Charles Bennett, Director of the European Atlantic Group, argues that there is a serious risk of nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan. He also believes that the absence of recognition of Somaliland exasperates the situation and its relationships, especially with Britain. Finally, Mr Bennett urges the international community to focus its attention on Yemen, what appears to be the world’s forgotten war.
Almost exactly a year after the ISAF mission ended, British troops were redeployed to Sangin, bringing the continuing war in Afghanistan back into the spotlight. The war in Afghanistan is slowly slipping in importance in the news cycle. Attention given to Afghanistan in the last year has been predominantly in relation to ISIS, when headlines touted the creation of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISKP are a growing problem, but ISKP face the same problems that Al Qaeda faced in gaining large numbers of ideological recruits. This is because Afghanistan and the Pashtun population follows an ideologically different branch of Sunni Islam to that of ISIS. The threat of ISIS expansion has helped the President of Afghanistan’s appeal for extra support, and therefore Obama’s justification of the continued presence of US troops; but it has changed little on the ground.
So what is happening in Afghanistan? There are two different narratives that present different pictures of the state of the country. The first is a continuation of the idea of the “good war:” in short, that the war in Afghanistan has gone well. As evidence, the “good war” narrative points to the democratic transition of power in 2014, the improvement in human rights and women’s rights, and in standards of education. It also emphasises the fact that the Taliban have not taken any urban centres. In contrast to the “good war” narrative, there are pessimists who point to the total cost of the war in achieving limited success. The democratic transition of power was beset with problems: accusations of fraud, Abdullah Abdullah’s establishment of a parallel administration, and the ensuing negotiated settlement; it took seven months to appoint a cabinet, and Hamid Karzai has far from yielded all his influence on Afghan politics. While human rights and women’s rights have improved, corruption is still rampant; Ashraf Ghani was elected on a promise to resolve this issue, but has been handicapped by the deals he has had to make with ex-warlords to secure his power. While no urban center has fallen fully to the Taliban, the majority of Kunduz did briefly fall to the Taliban before they were pushed back. The Taliban have taken large swathes of the countryside, and are increasingly breaching the security cordon around cities. This threatens the advancements in civil rights and security. The Afghan Security Forces have also taken large casualties and suffered increased desertions, with some estimates suggesting that a third of their forces need replacing this year.
Ashraf Ghani has been less successful than many hoped in his first year, but it has not been a disaster. Just as Afghan National Forces are hurting, so are the Taliban. The Taliban’s leadership has gone through a painful transition after the passing of Mullah Omar. Mullah Mansour has taken on the leadership, but his right is contested within the Taliban, resulting in open conflict. Jalaluddin Haqqani also passed away; although the transition of power to his son Sirajuddin has been smoother, Sirajuddin lacks some of the prowess and unifying features of his “fountain of jihad” father. This suggests that 2016 may be the year of the Zartman’s Mutually Hurting Stalemate, and the beginning of a peace process.
Something Ashraf Ghani certainly achieved was vastly improving relations with Pakistan, widely acknowledged as key to the peace process. There has been discussion over the TAPI natural gas pipeline, and there are currently trilateral talks between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan attempting to bring the Taliban to a negotiated settlement. Pakistan has always been a difficult partner, with many within its security establishment viewing the Taliban as more natural allies than a government with a large Northern Alliance/Tajik presence supported by India and the West. If, and it is a big if, Pakistan can be persuaded to endorse and actively pursue a settlement, there is still the problem of getting the Taliban to accept it. The power structure of the Taliban and control the current leadership has over the insurgency in Afghanistan is not clear. Mullah Mansour may not be able to force the Taliban to accept a peace agreement, which risks undermining his leadership. This increases the likelihood that, with momentum in the Taliban’s favour, the insurgency’s leadership will continue to resist a peace process.
