An end to the bloody civil war in Afghanistan has always been elusive. Fighting continues unabated despite the ongoing peace talks in Doha between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Taliban is bent on negotiating from a position of strength. The US announcement of a pull-back by January 15 next year, the outgoing Trump administration has given the Taliban negotiators the upper hand and left little room for maneuver for President-elect Joe Biden. This was Donald Trump’s election promise to his base that American lives will not be sacrificed for wars abroad and he wants to honour it. What happens in Afghanistan is of little concern.
Acting US defence secretary Christopher Miller, appointed after Mark Esper was sacked by Trump, hinted about imminent troop withdrawals: He wrote on November 13 that “all wars must end” and “it's time to come home,” according to reports in the US press.
For the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, battling with the increasingly violent attacks across the country, including in the capital city, from a variety of fundamentalist groups, including the Daesh, (the local term for the ISIS) and elements of al Qaeda, the endgame appears increasingly difficult. The Afghan security forces worn down by fighting on several fronts are not in a position to battle the united forces of the Taliban-ISIS and perhaps al Qaeda. Many soldiers have been killed and many are deserting. The Afghan forces have relied heavily on US airpower when cornered, but with reduced troops, will there be enough airpower to battle the Taliban? The army will be further weakened when just a small contingent of 2,500 troops remain in Afghanistan.
“Everybody acknowledges the need for US troops to leave Afghanistan eventually. The withdrawal schedule under the US-Taliban deal was already destabilising. All that President Trump’s decision does is to unilaterally hasten it. It will undo all that has been achieved in 19-years in terms of relative stability, freedoms and security, including regional and international terrorism. It will hand over Afghanistan to Pakistan again. Its consequences will be similar, unless Biden changes track. There are no good solutions, but this is the worst,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s former envoy to Kabul.
As Mukhopadhaya points out, America’s retreat means handing over Afghanistan to Pakistan on a platter, unless a power-sharing arrangement is worked out, which seems increasingly unlikely as the Doha talks seems to be one step forward and two steps back. The current impasse is over sensitive procedural issues, including interpretation of Islamic law. Few think that the talks will bear fruit.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was in Qatar last week to give a push to the negotiations. He met both the Afghan government representatives as well as Taliban’s Mullah Beradar in Doha. In similar statements released after the meetings, Cale Brown, the principle deputy spokesperson of the State Department, said: “Secretary Pompeo and the negotiators discussed ways to reduce violence, and he encouraged expedited discussions on a political roadmap and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.” She went on to add, “Secretary Pompeo reiterated that the people of Afghanistan expect and deserve to live in peace and security after 40 years of war and bloodshed.” What was said privately is not known, but the Taliban is unlikely to agree to a ceasefire just yet.
For India, which has had excellent ties with the elected governments in Kabul, whether it was Hamid Karzai in the past and Ashraf Ghani today, instability in Afghanistan with Pakistan calling the shots is cause for concern. Islamabad wants India to roll back its presence in Afghanistan. It has backed the US-sponsored peace talks, in the hope that a settlement will ensure that the Taliban get a major share in the new political set-up. The aim is to get clip India’s wings and roll back its interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan has prepared a dossier, with an eye to the new Biden administration of Delhi’s terror footprints in stirring trouble in Balochistan. The idea is to ensure that India’s consulates in Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif close down. Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Kabul for the first time this month for a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and assured him that Pakistan is working for peace in Afghanistan.
India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, T.S.Tirumurti, raised this point at an UNSC meet recently. “For durable peace in Afghanistan, we have to put an end to terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries operating across the Durand Line,” he said, in an obvious reference to Pakistan. New Delhi has always been against a hasty withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, fearing the revival of terror networks which could target India. The presence of foreign fighters is well known, ``…for violence to end in Afghanistan, these terrorist supply chains must be broken,” Tirumurti said, urging the UN Security Council to speak “unequivocally against violence” and act against terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens. And terror networks from Afghanistan and Pakistan working to destabilise the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, is a major concern.
Even in the best of times, a section in the Kashmir valley have been anti-India, but now since the August 5, 2019, scrapping of the state’s special status and division into two Union Territories, almost the entire population is alienated, considering the lockdown and imprisonments and total ban of internet and mobile facilities. Stirring up trouble and promoting terror attacks would be part of Pakistan’s game plan for Kashmir. The previous Taliban government sheltered Osama bin Laden, and a future Afghan administration dominated by the Taliban will certainly not turn its back on Islamic fighters. These can easily be diverted by the Pakistan military and its spy agency the Inter-Services-Intelligence to Kashmir. So for India, the withdrawal of US troops means opening the gates to infighting and instability in Afghanistan. Terror groups thrive in an unstable environment. The civil war in Iraq and Syria helped the ISIS to grow into one of the most savage and powerful terror organisations. The international community had to work together to weaken ISIS. Left to itself Afghanistan may well revert back to the time of Mullah Omar, when it became the fountainhead of terror. A hasty retreat by US forces in Afghanistan is bad news all around, unless a political settlement is on the cards.
Trump, Obama and Biden are all on the same page on bringing American soldiers back home from a never-ending war where the US and NATO allies are unable to claim a decisive victory. Unless Biden has second thoughts, the withdrawal of the US, will take Afghanistan back to the past.
Biden, however, will be aware of the consequences of a hasty withdrawal. The President-elect has said he is "rightly weary of our longest war" in Afghanistan but added that there was a need to "end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back". That gives some hope that America will not abandon Afghanistan to its fate.
“I don’t think that the world is prepared to leave Afghanistan to the wolves,” said Ashok Behuria, a senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Affairs (IDSA). President-elect Joe Biden is familiar with the problem in Afghanistan. He will also be in touch with the NATO countries and consult with the Europeans. Everyone is now aware of the dangers posed by Islamic jihadis and the terror network that can spawn from Afghanistan. The world today is familiar with terrorism and the danger that poses said Behuria. “There is a feeling of deja vu, but the situation now is not as it was after the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989,” Behuria said. There is a marked difference. Financial support for the elected government would continue. Foreign aid to Afghanistan is around $8.5 billion annually. The funds may come down marginally but will not stop. Private US contractors (a euphemism for mercenaries) are engaged in training the Afghan army, will remain with the Afghan forces, said Behuria. There will also be stiff resistance from women and large sections in Afghanistan who have enjoyed a relatively liberal existence since 2001. They are not prepared to get back to the strict Islamic norms favoured by the Taliban.
What is in store for Afghanistan and the region is difficult to predict? Some like Behuria is hopeful while many believe that the country would slip into chaos. Rakesh Sood, a former ambassador to Kabul, and now with the Observer Research Foundation, rounded up the future succinctly: “Afghan people have suffered hugely on account of being the stage of proxy wars. Proxy piece is unfortunately not likely to improve the situation.”