Afghanistan Stares at an Uncertain Future
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

The American troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan without an agreed political system in place. After nearly 20 years of a democratic period, Afghanistan is at the risk of losing the gains it made in the last 20 years of a democratic system.

According to the Doha agreement signed between the US and the Taliban on 29th Feb 2020, the US committed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 1 May 2021. The Taliban committed not to allow Al Qaeda to operate from the territory under their control. An intra-Afghan dialogue was also agreed upon. However, the US troop withdrawal by the agreed date did not happen. Instead, President Biden announced a new timetable of withdrawal according to which the US will pull out all its troops by 11 September 2021, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.

To occupy the high moral ground, the Taliban have accused the US of violating the Doha agreement. It is a separate matter that the Taliban have not taken any steps to continue with the dialogue for a political settlement or to reduce violence.

For all practical purposes, the Doha agreement has unravelled. The intra-Afghan dialogue has made no progress. Talban continue to maintain links with the Al Qaeda.

After Biden’s elections, the US Secretary of State came up with a new timetable for troop withdrawal as well as fresh proposals involving a meeting of stakeholders in Turkey and a UN convened conference. The Turkey meeting has not taken place due to the Taliban refusal to attend it. The Taliban strategy seems to be to wait out the US troop withdrawal and step up the pressure on the incumbent government.

The US troop withdrawal has already begun. Biden has committed to put an end to never-ending war and bring home all the troops. The onus is now upon the Afghan factions to work out an arrangement. The US has washed its hands off any deal. In fact, the US has castigated Afghanistan’s neighbours for ‘free riding’ on the US until now. The implication is that Afghanistan’s neighbours should do more to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan.

There is a widespread feeling that the US is abandoning Afghanistan and the Afghans after having been there for 20 years. Going by history, fears are being expressed that Afghanistan may slide into a fresh bout of a bloody civil war. These fears are not altogether misplaced.

Since the beginning of US troop withdrawal, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated rapidly. On May 8, over 80 people, mostly girls, were killed in a blast near a girls’ school in Kabul. The government blamed the Taliban for the blast. The symbolism of the blasts occurring near a girl's school is not lost on anyone. The Taliban are signalling what kind of regime would they usher in if they come to power. Women's education and women rights would be their prime target.

Since 1 May, there is a sharp surge in Taliban militancy. As per the Afghan Ministry of Defence on May 1-2, the Taliban conducted operations in 141 places within 24 hours in Helmand, Paktika, Logar, Takhar, Uruzgan and other provinces of Afghanistan.1 The police chief of Paktika was killed in a blast. The Afghan National Security Forces are being busy repelling the Taliban but also incurring huge losses in life and property.

The Taliban are emboldened that US troops are leaving. They project it as their victory over the US. The Taliban have refused to talk to the government. They have rejected any power-sharing arrangement with the government. Instead, they have emphasized the goal of setting up a sharia based Islamic emirate. This generates apprehensions that the gains of democracy and establishing women rights would be dissipated. Today’s Afghanistan, which has tasted freedoms, democracy and rights, will not accept a sharia based emirate. A contestation between these modern Afghans and the Taliban is almost inevitable. The contention that Taliban have mellowed down in the last 20 years is incorrect.

The Afghans are a divided lot and are unable to put up a united front against the Taliban. So far there is no single unified proposal on which the Afghans can negotiate with the Taliban; President Ghani has his own proposals while the Abdullah Abdullah led High Council for National Reconciliation which is supposed to conduct negotiations with the Taliban has yet to agree on a negotiating proposal.

It may be recalled that in the past, differences among the Afghans Mujahideen led to much bloodshed after the fall of the Najibullah government. The Mujahideen government during 1992-96 period was a divided lot. Kabul was routinely bombed by Hikmatyar supporters. Pakistan-sponsored Taliban were able to overthrow the Mujahideen in 1996 because the latter were not united. When the Taliban came to power, they could not reach a modus vivendi with Ahmad Shah Masood and his supporters. The Taliban were forcibly overthrown with the help of US military intervention in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks. The lack of unity amongst the Afghans is a major stumbling block to the evolution of a negotiated peace deal.

