Away from the ballot box, the bullet still rules in Afghanistan. A recent attack on Kabul airport has renewed fears over the capital’s vulnerability at a time when swathes of Helmand have returned to Taliban control.
Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the Army’s media wing continues its positive tone despite widespread acknowledgement that its air and ground operation, Zarb-e-Azb, against militants in North Waziristan Agency, began after many it sought to snare had made good their escape.
Pakistan’s well-documented ‘double-game’, supposedly denying space to anti-government forces while simultaneously fostering its favoured proxies who make mischief in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir, means that few had high hopes for the latest intervention.
Nevertheless, India has long known it would face a situation similar to the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, whereby hardened fighters would be looking for the next challenge.
To that end India has spent years buttressing its influence in Afghanistan with $2billion in aid and, earlier this year, an arms deal with Russia to supply the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
In an internationally-welcomed display of diplomacy, newly-installed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited both his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif and the outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to his inauguration ceremony. But even before Sharif could confirm his attendance a fidayeen-style assault on the Indian consulate in Herat let Modi know that ultimately, Pakistan’s military is in charge. Responsibility for previous attacks against Indian installations have been attributed to the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba; both fearsome outfits with close ties to Pakistan’s so-called ‘deep state’. In an article before the ceremony, Bruce Riedel, former Af-Pak adviser to President Obama, said: “India will face many foreign policy challenges ahead but the Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan will be one of the most immediate and difficult.”
The latest electoral wrangling in Afghanistan, despite the close involvement of US Secretary of State John Kerry, means that even as Western countries complete their withdrawal from the region, a Bilateral Forces Agreement, allowing a certain number of US forces to remains in support of the ANSF, remains unsigned. And while both candidates have indicated their willingness to go ahead with the agreement, (note that no such arrangement was finalised in Iraq) no-one knows if the US will maintain capacity for aggressive anti-terrorist operations that became the hallmark of Joint Special Operations Command, which in the past caused civilian casualties that frayed relations between Kabul and Washington.
In a recent article for The Washington Quarterly, a global affairs journal published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Shashank Joshi wrote:
“Over time, and regardless of whether a BSA is eventually signed, the risk is that the international community grows exhausted, funding dries up, interest declines, the Afghan army eventually splits along ethnic or other lines, regional competition intensifies in anticipation of this outcome, and a renewed, internationalised civil war becomes a realistic longer-term prospect. Nearly all of the gains of the past decade and a half would disappear. It is this prospect that drives Western interest in talking to their Taliban adversaries.”
Mr Joshi, of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, added that lowering expectations of US leadership could spark a spiral ‘self-fulfilling actions’, where, anticipating a collapse in the Afghan state that followed the Soviet pull-out, ‘each country hedges its bets and extends support to the various non-state actors waiting in the wings – whether pro-or anti-Taliban – thereby weakening Kabul’s authority further and reinforcing the original pessimism’.
Talking to the Taliban remains the best hope for a stable Afghanistan and, by extension, security in South Asia. Hopes were raised following the prisoner exchange that saw the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last US prisoner of war. But Dr C. Christine Fair, introducing her new book, ‘Fighting to the End – The Pakistani’s Army Way of War’, sounded a pessimistic note before a recent audience at Washington DC’s Hudson Institute. “The army will undercut him. The army knows, that particularly under Modi all they have to do is have an LeT attack or resuscitated JeM activity in India that will completely undermine any of that. So there are opportunities for spoilers. And the jihadi organisations themselves are increasingly capable of being spoilers independent of the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence],” she said.