K N Pandita
The Istanbul Summit called under the aegis of the United Nations for 24 April to carry forward the peace process in war-torn Afghanistan was postponed. The Taliban had declined to participate unless the foreign forces completely left Afghanistan.
The Doha agreement between the Americans and the Taliban provided no guarantee of peace in a scenario of inter – Afghan conflict. Hardly a day after that agreement, the Taliban attacked the Afghan State forces in Kunduz inflicting many casualties on them. Encouraged by the success of this assault and no retaliation worth the name by the NATO forces, the Taliban said they were at war with the State forces resisting the advent of Taliban power.
President Biden made up his mind to begin the withdrawal of American troops on May 1 and make the pullout complete by 11 September the day of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Secretary of State Mr Bilken argued that the decision of American withdrawal was a considered one and the Taliban, once sharing the state power, are bound to behave normally. Some observers call this line of thinking simplistic and one-dimensional.
Biden’s announcement raised many eyebrows among the hawkish political circles as the question began to be asked repeatedly how come to the US after remaining in Afghanistan so long and spending trillions of dollars besides manpower, had agreed to vacate the fighting ground without a clear pledge by the adversary that it will not cause severe disaster to the nation. Reservation is expressed even by some lawmakers in the US Congress who call it an unwise decision. But Biden does not want his troops and the NATO troops to stay on and fight an endless battle.
Negotiations between the rival Afghan groups, meaning the Afghan State forces and the Taliban, have not yielded any encouraging result. The latter being in control of almost three-fourth of the Afghan territory, would like to dictate terms from a position of power. They do not recognize the government of Ashraf Ghani as legitimate and confidence deficit is a major hurdle in bringing negotiations to some workable conclusion. Military and moral support, which President Ghani might be expecting from withdrawing Americans and their NATO allies, cannot be a guarantee of a victory over the Taliban who are wielding the most modern and lethal weapons.
Ashraf Ghani is a popularly elected head of the State but the Afghan nation is at a loss to decide what their destiny should be. There is not one but so many factors interacting in their decision and behaviour. The fear of Taliban gun and brutal treatment is perhaps the most dreaded factor in their calculation.
No Afghan, true to national interests, likes even a single foreign soldier to be on its land even for a day. This has been their tradition ever since the dawn of their history. It was only during the Mujahedeen struggle against the Soviets that the element of religion was abruptly and extensively inducted into the Afghan social structure. Before that, the Afghans had always fought based on ethnicity and nationalism. This, however, does not mean that they did not love the faith they belonged to. The Americans did the greatest disservice to the Afghans by suppressing their ethnic and cultural specialism and lured them to fight as theists against an atheist invader.
What are the apprehensions of the critics? First, they argue that it means to surrender to a group that is upholding religious extremism as the state policy. Secondly, the Taliban will throw out the parliamentary type of democracy as provided by the existing constitution. They will introduce sharia law meaning the puritanical Islamic law as brought by the holy book and the worthy theologians in due course of time. Thirdly, the Taliban will join hands with Al Qaeda remnants and, besides that, they are already in close liaison with the pro-Pak Haqqani group which will call the shots. The Haqqani group is known for its anti-India ideology because some attacks launched on Indian interests in Afghanistan were the handiwork of Haqqani plus ISI combine as was stated by knowledgeable observers.
The ground situation is one in which the hope of Afghan state forces holding the ground after the exit of the Americans is very remote rather negligible. A coalition government in Kabul is the mantra that the Americans have been orchestrating loudly perhaps to know the reaction from the Taliban. Both sides are tight-lipped on the proposition and are waiting for what will surface once the Americans and NATO forces leave Afghanistan.
One possibility is that inter-Afghan fighting will go on for some time till the state forces find themselves in a very critical situation. Three countries are likely to intervene when the situation comes to that pass, and these are Pakistan, Turkey and Iran. To some extent, the Saudis and UAE may also evince urgency in throwing in their hat. Iran is crucial because Iran would like that the Shia regions of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif are not bulldozed though she may not openly support the traditional Panjsheer Valley chapter. Pakistan and Turkey are outright for Taliban ascendency but askance of Pushtoonistan obsession which Pakistan still suspects to be the manipulation of Indian intelligence sources.
Pakistan and Turkey will strongly advocate for the lion’s share for the Taliban in the coalition power structure. As the American troops withdraw, her interest in Afghanistan will recede and remain confined to only one point and that is the American homeland should not have to face any threat for the Al Qaeda wing in the Taliban.
American withdrawal is a matter of much concern for India. Pakistan has been trying for a long to whip up anti-India feelings among the Taliban concerning Kashmir. However, we know that a fundamental principle of Taliban ideology is not to go to war with other countries outside Afghanistan, Recently, Pakistani media tried to play mischief to give out that the Taliban had decided to take up the “ghazal Hind” or “Indian war campaign” after it had come to power in Kabul. But a Taliban leader is reported to have contradicted as false and baseless. Any misadventure in this regard will mean Pakistan’s involvement, and hopefully, Pakistan leadership is sensible enough not to invite the dismemberment of that state.
It has to be stated that India has made the largest contribution to the building of infrastructure in Afghanistan and promoting its development. This is a fact which the Afghan government, Afghan civil society and even the top echelons of the Taliban also recognize. It is only the Haqqani group that has been outright anti-India, of course under influence of Pakistan where authorities have been providing full logistic support to the group and the US warned Pakistan several times of the dire consequences of hobnobbing with this dreaded terrorist group. They have a haven in Quetta.
The question is that in case an agreement is arrived at between the two warring groups in Afghanistan, it must necessarily have the approval of major powers like the US, Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan. Only then can the agreement perpetuate and peace becomes stable in the region. The agreement has to be all-pervasive meaning it must cater to the round economic, political and geographic concerns of Afghanistan. Inter-state connectivity (land, sea and air) has to be taken care of on a priority basis because Afghanistan is a landlocked country and its all-round economic development is possible only when it remains easily accessible to developing agencies.
K N Pandita