Afghanistan: Graveyard of empires, ready for a new life
This story first appeared in The Times of India
Despite whatever they may have said to American negotiators during the Doha talks, there is little evidence that the Taliban have given up their ties to Al Qaeda or other terror groups
Joe Biden has bitten the bullet. The US will finally walk out from its Forever War, in defeat. Afghanistan will go back to being a contested geography, a playing field of different extremist ideologies – regional powers and international biggies.
After 20 years, Biden has ironically put 9/11 as the withdrawal date for the US and Nato troops from Afghanistan. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” said Biden.
The road ahead is tricky. A peace conference under the UN – with members representing the Afghan government, the Taliban, India, Pakistan, Iran and China – was supposed to begin this weekend in Turkey, in yet another effort to get the Taliban and Kabul to hammer out a peace deal. The Taliban have refused to show up. So it will now happen after Eid. India had been kept out of a similar conference in Moscow last month. While India is not directly involved in the peace talks, its presence is important as the biggest regional power as well as one of the biggest developmental partners of Afghanistan.
In these two decades, Afghanistan has changed in ways that would have been unimaginable in the 1990s when the Taliban ran the place. Albeit externally imposed, Afghans have, by and large, accepted a democratic form of government, even if it doesn’t match western benchmarks or has accepted bells and whistles. The government in Kabul is riven with disunity, faction-fighting and internecine strife. But they have sustained through corruption, rigged elections, terror attacks and the like.
On the other hand, the Taliban have not been defeated. They have grown in strength and lethality. They control or contest large parts of the country and their ideology continues to be as murderous as ever. Their numbers, some say have grown to over 60,000. Just in 2021. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Taliban violence has resulted in “1,783 civilian casualties, 29 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2020.” It also recorded a 37 per cent increase in number of women killed and 23 per cent increase in children killed, compared with the same period in 2020.
Since the US-Taliban deal in Doha, signed on February 29, 2020, the Taliban had the opportunity to present itself as a nationalist-extremist ideology preparing to transition to a political entity in Afghanistan. That has clearly not been the case — their terror attacks have increased. They have threatened to ramp up violence if US forces don’t leave by the promised May 1 deadline. They have refused to participate in a proposed peace conference in Turkey this week.
During the Moscow conference last month, the Taliban showed little sign that they would change their spots. That meeting endorsed the idea that Afghanistan should move in a democratic fashion, but the Taliban’s silence spoke otherwise. The Taliban want an Emirate in Afghanistan, while the Kabul government and almost all of Afghanistan’s neighbours want a continuation of the republic.
What’s the US thinking
Biden has long been a votary of the US leaving Afghanistan and only keeping a counter-terrorism presence there. A version of that may be what will be rolled out by the US. The US will wean itself off Afghanistan’s internal politics.
This was indicated by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s NSA, who said on Sunday that Biden had no intention of sending American forces back to Afghanistan, but added: “I can’t make any guarantees about what will happen inside the country. No one can. All that the United States could do is provide the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government and the Afghan people resources and capabilities, training and equipping their forces, providing assistance to their government. We have done that and now it is time for American troops to come home and the Afghan people to step up to defend their own country.” That is the definition of a full withdrawal.
An April 2021 assessment of Afghanistan by US intelligence says: one, prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year; two, Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle and face setbacks. However, the Afghan security forces will be able to hold on to major urban centres, but it’s anybody’s guess how long they will be hold the Taliban at bay. The best scenario is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the help of the US and others, remain equipped and able to beat back the Taliban. The alternative can only be imagined.
Peep into the future
India has high stakes in the welfare of Afghanistan. In the past 20 years, India has been Afghanistan’s biggest development partner, with big infrastructure investment in the country, which includes over 700 infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, security training, capacity building, education, etc. Cutting across provinces and ethnic groups, India enjoys the greatest goodwill in the country. But the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty.
India’s connect with the Taliban has been virtually non-existent. That has burnished its image with most Afghans, but also left India without Taliban leverage. It has left India with very little space in the peace talks so far.
How that will affect India in the coming years is hard to say — Taliban could evolve into a responsible stakeholder, so India’s non-investment in the group could have consequences. On the other hand, the Taliban may not evolve into much more than a terror group. That would vindicate India’s stand.
India’s goals in Afghanistan have not changed — that Afghans should be in control of their destiny; there should be a democratic transition of power in the country; India’s interests and assets should be protected; and Afghanistan should not become a theatre for anti-India activities. To this extent, India has worked to relieve Afghanistan of its dependence on Pakistan — the Chahbahar port in Iran, air corridor for trade to Afghanistan, the North-South Corridor to connect India with Central Asia are all designed to this goal.
