Afghanistan on the Edge of a Precipice
It is now a mathematical certainty and all the expert opinion points to it that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan appears to be a mere formality now, as the group continues to fight its way back into the power corridors.
If the Doha peace talks under the Trump administration conferred legitimacy on the Taliban as a stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan, the withdrawal announcement by the Biden Administration has filled the group with reservoirs of confidence to shape the reality of the post-withdrawal Afghanistan in line with their political ideology.
Contrary to what President Ashraf Ghani may say in terms of warding off the Taliban’s march towards Kabul, the fact remains that the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) are ill-prepared in terms of motivation and fighting ideology to face a confident Taliban without the crucial support that the NATO and US forces have provided to them.
With questions raised on the continuity of foreign economic and military assistance to the Afghan government, the experts have expressed an apprehension that the possibility of the disintegration of ANDSF remains very much real.
By all accounts, the situation is ripe for new and more dangerous bouts of violence and hostilities breaking out after the US and NATO pullout. While the transnational terror outfits such as al-Qaeda may have been humbled and their capacity to fight downgraded, they have yet to be eliminated. As the battle for power intensifies in the coming weeks and months, these groups are likely to make serious efforts to stage a comeback by exploiting the chaotic situation to their advantage. This means more bloodshed.
Already the signs of impending implosion have begun to emerge. The levels of violence have gone up in recent months as Afghanistan has suffered deadly terrorist attacks including the one on a girls’ school in Kabul, which revived the agonizing memory of the APS tragedy.
The fears of terrorist groups getting a new lease of life have sent shivers down the spine of the regional countries as well as the US. It explains why the US wants to retain some kind of presence in and around Afghanistan to carry out counterterrorism operations should such terrorism capable of threatening American interests.
The New York Times story titled “CIA Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan” detailed the efforts that the Biden Administration is making to acquire bases for such operations. As the US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan stated in a press conference in Washington, the senior Biden administration officials are in talks with several countries including Pakistan. Though he refused to mention the specifics of the negotiations, he expressed the hope that things were moving in a positive direction.
Ever since the Doha peace deal was struck in February 2020, the political commentators long held that it would not be able to survive the change of leadership in the White House following the November elections. Such an opinion was driven more by the prevailing dynamics that inform America’s ‘forever’ war in Afghanistan and less by any fundamental difference on the deal’s design.
Right from the time when the proposal of a ‘surge’ of 40,000 troops was mooted by the American military leadership to defeat the Taliban, Joe Biden, then the Vice President under the Obama administration, publicly opposed the suggestion and urged that the size of the troop surge should be determined by the objective of ‘degrading the Taliban’. This was clearly a resounding disapproval of such strategic concepts as nation-building.
President Biden’s announcement of the complete troop exit from Afghanistan may have caught some stakeholders unaware including America’s Nato allies, it, at least, provided a strategic clarity to a mission, whose fate has been in the balance due to several factors—the chief being the inability of the Taliban and the Kabul government to produce a unanimous power-sharing formula.
It has been stated that the Taliban’s refusal to attend the Istanbul peace huddle forced the Biden administration to announce its ‘alternative’ withdrawal plan that was in the works as part of the review process of the Doha deal. The fact remains that banking on the deal to produce an outcome that suits all parties to the Afghan conflict flew in the face of peculiar realities in Afghanistan.
The Doha deal, no doubt, represented the Trump administration’s effort to bring some kind of order to a country that is historically known for never-ending strife and feuds over power. The specifics of the deal required that all stakeholders privilege the interests of the Afghan people over their own and work in unison to achieve a modicum of political stability for the war-torn country.
As the subsequent developments following the conclusion of the Doha peace agreement in February 2020 indicated, the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani-led government, two principal actors, worked at cross purposes. Kabul objected to Washington’s approach to directly deal with the Taliban, an approach that the government said undermined its authority and gave the Taliban a semblance of legitimacy.
On the other hand, the Taliban took the peace process as an opportunity to increase the stakes as the likely inheritor of power once the coalition forces left Afghanistan. The conditions on the ground whereby the Taliban hold the initiative supported such an assertion. Today, the Taliban have established their ascendancy in almost 26 of 34 provinces of Afghanistan, thus getting a vital military edge in the process.
However, the conditionalities prescribed as part of the Doha agreement were meant to temper the Taliban’s wild power ambitions in an effort to make the transition a little orderly and give the whole political exercise an appearance of a negotiated settlement.
Biden’s announcement revived the prospect of intense violence breaking out in the event of the US military withdrawal. It freed the Taliban and other factions of any commitment to the Doha peace deal, thus leaving the field wide open for the powerful to take on the basis of their fighting prowess.
The White House decision has pushed all the actors with stakes in Afghanistan back to their drawing rooms. Before them is the onerous task to review the emergent situation and come up with the ‘best workable’ options. In addition to sparking a fresh round of anxiety, the development has also renewed the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a new theatre of a cold war between the rival countries that will surely be on the lookout to locate new partners and proxies.
