Afghanistan at crossroads
THE commencement of final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on 01 May 2021 has once again thrown Afghanistan into global limelight with speculations about future of the country and its government making rounds across the social and mainstream media.
Many analysts in the region and the West forecast the fall of Kabul government like a house of cards once the US troops’ drawdown is completed.
However, these predictions are not in consonance with ground realities and developments taking place during the past several years.
Previously, the United States and Taliban had agreed to complete the troops’ withdrawal process by May 1, 2021.
However, President Joe Biden announced on April 14 to begin the final drawdown by May 1 and complete it by 11 September this year – the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
As soon as Washington formally commenced the withdrawal process, the Taliban started incursions in different provinces of Afghanistan.
On April 30, 2021, a car bomb explosion killed 30 people in Pul-e-Alam, the capital of eastern Logar province.
Initially Taliban did not claim responsibility for the attack but later a Taliban official, in a video message, refuted the Afghan government’s claim that victims of the attack were all students, counterclaiming that the targeted persons were military recruits.
Besides several other attacks against Afghan National Army (ANA) in parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban also ran over Baraka district in the northern Baghlan province, expelling the government forces from there.
Simultaneous with their military offensives, Taliban also unleashed an aggressive social media tirade, threatening government officials and even journalists covering the situation in Afghanistan.
Nemat Rawan, a journalist and television anchor, who had later joined Afghan Finance Ministry as communication specialist, was shot dead in Kandahar city on May 5.
Though no group had claimed responsibility for attack but a day earlier, the Taliban had warned journalists against ‘biased reporting’.
Two massive bomb attacks did take place at a school and inside a mosque in Kabul city but both were attributed to ISIS as Taliban outrightly denied involvement in them.
Despite these initial gains of Taliban in the military field, a look at the events during the past six-year period after withdrawal of the bulk of US-NATO forces from Afghanistan shows that any expectation of the fall of Afghanistan into their hands after the final withdrawal would be a remote possibility.
The United States and NATO had announced completion of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission in December 2014 when 130,000 troops from over 40 allied countries returned from Afghanistan and security responsibility of the country was handed over to the Afghan National Army.
Only a 9600-strong Resolute Support Mission (RSM), comprising 2500 troops from the United States and 7100 from other NATO allied countries, was retained in the country with the sole TOR (terms of reference)to provide training, consultancy and assistance to ANA. The force was never meant for combat operations.
Ever since, the Afghan security forces are carrying out security responsibilities throughout Afghanistan.
Though Taliban and the other splinter Islamic militant groups have been carrying out guerrilla incursions, target attacks and bomb explosions – mostly in remote rural areas – but they have not been able to gain any significant achievement during the last five and a half years.
Not even a single of the 34 provinces and 407 districts of Afghanistan are under the control of Taliban.
Afghan central, provincial and district governments are fully operative and all divisions and corps of the Afghan Army are in effective control.
Taliban do carry out attack, and even sometime briefly take district headquarters in far off rural areas but they are soon repulsed by Afghan government forces.
Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan do have its shadow governors and heads of different departments, like Justice, Education etcetera, for various provinces and districts but they neither sit in those centres, nor do they have offices there.
Most analyses predicting succumbing of Afghan government forces to Taliban are based on generalistic perceptions about the traditional Afghan Army.
Historically, Afghanistan has been lacking a disciplined regular army and its military forces have mostly comprised conscripts and tribal militias.
However, during the last two decades of US-NATO intervention, the country has developed a comparatively stronger and professional army.
Under the RSM, the 200,000-strong Afghan National Army has been adequately trained and equipped.
With the final drawdown of US forces already in place, it has inherited much of the over $ two billion left over arms and equipment.
Beside their military disadvantage, the moral ground of the Taliban is also poised to get weaker after the withdrawal of the US forces.
The Islamic insurgents have all along claimed that their jihad is against the invading US-NATO troops.
Once these forces leave Afghanistan, they will be left with no moral justification to continue their jihad.
Much ground the Taliban have already lost by agreeing to hold talks with the United States and formally announcing not to attack the US forces while continuing operations against Afghan government forces.
For its part, the Kabul government must also not believe that every-thing is hunky-dory. Taliban own thousands of battle hardened fighters in all provinces of Afghanistan who are more trained in guerrilla warfare than the government troops.
They also possess squads of readily available suicide attackers anywhere they need.
With such a massive war machine, Taliban might give a tougher time to the government forces, even if they are not able to cause a massive dent to it.
In this situation, the only chance with the Afghan government and the Taliban is to shun war and violence and resolve their differences through peaceful political negotiations.
The saner elements among the Afghan groups will do better to grab the ground reality and save themselves and their country’s people from further destruction.
Players in the region and the world also have to ensure their contribution and save this important region from further catastrophe.
Already has Afghanistan and the regional countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, have suffered incalculable losses due to war and violence in Afghanistan.
Further continuation and escalation of militancy and exacerbation of problems in Afghanistan will only add to the miseries of Afghanistan and the region, depriving the country of the emerging opportunities for economic development and trade.
—The writer is an Islamabad-based senior journalist, covering Afghanistan and Central Asia.