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Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan: Alarm bells for region; By J.K Verma

C3S Article no: 0045/2017

Pakistan-backed Taliban are strengthening in Afghanistan and slowly but steadily capturing new territories. They now control seven out of 14 districts of Helmand province and are fighting to capture five more districts — and the ill-equipped Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are unable to repulse them.

The security situation in the country has deteriorated considerably. President Ashraf Ghani’s policy of reconciliation with Pakistan has failed as the Pakistan military has rein in the Taliban in Afghanistan.

On April 11, Taliban militants, disguised in Afghan military uniforms, attacked an ANSF base in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed at least 140 soldiers which depicts their strength, courage and confidence. The base is the headquarters of 209 Corps and its area of operation is Northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz province where heavy fighting is continuing.

Taliban claimed that Afghan soldiers who were posted in the base also participated in the attack and approximately 500 soldiers were either killed or wounded. In March also, insurgents attacked the main military hospital in Kabul in which more than 30 persons were slaughtered and a large number were injured.

General security is declining in Afghanistan and Taliban are strengthening. The power of the Taliban has considerably enhanced since the end of 2014 when most of the NATO forces left the country.

At present, there are 8,400 US and 5,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan purely in an advisory capacity. German troops were present in Mazar-i-Sharif at the time of the April 11 attack although no German soldier was killed.

The ill-trained Afghan soldiers are no match to the spirited Taliban fighters. The Afghan army is also battling large scale desertions, massive killings, ghost soldiers, corruption, ill-training, poor leadership and the problem of old and obsolete weapons. According to a US think-tank, about 6,800 soldiers and policemen were killed in 2016 alone. Afghan troops could not achieve the desired professionalism and efficacy although the US spent about $65 billion on training and equipping the Afghan army during the last more than a decade.

The United States dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan on April 25 killing more than 90 Islamic State (IS) terrorists. The powerful bomb destroyed the hiding places of IS including tunnels and caves. Analysts maintain that the US is in a dilemma about the Taliban as its close associate Pakistan insists that the US should not destroy Taliban, hence US forces dropped the powerful bomb on the hideouts of IS and not on the stronghold of Taliban.

The Haqqani network, with the support of the Pakistan military-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has consolidated its position and at present it controls Afghan Taliban. It emerged as a unifying force among various factions of Afghan Taliban. ISI which desires to achieve ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan through Taliban, especially the Haqqani network, does not want the destruction of Taliban. There are confirmed reports that several Pakistanis joined the Haqqani network and fought ANSF.

Analysts mention that IS is not the prime threat in Afghanistan and the major threat to ANSF and to the US-led NATO forces is from Afghan Taliban while the US dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on an IS hideout.

Iran is also worried because of rising influence of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan, especially Taliban — who are Sunni Muslims and follow Deobandi fundamentalism and Salafi jihadism. Taliban do not consider Shias as Muslims and although Afghanistan has 10 per cent Shia population, they are scared of Taliban rule.

Besides ISI, Afghan Taliban get support from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. A few of these terrorist outfits are financed by Saudi Arabia.

Russia supports Iran’s entry in the Afghan peace process. Russia and China both have Muslim populations and want to restrict influence of IS in Afghanistan as it would radicalise their Muslim population. China, which shares its borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan is already suffering from Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang autonomous region. The Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan assist Uighur Muslims of China and impart training, including lessons in Jihad, supply arms and ammunition and also provide shelter.

Russia is also worried about rise of IS in Afghanistan as about four to six per cent Russians profess Muslim religion and 90 per cent of them are Sunni Muslims. Besides enhancement of Islamic extremism, Russia is also concerned about the opium trade from Afghanistan. A large number of Russian Muslims have joined IS and Russian authorities fear that once IS is vanquished in Syria and Iraq, these Russians would return and create problems in the country. Hence, Russians are also against the rise of IS in Afghanistan.

In this manner, China, Russia, the US and Pakistan all are working against IS in Afghanistan but they cannot work jointly as all have separate interests. The Russians and Americans are supporting rival groups at several places in the world hence there is no hope of cooperation in Afghanistan.

The Russians are more inclined to cooperate with China and Pakistan in Afghanistan than India and this was the reason why in the beginning only China, Pakistan and Russia discussed about the situation in Afghanistan. These countries even excluded Afghanistan from the discussions as they were not interested in restoration of peace and tranquility but wanted to curb the rising influence of Daesh in Afghanistan. All these countries have no problem with Taliban although the influence of Taliban is much more than IS.

Afghanistan and India want peace in the country hence both are against rising influence of Taliban while all other countries want eradication of IS and not of Taliban.

The Pakistani military-controlled ISI which supports Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network, must be told stringently that it must stop supporting terrorist outfits as it is becoming counter-productive for Pakistan, Afghanistan and for the region.

Peace cannot be restored in Afghanistan by deputing foreign troops. Only Afghan forces can fight with Taliban as well as Daesh. Therefore, all countries should chalk out a comprehensive plan to train and equip ANSF so that they can eradicate various terror.

ANSF personnel can be trained in India while sending to Pakistan may be dangerous as they would learn Islamic extremism/terrorism there. Latest weapons, including airpower and communication devices, can be provided by the US and Russia.

Both the US and Russia should not involve themselves in a cold war in Afghanistan as it will be counter-productive. All the stakeholders in Afghanistan must realise that if Taliban come to power again in Afghanistan it will be dangerous not only for the region but also for the whole world.

(The author is a Delhi-based strategic analyst. The views expressed are the author’s own)

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