After years of war, the Afghan situation seems poised towards a trajectory to uncomfortable peace. The situation is tense and uncomfortable as the system does not yet have a strong memory of the imprint that has been concluded with so many transitional and tactical conditionalities.
The timing, strategies and tactics must take in to account the brewing domestic turmoil which is bent on perpetuating the dictum of ‘winner takes all’.
The spirit of cooperation, understanding of a positive-sum game and ability to establish norms of conduct remains as elusive as ever.
Under these circumstances, Afghanistan appears to be predictably drifting towards the chaos and perpetual conflict that it has known and learned to embrace as it’s very inherent touchstone to retaining and assuming power in Kabul.
The negotiated withdrawal of US forces under these conditions appears to be more of a tactical concession than a real strategy. The article will analyze the various material forces at play and seek to uncover the tenants of strategy that could if ever lend stability if not peace to Afghanistan.
The peace agreement signed between the US and Taliban broadly addresses four main issues: ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign troops, intra-Afghan negotiations, and counter-terrorism assurances. A cursory examination of the agreement reveals that the pledges are sketchy, and fail to instill the desired confidence.
The US departure from Afghanistan without being made conditional is reliant on the counter-terrorism assurances made by the Taliban as well as the settlement of power-sharing arrangements through intra-Afghan dialogue.
Even though the deal clearly favors Afghanistan as the Islamic Republic, and explicitly negates corollaries that would cast Taliban as the Islamic Emirate, it does not proffer any vision related to the kind of political arrangements that could satisfy both Taliban and Kabul.
Any such failure to bridge the intra- Afghan divide before the US departure will be catastrophic for the Kabul administration, as it will fail to cease the insurgents’ onslaught, and imperil the Republic’s future.
Paradoxically, the deal may end up abetting the establishment of Emirate that it sought to negate in the first place.
Keeping in view the agreement, this could have unintended consequences inside the country. The threat to it may come from ISIS or some Taliban hardliners who strongly oppose ‘negotiating with the enemy’.
According to the US Defense Department, this will require a robust counterterrorism strategy to avoid any Taliban factions drifting off from the agreement.
US believes that AFGHANS will be put in a much Afghanistan government will be in a stronger position to tackle ISIS once Taliban are put into the counter terrorism equation.
There is a strong belief that Islamic State fighters could siphon off some hardline Taliban fighters who oppose the agreement. As for Al Qaeda, the UN report of January 2020 states that the relations between Taliban and Al Qaeda will continue to be amicable “with Al Qaeda supplying resources and training” in exchange for protection.
The single most important goal of the 20 year US effort in Afghanistan was to deny safe haven to Al Qaeda and this appears unlikely to be achieved as there seems to be a lack of any monitoring system to oversee Taliban’s compliance to any of its demands including the Al Qaeda factor.
There is strong possibility that Taliban and remnants of Al Qaeda might engage against ISIS in this scenario.
The divided Afghan society faces challenges in agreeing to a power sharing and distribution formula. The Intra-Afghan dialogue that was to start by 10th March, 2020, has already been
postponed amid the ongoing election dispute between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. History tells us that both Taliban and the Kabul government are power seekers and it seems nearly impossible for either of them to step back from their stance for mutual compromise.
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The refusal of Kabul government to soften its terms over prisoner release and the persistent attacks by Taliban on the coalition government even after signing the Peace Deal, comprehensibly shows that the path towards Afghan peace settlement will be very difficult and challenging.
If the negotiations start, it is very much clear that the totally different belief systems of the Emirates of Afghanistan and the Kabul government would be a serious hurdle for both parties to agree on a single agenda. But in order to put an end to this decades-long war and to avoid a more chaotic situation in near future, both parties need to start the negotiations as early as possible.
Moreover, they should identify certain common interests on the basis of which they can lay the foundations of a peace process in Afghanistan.
According to Andrew Watkins, an Afghanistan expert at the International Crisis Group, the situation regarding the prisoner swap has the ‘potential to bloom into a real obstacle before intra- Afghan talks even get off the ground’.
The latest development reflects the approval of release of 1500 Taliban prisoners in order to secure the peace deal, while Taliban, on the other hand, have agreed to hand over 1,000 government troops. The factor of the prisoner’s swap presents itself as the first gap in the historical Afghan Peace Deal.
In the latest development, compliance has been declared conditional in establishing the overall structure of the deal. This process estimates some pros and cons in the near and far future. The optimistic aspect in the first place is the security of the deal in itself.
This security of the deal can set up a ground for intra-Afghan dialogue and in the long-term, it might result in a power-sharing mechanism for both protagonists of the conflict.
However, the negative inference cannot be ignored as well. The domestic government’s power vacuum in Afghanistan might give a fair chance to the shift in the Balance of Power in favor of Taliban.
As Taliban have already produced the list of particular prisoners to be released. It provides the possibility of releasing the combatants into the battle field before any progress regarding peace has been achieved.
The released prisoners in the near and far future might run into another insurgent group and the danger of it cannot be thus looked out.
