Face to Face Interview of Major General S B Asthana on Prospects of peace in Afghanistan by International Affairs Review.

“For any prospects of peace in Afghanistan the intra-Afghan dialogue is a must”

Sharing an interview of mine by International Affairs Review on Prospects of Peace in Afghanistan by International Affairs Review. The Interviewer is Ms Aditi Bhaduri.

With Taliban getting stronger, radicalisation of Pakistan, existence of al Qaeda, Haqqani network and Daesh, I see a large caliphate in the making in the Af-Pak region.

Major General S.B. Asthana, SM, VSM (Retd.) is a veteran Infantry General with over 40 years of experience both nationally and internationally, as well as in the United Nations. A globally acknowledged strategic and military writer/analyst, he has authored over 250 publications. Currently he is Chief Instructor, United Services of India, the oldest Indian think tank in India. He spoke to Aditi Bhaduri about the current situation of Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process, after the United States called off talks with the Taliban.

What do you make of the cancellation of talks by the US and President Trump’s refusal to meet the Taliban at Camp David?

The cancellation of talks with Taliban by President Trump is not a knee jerk reaction but precipitated by unreasonableness and continued violence by Taliban on one hand and on the other by questions on strategic wisdom of US withdrawal from Afghanistan by many in America. The trigger was the car bomb attack on the US embassy resulting in many casualties including of an American soldier. Nine former U.S. ambassadors on Tuesday had warned that Afghanistan could collapse into a “total civil war” if President Donald Trump [was to] withdraw all U.S. forces before the Kabul government and the Taliban coul conclude a peace settlement. In my opinion it was realized by professionals that the strategic space once lost will be lost forever to China which has plans to develop communication links with the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) there, exploit all natural resources of Afghanistan including developing cross communication links up to Iran and preferably use their port as well. Objectively it would have amounted to a war badly lost by US, with Taliban and terrorists winning it [and] resulting in freedom for Taliban, al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and Haqqani network to rejuvenate and develop capability for another 9/11 in US or elsewhere, giving strategic advantage to China, Russia and Pakistan. It was being pursued purely to fulfill President Trump’s election promise at all cost, ignoring advice of professionals like former US Defence Secretary James Mattis and the ruling establishment of Afghanistan. It had no chance of peace in Afghanistan. I am happy that some mid-course correction has been done to this policy, but we will have to wait for the events to unfold, as the situation continues to be turbulent.

Is the Taliban really as invincible as they make themselves out to be?

Taliban has more territory today than they had when peace negotiations began. But today they are not in the govt and are still calling the shots. Today in Kabul and surrounding areas you have the government of President Ghani in control and the Afghan National Defence forces. But as you start moving outside you find the Taliban controlling the territory. So the Taliban actually controls more territory but the less populated areas. So the government controls more populated territories. Which means the Taliban may not actually enjoy popular support.

Another angle is again the US does not want to get entangled in but not many people are speaking about it. That is the ISIS – small droplets of ISIS are floating around everywhere and a number of them have also come to Afghanistan. US does not want to restart all that they did earlier because it is economically not viable. President Trump’s election promise was to get US troops out of Afghanistan and if  he can fulfil it he can go back to the people to seek a second term. Similarly President Trump does not have any love for [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan, but he feels that he maybe useful in his graceful exit from Afghanistan. And he is  trying to push Imran Khan as he knows Pakistan’s economic condition and Khan is running around trying to get finances for the cash strapped economy. However, there are a number of voices inside Pakistan criticising it, speaking out saying that actually Pakistan does not have that much control over Taliban to help out America can get out.

 If Pakistan does not have the kind of leverage with the Taliban as is popularly perceived then where are the Talban getting their strength and resources from? How are they encouraged to act in the way they are?

First, the narcotics trade is very lucrative and a fair amount of narco trade is in the hands of the Taliban. There are numerous countries who would like to sell small arms like rocket launchers and so on. The world market is full of them. SO if you throw the money anything can be bought. So that’s as far as the resources is concerned.

Now ideologically, where does Taliban draw its support from? Now one thing we must remember is that even when Taliban was in power they did not compromise on the border issue with Pakistan. So it is not that ideologically the Taliban and Pakistan totally converge. One faction the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is totally against Pakistan, because they have the Pashtun ideology and Pakistan has been targeting and carrying out ethnic cleansing of Pashtuns. So the TTP has been targeting the Pakistani army in particular.

So would you say that the current Afghan government has failed to control the drug trade?

Well, everyone benefits from it, let’s say.

So did the TTP’s attacks change anything for Pakistan and its army?

