The Fall of Kabul
An unedifying account of a thriving graveyard
One thing is certain: this time the Taliban has conquered Kabul without resorting to violence and bloodshed and that has made the Afghan endgame all the more intricate and complex. Presumably, the Taliban leadership has undergone a change of heart that in order to win international recognition, they have to abandon their hardcore, extremist and narrow ideology. The Taliban, already enjoying the status of political stakeholder, was taking part in peace negotiations as a political actor vying for a share in power in Kabul.
Historically, Afghanistan – often called the graveyard of empires – has resisted the wrath of many empires. However, this time, the inglorious defeat of coalition forces, despite all their military might, economic prowess, technological superiority and intelligence support, can be attributed to the following strategic factors:
1. No clarity of objectives on the part of American dispensation from the start;
2 . Stubborn adherence to solving Afghan imbroglio through military means;
3. Lack of cognizance of Nato troops with Afghanistan’s geographical and territorial complementarities;
4. Tough, rough and rugged terrain of Afghanistan, making it easier for indigenous fighter groups, like the Taliban, to use ‘hit and run’ tactics;
5. Combined failure of coalition forces and Afghan government to win the war of narratives and ideas;
6. Utter failure to prop up a resilient, professional and modern army having sufficient tactical and logistical support;
7. Failure to break the chain of command of Taliban, their hold over opium trade, smuggling cartels and their cross-border operations; and
8. No concrete attempts to strengthen border control and regulate cross-border movement.
Regrettably, the impetuous withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan not only portrayed strategic failure but also highlighted the exorbitant cost the gruelling war inflicted on the hapless people of Afghanistan. According to a Watson Institute report on Af-Pak region titled ‘The Costs of War’, as many as 71,344 civilians, 3,586 US and Nato troops, 18,314 military and police personnel and 84,191 opposition fighters were killed till April 2021. Moreover, as per figures released by UNAMA as of February 2021, Afghanistan was one of the deadliest places in the world for women and children with 3,219 women and 7,792 children deaths recorded from 2010 to 2020. Worse still, opium production in Afghanistan increased as the area under cultivation grew from 74,000 hectares in 2002 to 163,000 hectares, according to World Bank data. However, there was significant improvement in some indicators like life expectancy, maternal mortality, abject poverty and unemployment rate across the country that cannot be looked down upon.
On the flip side, Taliban’s spectacular rise to power has complicated the strategic options for regional stakeholders and as the situation unfolds, countries with their vested interests at stake will be primed for their initial gambits to come to winning terms. In this wake, the regional chessboard mirrors the following scenario:
For Pakistan, Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul is nothing less than a bonanza. Although it might not enjoy the bromance it used to have with the Taliban in the past, yet chances are ripe that its concerns regarding India’s growing stronghold in Afghanistan will be allayed. Irrespective of any peace settlement and any future political dispensation there, Taliban, now, will be the biggest stakeholders in the country. Pakistan will also try its best to leverage its past and present relations with them to offset India’s booby trap of machinations and manoeuvres in the country that it has planted during the past 20 years. Taliban will also find it in the fitness of things to get logistical and tactical support from Pakistan to consolidate their gains. All the stumbling blocks in the way of OBOR, CPEC and transit trade are also expected to be withered away to a considerable extent.
India’s options in Afghanistan have significantly dwindled. In a jiffy, it has emerged as the biggest loser in this battle. Its billion-dollar investment now faces a hazy future, its sympathizers have fled the country and its ambitions regarding Chabahar port now stand in perils. India is now left with a ‘wait and watch’ policy to see when this chaotic situation reveals a winning side. It might not enjoy the unconditional and strategic support it cherished under Karzai and Ghani administrations. In fact, Indian establishment would be preparing itself to save the Kashmir front as splinter factions in Afghanistan are just done with their foremost job and maybe on the prowl for the next.
Iran, due to its past ideological conflict with the Taliban, must be seeing the current situation in Afghanistan with caution and scepticism. If history is any guide, Taliban-led political dispensation can spell doom for Iranian interests in the country especially those of Shias, Hazaras and Northern Alliance; however, seeing Taliban’s gains without use of much violence, nothing can be said with utmost certainty.
China has great concerns regarding links of Uyghur militants and East Turkistan Movement with Taliban and other fighting factions of Afghanistan. Yet, it does not seem to be on the losing side in any way. Under the new Taliban administration, China can greatly enhance its economic activities and fast track OBOR-related projects with the help of Pakistan. Moreover, it could be the only superpower the Taliban will find easy to deal with. China’s foreign ministry also issued cordial statements about building relations with Afghanistan under the upcoming Taliban setup. Nonetheless, China’s options will remain pegged to Pakistan’s overtures and relations with Afghanistan in political and economic domains.
Putting the regional countries’ interests in Afghanistan aside, it is also a glaring reality that it is the people of Afghanistan who have borne the most brunt of the endless wars on their soil. So, it is incumbent upon regional stakeholders, the international community and multilateral organizations to promote the agenda of reconstruction and reconciliation in a well-thought-out manner. The Afghan nation deserves a secure and stable future and in this regard, the following module can be mulled over in the long run:
Afghanistan’s first and foremost objective from now on should be peace-building. Taliban’s long-held demand for evacuation of foreign troops has now been fulfilled. So, a negotiated political settlement, whereby all stakeholders enjoy equal representation and cherish popular support as well, will be well placed to placate this testy situation. In this regard, the United Nations and other international bodies need to play a constructive role to lead the post-war Afghanistan to peace and prosperity. Pakistan should also brace itself for the new situation and promote peace efforts in the neighbouring country.
Whichever dispensation comes into power, it should invest its energies in strengthening state institutions of the country. The legislature, military, judiciary and media should be streamlined on democratic lines. Any interim constitution or legal framework must reflect democratic norms that strengthen and pluralize the state structures. Efforts should be made to gather all freedom fighters into one constitutionally mandated force that divorces itself from all al-Qaeda and the likes.
During the twenty years of war, the United States and its allies have spent billions of dollars in aid to improve socioeconomic standing of Afghanistan. These gains must not be wasted away. The upcoming setup, in unison with international bodies, should invest in education, health and infrastructure. Militia members, who seem oblivious to administrative ins and outs, have occupied bureaucratic complexes and that may spell trouble for smooth service delivery. This bureaucratic inertia will be more costly than a delayed political transition, so it must be addressed on a war footing.
Afghanistan, in sharp contrast to the past, has now a big chunk of hardworking, forward-looking and enterprising youth. Its potential must be channelized towards education, technology, research, sports, entrepreneurship and artistic skills. Any attempt to re-weaponize and radicalize them will bring serious repercussions for the whole region.
The “Graveyard of Empires,” Afghanistan, has once again defeated a mighty power. The history of Afghanistan is one of bloodlet, power lust and vested interests, and for the very people of Afghanistan, this land is nothing short of a thriving graveyard or a charnel house that has eventually ceased to dread them as it has become a part of the norm for them. It’s time for national, regional and international stakeholders to come out of the ostrich mode and mull over the pragmatic solution. The graveyard is screaming for a change, one that brings a perpetual end to prophets of doom and heralds a new era of normalcy and life.
The writer is a civil servant, serving in the Government of Punjab. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org