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The emerging scenario in Afghanistan

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

The situation in Afghanistan is in a state of flux. Even before vacation of the notorious Bagram Airbase, the taliban have been encircling major Afghan cities under hostile rule. Though well trained and well armed, the Afghan troops usually preferred to take to heels rather than ferociously resist the taliban onslaughts.

The US president, in an interview, said that he decided to exit from Afghanistan as the objective of taking out Osama bin Laden had been achieved besides limping Al-Qaeda. The European troops had already left Afghanistan quietly. Thus, the Afghan government is now faced with the grim challenge of facing the taliban with about 25000 troops and 650 US marines. The US is now more concerned about rescuing about 50,000 contractors (translators, informants and their ilk).

In an interview, the US president boasted that America had achieved the main objective of taking out Osama bin laden and limping Al-Qaeda. The affluent Afghans, in search of a better future, feel cheated. They thought that the USA longed for warding off obscurantism and transforming the Afghan society into a vibrant enlightened polity.

They question the costs of war in money and human toll. The US spent US$2.261 trillion on the Afghan war during the period from 2001 to April 2021. About 1, 74, 868 lives were lost. They included US military 2,442, contractors 3846, other/allied troops 1144, Afghan troops and police69,000, taliban 51,191, and Afghan civilians 47,245.

The real reason for decision to exit

American mothers were unwilling to contribute anymore aluminum caskets to Arlington Cemetery. American mothers became war weary after receiving 58,200 body packs during Vietnam’s war. Majority of Americans believe America failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan (PEW Research Center poll). They were fed up with wars started by the US presidents. This issue exerted an impact on presidential elections also.

Afghan government’s misjudgment

The Afghan government presumed that the Americans would never leave Afghanistan. They would never strike a deal with the taliban. The government never prepared itself to make the most of training and equipment provided by the Americans. It never tried to become a viable force after the American exit.

The afghan government failed to notice that the taliban had become flexible during the course of war. They were striking compromises with not only the Americans but also with the Northern Alliance. The taliban were no longer fully under Pakistan’s influence. They held negotiations even with India to Pakistan’s disenchantment.

The Americans, on the other hand, struck many compromises with the taliban. They began to ignore SOS calls from the government troops under taliban fire. Devoid of air cover, the taliban used to breakfast with about 20 to 40 casualties of Afghan troops each day.

Why did the USA lose?

The Afghan debacle is the cumulative outcome of Afghan government’s across-the-board mismanagement and shifting goalposts of the US objectives.

Why Taliban’s narrative appeals to the lay mind.   The taliban see the USA is an aggressor.  They draw inspiration from (22:39-40). `Permission to fight is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed . . . those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah.” 

Taliban fighters rightly say `The Americans have the watches, but we have the time’. Taliban’s thinking is akin to Vo Nguyen Giap’s.   ‘I could lose every battle and still win the war.  US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara had worked out that I was controlling the frequency and scale of engagements to deep my losses just below the birth rate that way the Vietnamese could fight for ever’ (Nigel Cawthorner, Victory: 100 Great Military Commanders, 2003, Arcutus  Publishing Limited, London).

How long can Ashraf Ghani’s government last?

Ghani admitted on 60 minutes, ‘without US and NATO support’, his government would fall in six months. `It would fall within six days’ (Newsweek Nov. 24 to Dec. 6, 2018, p. 27).  With Afghan border fenced, over 30, 000 fleeing `traitor’ (besides troops and Black Water contractors) may have to be airlifted to Oman, Qatar and Bahrain through airborne brigades and US 5th fleet, if Taliban win. Over 60 percent physical area, and over 90 percent ideological areas, is already under Taliban’s influence.

Lessons of history

History is on taliban’s side. USA’s 18,000 troops plus 27,000 contractors (Black Water) proved to be handy prey. Despite lure of dollars in elite leaders, majority of Afghans nurture an independent mind and loathe foreign dominance. 

In 1842, 16,000 British troops evaporated. In 1942 (WWII), British again failed to civilize (gun-point democratize) Afghanistan. Britain realized `masterly inactivity’ is the best policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is commonly known as the graveyard of empires. Several rulers tried to overpower it. , But it was in vain. They had to bite the dust. Genghis Khan lost a son during the siege of Bamian. Alexander the Great had to beat a hasty retreat. In the nineteenth century `Great’ Britain, at the height of imperial power, invaded Afghanistan. It was humbled, marking the beginning of the British Empire. They never again attacked Afghanistan taking refuge under their strategy of ‘Masterly Inactivity’.

