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Panic in Kabul as Taliban advance continues

As violence escalates and the withdrawal of forces deadline approaches, there is 'alarm' in Pakistan because the prophets of doom fear a catastrophe in the wake of the 'vacuum' that will be created.

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As violence escalates and the withdrawal of forces deadline approaches, there is ‘alarm’ in Pakistan because the prophets of doom fear a catastrophe in the wake of the ‘vacuum’ that will be created. However, regional countries all have much invested in Afghanistan’s future, it is time that the objective truth should dictate policies rather than emotions. For all stakeholders, the time has come to embrace the realities on the ground

Would there be a rethink on withdrawal if more areas fall to the Taliban?

Ground realities are taking hold and rhetoric, emotions, and invalid assumptions are taking a backstage. Soon perhaps, the many fears and the misperceptions would also become mere fantasies as the situation on the ground undergoes an unprecedented change.

It is not surprising given the fact that many forces, both inside and outside Afghanistan, have their own deep-seated convictions based on an accurate or incorrect assessment of the rapidly changing scenario emerging in the war-torn country.

As violence escalates and the withdrawal of forces deadline approaches, there is ‘alarm’ in Pakistan because the prophets of doom fear a catastrophe in the wake of the ‘vacuum’ that will be created.

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In order not to be bracketed with the Taliban designs, Pakistani policymakers are now openly asserting they would not accept any occupation of the country by means of force; this is intended to placate the West, particularly the US. But what this stance would lead up to is more isolation because the Taliban would see this as another manifestation of Pakistan’s duplicity or hypocrisy.

At the same time, the West would not be convinced of the genuineness of a ‘change of heart’: leaving Pakistan a loser on both counts. In this backdrop of lack of clarity about goals and strategies, many question the whole scheme of the withdrawal of forces.

A tactical retreat?

Some indeed are calling it a ‘hasty withdrawal’ hurried after 20 years of an unnecessary conflict! Who called it unnecessary? The top US adviser to President Bush and President Obama. Gen Douglas Lute, a three-star General.

In the leaked papers on Afghanistan, he calls the Afghan war wholly unnecessary. He wonders ‘what we [the Americans] are trying to achieve in Afghanistan.’ He states, ‘we have not been able to understand the rationale for this war.’

But as one historian candidly remarked —“the US will do the right thing only after exhausting all other [wrong] options and also pay the price; more than $1.5 trillion so far, with thousands having perished and tens of thousands having been wounded. More than 315 US soldiers after their return to the US from the Afghan war have committed suicides.” These numbers may be underestimated.

Read more: The Afghan peace process: Hoping against hope!

All this to achieve what? Lessons of history are so easily forgotten. Not very long ago, the US plunged itself into a war in Vietnam to save South Vietnam from being overrun by the communist regime in the north.

In the madness that followed, 58,000 US soldiers were killed, many others wounded. And South Vietnam went the way it was destined to go. And look at the irony. Today a united, Communist Vietnam is an ally of the US against what Washington calls an expansionist China.

Coming back to Afghanistan, it is feared that there would inevitably be a civil war after the exit of foreign forces. Is it just and rational to block the pull-out of foreign troops to prevent the country from descending into factional fighting? Is the continuance of the status quo a more favorable option? What has the status quo delivered? More than 100,000 people have lost their lives, millions displaced, hundreds of thousands have left the country, facing an uncertain future in such lands as Syria, Turkey, Europe (East and West), Australia, and parts of Central Asia.

Opium production has gone up to 7500 tons from just 50 tons in 2001 when the US occupation began. Tens of thousands of Afghans have become drug addicts. Unemployment is high; more than 55 percent. The government controls just half the territory, while the other half is either administered by the Taliban or is hotly contested.

Taliban have their own system of administering the areas where they collect taxes, adjudicate upon disputes, and help run institutions like schools, dispensaries, etc. The three hundred thousand strong Afghan National Army is losing about 9 percent of its personnel annually by desertions. Any spike in defections could be costly for the armed forces and would entail awful consequences.

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What has been this whole ‘resistance ‘about? The Taliban initially rose to fight the invading forces. The expulsion of foreign forces has been their consistent demand and objective. Now, after 20 years, the Americans realize the futility of their adventure, they have decided to end their involvement; this is called hasty withdrawal!

