Afghanistan as a nation has only witnessed wars and bloodshed for the past four decades. Its turmoil began with the Soviet invasion in December 1979 and continues to date. The US entered after the 9/11 attack. After two decades, the US is now firming its plans to pull out. It has realised that it would never achieve the goals that it had set for itself when it entered Afghanistan. At the end of the day, it would leave the country in a similar mess as Libya or Iraq, where multiple terrorist groups continue fighting one another as also the elected government for control of territory. Ultimately, it is only the populace which suffers and bears the brunt of the violence.
Unlike Donald Trump, who was pushing the Afghan government to sign a peace deal with the Taliban, President Joe Biden is seeking to bring forth an interim inclusive government involving the Taliban and the current elected dispensation in a power sharing formula. This is not being attempted by conviction and convincing, but by arm-twisting and coercion. In addition, the US is planning to delay its troop pull out beyond the agreed date of 1 May. NATO has already announced that it would not adhere to the 1 May date. The US also plans to shift the current Doha talks to Istanbul, hoping Turkey and Pakistan could push both sides for a ceasefire, where Qatar failed.
This current plan is another halfbaked thought process of the US and is destined for failure. Afghanistan has never been a nation state, but a collection of nations loosely governed by Kabul. Loyalties are more to local warlords and tribal chiefs than to Kabul. Even the warring sides are unwilling to accept the US proposal.
The Taliban are not desirous of joining any coalition government. President Ashraf Ghani, disagreeing with the US proposal, has prepared a counter suggestion where he states that in case the Taliban sign a peace deal, he would resign, and fresh elections could be held to determine the new government in the country. The Taliban have no intention of participating in elections but desire the country on a platter. The Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh stated that his country’s fate cannot be decided by ‘20 people in a room.’ He was referring to the forthcoming conference, proposed by the US, to be hosted under the aegis of the UN, in Turkey.
The Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, stated post the Moscow talks, “We hope that this will not happen (US delay in withdrawal), that they withdraw, and we focus on the settlement, peaceful settlement of the Afghan issue, in order to bring about a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire at the end of reaching a political roadmap (for) Afghanistan.” He threatened to recommence attacks on NATO forces in case they remain. Meanwhile, violence continues in Afghanistan, where the Taliban currently control 50 per cent of the country. The al Qaeda and the ISIK are slowly gaining ground.
There are also differing perceptions between Afghanistan’s neighbours and allies. At the recently concluded Heart of Asia conference, Pakistan’s foreign minister, SM Qureshi stated that Pakistan has regularly cautioned “against the role of spoilers both within and outside Afghanistan.” He was hinting at India, whom he has regularly accused of supporting the Afghan government and acting against the deal being pushed by the US and Pakistan. Pakistan is pushing for the US to adhere to the 1 May date.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar speaking at the same conference stated, “For a durable peace in Afghanistan, what we need is a genuine double peace, that is, peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan. It requires harmonizing the interests of all, both within and around that country.” He was commenting on Pakistan’s support to the Taliban whose levels of violence have not reduced. Unless Taliban’s bases in Pakistan are closed, there would be no reduction of violence in Afghanistan.
Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President stated, “We acknowledge and appreciate the support and commitment of our other partners such as Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, UAE as well as our Central Asian neighbours to the Afghanistan peace process.” There was no mention of Pakistan. Ghani has accused Pakistan on multiple occasions of harbouring and supporting the Taliban. He has stated that the capability of the Taliban would end as soon as Pakistan stops providing it support.
Indian soft power remains strong within Afghanistan. India has been training Afghan officer cadets for a long time. This is projection of Indian military soft power. India has also been supplying military hardware to Afghanistan. In addition, Indian scholarships have led to the creation of an educated elite, which, in case democracy continues in Afghanistan, could form the backbone of future governance. India’s investment in development has won it hearts and minds around the country. Hence, despite all claims, India will remain a key player in the country.
In this scenario of changing policies, disagreements between internal players and those who seek to influence the country, what could be the future of Afghanistan? While the Taliban may come forward for talks, they are unlikely to agree to any powersharing agreements. They are aware that at some stage the US and NATO forces would pull out in a similar manner as the Soviets did. This would open the country to a bloody civil war where casualties would be immense. The reality being missed is that unlike other nations, sanctions and global criticism would have no impact on the country or the Taliban. The gains made by Afghanistan over decades would be wiped clean.
The nation will only witness more violence in the years ahead. A US intelligence report states that if the US withdraws from Afghanistan before a peace deal is reached with the Taliban, the country will fall under their control in 2-3 years. That could potentially open doors for al-Qaida to rebuild its strength within the country. Peace in Afghanistan is still miles away and nowhere on the horizon. It can only come if support to the Taliban ceases, which is unlikely. Till then the populace will pay a heavy price.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.