There have been so many articles on Afghanistan lately that one more in the pack might be difficult to digest for avid Afghanistan watchers. Yet, there may be few who would wonder what is happening in Afghanistan? This article looks at the uncertainties that bound Afghanistan in the face of the US withdrawal. This is a more simple attempt to explain the problem at hand. I hope you find it informative.
Afghanistan Imbroglio: A Bundle of Uncertainties
No one is certain what is happening in Afghanistan. Recently a spate of articles has appeared in electronic press, print media and social media. Each article outlines the point of view of the writer or the group that the author represents. There is no certainty to the finality of the Afghan future in any of the articles mentioned. There are good reasons. There are too many imponderables. The burden of history is the biggest of them all. There are claims and counterclaims. The Afghan government is the least trusted source, followed by the Taliban. The US has decided not to give away too much less; it spoils its chances of getting out. Pakistan's real broker in the game is also lost, not knowing if the Taliban are playing them. This article looks at Afghanistan through a prism of certainties and uncertainties.
What is certain?
As I have stated above, nothing is certain. But let us looks at what is relatively certain?
The US has announced that come 11 September '21, its forces will leave Afghanistan. It seems a certainty as the time is closing up on the US, and they have vacated assets and bases in Afghanistan as per their stated time plan. It would now be suicidal for them to go back on their word. They would lose both credibility and men. It would be difficult for them to establish a status quo ante in Afghanistan.
The next certainty is Taliban will stake a claim to rule Afghanistan. I have deliberately stated the word 'claim' because once the US forces vacate, the tussle for power between the Government forces and the Taliban would ensue. The talks in Doha, which are in progress between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban leadership for reaching a power-sharing agreement, seem to be getting nowhere. Increasingly it appears that no deal is likely to be reached before 11 September 21. Thus, a power struggle is a near certainty.
China is the new player in the game. · Irrespective of what would be the nature of the role played. The China Afghanistan dynamics would shape many geopolitical realities for the region, especially the Uyghur province, and that would be part of the uncertainty that I will cover later.
Is Pakistan losing its hold over the Taliban? ·Pakistan would continue to promote its role as the broker in Afghanistan irrespective of its effectiveness. A mute question which we will try and answer in the uncertainties part.
Irrespective of who controls Afghanistan, the ordinary people of Afghanistan would continue to suffer the maximum.
Even without listing the uncertainties, it would be evident to any reader that it's a struggle to think of certainties in Afghanistan. It would be 20 years since the US got into Afghanistan to fight the battle for 9/11. After 20 years, the US returns with no promises fulfilled and none of its missions accomplished. Neither it has been able to rid Afghanistan of its militant elements, neither has it left Afghanistan in a capable government's hands. It leaves with a bundle of uncertainties. Let's look at the uncertainties which stranglehold Afghanistan.
What are the Uncertainties?
· Who will rule Afghanistan in the future? The most significant uncertainty of all. The US negotiated with the Taliban without either the participation of the current government or their concurrence, which have made their choice very clear. Yet, the US hopes for an amicable solution between the two parties. If this question is not solved, it will lead to an inevitable civil war in Afghanistan between government forces and others. The others include the Taliban and many groups such as the ISKP (Islamic State Khosran Province), Al Queda, vying for the power pie. The government forces are almost 70,000 strong with tanks, artillery and Air Force. The air assets are limited, but they do add to the fighting capability of the government forces. In comparison, the Talibs and allied forces could muster around 30,000 fighters. But the uncertainty is the will of the government to confront the Taliban. It has shown a weak resolve till now. How would its writ run if the Taliban controls the entry and exit into Afghanistan and the immense countryside? Given their current stance, the government seems content defending its bastion in and around Kabul, major cities and provincial centres. Taliban has claimed it holds 85% of the districts in Afghanistan. While these claims may be exaggerated yet no one can deny they have made substantial gains. It would be safe to assume that out of 421 districts (including 34 provincial centres), it controls one-third of the districts. The government controls around 80 districts in the central part of Afghanistan, and in the balance, fighting continues for supremacy. Bounded by this reality, the rule of the government would seem short-lived. Some speculations suggest that the government would not last six months after the withdrawal. The imponderables are too many to put any timetable.
· Given a situation that the Taliban do come to power, would it be the same old Taliban1.0 that ruled in the 1990s with its draconian laws, or would they have learned from their mistakes? It is an immense uncertainty. Even the US-led mediators led by Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan, cannot put their finger on it. While they have promised to rule like a responsible government, yet no one trusts them. Taliban is not a homogenous entity; it is a group of people who belong to varying war tribes of Afghanistan who came under the banner of the Taliban to get rid of the then corrupt dispensation of Afghanistan. Since then, they have aligned themselves to many sides and many causes. Nothing unites the Taliban like fighting a war, and nothing divides them into being in power. There are two distinct groups, one who believes in changing the old ways and follow a modern approach to their rule. Yet there is the second group backed by most of their rank and file who believe that they have achieved victory after so much jihad and struggle; thus, they must impose the strict sharia rule existing in the time of Taliban 1.0.
