Tactical retreat or collusion with Taliban

“Tactical retreat” or collusion with Taliban?

On May 21, a video clip went viral which showed a group of army soldiers who surrendered to the Taliban in Jalrez district of Maidan Wardak province. A spokesperson of the Afghan defense ministry later claimed that the Afghan forces had made a “tactical retreat”. The incident in Jalrez occurred while earlier Dawlat Shah district of Laghman fell to the Taliban. Three weeks ago the militants overran Burka district of Baghlan and Nirkh district of Maidan Wardak. The Afghan defense and security forces managed to repel the militants’ attacks on Qarabagh district of Ghazni and Baghlan-e-Markazi district of Baghlan as they got close to take over the two districts.

The Afghan security forces have suffered casualties and the militants seized a large number of weapons.

Some Afghan politicians, who are cynical about the situation in the country, say what the government terms as tactical retreats are “dubious”. “The central government has likely cooperated with the Taliban to push Jalrez [district] fall under the control of the Taliban,” said MP Mahdi Rasikh, who represents Maidan Wardak province.

Expressing concern about the post-US withdrawal security situation in Afghanistan, Abdul Hafiz Mansour, who is a member of the negotiation team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and a vocal critique of the government, said: “I do not endorse the policies of the central government. Afghanistan is going ahead to become another Syria”.

Defense and security officials often claim that the Taliban militants are not able to engage in direct fire against the Afghan defense and security forces and that is why the militants resort to car bombing, roadside bombings, target killing, and other ways. The collapse of several districts in recent months, however, indicates otherwise. In some cases, particularly in the fall of Jalrez district, dozens of security forces surrendered to the Taliban. Footage attributed to the surrendered security forces circulated on social media with a Taliban member asking them “why you surrendered” to the Taliban. “Because the government did not pay attention to us,” an army commander who introduces himself as Zabihullah from Kapisa province, replies.

The recent advancement made by the Taliban, as some experts who are familiar with the subject put it, suggests the military weakness of the government forces. “Security forces [are] losing the [militray] power on the battleground day by day,” Abdullah Watandar said. There are many districts which are under the Taliban’s control for a long time with government forces only confined to the local administrative complex and inside their outposts, he said.

The Taliban has intensified attacks as the peace talks are stalled and no date has been set for Istanbul Conference which is supposed to bring the two warring sides in a power-sharing deal. It was previously scheduled to be kicked off on April 24 but was postponed indefinitely after the Taliban rejected attending the conference for what they expressed as a US violation of the US-Taliban Doha peace deal.

“Peace talks is fundamentally held when there is a military impasse. When one side thinks that such impasse is being broken, then talks is not important for that side or it will raise some unrealistic demands aimed at failing the talks,” Watandar argued pointing to the Taliban growing military power and its consequences for peace talks.

“The government must mobilize the people against the Taliban. The people should defend their districts alongside the military and security forces,” said Mohammad Ikram Andishmand, a researcher, proposing it as a solution against the consecutive takeover of districts by the Taliban. But he expresses hopelessness that President Ghani has not been able to acquire the required public confidence for doing so.

These criticisms against Ghani and his policy come while in his exclusive interview with the PBS, Ghani said that he was ready to die in Afghanistan. “If there is war, I am the commander in chief. I will not abandon my people. I will not abandon my forces. I am willing to die for my country. I have no interest in power. I’m committed to the principle of ensuring order. Afghan society wants order,” Ghani stressed on his point.

Taking on the issue of districts’ collapse, Karim Pakzad, an Afghan researcher based in France, argues that the Afghan security officials want to downplay their defeats by using the term “tactical retreats” for the collapsed districts.

As per the account of Mr. Andishmand, the status quo is the result of Ghani’s loose play in peace and war issues. “Ashraf Ghani is fighting for his own power and government’s survival,” he argued, adding that he doesn’t want to hand over the power to the Taliban without any guarantee for him and his government in the future.

The Taliban’s increasing territorial control has bolstered the perception among those who accuse Ghani of pursuing a Pashtun-centered agenda, promoting the Pashtun dominance in the future government. Some are even suspicious that districts are handed over to the Taliban deliberately and purposefully in a bid to facilitate the Taliban’s return to power as a Pashtun-dominated group.

Mr. Andishmand is of opinion that Ghani doesn’t want to see other ethnic groups of the country take the power once the government collapses but reiterates that he is also unwilling to hand the power over to the Taliban easily. “Of course, there are ethnocentric elements within Ghani’s government who prefer the Taliban’s takeover of the power in case the government collapses.”

Mr. Watandar argues that the perception as if Ghani has already started handing over the power to the Taliban is not true for it requires the American’s involvement which seems not logical. “I don’t believe that the process of transferring power to the Taliban has started by Ghani. Ghani doesn’t want to lose the power and he doesn’t want to carry the responsibility of falling Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban”.

Etilaatroz’s Abbass Arefi has contributed to this report.