India reckons that in the short and medium term, Afghanistan is likely to see greater violence and greater chaos. India sees itself having to manage its interests in Afghanistan using both diplomacy and other unorthodox means.
Pakistan is a key player in Afghanistan’s future. Pakistan will seek to consolidate its position in Afghanistan again — Indian assets could be attacked by Pak-supported Taliban-Haqqani Network-Al Qaeda elements; and terrorists could be trained to serve in Kashmir. But 2021 is not 2002. Pakistan is economically much weaker. The Taliban have been making small bursts for independence from Rawalpindi.
Pakistan, according to the Afghans and the Americans, even supported the growth of the Daesh (known as Islamic State of Khorasan Province) in Afghanistan — composed of elements from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) mixed with foreign fighters — to serve as counter-weight to the Taliban, while burnishing the Taliban’s image as being a nationalistic group fighting to keep their country from becoming another Syria. Many in the US, Russia and China bought this line, which also enabled everybody to reach out to the Taliban to do a peace deal.
Pakistan is likely to attempt to leverage its influence on the Taliban for greater concessions from the West, particularly with regard to India. The future may be slightly different than Pakistan says it will be. Once the US has withdrawn, the Taliban will no longer be dependent on Pakistan. That will enable more realistic policies out of Washington, which don’t involve pandering to Rawalpindi.
Second, Pakistan will have to manage an alphabet soup of terror groups both in Afghanistan and inside Pakistan. Pakistan is also more isolated internationally, so overseas assistance, other than China, and perhaps now, Russia, could become more difficult.
US withdrawal is likely to have an impact on both Iran and Russia. Iran has been campaigning for US troops to leave for years, including teaming with Taliban and even Al Qaeda elements. With the US gone, Iran is likely to play more responsibly, because a resurgent Sunni Taliban may not be in Shia Iran’s interest. Iran, therefore, is more likely to align its policies to India’s.
China flourished with the US presence in Afghanistan. Now they will have to step up. Their dependence on Pakistan may increase, as they try to keep their Islamic radicalism problem, epitomised by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) minimal. China has shown a greater willingness to get its hands dirty. It may become a bigger player in Afghanistan.
Russia will too. In the past few years, it has played by rules shared by Pakistan and China. That involves supporting the Taliban against Daesh. Will Moscow change its tune? If it doesn’t, the divide with India will only grow.
Has the Taliban changed?
Last week, addressing the Raisina Dialogue, Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan NSA said they have noticed growing infighting among the Taliban and there are four distinct factions — Mullah Baradar, who is the lead negotiator in the Doha talks. He had been in a Pakistani prison for almost a decade, so his presence is thin on the ground. He is up against Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is the leader of Taliban at present, and responsible for the fatwas.
The third, he said, is Mullah Yaqoob, and fourth being the deadly Haqqani Network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, traditionally very close to the ISI but now seeking its own space. The last is the Helmand group, who don’t obey the Quetta Shura but are a growing presence, Mohib said. As the prospect of a peace deal and US withdrawal looms, there is an increasing jostling for influence.
The Taliban remain tied to Pakistan’s ISI, the big shura continuing to operate out of Quetta. Despite whatever they may have said to American negotiators during the Doha talks, there is little evidence that the Taliban have given up their ties to Al Qaeda or other terror groups. In recent years Daesh has expanded its presence in Afghanistan — Afghan foreign minister Haneef Atmar had told TOI some time ago that Taliban fight Daesh in some parts of Afghanistan and have a functional relationship in others.
Most important, the US and NATO were not fighting the right enemy in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been Taliban’s biggest and longest patron. After 9/11, the ISI took in many fleeing Taliban. Taliban’s resurgence is also attributed to Pakistan’s assistance and support. The Taliban are a terror group that couldn’t be vanquished because they had state support from across the border. That was never addressed, because the US needed Pakistan to help its logistics train. Pakistan is a nuclear armed ally. Pakistan, when squeezed, invariably obliged with a Taliban asset or two. It suited everybody.
To that extent, the US withdrawal is a victory for Pakistan, which kept the Taliban tied to its side for the past 20 years, and Afghanistan on the boil, in the quest for strategic depth against India. But Afghanistan is not known as the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. It saw off the Soviets and the Americans just in 40 years. Afghanistan’s neighbours will continue to control its destiny. And Afghanistan will continue to confound them.
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