The “Endgame” in Afghanistan

A Pakpotpourri Exclusive

By: Lt Gen ® Asad Durrani

The Afghan landscape is strewn with what seems to be an endless chain of hills and mountains. One is thus hardly ever “over the hump”. The next one is almost always more daunting. In a country where a game of Buzkushi can be played for days on end, wars and their “endgames” can last a lifetime. The present war in Afghanistan may have been the longest in the American history, for the Afghans it was merely another phase in a conflict that has spanned a third of a century. Its much bandied about endgame too, may outlast the NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, which again may or may not end in 2014. Open-ended it may all be; we still want to know if there was any light at the end of this tunnel. What will happen for example when the foreign forces leave by the deadline; or if they left behind lethal cargo to terrorise our tribesmen? More importantly, how would the run-up to the withdrawal or the drawdown play out?


Indeed, there are no clear answers, but one should be able to make a fair assessment if the situation on ground and the mood of the people could be judged with a reasonable degree of clarity. What follows is based upon many rounds of discussion with some Afghan hands at home and a few visits to Kabul, the last one end of November 2012.


That the influence of the Taliban has continued to expand and deepen is no longer in question. Some would concede that the war against them is lost; the others only that it was no more winnable. During the last few years, no major development work could be undertaken without the Taliban getting their cut. Lately, even the NATO convoys have to pay them if they wish to move in comparative safety; 150 Million dollars, alone in 2011. A similar amount is their due in the drug trade. Every year, nearly 500 Million dollars flow into the Taliban kitty from the Western sources.


The real estate reveals much more. In Kabul the prices are falling; in Peshawar they are rising- correspondingly. The wealthier Afghans are of course buying property in Dubai and beyond. Eight Billion dollars have flown out of Afghanistan in 2012. Economic activity is visibly in decline.


There was never much faith in the Afghan National Army’s ability to ensure security in the Country. History, Geography, Topography and Demography; all work against the conventional forces, especially when they are pitched against the militias in the tribal territories. Now, even the NATO’s spokesperson betrays lack of conviction when extolling the ANA’ state of readiness.


Most of the pro-regime factions, true to the Afghan tradition, have maintained links with the Taliban, all along. Some of them believe that the time was now ripe to talk openly about their contacts and claim a place in the future power matrix.


Though the “Status of Force Agreement”, which is supposed to sanctify any post-2014 role of the NATO’s rearguard, has not yet been signed by the government in Kabul, it is generally assumed that it would be. Someone suggested that paid the right price even the Taliban might look the other way. If so, the deal on offer must be too good to be true; unless of course the Taliban feel that in due course they would be able to deal with the residual forces. The main stumbling block however is the condition imposed by the Jirga called by the government in Kabul: “any foreign troops remaining after 2014 would operate under Afghan law”. I am not sure if the American Military on foreign soil ever submits to local edicts; at times not even to its own.


The presidential elections to be held next year are considered crucial by almost all the political forces. Parties out of power are working hard to field a consensus candidate. The majority still fears that the “system” would work in favour of Karzai’s nominee. This may be one reason the President faces a united front; the other may well be the inevitable baggage that those in power always carry.


Then there are others who rode to power under the cover of B52s. For them the villain of the piece is Pakistan. They believe that but for the cross-border support the Taliban had no chance and they could have continued to rule the Afghan roost. Some of them bemoaned the missed opportunity of 2002 when the Taliban offered reconciliation from a “position of weakness”, and were rebuffed by the sole surviving superpower. A decade later the shoe is on the other foot.


There is near consensus that the Doha initiative was sanctioned by Mullah Omer. Opinions are however divided on why he suspended the process; because Washington failed to deliver on its part of the deal, or because the young radicals in his own ranks were not favourably inclined. Even those holding the latter view admit that the US policy on talking to the Taliban suffers from internal discord.


