Areport says that talks sponsored by Turkey, the UN and US, aimed at reaching a power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan, scheduled to be held last month in Istanbul, have been pushed to May, as the Taliban indicated its unwillingness to attend. There is a likelihood that these may not be held at all as the Taliban remains defiant. This despite the US and NATO announcing their withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11.
Possibly, the Taliban leadership is sensing blood and hopes to take over the country after the exit of foreign forces. The Taliban released a statement mentioning that a media campaign has been launched with expectations of a peace deal being signed during this planned 10-day conference. It has also criticised the US decision to delay its withdrawal from 1 May to 11 September.
The US military had envisaged reluctance of the Taliban to come to a peace agreement and its intention to launch operations against the Afghan forces. They had therefore demanded a conditional withdrawal which would enable them to support the Kabul government employing air power, in case the Taliban increased attacks without reaching an agreement. This was turned down by President Biden. In this emerging scenario, there is a need for all stakeholders seeking peace in Afghanistan to reconsider their strategy.
After the withdrawal of the Soviets in February 1989, Kabul was taken over by rebel forces only in 1992. This was a result of disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991, blocking equipment and monetary support. Internally there was a strong anti-communist wave, and the populace was willing to support any group which opposed Kabul’s communists. The Afghan army was largely untrained leading to mass desertions.
The Taliban finally came to power in 1996 and established an Islamic state. Currently, the scenario is vastly different. The populace largely supports the Kabul government as it has witnessed years of freedom and progress. The Taliban is no longer as popular as it was in the 1990s. Even in areas under its control, its power stems from its brutality. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic laws and punishment is no longer acceptable to the public as it may have been in the 1990s, when anything seemed better than communism.
The Afghan army is also reasonably well trained and equipped. It has been able to hold ground, despite setbacks, and currently controls 33 per cent of the country against 19 per cent with the Taliban. The balance remains disputed. It has a trained and motivated leadership and the capability to withstand Taliban attacks. The major strengths of the Taliban are suicide attacks and IEDs. These can cause casualties and fear, but are not battle winning factors. Intelligence reports state that the Taliban has 80,000-1,00,000 troops, while the Afghan army possesses over 200,000.
Parts of Afghanistan are controlled by other groups and militia opposed to the Taliban. It is reported that the Taliban deployed its soldiers around foreign bases to protect them from these groups post the agreement, to secure its side of the bargain. The Taliban can add to its military power only if supported by the Pakistan army. In case the Taliban seeks to launch a civil war to regain Kabul, it would face strong resistance.
While current talks and global recognition have led to the Taliban believing it has an easy entry into Kabul or that the world would hand over Afghanistan to it on a platter, the reality appears different. The Afghan armed forces are determined to deny it a free run. A stalemate in operations, with pressure on Pakistan to stop support, could push the Taliban into talks, where the global community has failed or split the country into two or more parts.
Considering this, nations with a desire to promote stability in Afghanistan need to reconsider their strategy before the US and NATO troops leave the country. These must include strengthening the capability of Afghan forces to counter the Taliban and application of pressure on Pakistan to deny any form of support to it. The Afghan forces need weapons and ammunition as also air support in operations. While Afghan forces can be equipped, arrangements to provide air support must remain.
The US government must reconsider its military’s demand of a conditional withdrawal to enable air support to Afghan forces in case the Taliban is unwilling to come forward for talks. Reports state that Pakistan is attempting to convince the Taliban leadership to re-join the peace process, otherwise it may lose its support. Pakistan realises that the road to Kabul for the Taliban is dotted with pitfalls.
The longer civil war rages within Afghanistan, the larger would the influx of refugees into Pakistan be. Pakistani security agencies are claiming that they are discovering links between the Taliban and groups affiliated to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an anti-Pakistan terrorist group. The TTP targets the Pakistan army and has vowed revenge for killing of Pashtuns. Baluch rebels would find instability in Afghanistan an ideal opportunity for enhancing operations against the CPEC.
More importantly, an Islamic government in Afghanistan and Iran would enhance the standing of radical clerics in Pakistan. There would be demands for a similar form of Islamic government within the country. The recent uprising by the TLP, where it gained support even from elements within the Pakistan army, is an indicator of the depth of radicalization which exists in the country. Pakistan’s only logical hope is either an inclusive government in Kabul or a democracy. The Pakistani leadership must comprehend this scenario.
The impact of instability in Afghanistan will also be felt on Russia and China as terrorist groups alienated from them would find space to grow amidst the civil war. Once these groups gain strength, eradicating them may not be easy. Therefore, it would be ideal if the Afghan government and Taliban come to a peace agreement of power sharing, rather than push the country towards a civil war. A civil war would be detrimental for all neighbours of Afghanistan. For a civil war to be prevented and to force the Taliban to talk, the Afghan army must be strengthened.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)