Afghanistan: Too many cooks spoiling the broth

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While the siege of Ghazni continues amidst heavy fighting in eastern Afghanistan since August 9, 2018, the Taliban have used the stretched deployment of the Afghan military and security forces and US air support in defence of the strategic city on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway to overrun an army base in Ghormach district in the northern Faryab province. These are classic guerrilla tactics, employing a ‘feint in the east to attack in the north’. However, the Ghazni attack is proving more than a mere feint. The surrounding districts of Ghazni are claimed by the Taliban to be in their control, although Afghan government and US sources say they are ‘contested’. From that base, the Taliban have mounted a massive attack on the city, breaking through many of its defences and capturing buildings or inserting themselves into citizens’ homes to conduct their ongoing operations. Afghan government forces, with US air support, are engaged in a desperate battle to expel the Taliban from Ghazni city. US Forces in Afghanistan spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Martin O’Donnell revealed the terror and harassment Taliban fighters had inflicted on the helpless denizens of Ghazni. He said the Taliban, who falsely and repeatedly claim they do not target civilians, have executed innocents, destroyed homes, burnt a market and created a potential humanitarian crisis with this attack. The UN said unverified reports put civilian casualties at more than 100, with residents also at risk from US air strikes (the Taliban fighters having mingled amongst the populace). Meanwhile, reports paint a pathetic picture of the fate of the Faryab army base, manned by 100 soldiers. The base defenders begged Kabul for reinforcements and air support, but were ignored because of overstretched concentration of force to clear Ghazni of Taliban fighters. As a result, at least 17 soldiers in the Faryab base were killed, 40 captured, and the rest fled into the surrounding hills. This underlines the particular vulnerability of relatively passive, defensive, outlying small military bases.

These developments in the battlefield amidst swirling reports of a second round of US talks with the Taliban in Doha and a Taliban delegation having visited Uzbekistan for a dialogue the other day, point to the increasing disarray amongst the Afghan government forces and US policy circles. Ghazni’s strategic importance made it a prime target. But the attack did not come suddenly out of the blue. It followed the creeping consolidation of control of the surrounding districts by the Taliban before launching the final all out attack on the city, yielding a toll of hundreds dead. Each side in the conflict has its own assessments of the ground situation. The Afghan-US combine veers between hawkish views of not talking to an enemy who has the military momentum on its side to President Ashraf Ghani’s repeated calls since January 2018 for peace talks. The Taliban on the other hand seem to have adopted ‘fighting while talking, talking while fighting’ strategy. They and the Kabul government seem to be contemplating a repeat of the Eidul Fitr ceasefire in June 2018 for the upcoming Eidul Azha. Each side took away its own perceptions of advantage from that June break, with Taliban fighters and government security forces mingling freely over that holiday. The government felt it could thereby reduce Taliban hostility to itself and wean it away from war and towards peace. The Taliban are reportedly considering a repeat performance since it gave them the opportunity for fraternisation with the populace in the cities. However, the realistic assessment is that despite not being able to retain the battlefield initiative because of the contradiction between active pursuit of the Taliban and guarding vital areas, the Kabul government is not on the point of collapse. Nor, it should be emphasised, is it able to forge a clear military victory, even with limited US support. The Taliban too, despite their successes, may not be allowed by a concatenation of regional powers such as China, Russia and the Central Asian states to take exclusive power. A negotiated settlement therefore seems the only viable option. Despite there still being many a slip between the cup and the lip, both sides in this long running fratricidal conflict need to be realistic and flexible to bring an end to the bloodletting and restore a modicum of peace and harmony to a bruised, long suffering Afghan people, with the regional spillover of such a positive development in the whole world’s interest.

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