Erstwhile Soviet Union rushed its troops to Afghanistan in aid of the tottering Afghan government. In retaliation, the USA and its allies cobbled up Afghan resistance, mujahideen, to fight the Soviet forces. The Soviet Union had its nosed bloodied on Afghan soil. It retreated. Meanwhile, several component countries under Soviet umbrella rebelled. The Soviet Union broke into congeries of several independent republics, confining the Union to Russia.  A Taliban government emerged at the helm after Soviet departure.

The sole superpower, the USA, attacked Afghanistan to oust the taliban. The ostensible reason was that the Taliban had sheltered Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11 attack on the twin tower of the World Trade Centre at New York. The taliban had no answer to incessant aerial bombing. Their government collapsed. For a while it looked as if the Afghan invincibility had been proved to be a myth. After decades of fighting, it dawned on the USA that the Afghan intervention was a misadventure. 

How Afghan government was weakened?

The puppet Afghan governments were more interested in making money than fighting the taliban. Like American soldiers, Afghan trainees too realized it pays to connive at taliban presence and let farmers grow poppy.

Afghanistan became a kleptocratic state where every government posting and promotion depends on power and patronage.

Afghanistan produces 92 per cent of the world’s opium, with the equivalent of at least 3,500 tonnes leaving the country each year. This racket was secured by drug kingpins like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the beloved brother of former president Hamid Karzai, and other influential persons. The essence of UNODC’s policy is that there is a causal (a priori or cause-and-effect relation) between poppy cultivation and the ongoing insurgency. Afghan government handpicks pliable provincial governors for eradication of poppy. These governors feed fictitious figures to the UN agencies about their landmark achievements in rooting out poppy cultivation at its various stages. These focal nodal prodigies have created the euphoria that government-controlled provinces are poppy-free.

RAW’s nod

 Aside from euphoric reviews, the factual position is that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is flourishing by leaps and bounds. The governors are motivated more by self-interest than by national objectives. They are minting money from all quarters, including India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing. The RAW is more interested in turning influential Afghans against Pakistan, and planting insurgents in Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, than in poppy eradication. The RAW understands that there is no single fail-safe panacea for eradicating the poppy curse. Exterminating the menace of poppy lies outside the RAW’s mandate.

Poppy, a cash crop

Aside from the RAW’s machinations, the problem of poppy cultivation calls for a closer look in a multi-dimensional perspective. Afghanistan has a predominantly agrarian economy. Opium production contributes35 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product while cereal crops only about 27 per cent. There is no industrial structure to name, despite its tall claims, India has not been able to lay tangible industrial infrastructure to boost Afghan economy. Afghanistan is one of the world’s least developed countries and the poorest in Asia. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the majority of the country’s population is concerned about physical needs (food, clothing and shelter).

Poppy cultivation is the main avenue of physical security. There is a symbiotic relation between the people’s needs for socio-economic security and poppy cultivation. Majority of the population is preoccupied with how to survive by ensuring food security by getting employed in poppy cultivation. Yet, they find it difficult to make ends meet. The UNODC’s observation that about 14 percent of Afghans are employed in poppy cultivation does not reflect the real life situation. The agricultural-production system is mostly dependent on seasonal rainfall and poor water-management. As such, productivity per hectare is low. The centuries-old traditional cultivation system impedes their economic progress. The system is pivoted on salaam that is cash advance given on security of future crop yield. Poppy is the favourite crop by way of security rather than wheat, black cumin or some other crop. Afghan government could veritably be termed a poppy syndicate because of its lack of interest in poppy eradication. The governors look like custodians of poppy-growing lands. How could this coterie axe its own interest?

 Concluding remarks

Peace in Afghanistan may remain elusive for quite some time due to a complex situation.

It has too many stakeholders.  Besides USA, Pakistan and taliban, India (Chahbahar Port), Iran, China and Turkey (Turkmen-Turkic community) have stakes in Afghanistan? Afghan economy is in shambles, and needs economic support. . Could the US spend $43 billion (it would save annually from exit) on Afghanistan development?  Could China, India, Iran and Turkey together (besides the USA) start a nouveau Marshall Plan in war-ravaged Afghanistan to avoid a clash of interest? What about the post-exit 250,000-strong Afghan army with taliban? Will there be no spill-over effect of taliban-enforced Shari’a on modernist Pakistan?  How would rebellious Pakistani Taliban and recalcitrant elements in Balochistan react to the US exit? Will the Ashraf Ghani government and other puppets reconcile, at heart, to US exit?

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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