In support of the Taliban’s earnest desire for a negotiated settlement, Omer’s Ramadan speech is widely cited. Someone from within the Kabul establishment went so far as to suggest that the Militia might agree to a 40:40:20 power sharing formula between them, the non-Pashtuns and the Karzai’s faction. (Since an equally generous offer was tabled before the Soviet withdrawal, I reckon the proposal may not be without substance.) There is hardly any excitement over Pakistan releasing some Taliban prisoners. Except for an odd individual no one believes that even Mullah Barader could come out and make a difference.


Since the situation is fluid, most if not all the Afghan factions are reaching out to each other to weigh various options. The idea is to remain flexible and make the best of any opportunity that presented itself; and if none did, to find a modus vivendi.


Lately, one has also noted closing of ranks by the regional countries- notably Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan- to forge consensus on the Afghan endgame. Exit of the NATO forces seems to be the common desire if not a clearly stated objective. India has not yet joined this “Gang of Four”, but is not likely to go against the regional grain.


Assuming that the above account is not too far off the mark, one can reasonably conclude that the Taliban were now ready to negotiate a settlement with the other Afghan factions. It also makes sense: they are in a good position to clinch a favourable deal; a durable peace was not possible without a broad consensus; and most importantly, it would help get the occupation vacated. However, being traditionally suspicious (an essential trait if one is to survive in harsh surroundings) the Afghans never take things for granted. The Taliban are therefore preparing for the long haul, which essentially means retaining the ability to carryout periodic military operations across the land. Besides signalling that they were still relevant, it would help them keep control of the countryside and ensure steady flow of money into their coffers. 


American designs are more difficult to read.


The US must have learnt in good time that the ANA could never ensure security (which is a tribal function), but it still continued to commit large sums of money to raise, arm and train this white elephant. Again, even though the dialogue with the Taliban was conceded as the sine qua non of its exit strategy, Washington has not pursued this track with any apparent resolve. The US’ intent to keep a long term military presence was demonstrated by major expansion and up-gradation work on some big bases; Bagram, Mazar-e-Sharif, Shindand and Kandhar, to name but a few. But then it is also obvious that such presence would be unacceptable to the majority of Afghans and unpopular in the Region, making it an untenable proposition beyond a couple of years. It is therefore either a ruse to keep all others guessing, or is aimed at perpetuating turmoil to rationalise maintaining a strong foothold.


There may also be broader aims to be served if these fortresses were kept operational: to strike fear in the hearts of some “rogue” powers in the neighbourhood; to foil Chinese ambitions in the Af-Pak region; to influence or spoil the “New Great Game” (euphemism for exploiting the minerals in Central Asia); and in due course, to push its New Silk Road project. That may also explain the US’ lack of enthusiasm for a genuine peace process.


Then there are groups within Afghanistan that stand to benefit financially and politically from the status quo and are therefore opposed to any effort to patch up with the Taliban. Peace and stability in Afghanistan- an upshot of a broad based accord- was therefore not necessarily in everyone’s interest.


All the same, since the majority of the Afghans and the neighbouring countries desire an end to this war- the latter because of its fallout on their territories and to get the Region rid of powerful foreign presence- there are a number of initiatives to bring the warring factions together. Pakistan being the country most affected is obviously in the forefront. It has kept contacts with all the major Afghan factions to facilitate negotiations at the “right time”; that is when all or most of them and the US would agree that it was the only way to go. Doha was one such effort to test the waters, and Paris might have been the other.


It is quite possible that some of the players required to take part in the dialogue do not feel compelled or lack confidence to come to the table. In that case, they would either try to change the ground situation in their favour or obstruct the process. The “right time” would then have to wait a bit longer.


Assuming that the major Afghan factions will not reach an agreement in the next two years and the US retains significant military presence beyond this period; some of the following developments may then take shape.


The Taliban are persuaded to join the political process and agree to a time bound foreign military presence. Seems unlikely, but if it could be pulled-off the chances of a peaceful transition would improve.


