The certain uncertainty of post-war Afghanistan
As US forces started moving out of the Kandahar air base in preparation for withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, reports emerged that Taliban fighters had laid siege to the headquarters of Kandahar’s Maiwand and Arghastan districts.
Questions were asked if this was going to set a pattern with US-led NATO troops pulling out of Afghanistan after 20 years of the winless war and exposing the Afghan security forces to new and more intense assaults by the emboldened Taliban.
This point was also highlighted by President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who said they didn’t expect US forces to leave so soon and expose the government to Taliban attacks on cities and provincial capitals. There was a sense of helplessness in his remarks unlike the past when he used tough words to warn the Taliban that Afghan forces were ready to defend the government and the country.
President Ghani, though, has consistently argued that government forces have increasingly taken on the burden of fighting the Taliban and more than 20 other militant groups in recent years, and offered immense sacrifices to fight militancy on behalf of the world. Last year, he disclosed that 45,000 Afghan security personnel lost their lives during his first five-year term from 2014-2019. This figure was higher than those previously estimated and showed that the Afghan forces fighting on the frontlines were suffering rising casualties, more so after the withdrawal of the bulk of NATO forces in December 2014. The US military commanders had termed such a high number of casualties unsustainable in the long term.
Though Ghani said recently his government would continue to receive foreign military assistance even after the NATO forces’ withdrawal, the Pentagon has made it clear this will be limited to financial help. A Pentagon spokesman said that henceforth, US forces would not conduct joint military operations with Afghan government forces and stop using its air force in the fighting. It is obvious this will pose a new challenge for Afghan forces as the considerable US air power kept the Taliban at bay and ensured that cities didn’t fall into Taliban hands.
The Afghan army chief General Yasin Zia said while presiding over a ceremony at the Kabul air base where the aircraft and weapons provided by NATO were displayed that the army would be able to fight for long if it continued to receive financial assistance as he claimed it had killed 7,000 Taliban fighters in the last few months.
US officials appear more concerned about Afghanistan again becoming a haven for global militant groups than the fate of the beleaguered Afghan government.
Many Afghans supporting the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the name given to the country after the fall of the Taliban regime that was named Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, have been claiming that their 300,000 plus armed forces and 40,000 commandos would foil any attempt by the estimated 60,000 Taliban fighters to conquer the country. However, others argue that war is fought on the basis of belief and not by force and this is evident from the fact that Taliban now control more than half the country.
A sense of uncertainty is taking hold as the deadline for the withdrawal of NATO forces draws near. Certain US military officials such as the top General Mark Milley may have contributed to the uncertain situation by commenting it wasn’t possible to predict Afghanistan’s fate after their troops’ withdrawal and warning of the “worst-case” scenario outcome of a collapse of the Afghan government.
US officials appear more concerned about Afghanistan again becoming a haven for global militant groups than the fate of the beleaguered Afghan government. They have argued that the US has enough assets in the region to be used even after pulling out of Afghanistan in case a militant threat by Al-Qaeda, Daesh or other global militant groups emerges. President Joe Biden doesn’t want to be found unprepared if Afghanistan with the Taliban in ascendance again poses a threat to the US and its allies.
Adding to the uncertainty is the continued violence across Afghanistan. According to Afghan officials, a huge bomb explosion at a guesthouse on April 30 in the eastern Logar province capital, Pul-e-Alam, killed at least 30 people and caused injuries to 60. The target apparently were pro-government militia members waiting to fly to another district, but among the casualties were high school students staying there to sit their university entrance examination in the nearby capital, Kabul.
As the US didn’t withdraw its forces by May 1 under the terms of the February 2020 Doha peace agreement, Taliban reacted by refusing to attend the 10-day US-proposed, UN-sponsored Istanbul peace conference from April 24. The group warned that violation of the deal by the US had in principle opened the way for its fighters to take any action.
Turkey is now planning to host the event after the Eid-ul-Fitr festival in mid-May, but it can only happen if Taliban agree to participate. A meeting of officials of US, Russia, China and Pakistan with Taliban leaders in Doha on April 30 was meant to persuade the Taliban to attend the conference, but the group is insisting that the US first meet its commitment under the Doha deal to make diplomatic efforts for the release of remaining Taliban prisoners and removal of Taliban leaders’ names from the UN Security Council blacklist.
*Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1