Their (Pakistan’s) hatred towards Pashtuns actually increased. And they did launch some more operations especially in the tribal FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region to strike TPP as much as possible. So thereafter the divide between Pakistani army and the TTP has increased. So now there are many interest groups in Afghanistan. First, the US which wants to get out of Afghanistan. Next, Russia which wants the US out to get back their strategic space. They will not enter Afghanistan because they burnt their fingers once but they will be on the fringes of Afghanistan. They want to monitor this area. Regarding China, they would like the Americans to leave because their interest is to connect CPEC to Iran. And the policies of Pres Trump in pulling out from the Iran deal has helped push Iran closer to China.  And now you have this grouping of Iran-Russia-China which is not too friendly to the US. North Korea is already part of it and now Turkey is being pushed towards it.

India is the only swing state that has maintained its strategic autonomy. So that is why you see whether it is the Chinese or Russians or US, all want to keep India in good humour. One is for the (Indian) huge market, and India is the largest buyer of arms. And moreover, remember they are not just looking at the market today, but in what it will be in the next 10-15 years, when the consumer market will be even bigger. However, no one wants India in Afghanistan, India has been sidelined there.

President Trump spoke about Indian troops for Afghanistan…

Initially, when the US was entering Afghanistan they wanted Indian troops there but we were very firm that we would not send troops there without a sanction from the UN Security Council. The reasons were very clear – we do not have a common border and land connection and we do not have the resources to make an aerobridge. So going there would have meant inviting vulnerability of the kind [that existed] between East and West Pakistan. Secondly, we have a large Muslim population and in these kind of operations things do go wrong and people do get killed. So we did not want to have regrets unnecessarily in our country.

Now another interest group in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which wants Taliban to be there because it is more friendly to Pakistan than the present government os. And peace cannot flourish in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is on board.

India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Syed Akbaruddin has called for a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Do you think that is achievable and what could such a dialogue achieve?

For any prospects of peace in Afghanistan the intra-Afghan dialogue is a must. In my opinion no foreign recipe of peace will work in Afghanistan.  I agree with the views of the Indian envoy in UN supporting a dialogue between Taliban and Afghan Government to decide the course of peace and elections in Afghanistan. Taliban has been rejecting the idea of talking to the current government, as it treats them as puppet of foreign powers. The reality is that there cannot be a solution unless they both talk to each other. There are many factions and power centers in Afghanistan. Taliban itself has different factions with different ideas about the future power management. The government in power under President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah do not give the confidence of being on the same page. Taliban do not want to even talk of sharing power with existing government. Taliban is unlikely to give up the ambition of ruling through Sharia laws, irrespective of the liberalised wordings they have been using during peace talks, because they have radicalised cadre who need to be kept in good humor. The people may not be too happy as a large segment of the population has got used to some liberties like women working together with men in many places. The Afghan military is not yet strong enough to take on Taliban in the entire country. It still needs lot of training and equipment.

From the Indian point of view I see a serious situation in [the] Af-Pak region. With Taliban getting stronger, radicalisation of Pakistan, existence of al Qaeda, Haqqani network and Daesh, I see a large caliphate in the making, with levers of power with radicalised organisations. If the entire globe had to put in synergised effort to deal with Taliban and Daesh earlier, it is going to be even more difficult when the new grouping of radicalised elements emerges again. India has to be concerned as it has major stakes in Afghanistan. It is the biggest regional donor and fifth largest contributor globally to Afghanistan with $3 billion assistance. India has been involved in reconstruction, infrastructure and humanitarian development in Afghanistan. This includes the construction of the Salma Dam, the Afghan parliament, hospitals, over 200 schools roads and other infrastructure projects. India has been helpful in capacity building of Afghan Defence Forces. India has been looking at International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) through Afghanistan for connectivity to the Central Asian Region. India will like that Intra-Aghan dialogue starts as the first step towards stabilization of Afghanistan. It can at least make all intra-Afghan stake holders sit and listen to each other’s viewpoint, which may translate to some action towards future power structure.  What India will like to see is a peaceful Afghanistan under a democratically elected Government, although it may appear difficult in near future.

What do you make of the Taliban’s recent comments on Kashmir?

No one in Afghanistan including the Taliban would like the crisis and instability in Afghanistan be compounded by Pakistan, by linking it with the Kashmir issue. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed had conveyed that they do not want Afghanistan to be converted to the theatre of competition between India and Pakistan. [Former] President Hamid Karzai has also criticized Pakistan for its nefarious design to link their problems with Kashmir. India continues to enjoy good reputation amongst people of Afghanistan since ancient days as it has been very helpful to them.

When the Taliban regime was in power, despite all efforts of Pakistan they did not compromise on the border problem with Pakistan. Irrespective of who is in the driving seat in Afghanistan, they well understand Pakistan’s design of treating them as their strategic depth; hence their differences regarding the Durand Line (official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – ed.) will remain. It however may not be construed as Taliban favoring India or vice versa, because India continues to oppose terror in all its forms and manifestations anywhere, and Taliban has conducted and owned up to a number of terror attacks on civil population. The stance of Taliban presently is to avoid getting entangled in India-Pakistan relation as of now due to uncertainty over their relationship with US.

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