Present trends continue with no major change in various alignments. In that case, the 2014 elections will have no significant effect on the security situation; the Taliban would adapt their military activities to retain, even expand, their hold at least of the countryside; ANA would have to frequently call upon NATO’s stay behind forces for support; and the consequent rise in violence, and loss of patience in the US and its allies with an unending war, would make a policy change inevitable. This with some variation will be the most likely scenario.


In case the Kabul Regime does not permit retention of foreign combat forces beyond 2014 and all of them therefore leave before the Afghans were ready with a consensus dispensation in place, an internal armed conflict was likely to ensue. Its intensity and duration will depend upon the ability of the regional countries, especially of Pakistan, to contain and manage the chaos. Since the Region has been closing ranks on the Afghan endgame, it is thinkable that the regimes here have pondered upon how best to cope with this contingency. 


The rider in all the above situations is that the Taliban would continue to present a united front at least till the negotiations start. Being primarily a war coalition though, it is very likely that once on the table or latest after a settlement is reached, they cease to remain a single entity. 

Lt Gen. Durrani previously served as the Director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence and former director-general of the Pakistan Army’s Military Intelligence.

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  • Shahid Rehman  On January 12, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Sound analysis by Gen Durrani.

  • Inamullah  On January 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    End Game still remains unclear as ever.
    …………………………………………..Inam Khan

  • idrees  On January 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Afghanistan is a disparate land of disparate mentally blocked people, all of whom are at cross purpose to each other and desperately poor except the few smugglers and rogues are rich. Thus the situation of constant flux and unrest. But because of their perfidy, they have suffered the consequences for centuries and especially the last 35 years.

  • Umar Farooq Vizri  On January 12, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Well observed analysis

  • Ardsher Alavia  On January 13, 2013 at 6:18 am

    .A dispassionate analysis of the imbroglio that is Afghanistan. Knowing the history of this volatile region would have served the invaders well, this point now is moot 11 years on what can be is that the withdrawal be smooth and not sniped along the corridor whether through Central Asia or Pakistan.

    Pakistan is at a cross road again to play a pivotal role in the end game by virtue of it’s location and it is hoped it acts in a astute and mature manner and not let the process be hijacked by wild eyed fanatics to our ever lasting damnation who want to teach the “faranghies” a lesson they don’t need one because, once again Afghanistan has proved to be a graveyard of Empires.


    Sent from my iPhone

  • Muhammad Zafar Chaudry  On January 16, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Gen Durrani’s analysis hits the Bull’s Eye. My comment is based on two sentences from his paper – one from the introductory part and the other and the other from the concluding portion.

    Wars in Afghanistan can last many a lifetime. In this war, after a settlement is reached, the apparent winner is bound to disintegrate into factions and the conflict will continue with new alignments – business as usual.

    And that seems to be the reading of the Americans also. They are likely to stay put in highly fortified enclaves, for a very long time with minimal or no involvement in local forays.

    Pakistan is now reaping the harvest of what they sowed in 1979 and 2001. After 50,000 casualties, Pakistanis if still in search of a position of influence in Afghanistan, should carefully re-read Lord Robert’s advice to his Government; ‘the less the Afghans see of us the better’.


  • SHOMU BHATTACHARYA  On January 16, 2013 at 1:00 am

    history has shown the Afghanistan has always been a quagmire for all those who tried to suppress the Afghans militarily–and whether it was the British–the Russians and now the Americans the end game has always been the same–but now with money and drug power some elements are literally being bought- but what the world requires is a politically stable Afghanistan – a prosperous and progressive Afghanistan and without any geo-political strings being attached–General Durrani’s assessment of the current situation is indeed very laudable

  • Jamil Mukhtar  On January 19, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    As to the last paragraph, would it not be the repeat of what happened after the Soviet exit? Now Taliban getting divided into factions as the outcome.

  • Aslam Durrani  On January 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    No two situations are exactly the same. If an intra-Afghan settlement is reached before foreign troops withdraw, things could start looking better. If not, it would depend on how well prepared are Pakistan and other regional countries to manage the chaos.