With a peace-process that appears unlikely to succeed – even if it does, it would likely take a long time to negotiate and implement – the situation looks likely to deteriorate in 2016. The government will struggle to maintain security and will likely lose more ground to the Taliban. A complete collapse is unlikely, since foreign powers prop up the government just as they did Najibullah’s from 1989-92; but the government may be forced to rely on private militias that are rumoured to be reconstituting already. (This presents a possible nightmare scenario of the civil war of 1992-96, where Najibullah’s forces and supporting militia fractured and splintered into smaller groups along with the Mujahidden, causing crippling conflict that allowed the Taliban to sweep to power). The reconstitution of private militias will mean the creation of more armed groups outside the government’s chain of command, risking further lawlessness. Afghanistan needs continued help and attention from the West, not abandonment in its hour of need.
Maybe it’s too much to hope for. Maybe we read too much into this. But there are new moves towards peace between India and Pakistan which are, in their little way, quite astounding. And who will reap the benefit? Afghanistan of course where these two countries have been stoking their own vicious and nasty proxy war for decades. Poor Afghanistan has many issues to contend with but if India and Pakistan at least begin to stop playing the nasty little game they have been indulging in this wretched country there will be a chance, however slim, of a better future for the Afghans.
The use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been deeply controversial. Whilst the drone campaign has certainly achieved some of its goals, it has also led to the death of countless civilians and an increase in levels of extremism. Afghanistan remains by far the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world, but now as U.S. troops slowly withdraw from Afghanistan, and with a new government secured in place, drone strikes don’t seem to be winding down. Rather, unmanned U.S. drone strikes have stepped up this year, in both Afghanistan and in areas of Northern Pakistan.
U.S. drone strikes in the region began back in 2001 as a tactic to persecute the “War on Terror”. Although the surgical strikes began slowly, daily drone use escalated quickly and became one of the key war strategies in the fight against insurgents. The drone programme has expanded significantly under the Obama administration, with deaths from drones six times that of the preceding Bush administration. Dozens of armed drones continue to fly over Afghanistan and Pakistan every day and regularly release their weapons.
Today, U.S. drones are used to achieve one goal; to neutralise terrorist operatives, principally those of al-Qaeda. The U.S. government has claimed that they were able to eliminate up to 70% of al-Qaeda’s leadership with the use of drones however there has been no accurate verification of this. Furthermore, civilian protection from such drone attacks remains poor, with civilian losses continuing to be viewed as acceptable. Due to the complex intermix of insurgents with the civilian population, thousands of innocent men, women and children have perished from drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The exact toll of civilian deaths has never been accurately reported, partly because the Obama administration employs a disputed method of counting civilian casualties, where all military-age male deaths in a strike zone are considered combatants. From the data available, 17-24% of all drone strike related deaths are civilians.
Other than civilian deaths, there remain other repercussions of such strikes; drones have a serious counterproductive effect when it comes to reducing extremist combatants. Drone strikes are known to have increased negative sentiments towards the U.S. government among the local populace. This anti-government sentiment stretches out to the Afghan government as well, though the Afghan National Unity Government has remained silent on the issue of drones. This negative sentiment from drone strikes inevitably provides an incentive for people to take up extremist Islam and join militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Drone strikes hamper Afghanistan’s ability to progress towards peace and development, something that the ‘War on Terror’ was fighting for. Yet President Obama continues to ignore the CIA’s warning about the “possibilities of backlash.”
Drones have given the US the ability to strike anyone anywhere, regardless of national boundaries and they are a direct violation of international law. Drones violate both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s sovereignty and undermine human rights, but there hasn’t been much of an attempt to stop the targeted attacks. While the administration of Hamid Karzai, who was president of Afghanistan from 2004 to 2014, demanded that the strikes be conducted with more moderation, his successor, president Mohammed Ashraf Ghani, has said little on the issue in order to decrease U.S.-Afghan tensions. The increasing civilian death toll and the increase in radicalisation as a result of the strikes doesn’t seem to be enough to justify the end of drone usage.
The drone issue remains complex. Apart from the collateral civilian damage, the attacks do undeniably play a significant role in challenging militants and supporting ground military operations. Reports have also shown that the strikes have managed to destroy large stocks of militant arms and ammunition. It continues to be argued that drones are the safest form of modern warfare and are the way forward; and although this might be false, what is the alternative if drone strikes were halted?