The regional actors are also confused. No regional plan for taking Afghanistan from its current dire situation exists. Most regional players have dallied with the Taliban and overlooked Pakistan’s role in giving sanctuaries to them. None of the regional players has a decisive say in shaping the current situation. The expanded troika meeting of Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US that was held in April has yielded a statement that can hardly put any pressure on the Taliban to reduce violence. The Istanbul meeting between the groups under Turkey’s mediation has not taken place as yet.

The US troop withdrawal will leave Pakistan, which supports the Taliban and provides them sanctuaries, in a precarious situation. While it will have some influence over the Taliban, it will lose its leverage over the US which it has exploited so deftly in the last 20 years. Instability in Afghanistan can lead to refugee inflows into Pakistan. This time around, Pakistan has built a fence along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border but one cannot be too sure whether the fence will be able to stem the refugee inflow once it begins.

Russia has been conducting the so-called Moscow format of discussion and is also a part of the troika and expanded troika formats. None of these has so far produced any tangible result. Russia does not have enough economic clout to provide incentives to one party or the other. But it is soft towards the Taliban and may bank on Pakistan to influence the Taliban for a deal.

China is relatively a new player in Afghanistan. Many people feel that China’s influence and role will grow after the US troop withdrawal. China has the money to build infrastructure in the country and also exploit the mineral resources. It maintains good relations with the Taliban. China’s problem however is that many Uighurs have taken shelter in Afghanistan. It is quite possible that China may reach a deal with the Taliban on the Uighur militants. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out.

Iran has significant influence in western Afghanistan. While it should be happy that the US troops are leaving, at the same time it would be deeply concerned if hardcore Sunni emirate comes to power in Afghanistan. Instability in Afghanistan would be detrimental for Iran too. Iran has not forgotten that the Taliban had killed Iranian diplomats many years ago.

India has major stakes instability in Afghanistan. Over the last 20 years, it has invested nearly US dollars 3 billion in building physical infrastructure and helping Afghans build capacities in many areas. But, India will not be in a position to stem the tide if the security situation deteriorates. It will find it difficult to put boots on the ground. Nevertheless, India would need to coordinate its position with other regional players like Russia and Iran to see how it can bring stability in Afghanistan. The resurrection of the Russia, Iran, India alliance which supported Ahmad Shah Masood is unlikely in the changed scenario. India will have to watch how new configurations take shape in a very strong in the coming months.

The US’s only interest is in ensuring that it is not attacked by terror groups in Afghanistan. That is a limited objective. According to press reports, the US is exploring the possibilities of setting up military bases in Central Asia and Gulf countries.

While the US is promising that it will continue to support the Afghans even after the troop withdrawal, these are only general statements lacking any concrete details. Whether the Afghan government will continue to get substantial economic and security assistance is not clear. It feels that regional countries had had a free ride on the US. Now they should step out and contribute towards peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The American Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has visited Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan recently. The American position is that the troops will withdraw but America will stand with the Afghans. This is an ambiguous position. America is not openly committed to supporting the Ghani government. The Ghani government is on a weak wicket. There are many Afghans who do not support the government.

US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan will change the regional geopolitics. Its interest in Afghanistan will reduce considerably. The US is now involved in a major rivalry and competition with China and Russia. China and Iran have agreed to deepen their strategic partnership. China is using the One Belt One Road initiative to enhance its influence in the region. The US is withdrawing at a time when China is expanding. Regional power balance may change after US troop withdrawal. The US will end up ceding space to China and Russia.

The chances of a negotiated Intra-Afghan settlement are drying out rapidly. Afghanistan may slide into a new round of instability and violence. Afghanistan and the Afghans are staring at an uncertain future. That is a pity. It need not have been that way if the major players had taken on board the interest of the Afghans rather than pushing their narrow agendas.

Endnotes
  1. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/taliban-carries-out-141-attacks-in-last-24-hours-across-afghanistan-says-report-101620046915498.html, accessed on 10.5.2021

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