· What would be the role of the US hereafter? To what extent would they get involved in the fighting that broke out in Kabul? If the battle comes at the doorsteps of Kabul. Would the US be willing to help the cause of the Afghan government? Or will they allow destiny and might decide the future of the country. It appears so, going by the statements given by President Biden in a recent press conference; he has stated that he is not inclined to sacrifice any more US lives or shed blood on Afghan soil. But the most significant US concern is the use of Afghan soil by other terrorist groups for targeting US interest at home and abroad. The Doha agreement provides a written guarantee by the Taliban, but could they be trusted once they are in power? If a situation arises which fulfil these criteria, how will the US act? How? is a question mark. Come 11Sep 2021, the last of the US troops would be leaving Afghanistan, leaving a token presence for the security of the US Embassy. The NATO contingents who are currently in Afghanistan would also go in a similar timeframe.
· The role of Pakistan: How far will Pakistan dictate the happenings in Afghanistan? The uncertainty stems from the shaky ground ISI finds itself in the current days. Pakistan has become a hated entity amongst the Afghani people. Some trickle effect has found its way in the Taliban rank file too. Pakistan has given sanctuary to Talib leaders, provided medical facilities, and kept them safe from drone attacks by the US. But there is a growing crop of Talib fighters joining from the north of the country who hate Pakistan. This new crop reduces its hold on the Taliban cadre. Taliban is not the best disciplined and united force. Such dissensions would eat into the leadership's ability to further Pakistan's interests and role. Pakistan is also struggling to rein in the Tehrike Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the bad Taliban as they call them. Reports believe the TTP is in no mood to reconcile its differences with the Pakistani Army and Government. In the absence of any agreement with TTP, Pakistan loses its freedom to act within Afghanistan, at least in the southern provinces. Pakistan is heading for the worst times on its western border in the coming days. The famous statement by a previous US Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton: You can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbour, has come to haunt them.
· The role of China is uncertain. There is a level of quiet smoothness which exist between the Taliban and China in the intervening period. It is suggestive of a tacit understanding the Chinese have reached with the Talib leaders. China has shown no inclination to replace the US in Afghanistan. For China guarding its interests in the CPEC and the Uyghur region is of paramount importance. It is believed that the Taliban has given assurance to China not to meddle in the Uyghur problem. In exchange, it might have solicited China s help for financial and political support. This quid pro quo is a very likely scenario. The uncertainty lies in how the Talib fighters will respect not helping their brethren in Xinxiang. There are reports that the Uyghurs are fighting alongside the Taliban. The lack of discipline in the cadres and their heterogeneous composition of the Taliban is a self-defeating factor in the deal. The CPEC corridor does come close to the Afghan border in the Baluchistan Province, where both the TTP and the Baloch separatist groups are active. China's most significant concern is the safety of the project in these sensitive areas. The TTP is aligned to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but ever since the US troops have started their withdrawal, the TTP have increased their attacks inside Pakistan. The Chinese feel threatened, and that is the quid pro quo they are hoping for. China has enormous interests in Afghanistan. Primary: extending the BRI to central Asian Republics through Afghanistan, tap the abundant mineral resources in Afghanistan and fill the power vacuum created by the absence of the US. China has already signed to deal for mining rights and exploration rights in Mes Aynak for 30 years for 4.4 billion US dollars. China would be hoping that the Taliban holds its part of the bargain if and when they come in power.
· Most uncertain are India's interests in Afghanistan. Having invested more than 3 billion US dollars in infrastructure and developmental projects, the Taliban threatens all of it if they come to power. The Taliban are ideological opposites of the Indians. The 1.0 version of the Taliban rule had seen the Bamiyan buddha statues being blown off with artillery guns because they were statues and against the Islamic culture. To add to it is the Pakistani pressure of opposing all Indian interests in Afghanistan. The ray of hope for the Indian government seems the Taliban promise of allowing countries to do business under the new dispensation. Neither is India in the same economic state as it was in the 90s, nor is Pakistan able to call the shots. Taliban may understand this reality and allow a fair share in Afghan commerce.
· Last and not least is the name of Afghanistan. The government and the Taliban are stuck on which name Afghanistan should retain: The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The first being the current official name of Afghanistan maintained by the Ashraf Ghani government. But the Taliban are adamant about replacing the word Republic by Emirate in line with Sharia thought process.
The uncertainties are more significant, and they would be instrumental in defining the horoscope of Afghanistan post the American withdrawal. As has happened many times before, the cycle of violence, change and uncertainty continue. The Afghans, it appears, have been cursed, as history seems to repeat itself. They hardly have known periods of prosperity and peace. The tribal culture and their leaders are the main reason for their fluctuating fortunes. This time it will be no different. The outside powers will not allow the Afghan people to resolve their differences by interfering in their matters for selfish reasons. Few of their leaders would sell out the interests of their country, leaving the ordinary person wondering if Afghanistan is the worst place to live under the sun. There has been large scale migration ever since the Taliban has started asserting itself. Those who have any means of getting out are taking the first bus or flight out. In an uncertain future where Sharia and mullah will be the last word, very few are willing to stay with their families. Women may once again be desecrated to remain in homes serving the men, and girls would lose all hopes of education. It is a scenario that looms large on the horizon for Afghanistan. But before that, there may be a bitter fight for supremacy. Among the many uncertainties in Afghanistan, if there is one certainty going into the future, it is: No matter who comes to power, Afghanistan will slip back in time