134 days and uncertain Afghanistan
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called the war in Afghanistan ‘the bleeding wound’ when he announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Three decades later, US president Joe Biden said Afghanistan was America’s ‘forever war’ when announcing US troops’ complete withdrawal on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
For many Afghans worried about the consequences of a peace agreement with the Taliban, including possible civil war, the inflicted wounds are still bleeding and their country remains a war-zone.
“[It’s] ending the ‘forever war’ for American troops,” says Shaharzad Akbar, the Chairperson of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission.
“Also, maybe, one lesson for the international community: when you start and ‘end’ wars in other countries, maybe have the humility to acknowledge the harm and cost to that nation and the collective failure to prevent it and end the suffering,” says Ms Shaharzad.
America’s exit from Afghanistan without a political settlement between the current Kabul administration and the Taliban has created shockwaves. Between 2,500 to 3,500 troops alongside about 7,000 NATO forces and reportedly 16,000 contractors will withdraw on the same timetable.
US President Biden declared the threat from Afghanistan had ‘metastasised’ into a global phenomenon, to be fought with technology and not with troops on ground in any single country. According to him, the US must be freed to fight more sophisticated challenges including competition from Russia and China.
Meanwhile, after tens of thousands of deaths, millions displaced as refugees, and billions spent on war and reconstruction, peace is still not in sight.
The difference between the Taliban warriors and its political arm is also generational. For the young fighters there are no pre-war memories, war is the norm, the Afghan National Army their bitter enemies, and coexistence with them inconceivable.
The Taliban control more than half of Afghanistan. But the Taliban’s Doha-based political leadership realizes they cannot revert to templates of the past and impose the strict codes and absolute power they had prior to the US invasion.
The difference between the Taliban warriors and its political arm is also generational. For the young fighters there are no pre-war memories, war is the norm, the Afghan National Army their bitter enemies, and coexistence with them inconceivable. Taliban Shoura members and political representatives know the fighting force is their strength and cannot afford any friction with them, hence their caution in tabling demands for future government.
The search for an equilibrium is further complicated by the ethnic question. The Taliban maintain a Pashtun nationalist ethnic identity in a country embroiled in historic sectarian and ethnic rivalries among powerful warlords. Territorial hold, therefore, remains critical for them, and would initially demand power to govern their areas without favoring elections. The Taliban have developed an understanding with the veteran commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-led Hizb e Islami, also Pashtun, and who have a strong political structure the Taliban lack.
A repeat of the past is unlikely. The country will not collapse into conflict like after the Soviet troop withdrawal because this time, regional powers are invested in the peace process and regional stakes are high.
China has plans to invest in Afghanistan and Iran, in addition to the multi-billion dollar projects it has established in Pakistan.
China also doesn’t want Chinese Muslim Uighur militants to have regional causes to connect with and create unrest in Xinjiang province.
Iran has recently established good ties with the Taliban, and wouldn’t want the emergence of any ungovernable battlefields in the region where Daesh can regroup and reorganize.
Russia meanwhile is attempting to regain geostrategic interests in the region and counter US influence with its own.
CENTCOM chief Gen. McKenzie in his recent briefing said Pakistan would be the most impacted by the US and NATO withdrawal because of possible refugee flows and the possibility of new terror attacks.
Pakistan played a critical role in the peace agreement, and has hopefully learnt from the flawed policies of the past.
However, it cannot afford to alienate the Taliban entirely, since they control a majority of the bordering towns and cities. Pakistan has served as shelter for the Taliban’s families living mostly in Pashtun dominated areas in Balochistan province along the border.
Ryan Crocker, who was Washington’s envoy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, wrote on Pakistan-Taliban cooperation. Attributing senior Pakistani officials, he narrates what he was told during his tenure as the US ambassador in Pakistan.
“If you think we are going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy, you are completely crazy. Because at some point you will leave and the Taliban will still be here.”
The US is pursuing regional powers China and Russia, and especially Pakistan, to use its influence to get the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government for a political settlement formula. Biden has gambled with his Afghanistan exit policy. He may win hearts domestically by bringing back US troops and ending the longest war America has ever fought. But it risks his plans to realign Washington’s foreign policies.
All eyes are set on the next 134 days. Will peace return to Afghanistan or will the war torn country enter another round of conflict?
For Afghans, the war didn’t begin on 9/11 and neither will it end on 9/11. That symbolism is an American conceit.
Meanwhile, the Taliban say time is on their side.
“When Americans hounded us, the days belonged to them and nights belonged to us. Now the days and nights both belong to us,” says a senior Taliban leader.
*Owais Tohid is a leading Pakistani journalist/writer. His email address is [email protected] He tweets @OwaisTohid.