  • Khalid Iqbal  On January 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Dear Friends my tuppence on the subject:

    Zia was no visionary. The mess we are in was owing to one man’s lust for power. He hated Geneva agreement because he knew it was his death warrant. From the day of signing onwards Zia was a used tissue paper, looking for an appropriate trash can and he knew it. He knew the post Soviet reconciliations and consolidation of political fragments would take years on end. His only hope therefore was that Soviets stayed and he remained busy in Afghanistan in a changed role. He was supposed to have not even thought about it but he foolishly aspired for it.

    Gen. Durrani is right, no two situation are exactly the same , and I will add that that is the reason we don’t learn much from history. Then again, if we become adamant we apply a lesson of history on a situation that has emerged with dynamics that simply don’t match. It classically applies to present situation.

    In the preceding endgame the US had emerged so clearly a victor after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. So, as it happens they turned their back. Their stakes are spread all over the World so their focus keeps changing. Come 9/11 and the developments up the 12 years have brought the US to a pass where their stakes remain high, Taliban undefeated, no heart and mind won and most important the US very foolishly raised the stakes of other players who don’t have to go back anywhere. They belong in this region.

    So, the super rich oil and gas region and the struggle for its domination transcends the Taliban phobia of the US. Mean that gigantic presence has increasingly become fiscally unmanageable. Europeans are clever, their coalition is good but the US foots most of the bill. It’s just like a picnic with a very rich friend, unspoken but well understood expense account.

  • Jamil Mukhtar  On January 19, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    Zia or no Zia, an individual is of no importance.What is of greater significance is the aftermath- its subsequent impact. The Russians were going in any case.Just imagine the situation if an agreement had been reached on a consensus government prior to the signing of the Geneva Agreement.I do not want to go into the consequences when Benazir ( for whatever reasons) allowed the Americans direct access to the Mujahideen leadership, a facility totally denied during Zia’s reign,even at times without our representation.Simply said, Pakistan, thereby, lost its control on Mujahideen and passed it on the Americans, obviously to our disadvantage.The rest does not need any elaboration.By the way I am no fan of Zia but only want an event to be judged in its true perspective.

  • Shaheen  On January 19, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    You are right we have no perspective but only bias’.

  • Khalid Iqbal  On January 19, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    Jamil Saheb Russians were going in any case but what made Russia go was not happening in any case unless it was made to happen. Who was going to arrange a consensus government before signing Geneva? It was and is still to some extent a utopian idea.

    An individual is of no importance where ideas are superior to a man. In Zia’s case, a complete totalitarian as he was, any idea had no dynamics to transcend him until a brutal method transcended him.

    It is said about the dictators that their leadership in actual fact belongs to organizations that control them and they are never a one man show as is often portrayed.They are the face of a show. For example Hitler too was an organization man and alone he was nobody.

    In the case of our totalitarian leaders they were a part of the dictatorships of the middle ages. They were the real totalitarians. No organizations bred them as leaders. They were self proclaimed, Ayub Khan and all of the rest up the line up to the present time. They were a one man show.

    For example to maintain that dictators have no ideology behind them is a wrong assumption. They have ideologies. Their means of coming to helm and their pursuit of ideological goals were totalitarian. In Pakistan’s case they were no diehard ideologues. They pretend to be and used the idiology as a pretext to come to helm. Perhaps a classical example of an ideologue is Hitler in contemporary history. A true organization man he was a diehard idiologist. His means however were wrong, nay they were insane, but that is a different context.

    So, Zia, his presidency and Pakistan were made synonymous by his self proclamation. This was insane. All dictators are insane people.

    He was chosen by the US to replace ZAB because the US had foreseen the coming turn of events and setting of new stage where the US found no role for ZAB because ZAB would be too formidable a person for them to handle when Soviets finally landed in Afghanistan. Landing of Soviets was on the wall as soon as president Daud was assassinated. As soon as president Daud was assassinated ZAB’s fate was sealed too.

    This could become a very lengthy discourse if I go into details to substantiate my reasoning. ZAB was hanged by a pole of cold war located in Kabul.

    Khalid Iqbal

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