The seemingly unending Afghan crisis
EVEN after the categorical commitment of President Biden that American troops would now with draw from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, the ground situation in Afghanistan unfortunately, does not seem very amenable to peace.
The Afghan Taliban due to its perceived ascendancy on the battleground, are not happy with American postponement of its troops withdrawal by a few months.
It apparently does not see the merit in an orderly withdrawal by American troops from Afghanistan, as perceived by the Afghan government and most regional powers.
Afghan Taliban are thus not very enthused on agreeing to a ceasefire till complete withdrawal of international troops.
The Taliban are also not very keen on its promised holding of peace talks with the Afghan government.
This attitude of the Afghan Taliban makes the possibility of a sustained peace in Afghanistan difficult, and in fact paves the way for the beginning of another civil war in Afghanistan, post-American troop withdrawal.
The continuation of armed conflict in Afghanistan would not only be tragic for the war weary people of Afghanistan but also a real nightmare for Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional powers.
Let’s examine some of the possible scenarios in Afghanistan and the region post-US troop withdrawal.
US President Biden declared on 13 April 2021 “It’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home”.
A day later the US Secretaries of State and Defence along with the NATO Secretary General announced in Brussels, the Plan for the withdrawal of the remaining 9600 US and NATO troops.
These troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support Mission (RSM).
America’s longest war has cost over $2 trillion and the life of about 2448 US Servicemen.
Neither the US and its military allies nor President Ghani seems to have the answers to some basic questions of security experts and media commentators.
Some of these key quarries are: Regarding the timing and process of withdrawal of US forces, and the nature of any future security arrangements to ensure Afghanistan’s stability and security after the withdrawal of the foreign troops? In fact, the immediate concern would be to keep the Kabul airport safe and functional, for the security of the diplomatic community, especially of western nations, which will stay behind.
The Taliban, on the other hand, seems to have a fairly good idea about their future plans in Afghanistan after the US troops withdrawal. The morale of the 1,000,000 strong Taliban contingents are sky high.
In their thinking, they have been victorious against the forces of NATO and a superpower after a protracted 20 years’ war. Today the Taliban forces occupy 70% of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and 407 districts.
Besides this ascendancy on the battlefield, the Taliban leaders have also acquired considerable experience in diplomacy and the art of negotiations.
They have honed their negotiating skill by successfully holding peace talks with the US, UK besides Russia and China. Militarily the Afghan government seems to be in a weaker position.
According to Afghan and NATO officials about 200,000 Afghan troops have been adequately trained to hold their own after the withdrawal of the foreign forces.
But according to independent military experts, low morals and high desertion rate is endemic amongst the Afghan forces. It is generally believed that they will be no match to the highly motivated Taliban forces.
Broadly speaking, three possible scenarios may take shape after the withdrawal of US troops.
In the first scenario, the highly charged and ideologically motivated Taliban troops may fairly quickly defeat the Afghan government forces leading to the establishment of another Taliban government.
In such an outcome, the Taliban government will soon become an international pariah again.
Such a government will also reinvigorate religious militancy in the region in general and in Pakistan in particular.
In fact, there would be a real danger in reversing the hard-fought gains that our armed forces had won against militancy.
In case of the establishment of a Taliban emirate in Afghanistan, proscribed militant/religious organizations like TTP, Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda will have a field day in the region. Our erstwhile FATA and Balochistan would be particularly vulnerable.
In the second possible scenario, the Taliban forces may not acquire an all-out victory against the Afghan government forces.
It must not be forgotten that some special forces, to prop up the Afghan government and protect Western diplomats, will stay on in Afghanistan and they would have support of USAF forces.
American warships in the region will also be providing missile and combat drone cover to the forces of the Afghan Government and its allies.
In such a scenario instability inside Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries especially Pakistan will increase many fold.
This insecurity and instability would certainly undermine trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives like China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The third scenario that can transpire is the most desirable but perhaps, also the most difficult to achieve.
All parties in Afghanistan as well as regional and international powers must strive towards bringing about this scenario. This scenario, of course, involves the successful conclusion of intra-Afghan dialogue.
After a successful intra-Afghan dialogue is concluded, and US/NATO troops are withdrawn, Afghanistan needs to come out of the ongoing political instability of the last two decades.
This would only be possible with a power-sharing consensus between the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani Administration.
According to some Afghan experts, one way of the intra-Afghan power sharing leading to a peaceful transition could be the presence of a peacekeeping force of friendly countries working under the UN umbrella.
Presumably troops from fellow Muslim countries – Pakistan, Iran and Turkey would be acceptable to both the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani’s government.
In fact, Taliban leader Hizbullah Akundzada has already given his conditional approval to work with the peace keeping troops of these three Muslim countries.
For such an arrangement to work, the full support of major regional powers like Russia and China to the three countries providing the peacekeeping troops would be essential.
Needless to add that the complete support of the US and Western Powers to the plan would also be imperative.
If this opportunity at providing peace to Afghanistan is missed, the Afghan crisis may yet continue to simmer for a long time to come, bringing chaos and instability not only to Afghanistan but the whole region; nay the whole world.
—The writer, based in Islamabad, is a former Health Minister of KP.