It means the injection of even greater uncertainty powered by rivalry to the mix of factors whose consequences and implications are likely to envelop the whole region, beyond the geographical confines of Afghanistan.
Some political analysts state that Biden’s decision to cut and run is aligned with his administration’s principal priorities shaped by domestic considerations, particularly the formidable challenge of fighting Covid-19 and repairing the US from inside. They point to the fact that any extended American military presence in Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve anything substantial. The threat of terrorism has been considerably downgraded and a combination of factors such as bad governance and corruption that are said to be endemic in Kabul serves to disincentivize any long-term commitment. The Taliban continue to remain resilient and strong with even greater stakes than before.
More than anything, the Biden administration’s new policy ends the practice of looking at overseas military ventures in isolation from the pressing issues of domestic nature and recognizes the new and more formidable threats such as China, Russia, Iran and the Middle East.
Responding to the charge of the withdrawal plan being abrupt and sudden, the analysts hold that various US administrations have seriously considered the idea of drawing down at different times. As late as 2014, President Obama mulled an option of reducing the military presence from active combat missions to training the Afghan National Security Force.
No matter how ‘convincing’ the arguments justifying the abrupt withdrawal look like, the fact remains that America’s longest-running war in history is coming to an end with ignominy for the sole superpower of the world.
The winding-up of the war effort with ambiguous victory claims and without putting in place the post-withdrawal political arrangement is an admission of the failure on so many counts. It also betrays the constraint of a policy rooted in the military power, howsoever brute and techy, to shape the political reality in a foreign land.
From the grandiose ‘nation-building’ missions of establishing democracy, liberating women, and building ‘representative’ institutions, the American goal posts have been changing in Afghanistan. After an experience of two decades of the deadly war that saw about 2500 US troops killed, over $2 trillion lost, and the hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans and Pakistanis killed, the US is confronted with the irony that it is easy to start a war but difficult to end it despite presiding over the best war machine.
President Biden’s reiteration to keep working with the Afghan government and involve regional players such as Pakistan, China and Russia notwithstanding, his administration’s pullout plan seems to take a leaf from its book of the 1990s when it hastened to leave the war-torn country with horrible consequences. It was left for the countries like Pakistan and the people of Afghanistan to bear the brunt of the hasty withdrawal.
History appears to be repeating itself this time as well. The consequences that flowed from the events of the ill-thought-out departure do not seem to have weighed in on the present decision. Nothing suits the forces of terror and anarchy more than an environment of continuing strife, chaos and bloody competition among the warring factions.
While the ability of al-Qaeda to launch a terrorist act of a reasonable magnitude may have been downgraded, the presence of dreaded IS in various forms and shapes in different parts of the world means that the countries ignore the threats of potential violence at their own peril. The possibility of transnational terror outfits such as IS becoming more powerful remains real. Afghanistan provides a fertile ground for such terrorist groups.
The continuing civil war in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal will multiply security and economic challenges for Pakistan. An influx of refugees will test Pakistan’s ability to cater for their material needs, especially during the current economic slowdown due to Covid-19.
At the same time, there are valid concerns that the remnants of the TTP that are holed up in safe havens in Afghanistan will use the conditions to stage a comeback and threaten Pakistan’s security. The post-withdrawal Afghanistan is a tinder box ready to explode, the flames of which will envelop not just Afghanistan but also the region, a prospect that the US will regret one day.
Pakistan has legitimate stakes in Afghanistan. Its economy and security are closely linked to what goes on in the neighbouring country. Islamabad has already paid a heavy price in terms of human and economic losses with 83,000 people martyred and $126 billion lost, according to a conservative estimate.
Therefore, it is in the vital interest of Pakistan that some kind of power-sharing arrangement is put in place that ensures the smooth transition of power with an objective to stop Afghanistan from descending into chaos. The Doha peace deal owed itself largely to the Pakistani efforts to bring the Taliban to the table. It is still deeply involved in behind-the-scene efforts for a breakthrough so far as the resumption of the intra-Afghan dialogue is concerned.
However, the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani has not helped these endeavours. His interview with the foreign media outlets vitiated the goodwill created in the wake of the visit of the Pakistani military leadership to Kabul. The tendency to externalize blame for failures and desperation of its own has been a marked feature of how the Ghani government has engaged with Pakistan.
As the complete drawdown of the US forces nears, and violence emerges as the only real possibility in the absence of political peace and reconciliation efforts being successful, the only option left for Pakistan could be hurried efforts to get the regional countries such as Turkey, China and Russia to bring their collective influence to bear upon the Taliban and the Ghani government to give peace a chance.
These regional countries have the diplomatic and economic clout to make the warring parties read the writing on the wall and budge from their stated positions in the interest of peace and stability. The stakes for the US to ensure a peaceful transition just appear to be on the decline as its last military personnel pack up to fly back home.
The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex and is also a regular contributor to The News.