Afghanistan faces its 'new chapter' with trepidation
US President Joe Biden last weekend hosted the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his no. 2 and arch-rival Abdullah Abdullah at the White House. Biden confirmed that US troops would leave Afghanistan, as scheduled, by Sept. 11. He then made the rather innocuous remark that “Afghans are going to have to decide their future,” ignoring the fact that “Afghans” are not a monolithic entity and have to contend with the scourge of the Taliban. NATO, meanwhile, has said a “new chapter” is opening in Afghanistan.
The US agreement with the Taliban, concluded in Doha in February last year, had fixed May 1, 2021 as the date for the final US withdrawal, but Biden put it back by four months. In fact, the pace of departure has been accelerated and could even be completed by early July.
The Taliban is using this period to improve its situation on the ground. Between January and March, civilian casualties rose 29 percent compared to 2020, while in May there were 4,375 terrorism-related deaths, up from 1,645 in April. The Taliban has been remarkably successful against government forces. It has taken 26 military bases, 80 districts (out of 421), and is besieging 12 provincial capitals, including Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Mazar-e-Sharif. There are reports that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within six months of the final departure of foreign troops.
In response to news reports that the US might retain 650 soldiers in Afghanistan to protect its diplomats, a Taliban spokesman aggressively retorted that the group would have the “right to react,” as this would be a violation of the Doha agreement.
Taliban aggressiveness is creating the conditions for a countrywide ethnic conflict. Tajik leaders in Balkh and Herat have garnered considerable influence and wealth and are mobilizing fighters against the Taliban, with the backing of the Uzbeks and the Shiite Hazaras. Afghanistan could thus be looking at a rerun of the nightmare of the early 1990s, when internecine conflict among political leaders and warlords wreaked havoc and paved the way for the Taliban takeover of the country.
Taliban territorial successes had then been limited by the Northern Alliance, which, though Tajik-dominated, included Uzbek, Hazara and even some Pashtun groups. Now, the Taliban has begun an offensive in the north to defeat its principal opponents. It last week took the town of Sherkhan Bandar, an important crossing to Tajikistan, which has traditionally been a major supply route for the northern militia.
Taliban aggressiveness is creating the conditions for a countrywide ethnic conflict.
The US decision to leave Afghanistan has been explained on the grounds that staying would be a “strategic liability and a futile investment,” particularly since America has achieved its basic mission of ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks on it. However, extremist groups flourish amid civil conflict and the attendant state breakdown. Since this will define the Afghan scenario very soon, it would be foolhardy to be complacent about the return of transnational extremist elements.
As the US leaves the Afghan quagmire, regional states will have to bear the consequences of the violence and conflict in the country. Pakistan does not seem particularly well prepared to meet this challenge: The Taliban is no longer a monolithic entity and some sections are perhaps well outside Pakistani influence. And Islamabad would hardly like to see the return of the “emirate” given the pernicious ties it would have with the country’s own extremists, who have done so much damage at home and in the neighborhood.
India, too, is caught in a bind. For two decades, it has backed the Kabul administration and has invested $3 billion in nation-building and welfare projects. Its officials have recently interacted with some Taliban representatives but, given how divided they are, it is difficult to know whether any useful understandings were possible with the group.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has given a new spin to recent events by describing his group as a “nationalist Islamic force” that has sought “the liberation of Afghanistan from foreign occupation.” The Taliban, he said, believes in “peaceful coexistence,” while noting that “none can change one’s neighbors or region.” He also rejected Indian criticisms of the Taliban’s “territorial aggression” and “targeted assassinations” as a “distortion of reality.”
These remarks are an attempt to place the Taliban in the tradition of nationalist, ideology-driven, anti-imperialist liberation struggles that were the norm in most colonized countries in the later part of the last century. However, we cannot help but recall that, while most of these struggles got rid of colonial overlords, very few of them actually became functioning, pluralist democracies. Most were tyrannies, with widespread intercommunal conflict and state-sponsored violence. This is likely to be Afghanistan’s fate at least for the next few years.
This can be avoided. The Indian external affairs minister has noted that “durable peace” in the country requires “double peace” — peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan. To achieve this, India and Pakistan need to cooperate for regional peace. Could this be the alternative “new chapter” for the region?
– Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India.