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Afghanistan After Omar's Death

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

Omar [L] and Mansour [R] – Omar’s death in 2013 was hidden for two years; Mansour was chosen as his successor.

A good starting point for understanding the current politics of Afghanistan, is to go back a few years, to the major speech on Afghanistan by President Obama in December 2009. In this, he set out his plan for tackling the war and bringing to an end the US military involvement, first by a surge of the

kind that had been tried in Iraq; this was to be followed by a draw-down, which was to begin 18 months after.

With these deadlines, Obama also caused the politics and diplomacy to speed up. As always, the first movers were the Pakistanis. They moved quickly to arrest Abdul Ghani Barader, the Deputy to the Amir-ul-Momineen Omar. Barader was a Zirak Durrani Pashtun from the Popalzai tribe – the same as Karzai. The latter had been using him as a go-between for informal talks with Omar. By detaining him, they removed a channel that was not under their control. Having already arrested an earlier Deputy, Obaidullah, who was to die in detention, the Pakistanis then brought Akhtar Mansour in as Deputy, and he remained with Omar until the end. Mansour is also a Durrani Pashtun, but a Panjpai, who do not get on with the Zirak Durranis. The Zirak Durrani Pashtuns have been seen by Pakistan as the most committed champions of Pashtunistan and hence to be kept out of power to the extent possible.

The Americans initially praised the action against Barader – indeed, it was a joint CIA-ISI move. But soon, suspicions began to emerge about the true Pakistani motives and these were to harden after the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad in May 2011. Partly as a result of these suspicions, one sees a number of steps taken by the US to re-position themselves vis-à-vis Pakistan. This included steps like encouraging the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership agreement – a red line for Pakistan; opening a secret dialogue with Iran through the good offices of Oman, in order to have a better option for supplying Afghanistan; the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar, for the express purpose of keeping it free from Pakistani influence.

Their own bilateral relations sank to a point where the two forces exchanged fire in November 2011, in which 26 Pakistani soldiers were killed. The Pakistanis complained that they communicated to the US commanders that the ISAF forces were attacking a friendly army, but for two hours the attacks went on. In response, Pakistan closed the route for NATO supplies, and this stand-off continued for several months. Finally, the US issued an apology, resumed aid, and Pakistan re-opened the supply lines.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, also read the signs and realised that there was a qualitative change that had come about in relations with the US, regardless of public demurrals; in response, it turned to China. Then Prime Minister Gilani went to Beijing soon after the Abbotabad raid, and got the Chinese endorsement for its counter-terrorism role. Not only that, there were reports in the media that China had informed the US that any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on itself. These were probably over-stated, but the fact is that China has moved steadily towards greater commitment to safeguarding Pakistan’s security. By February 2012, it had held the first of the trilateral China-Afghanistan-Pakistan talks. And, for its part, Pakistan [again in the shape of Gilani] was advising Karzai that the US had lost the war in Afghanistan, and both should look to China as the anchor of the region. Karzai had his own schemes for direct talks with the Taliban – and the pursuit of this approach was brutally discouraged by Pakistan. The trail of blood took in not just Barader [who survived, but reportedly unable to speak], but also his own half-brother Wali Karzai, his aide Abdullah Jam, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, former President and then Head of the High Peace Council.

This was the uneasy state of play until the Afghan Presidential elections came round in 2014: there was a political office of the Taliban in Qatar, and the Americans were in touch with its leaders. Karzai was in angry isolation from all, Pakistan, the US and China – and, to be fair, he had reason to be sore with everyone, for they had all thwarted him at every turn. China had begun its contacts with all the principal parties involved, including the Taliban, and appointed its own Special Envoy for Afghanistan – Sun Yuxi, former Ambassador to India, who had declared, on the eve of the visit of President Hu Jintao to India, that Arunachal was part of China. Pakistan had faced down the US, and was moving ever closer to China as its principal security provider. It resented the Qatar office, and preferred the Taliban based in Quetta/Karachi, for obvious reasons. And, as we now know, it was also keeping a secret – that Omar had died some time in the first half of 2013.

This was the setting for the 2014 Afghan Presidential elections. It is also worth noting that leadership transitions had occurred in the US [Obama won re-election, and changed his foreign policy team], China and Pakistan. To the new American team, it must have seemed an ideal combination for a fresh start in the AfPak region. Thus, it was important that the new Afghan President should also be of similar bent, which Dr Abdullah Abdullah was not, even if he was the clear winner of the first round. The fact that he fell short of an outright majority meant a run-off with Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, who had begun adding his tribal name during the election campaign in order to woo the Pashtun voter. It also established him as a Ghilzai Pashtun, hence more palatable to Pakistan.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the 2014 election was stolen in favour of Dr Ghani for the reasons outlined above. It is striking that the election results were never formally announced. There was just a deal under which a National Unity Government would be formed with Ghani as President, and Abdullah as Chief Executive, a post that did not exist in the Constitution.

And sure enough, Ghani played along with the script by reaching out to Pakistan in right earnest. While his overtures to Pakistan are well-known, some of the parallel actions are not. Among them, the Americans handed over Latifullah Mehsud to Pakistan – he was the second-ranking member of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and a wanted man by the Pakistanis. He had been snatched by the Americans inside Afghanistan from an official Afghan convoy, and this was a gesture from the US side of its desire to co-opt Pakistan. Ghani handed over some Uighurs to China, as an earnest of his goodwill towards that country. Both the Pakistanis and the Chinese gave assurances that the persons thus renditioned would be accorded humane treatment.

