As the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces draws near and the Taliban show no intention of engaging with the Afghan government, it is becoming increasingly clear that civil strife will intensify. The Taliban have already stepped up their military campaign and nearly two-thirds of the country is in their control. According to the media reports, the Afghan military appears to be retreating and demoralized. Its leadership is weak and unlikely to prevent the Taliban from taking over the major cities, including Kabul, in the coming months. As the Taliban are in a strong position militarily, to expect their leadership to show any flexibility in sharing power with President Ghani’s party and other political forces would be unrealistic. To add to the woes of the Afghan government, President Ghani’s credibility is at a low point. However, President Biden’s latest invitation to President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to visit the U.S. is to reassure the two leaders of Washington’s continued commitment to Afghanistan, post withdrawal. This move, besides helping the two leaders politically, is also a signal to the Taliban leadership that U.S. stands by them and would oppose a military takeover.
Despite the recent gains of the Taliban, there are powerful elements within Afghanistan that are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of their rule. In these circumstances the most likely scenario would be that Afghanistan’s civil war would intensify with pockets of resistance against the Taliban government spread over in different parts of the country. Fears are being expressed that if Taliban return to power they would re-impose their strict version of Islamic laws which bars girls from attending schools and keeps women under strict restrictions.
The Taliban regime in the past has curtailed fundamental freedom, particularly targeting the women. What would be the fate of Afghan women once the Taliban seize power is a big question and cause of concern. The government of President Ghani – in comparison to that of his predecessor Hamid Karzai – has done more to mainstream women in governance agenda and policies. More women hold positions of power than any time in history. Nearly 28% of the seats in the parliament are held by women, there are four ministers and the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission is led by women and three Ambassadors are women. There has been improvement in the literacy rate, education and healthcare. The gender gains may get diluted or reversed depending on the policy of the Taliban.
If the Taliban return to power, the spillover of Afghanistan’s civil war would result in an influx of thousands of refugees into Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian states and even beyond. The very extensive barbed wire fencing that Pakistan has done on the Western border would be a barrier but overcoming it by desperate refugees is still a possibility. The spillover could also result in increased drug trafficking and terrorist attacks. Bilateral trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries could also face impediments.
To cover its failures, the Afghan government has been unfairly accusing Pakistan for providing sanctuary and support to the Taliban leadership. On the contrary, Pakistan has been advocating for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political solution that is a prerequisite for the peace process to succeed. Moreover, at best Pakistan had limited capacity to influence the Taliban and always maintained that it is for the Afghans to settle their differences. Presently, with such large territory of Afghanistan in control of Taliban, there is hardly any need for them to operate from other countries. It only betrays the reality that the Afghan government wants to scapegoat Pakistan for its failures. In fact, Pakistan’s foremost interest demands that there should be peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, for no country is as adversely affected by a chaotic and civil strife torn western neighbor as Pakistan. The Taliban have, however, assured the U.S. that Daesh and other radical groups will not be given any space to operate. To what extent they would comply with it in the future is unclear as the situation in Afghanistan is so fluid.
As part of its long-term strategy, the U.S. has shown interest in having bases in Pakistan to monitor conditions in Afghanistan and the region. Prime Minister Imran Khan has categorically stated that Pakistan will not allow U.S. and NATO any intelligence facility to monitor conditions in Afghanistan or its territory to be used for military operations against Afghanistan. This was a mature and well thought out response as Pakistan had a bitter experience of providing bases to U.S. in the past. It compromises national sovereignty, invites hostility of warring groups and no particular advantage accrues, not even goodwill, as our experience of providing bases to U.S. in the past reminds us.
The U.S. leadership and its think tanks were unable to bring a fresh perspective to Afghanistan and ultimately decided to leave it in chaos hoping that military dominance by Taliban will create an environment for working out some plan for power sharing. Despite America’s inability to bring a peaceful order, the international community recognizes the advantages of a peaceful and orderly Afghanistan for the stability and peace of the region. Peace can only be established through an Afghan-owned and led process. But that is not happening due to Taliban’s inflexibility and their confidence that the military situation favors them. With an Afghan government that is weak and divided and the Afghan National Army incapable of putting up an effective resistance, the United States leaving Afghanistan and international community disinterested, the Taliban leadership were not inclined toward a negotiated settlement. Although, for a more durable and lasting peace, major elements of Afghanistan will have to find a broad-based peace agreement. The State Department spokesperson has also indicated that U.S. financial assistance could only continue if the Afghan government is recognized by all.
The Afghan government does not broadly enjoy the confidence of the Afghan people and this is its major weakness. They consider it to be corrupt, dependent, takes orders from the U.S. and doesn’t have much to show in terms of economic or political development. True, they can take credit for the emancipation of women and limited gains in infrastructural development, education and health sector, but not enough to gain solid support of the people. As the Taliban take over major parts of the country, most of these gains may be lost.
Pakistan has been voicing its deep concern to the government of Afghanistan that it should not allow India space to engage in sabotage activities against Pakistan. The continued collaboration with India has been a major impediment in the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has also resulted in promoting terrorism and creating barriers for transit trade. The importance of trade should figure prominently in the bilateral context as both countries would benefit enormously by placing it on a sound footing. Lately, the Indian government has shown interest in engaging with the Taliban. Apparently, Indian officials have recently met Taliban representatives in Doha for the first time although it was widely known that New Delhi has communicated with the militia in the past.
China’s proactive involvement in the region, based on a combination of commitment and material strength to promote the Belt and Road Initiative, may help Afghanistan’s post-civil war recovery. But this would be possible to implement only if a modicum of peace prevails in Afghanistan. For Taliban the greatest challenge would be to generate resources for running the country. Foreign assistance would only be forthcoming if the Taliban would comply with the basic human rights issues. This factor could be a moderating influence on their harsh and outdated policies.
Iran’s support in the stabilization of Afghanistan is essential and it has to be seen how the Taliban leadership would have them involved. The Iranian government is particularly interested in the safety and security of the Hazara community and fears that a civil war would result in heavy influx of refugees.
The U.S. has been rethinking about Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. The rhetoric against Pakistan has largely subdued and there is a greater emphasis on cooperation. There is a realization that Pakistan and its relevance to peace efforts in Afghanistan is critical.
China’s involvement in Afghanistan’s stability and economic support could contribute to increasing Pakistan’s influence with major Afghan factions. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project would receive a major boost if Afghanistan stabilizes.
The lines between Afghanistan’s domestic, security and foreign policy are blurred and are likely to remain so until the situation turns relatively peaceful. Russia has legitimate interest in the stability of Afghanistan and could play an important role in supporting the peace process and more so in the subsequent national economic uplift. Although, if past experience is a guide, Russia would be cautious in dealing with Afghanistan. Russia and China could contribute to Afghanistan’s economic uplift directly or being important members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could channelize their assistance through this framework, provided security situation permits.
Contrary to the general perception, Pakistan does not wish for the return of any one group to power in Kabul. It only favors a peaceful and all inclusive regime that can work for durable peace in the future. There are serious implications for the country as if only one group consolidates its gains that could lead to a civil war. With Taliban making inroads in Afghanistan and growing intolerance among the highly conservative rightist groups picking momentum in Pakistan, there is a possibility of radical ideology spillover that could reenergize the TTP. As often said, peace in Pakistan is also linked to peace in Afghanistan, thus for Pakistan stakes were always high, and shall remain so. In all cases, Pakistan’s efforts for peace and stability would continue and others must understand as well as support these.
The writer is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues.
E-mail: [email protected]
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