New threats on the horizon

The grim picture of chaos, fighting, civilian casualties, economy taking a nosedive is not the only outcome of 20 years of occupation. There is the menace of Daesh, Fidayee Mahaz, and others—brutal outfits that target innocent civilians across the country — another gift of the US-sponsored systems. And the Pakistani ministers call for a ‘responsible’ withdrawal.

Suppose by such expression they mean a peaceful transition that delivers power to a regime acceptable to the people and brings lasting peace. In that case, they are ignorant of the ground realities and the conflict’s dynamics.

In 2001 when the US occupied the country, Islamabad lent full support to the new dispensation. But now, if the Taliban gain control, that is not acceptable! How could Pakistan claim to generate goodwill in a country that has long accused Islamabad of seeking to promote ‘favourites’ to influence policy in Kabul? Pakistan does not seem to have learned any lessons.

Letting go and accepting change

If a transition is brought about by a ‘Loya jirga’ or Grand Assembly for a fixed term that will meet the criteria of justice and equity, that should not cause alarm. The Grand jirga would decide upon the tenure of the transitional government and allow such amendments to be made in the Constitution as appear to be necessary.

The only real obstacle to such a transition would come from the current rulers in Kabul. The rulers have survived on the back of strong US financial support. They are a product of the status quo that is premised on receipt of external military and economic support. They would desperately hang on to power as long as they can manage.

Read more: The Grand Assembly and release of Taliban prisoners

That is for the US to manage – how to bring pressure to bear upon the Kabul Government to agree to be sidelined by a transitional Government brought about by a ‘Grand Assembly.’

If the idea of a transitional Government does not find support from the Afghan government, the stage would be set for a confrontation between the Taliban and the Afghan national army. Inevitably such a fight would result in lots of fatalities on both sides besides the civilian losses. It is for all stakeholders to consider avoiding a bloodbath between the two warring entities if a compromise is not reached.

Regional favorites

The writing is on the wall. Taliban victories in the last two months have shown how the power struggle is taking shape. Taliban are in a mood of defiance after successes in the field and diplomacy. Countries such as China, Russia, and Iran have established ties with the group.

All the three regional countries believe Daesh is a threat to their borders and firmly believe only a Taliban-led Government can defeat and eliminate the brutal outfit. This has added to the group’s hopes and spirits. The Chinese also believe only a strong Government that has the support of the masses can help achieve the goals of their flagship project –one belt, one road.

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Beijing has made considerable investments in minerals in Afghanistan—in copper mines in Logar province and oil and gas in the country’s north. They have a stake in peace in the country, which worries the US because Washington finds it difficult to accept China’s dominant role in Afghanistan after investing so much in the country.

But China’s role in the region is a bitter pill that Washington will have to swallow. US investment in blood and treasure is a reality, but what does the US leave behind after 20 years of war? A broken country, record unemployment, despondency, death, and destruction. What a legacy?

Salvation

The only prudent and farsighted approach that can help salvage, to an extent, the credibility of the US would be to work vigorously towards the goal of creating conditions for a transitional government. One that is led by the Taliban, which includes other factions, and one that is brought about by the time-honored mechanism of the Loya Jirga or Grand Assembly.

The Taliban-led government would make every endeavor to maintain good relations with the US just as it would keep warm relations with Russia-another significant power that brought so much misery and suffering to the people of Afghanistan by its invasion of 1979.

Iran has a stake because it has a border with Afghanistan and would not be happy if Afghanistan’s western border is destabilized or if militants use Afghan territory and launch attacks. The Central Asian countries, too, would like to see a government in Kabul that delivers peace and can prevent incursions by militants into their territory.

Read more: Biden’s impending challenges in Afghanistan

India, too would like to see normalcy return to Afghanistan. It has made an investment worth more than $ 3billion in Afghanistan in many sectors. India also wants to use Afghan territory for importing hydrocarbon resources from the oil-rich Central Asian states.

The Chabahar port has been developed for this purpose. Talks about India being a spoiler do not conform to the ground realities. The objective truth should dictate policies rather than emotions. For all stakeholders, the time has come to embrace the realities on the ground.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a senior Pakistani diplomat, political scientist and politician. He has served as Chief Secretary NWFP, Interior Secretary of Pakistan, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Commissioner for Afghan Refugees. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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