Another possibility might be the building of resilience of Taliban with the help of released prisoners given the volatile situation and power vacuum in Afghanistan. Both negative and positive prospects are available but US and Afghanistan government should be more careful about the deal and given threats.
As the US plans its withdrawal from Afghanistan, regional players are looking at the end of the decades-long war through a different lens. Pakistan has been lauded for playing an instrumental role in bringing Taliban to the negotiating table. Stability in Afghanistan has been long-awaited by Pakistan, therefore peace in Kabul will only better the security situation in Pakistan.
A political dispensation that looks more inclined towards Islamabad will prove to be more favorable. However, the absence of US presence may also result in the re-emergence of militancy particularly with reference to the TTP and that too in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This might be a source of concern for the state of Pakistan.
The departure of a strategic partner from the region is troublesome for India, especially when China’s on the rise with BRI. India will not be able to fill in the power vacuum left behind after the US withdrawal. It is also important to mention that although India does not have a great relationship with the Taliban, it has considerable influence on the Afghan government.
It has invested a few billion dollars in the country, besides Afghanistan plays an important role in India’s ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’.
Hence, India aspires for an Afghan government that is not pro-Pakistan and does not let its soil be used as a safe haven for anti-India militants. China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor and its relationship is purely based on economic gains. A stable country will only help the Chinese in furthering their ‘BRI’ ambitions and in turn tapping in to the country’s natural resources.
The deal may be a great achievement for the Iranians as it pushes out the Americans from at least one of its neighbors and therefore gives it a chance to exercise greater control.
Noah course-plotting his ark from the whirlwind seems easy when it is put in comparison with Afghanistan’s lost voyage of governance.
With 34 administrative unit, administration is nowhere to be seen. Like every other Afghani President since 2001 was illness ridden; Karzai with his manic depressive disorder and Ghani a cancer survivor. This illness has moved beyond their individuality to the country’s political structure. After opium and guns, corruption and bribery has become a norm in Afghan culture.
Upon coming into power, whosoever besieges Kabul turns country to a totalitarian regime. Currently, despite the achievement of the so-called National Unity government, one can hardly see any harmony among the structures for governance.
Every time during the election campaign, the people of Afghanistan are lured with reforms and anti-corruption mandate yet they prove to be false upon office assuming by the elected. Adding more irony to this saga is the Taliban who control around 70% of the Afghan land. This group considers the central government as obsolete and has now mended their ties with Uncle Sam.
Moreover, a major impediment in steering the afghan land is a lack of political consensus which has hardly ever been built in the recent past. Karzai, while in office, dispensed provincial governorships to his political supporters on a routine basis. His paternal half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the then governor of Kandahar province, had also been part of the game when he used to fill his pockets with the opium trade.
Over the past few years, corruption seemed a part and parcel of Afghani governance due to which Washington pulled out the aid of $100 million intended for Afghan energy infrastructure projects back in Sep 2019. Moreover, Gen. Habibullah Ahmadzai, a former senior adviser to President Ghani also leveled allegations of widespread corruption including sexual favors for government posts.
With the recent developments, including the emergence of the two presidents simultaneously, it would be satirical to talk about political consensus. Whatever is the case the seed was sowed by Langley and now it is having a taste of their own medicine when it comes to Afghan governance.
Afghanistan is an equation that involves the interplay of various material and non-material factors. According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of January 31 in 2018, 229 districts were under the Afghan government’s control, which is about
56.3 percent of the total Afghan districts. On the other hand, 59 districts, approximately 14.5 percent of all, were under the Taliban control.
The remaining 119 districts, about 29.2 percent, remained contested – controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the rebels. The security section of SIGAR-46 begins with an instructive admission from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, in which he admits the Afghan War is “still” in “a state of strategic stalemate.”
2019 was the deadliest year with 23 American Service members killed, which is the highest since 2014 with violence spreading in to the Non-Pashto North and regions bordering the capital with an increase of 38% in 13 out of 34 districts.
Similarly, the report accepts that the Afghan Security Forces are working at 77.5% of authorized capacity. Furthermore, the forces trained to the tune of $70 billion were suffering unsustainable casualties and the defense requirement of $5 billion against a revenue of $2 billion was insufficient to pay for Afghanistan’s security. According to Lt. General Doug.
Lute, former deputy national security adviser, “An uncoordinated U.S. withdrawal in the absence of the kind of political and diplomatic progress will likely lead to civil war, the collapse of the Afghan state, and irresistible opening for transnational terrorists to widen their reach. ”
An analysis of the vulnerabilities of the Afghan government, when compared to the capacity of Taliban, reveal that it is not a far fetched idea that Taliban are concentrating their action towards weakening the regime in Kabul through calculated and sustained blows. The Taliban have time on their side and they thrive in chaos rather than being threatened by it.
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Therefore, emergence of widespread chaos is the ideal scenario that Taliban can aim for. This will allow them to rebuild from ground up as has been in the establishment of a transnational state by ISIS in 2017.
The rational strategy for Taliban at this time appears is to weaken the current regime and they will continue to consolidate their power at the cost of the Afghan regime.
This article was written by several Mphil students of Department of Defence & Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University.