Afghanistan is a sparsely populated country of 36 million people with a landmass of 652,000 square kilometers. The population is generally dispersed, or concentrated in a few scattered urban areas. Much of the countryside is lightly populated. Geography is one reason why the Afghans have been unable to create a nation out of diversity. It has long been engaged in the struggle to establish a system of governance that would be acceptable to the entire citizenry. The country has remained divided with deep fissures running in several different directions. To begin with, there are sharp ethnic divisions with the Pashtuns constituting the largest segment of the population but not the decisive majority. They make up 42 to 48 percent of the population or approximately over 15 million people. They are concentrated in the provinces that border Pakistan. As with some other ethnic groups, the Pashtuns spill over the international border. Pakistan also has presence of Pashtuns – though Pakistani Pashtuns are distinguishly distinct from Afghan Pashtuns. Presently Pakistan is also hosting over 1.4 million Afghan refugees who had come to the country to escape violence in their homeland.
The Tajiks in the northeast constitute the majority in Tajikistan, Afghanistan's neighbor. The country's population is estimated to be 8.8 million people. However, there are fewer Tajiks living in the country named after them – an estimated 7.8 million – less than those who are citizens of Afghanistan. They number about 10 million in Afghanistan or 27 percent of the country's total population. Uzbeks, with more than 3 million people, is the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan with a population of more than 3o million people, is larger than Afghanistan. The Hazara community is also approximately 3 million strong and lives in a province in the central part of the country. They are the followers of the Shia sect of Islam, a religion they share with Iran. They have lived in peace for centuries with the majority Sunni population in the country but that was before the Taliban, who following the Sunni sect, arrived on the political front. The Taliban subscribe to the strict Wahabi sect that had developed in Saudi Arabia a century and a half ago. The Wahabis have little tolerance for views other than their own. Aimak, Turkmen and Baloch together make up another 9 percent of the population.
To this ethnic and religious mix, we should add the Afghan diasporas that are also split in several ways. The largest of these is in Pakistan with sizeable numbers in Karachi and Islamabad. There are a large number of Afghans in the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East. Europe – in particular Germany – has a sizeable Afghan community. There are now hundreds of thousands Afghans in the United States. For the last almost two decades, the diaspora-communities have provided Afghanistan with its leaders. Hamid Karzai, the first president under the Constitutional arrangement adopted in 2002, came from the Afghan community in Pakistan. Ashraf Ghani who received his doctorate in anthropology from Johns Hopkins and then joined the World Bank belongs to the diaspora formed over the years in the United States. He was called by Karzai and asked to join his cabinet as the Finance Minister. The Afghan diaspora continued to play important political and economic roles while the United States was fighting the Taliban in the country. The United States came to the country to deal with the situation created when the Soviet Union, after having encouraged the removal of monarchy, tried to install a system of governance closer to the one it was operating at home.
In 1979 Moscow sent in its troops to bolster the Communist-leaning administration they had helped to establish in Kabul. The Soviet invasion was resisted by Afghan nationalists. Ten years later, aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, seven mujahideen groups succeeded in expelling Moscow from Afghanistan but without deciding on how the country would be run. The Taliban stepped into this void; it was made up of young people who had gone to the seminaries established in the Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The students were taught radical Islam and produced highly indoctrinated graduates who became the first generation of Taliban. Taliban is an Arabic word meaning students. Their movement became strong enough to beat back other mujahideen groups and establish an Islamic state run on the basis of what it falsely interpreted as the dictates of the religion. The regime may have lasted had it not allowed Osama bin Laden and his group, the Al-Qaeda, to operate out of a sanctuary. The Al-Qaeda worked out of a base in the Pashtun areas close to the border with Pakistan. From there it planned an attack on the United States in which close to 3,000 people died. Washington responded by invading Afghanistan, removing the Taliban regime from Kabul and attempting to establish a western style political system in the country.
