equally true that the West’s failure in Syria in toppling Assad has forced it to stabilize its position in Afghanistan — near Russia’s “under-belly”– by literally destabilizing Afghanistan.
While these aspects do render our analysis somewhat insightful, for public consumption however, the threat of IS and the way of ‘dialogue’ remain two primary concerns of the U.S. and its allies. This approach has its own internal contradiction.
For instance, while the latest attacks indicate the Taliban’s absence due to their straightforward refusal to participate in the ‘dialogue’ process, the Dec. 28 suicide attack on Kabul airport came only a day after Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, visited the Afghan capital to discuss peace with the group.
“Both sides agreed that the first round of dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China will be held in January to lay out a comprehensive roadmap for peace,” the Afghan presidential palace said.
While on paper, the dialogue process seems to be a promising way of ending a long war, ground realities continue to challenge such perceptions. Taliban are inching towards scoring a second major victory within two months.
Although Afghan government sources said reinforcements had been dispatched to Sangin in Helmand province, while also denying claims of heavy casualties and rejecting that the district was at risk of being captured, trapped residents claimed that roads to Sangin had been heavily mined by militants and exhausted soldiers besieged in government buildings were begging for food rations.
Hence, the question: how long can the U.S. and its allies continue to afford to fight the war they have already lost? While they may have already lost the war, the objective to have strong military presence on the borders of Central Asia, as also in Central Asia, remains unchanged. Recent developments in the Middle East have only made it all the more necessary for the U.S. to keep Afghanistan militarized for as long a period as possible.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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