By Iqbal Khan
Unrelenting insurgent attacks in Afghanistan and frequent visits of the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, to Islamabad are now a regular fixture of Afghan crisis. Taliban spokesperson Zabeehullah Mujahid has announced that Taliban would soon begin their annual fighting season, commonly known as ‘spring offensive’; even though there is no non-fighting season as such. Back in Washington, former chief spy, Mike Pompeo, is the new Secretary of State, he is known for hawkish attitude towards Pakistan. And American media is predicting freeze of American civil and military aid to Pakistan. So multi-dimensional activity is picking up with regard to peace or war making in Afghanistan.
During Wells visit, both sides reviewed the state of play in the bilateral relationship as well as the regional security issues, particularly Afghanistan. Reiterating Pakistan’s stance for a politically negotiated settlement, owned and led by the Afghans, Pakistan reaffirmed its constructive participation in all regional and bilateral mechanisms aimed at pursuing a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict. Matters related to Afghan refugees, rise in drug/poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and the use of Afghan soil to launch terrorist attacks in Pakistan were also raised. Ambassador Wells was also briefed on the atrocities and human rights violations being committed by the Indian forces in the Indian Occupied Kashmir resulting in hundreds of casualties. Ambassador Wells appreciated the recent successful visit of the Prime Minister to Kabul and the progress being made on APAPPS and it was agreed to continue regular bilateral discussions at all levels to achieve the common objectives of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.
As regards the political aspect of peace efforts in Afghanistan, reportedly, Taliban have rejected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer to take part in the upcoming parliamentary and district council elections. On military side, once looked down upon as rag tag militia, frequency of the Taliban attacking foreign occupation forces as well as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is on the rise. Such attacks are taking place across the country. Night attacks, once the forte of occupation forces, have evolved into an important tactic and mainstay strategy of Taliban as well. Recently, Taliban overran three checkpoints in Farah city, killing over 20 police officers before melting away. Supported by night vision devices, the Taliban quickly ransacked the checkpoints. While unable to face Taliban in combat, ANSF is focusing on conducting and supporting cowardly cross-border attacks into Pakistani territories.
Frequency and ferocity of the night Taliban attacks are linked to attempts by Afghan forces, based in small checkpoints across the country, to hold territory that has been wrested away from the militants. Attacks by Taliban using sophisticated night-vision technology have risen during the past year, especially against police and militia units that do not have such equipment. Afghan officials have asked for the gear to be issued to their police officers, but American officials are reluctant to do so for fear that it would fall into Taliban hands.
Due wide spread corruption in the ANSF cadres, Taliban have acquired sufficient number of sophisticated gadgets like laser and infrared night vision devices. According to New York Times, previously unreported documents underline concerns about the Taliban’s growing sophistication on the battlefield. According to Pentagon data, these combat support detection devices are mostly snatched from Afghan troops or bought from them. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has extensively reported on such transfer of weapon cases.
Night Vision devices are usually given only to elite Afghan commandos and police special mission units. Missing devices are reported as “battle losses,” but there is no record to support such losses. Afghan soldiers are believed to have sold these devices to the Taliban. With these night-vision enablers, Taliban fighters are able to approach Afghan bases nearly undetected before the attack. With this capability, Taliban have more than doubled the frequency night time attacks over the last three years. Taliban are using both tightly controlled American devices and other local and Russian combat gear that is widely available for purchase. Another reason for falling these weapons in the hands of Taliban is that some equipment is left behind on the battlefield by American or Afghan troops, including those held by those who get killed during the combat. Taliban Spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, has said that fighters obtained night-vision devices after attacking Afghan bases or capturing it from members of the Afghan security forces.
Interestingly while Taliban are making good use of these war fighting items, ANSF is unable to effectively use these due to poor training! American commanders in Afghanistan are now rethinking to withdraw the limited access they gave to ANSF to night-vision equipment. American commanders had been reluctant to give night-vision equipment to lower cadres of Afghan soldiers and police officers out of concern of widespread corruption among those forces. American military has begun to send older models of night-vision hardware to regular Afghan Army units. Restrictions have also been imposed on infantry units with regard to use of equipment devices that could be seen only by night-vision gadgets. Helicopter are no longer obscure to Taliban fighters during night.
As some of this equipment falls into Taliban hands, these insurgents are joining a larger trend—Hi-tech combat, said David W. Barno, a retired lieutenant general who, once, led the Afghan war. Advanced equipment, such as drones and precision weapons, “is being seized by other extremist groups in other global conflict zones”, he said. “It’s going to be a problem…and it’s going to change how we operate”, Barno added. Net effect—public perception is that the Taliban could strike at will.
Afghan politicians often accuse Russia of arming the Taliban, including provision of night vision devices. Moscow denies this and is of the view that contacts with Taliban leaders are for discussions on countering Daesh threat, and on encouraging Taliban for peace talks with Afghan government. Actually, Russia has lost confidence in the American strategy with regard to stabilizing Afghanistan, hence it is reaching out to various Afghan factions in the country, including the Taliban.
Losing hope of winning against the Taliban, Afghan government is increasingly using its security personnel for carrying out cross border attacks in Pakistani territory astride international border. In one such attack on April 15, Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary troops deployed along Pak-Afghan border it Kurram Agency area came under-fire, from the Afghan side, while they were on routine patrolling and fencing activity on the border. As there were a large number of tribesmen on Afghan side, Pakistani troops exercised utmost restraint to avoid civilian causalities.
There are safe havens of terrorist groups across the border in Afghanistan that carry out such attacks in Pakistan, as a matter of routine. Despite taking up the issue with Afghanistan as well as the coalition forces, cross-border attacks into Pakistan continue. Afghan side is resisting Pakistani campaign to beef up border security, which is a clear indication that it is not genuinely interested in restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan. So peace and war making are likely to go on in tandem, at least during Trump’s presidency.
*The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at Iqbal.firstname.lastname@example.org