The constitutional arrangement agreed in 2001 in a meeting in Bonn was an attempt to bring western type of democracy to Afghanistan. It was the work of a number of nations that had interest in Afghanistan and who negotiated with the representatives of some of the country's diverse and segmented population. When implemented, the agreement produced relative stability for seven years, from 2001 when the Bonn Agreement was signed to 2009 when the country held the second presidential election. In that hotly contested poll, Hamid Karzai, who had been president for seven years, was declared the winner. The result was contested by Karzai's opponents who had come together to oppose his re-election. These were warlords from the distant provinces – several of them non-Pashtuns – who had refused to yield power to the authorities in Kabul. The Constitution allowed Karzai two terms which took him to 2014.
In 2014 Ashraf Ghani contested the presidency and was elected president in an election the opposition viewed as unfair and rigged. It took intervention by the then U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, before Ghani could be sworn in as president. The Kerry proposal saw Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani's political opponent and son of a Tajik mother, become Chief Executive, a position that did not exist in the Constitution. The Taliban were removed from power but did not disappear from the political scene. The insurgency they mounted lasted for more than 18 years, cost 2,000 American lives and a trillion dollars of expenditure. The Trump administration that inherited the Afghan problem from Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama concluded that the use of force would not remove the Taliban from the political landscape. Peace had to be negotiated with the insurgents.
On February 21, 2020 the Taliban leadership and the United States government announced that they would sign a peace agreement if the week-long ceasefire declared by the two sides held until February 29, the date set for the signing. Peace held, violence declined by 80 percent, a reduction that was acceptable for the two parties, and the signing ceremony was held in Doha, the capital of Qatar. That was the site of nearly two years of off-and-on negotiations held by the Taliban and the United States.
The Taliban identified their negotiating team. "Our negotiations team, led by my colleagues Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, has worked tirelessly for the past 18 months with the American negotiators to make an agreement possible," wrote Sirajuddin Haqqani in an op-ed published by The New York Times on the day the ceasefire announcement was made. Haqqani is the deputy leader of the Taliban and head of the Haqqani group that America had labeled a terrorist organization. He further wrote: "My fellow Afghans will soon celebrate this historic agreement. Once it is entirely fulfilled, Afghans will see the departure of all foreign troops. As we arrive at this milestone, I believe it is not a distant dream that we will see the day when we will come together with all our Afghan brothers and sisters, start toward lasting peace and lay the foundation of a new Afghanistan."
The American team of negotiators was led by Zalmay Khalilzad, another member of the United States-Afghan diaspora. He was able to influence America's evolving policy towards the Taliban. According to one assessment, Khalilzad, "a Republican with decades of diplomatic experience, hadn't disqualified himself by speaking out about the president. A polyglot Afghan native, he is a skilled bureaucrat operator with clout in the halls of Washington and the craggy peaks of the Hindu Kush." At one point he thought of running for the Afghan presidency. In one important shift, he was able to jettison an Obama administration-era requirement that the Afghan government take part in talks from the beginning, a position that had stymied progress for years. He concluded correctly that the Taliban had a much more powerful position in the Afghan political landscape than the Pashtuns faction led Ashraf Ghani. According to one senior official speaking to The Washington Post, Khalilzad was "willing to rip up the failed negotiating playbook of the past" and try new approaches with the backing of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He had concluded that the Taliban would follow through on a vow to break with Al-Qaeda and keep the Islamic State's growing influence in the country in check.
The American position reached after almost 18 years of bloody and costly war was that the only way out was to engage with the Taliban. However, that had to be done in a way that was sequenced and based on conditions the Taliban will need to follow. The American withdrawal will not be fully complete until the two Afghan sides – the Taliban and the government in Kabul – sat down together and worked out an arrangement for future power-sharing. Negotiations between the two sides were set to start ten days after the signing of the agreement in Doha. That was to be on March 10. But that did not happen. The Taliban expected five thousand of its prisoners to be released during this period in exchange for the one thousand they held.
The chain of events that began after the signing of the Doha agreement was interrupted by political developments in Afghanistan. In September 2019, the Afghans participated in the fourth presidential election since the Bonn Agreement. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah claimed they were the winners of the election. It took almost six months for the Election Commission to announce the result. When it did, it showed that Ghani had won by a narrow margin of 12,000 votes. This meant that there would not be a run-off election. An election that would have been required by the Constitution that provided that if none of the candidates won more than 50 percent of the polled votes, the two getting the most would face-off in another election. The narrow win spared Ghani that additional effort but the result was challenged by Abdullah. At the time of this writing, the dispute had not been resolved. Abdullah threatened to set up a rival government and insisted that his people should participate in the government's planned discussions with the Taliban.