Thus, as 2015 opened, the situation looked rosy from the Pakistani point of view. All they needed was to persuade the Taliban to enter into negotiations with the Ghani government on power-sharing. But this proved harder than expected. Ghani, according to reports, had asked for two conditions to be met: one, that there should be no Taliban spring offensive, and two, that there should be some progress in the talks. These were important because his Pakistan policy was running into opposition inside Afghanistan, and he needed to produce some results.

As is now well-known, the Taliban could not be restrained and launched their spring offensive – and then some. It was among the most brutal in several years. Moreover, the talks were also proving difficult. Finally, after much proverbial huffing and puffing, the talks were scheduled for 7 July in Murree. These were the first officially-acknowledged talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. And yet, the Qatar-based Taliban were not persuaded, and did not attend. Only the Quetta Taliban attended, albeit under duress [the Pakistanis threatened to expel them from its soil, and Mullah Zakir still did not agree], and it is reliably reported that four top ISI officers were present to keep the Taliban in line. The Americans and Chinese attended as observers.

Soon after the talks were over, the bickering among the Taliban started. The Qatar lot declared that the meeting was illegal because only they had the mandate to hold political discussions – apparently true, from all accounts. Moreover, several of the Commanders in the field, headed by Mullah Zakir, declared that they also did not accept the talks, and demanded that Omar should give instructions.

And this forced the Pakistani and Taliban hand into a high-risk move. On 15 July, as part of the Eid message from Omar, the Taliban put out a statement which was played in the media as an endorsement by Omar of the Murree process – it was already a “process”. Even such as it was, it was a highly qualified endorsement: it made clear that fighting and talking was also the way of the Prophet, meaning the fighting would not stop. It also repeated that the political office – ie, the Qatar office – was the sole authorised body for talks. And it added that there would be no deviation from the Sharia or Islamic principles, though there was some softening of the stand on power-sharing.

This came under challenge from a fringe Islamist group called Fidai Mahaz, which declared on its Facebook page that Omar was dead, and had died in 2013. After some other media reports to this effect, the office of the Afghan President said that they were examining the evidence and would confirm shortly. The US came in next, and the NSC announced that the report was “credible”. And before the Afghan President could confirm, the National Security Directorate pre-empted its own President, and confirmed that Omar was indeed dead.

Understandably, the Pakistanis were upset at all this, and made this known to the Afghans. The carefully worked-out strategy was exposed for being based on a lie. A lie, and a cover-up that had gone on for two years or more. As a result, the talks were called off, of course, though the Pakistanis remain hopeful of being able to revive them; more, even the new leader, their favourite Mansour, was challenged from different sources – Omar’s son Yaqub, the Qatar office head Tayyab Agha [former personal secretary to Omar] and, of course the field Commanders, have all rejected the leadership of Mansour. The talks are at a standstill, and the very future of the Taliban is in doubt, as internal differences grow sharper.

The Chinese have restricted themselves to observing these negative developments, but have said little by way of comment. But the fact is that they have by now invested heavily in Afghanistan, and were looking to displace the Americans together with Pakistan. It is instructive to read both Pakistani and Chinese commentaries on Afghanistan: there is hardly any mention of the US, and Li Keqiang’s speech at the Heart of Asia conference he hosted in Beijing contains no mention of terrorism either. They are obviously looking at things from a different perspective. A blunt explanation of Chinese calculations may be seen in the following excerpt from a commentary from the nationalist paper, The Global Times:

However, there are some obstacles that China faces. To begin with, Washington has its own concerns while promoting the peace process of Afghanistan and cooperation among Central Asian and South Asian states, which are its own geopolitical strategy - weaning Central Asia off reliance on Moscow, restraining Iran's influence in the region, and preventing China from strengthening its presence there.

For some years now, China has been opposed to the US New Silk Road strategy of linking South and Central Asia, but this is about the most blunt formulation of their fears and hence opposition to the US approach. As a consequence, the Beijing Heart of Asia declaration does not endorse the most visible symbol of the South and Central Asia link, the TAPI project.

One new ingredient in this witches’ brew is the rise of ISIL in Afghanistan. They have successfully confronted al-Qaeda and its off-shoots in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and demonstrated their superior appeal and fighting skills. Their Amir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had publicly dismissed Omar’s credentials as an illiterate, and, as we now know, by then Omar was already dead. So, in effect, there is no putative rival with any worthwhile credentials to challenge al-Baghdadi. Their brutality has reportedly drawn criticism even from the Taliban, but, in a perverse way, it has only enhanced their attraction for the younger generation of terrorists. They have no inclination to take the path of peace.

In fine, what we have seen in the last three years or more is a tangled web of apparent agreement and cooperation, but a hidden and bitter contest for power in the region. None of the sides is innocent, there are no heroes, and there is no morality play here. None of the sides has shrunk from killing and kidnapping, or from cold-blooded betrayal. This is the contest India must now join, for the struggle is drawing closer, and opting out is proving impossible.

As the new millennium dawns, there are uneasy parallels with the start of the previous millennium. Then too, sinister forces were gathering to our north-west, and they found India a soft target – rich but unable to defend itself. The consequences of our lack of military preparedness were conquest and subjugation for endless generations. India must understand that the stakes in the current struggle are just as enormous, and the need is for us to wake up from the fashionable delusions of soft power, into the reality of hard power. Gandhian platitudes have zero relevance here.

August 2015,

New Delhi.

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