by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 5, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1441)
Afghanistan remains in turmoil because it is totally dependent for survival on American crutches. There is no effective government and even the US-propped regime in Kabul, nominally led by President Ashraf Ghani, is wracked by chaos and internal divisions. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the second in command, has his own agenda and was forced, after American ear-twisting, to accept the results of last September’s elections that declared Ghani the winner.
The real power wielders in Afghanistan are the Taliban, victors of the 19-year-long bloody war they fought against the Americans and their long list of allies. The Taliban also control nearly 70% of the territory where they have set up an alternative governing administrative structure delivering justice and other services that a functioning government would do. People in those areas trust the Taliban more than people living under the government’s nominal control do elsewhere.
There is, however, one other factor at play in Afghanistan: Donald Trump’s desperation to withdraw all US troops before the November presidential elections. In the lead-up to the polls, the outbreak of the pandemic and now the massive protests against police brutality have exposed Trump’s gross incompetence. He was never popular with a majority of Americans but his mishandling of the twin crises has alienated people even in his core constituency.
The thought of losing the November election terrifies Trump. He wants to show some success —any success—in his miserable rule. He does not want to become a one-term president. Withdrawing forces from Afghanistan would be one card that Trump could show as “success” and use it to ward off the challenge from his adversary, Joe Biden, an even more incompetent figure.
There are several obstacles that Trump and his minions have to overcome in Afghanistan. Striking a deal with the Taliban, although the most difficult part, has been achieved. It was signed amid much fanfare in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020. The deal was predicated on several conditions, one being the release of all Taliban prisoners by the Kabul regime before the resistance movement would sit down for talks.
The Ghani regime tried to play smart and attempted to delay the release of prisoners until told by the Americans in no uncertain terms to comply or else. Ghani’s attempt to seek advantage was ill-advised. Trump wants out and as soon as all foreign troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban could simply walk into Kabul and take over. If Ghani does not want to suffer the fate of Dr Najibullah, the Soviet-backed puppet left in power when they withdrew their forces in February 1989, he would be well advised to not play the spoiler’s game.
According to latest reports, the Kabul regime has released all but a handful of Taliban prisoners. The Taliban have said that one week after all their prisoners are released, they will set a date to sit down with representatives of various Afghan factions and work out an arrangement for the future. Given the ground realities—the Taliban control nearly 70% of territory—it is not difficult to surmise what that future arrangement would look like. The risk, however, is that various Afghan factions might start fighting among themselves in a repeat of what happened after the Soviets pulled out.
It is to preclude this possibility that the US point man for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad has been shuttling between Doha meeting Taliban representatives, Kabul, and Rawalpindi to meet Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Soon after receiving Khalilzad at the GHQ in Rawalpindi, General Bajwa visited Kabul on June 9. Accompanied by the Director of ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, General Bajwa held talks with the Afghan government, including Dr Abdullah. The latter heads the Afghan “peace council” at his own request. Intra-Afghan dialogue was the focus of discussion during Bajwa’s visit. Reflecting the changed reality, Dr. Abdullah, hitherto a harsh critic of Islamabad, highlighted “Pakistan’s constructive role in this regard”.
The Kabul regime needs Pakistan’s help in securing some concessions from the Taliban. How much the Taliban would be willing to concede and whether these would be sufficient to placate the present occupiers of US-bequeathed positions is yet to be seen. But from Pakistan’s perspective, peace in Afghanistan is imperative. For more than 42 years, turmoil in Afghanistan has cast its dark shadow over Pakistan and indeed Iran. Both countries still host millions of Afghan refugees at huge expense.
The Taliban’s victory will also neutralize Indian mischief-making in Afghanistan and secure some breathing space for Pakistan on its western border. Islamabad, however, cannot sit on its laurels. Peace will not come easily to Afghanistan both because the Afghans themselves are prone to fighting, and external players that lose out will continue to play the spoilers’ game.
External players can be kept at bay if the Afghans agree to accommodate the interests of different tribal and ethnic constituencies. If the Taliban can shun the temptation of winner takes all approach, there may be hope for peace in Afghanistan. The people deserve no less, after 42 years of bloodshed and loss of millions of innocent lives at the hands of successive invaders.
If they can work out a reasonable power-sharing arrangement, that will help them go after the Americans and demand trillions of dollars in war reparations. They should not settle for the nickels and dimes that Khalilzad will offer by way of “aid”. That is a trap they should avoid otherwise the Americans will forever be meddling in their affairs and exploiting them.