The U.S. watched this development with considerable dismay. "This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road," said Mark Esper, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, at the Pentagon after his return from Kabul. "That's going to be the nature of this over the next days, weeks and months. The United States is committed to full withdrawal within 14 months. The U.S. commander in Kabul has the orders to begin the initial withdrawal reducing the size of the force down to 8,600 in the next 135 days." The United States has said that their withdrawal is conditions based and includes an ongoing reduction in violence directed against foreign and Afghan forces. However, statements by Khalilzad and the U.S. State Department have called the current level of violence unacceptable. About 80 incidents of violence had been recorded between February 29 and March 10. On March 4, President Trump called Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, and had a "good conversation." At the same time the Americans began to withdraw some of the troops they had in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad got involved in the Ghani-Abdullah dispute. He had gone to Kabul to ensure that the first important steps in the deal were taken according to the agreed schedule. These included the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the government; the start of the American pullout; the first phase of which was to be completed in 135 days; and the beginning of negotiations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. The last step was contingent on the first two being taken on time. The American pullout started but President Ghani has said that he would not agree to the release of prisoners before Taliban started negotiating with him. After turning down the proposal, he has agreed to its reformulation. On March 10, when the Doha deal said the government and the Taliban would begin to talk, Ghani issued an amended proposal for the release of the prisoners. In a decree the Afghan President said that following an initial release of 1,500 prisoners at the rate of 100 per day beginning on Saturday, March 14, the target of 5,000 would be reached. However, the presidential decree made clear that this schedule would be followed only if "the level of violence is dramatically reduced." Those to be released included the insurgents the United States had been keen to see locked up. Khalilzad was anxious to have negotiations started but Ghani did not announce the composition of the team that would sit down with the Taliban either in Doha or in Oslo, Norway.
Afghanistan is always full of surprises. On one day – March 9, 2020 – it swore-in two presidents, Ashraf Ghani, the current President, and Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive. According to one account "just a few minutes and a thin wall apart, both President Ashraf Ghani and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, took the oath of office as the president of Afghanistan, plunging the fragile country into a new crisis. As both men were delivering their speeches broadcast on split screens across the country, a barrage of rockets landed in the capital near the site of the ceremonies. Sirens blared in the diplomatic area near the presidential palace." Nobody was killed or injured but the Taliban were delivering a message: they may have signed a peace agreement but they were still able to create trouble.
What had America achieved in its more than 18-year stay in Afghanistan? "Americans have long run out of good reasons to continue dying and killing in a land whose tribes make it notoriously difficult to govern and whose mountainous terrain renders it impossible to conquer. American soldiers deployed to the country as recently as last week had trouble articulating what their mission was," wrote The New York Times in an editorial that appeared under the title of "A war without winners winds down." No matter how the political process evolves in Afghanistan, it appears that the United States would pull out of the country. According to Jarrett Blanc who took part in the negotiations with the Taliban during the Obama period, there are meager odds of achieving lasting peace for a nation locked in a seemingly endless conflict. "The Afghans may not be prepared to set aside their differences and make peace. But fighting for another 18 years isn't a winning strategy for the United States either."
When the Americans finally leave, there is little doubt that they will depart from a highly unstable country and leave it essentially with the Taliban deeply involved in matters of governance. Would their rule be acceptable to the Tajiks in the northeast and Uzbeks in the north? Together these two ethnic groups have more than 12 million people compared to 16 million Pashtuns. If the Shia Hazaras become a major Taliban target it may result in Iran becoming actively involved in Afghan affairs. In sum, what we in Pakistan are most likely to see is not only a country in great turmoil but possibly one that might break up into two or three smaller self-governing political entities. Despite this all, constructing a peaceful future is much better than staying embroiled in an endless bloody war.
The writer is a former Caretaker Finance Minister of Pakistan. He also served as Vice President at the World Bank.
E-mail: [email protected]
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