Prime Minister Imran Khan while addressing the International Conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities” Prime Minister Imran Khan was right on point when he pointed out an inherent loophole in the Afghan peace process. According to Mr Khan, the right time for negotiations was when 150000 Nato troops were stationed in Afghanistan. When the withdrawal of troops had already been announced and an ultimatum was given, expecting any sort of concession from the Taliban was like shooting arrows in the air. Still, Pakistan played its part in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating tables even though the Taliban could have quickly rejected the offer provided that their victory was already evident.
The way the US and Nato troops abandoned the Bagram base during the odd hours of the night without consulting even the Afghan government clearly brought the US under the radar of suspicions of the regional states. Soon after the US troops had withdrawn, the locals rushed to the base to loot the remains of US soldiers. It clearly shows that the US deliberately wanted to create chaos that could have quickly escalated into a full-scale civil war had the Taliban joined the party.
Similarly, the spontaneous US withdrawal has left the regional countries on high alert, including China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. According to the US president, America was not here in Afghanistan for nation-building, which means He left Afghanistan at the disposal of the myriad of stakeholders, each of whom wants a more significant piece of the pie.
PM Khan put his reservations in front of his Afghan counterpart in a rather antagonizing and harsh manner and rightly so because Pakistan would be the worst affected country in the region if the situations in Afghanistan escalated further. Pakistan is already hosting scores of afghan refugees, and its already fragile and overburdened economy cannot withstand the burden of more unwanted guests. Moreover, the refugee influx could also deteriorate the law and order situation. Moreover, most of the Taliban members residing in Afghanistan would enter Pakistani territory, and it is almost impossible to segregate civilians and terrorists.
Likewise, the American move can also be seen through the lens of killing two birds with one stone vis-a-vis China. It is a well-established fact that America wants to contain China but cannot afford to do so because the longest war in the history of America has already swallowed above a trillion dollars so, by leaving Afghanistan in such mayhem, Washington wants Beijing to look after the mess that the inapt withdrawal of the US has created. It will indirectly serve two US interests: saving money and resources and would distract Chinese attention from other hotbeds like the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, thereby minimizing competition for the US. Also, China cannot afford to leave Afghanistan unattended because it will endanger its regional and global interests; CPEC and BRI are prime examples, but unstable Afghanistan can also aid the separatist movements in the Xinjiang region of western China. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the IS Khorasan group could find a nexus to create a potential threat for China.
On the other hand, Russia is proactive in resolving the Afghan issue. It has formally pressurized the Afghan government to sit and talk with the Taliban in the recent Moscow Conference. Russia is afraid of unstable Afghanistan at its doorstep because it will not only endanger the security of Central Asian Republics (CARs), which are under the collective security agreement with Russia, but it will also jeopardize Russia’s North-South Transport Corridor(NSTC) of which Afghanistan is also a part. The Afghan conundrum has provided Russia and Pakistan to mend their fences because Russia has realized the importance of Pakistan in resolving the Afghan issue. As a result, there is also a possibility of Pakistan becoming part of NSTC and extending CPEC to Afghanistan and beyond CARs.
Another regional country on the verge of facing two-fold problems if the situation remains volatile in Afghanistan is Iran. First, Iran could also face a refugee influx; second, a potential threat from the IS. Unstable Afghanistan would provide a haven and a launching pad to the IS against Iran and Pakistan. Ideologically, IS has an expansionist agenda and its activities are more directed on sectarian lines. Iran being a Shia majority country and is already in the bad books of IS from the Syrian episode, could face a severe backlash from the proponents of the Caliphate.
Deep Rooted Shortcomings in Doha Agreement
America, to end the endless war and to save its face from humiliation, signed the Doha Agreement in February 2020 in a rather haphazard manner. The deal was an ill-timed one in two ways: one that PM Khan has pointed out, and the other was the Trump Administration’s rushed desire to keep its electoral promise, a futile political move to garner the popular support when the presidential elections were a few months away. The agreement had two parts: the US-Taliban deal and, afterwards, the intra Afghan talks. The Trump Administration purposely left the latter part of the agreement, and of course the most hectic one, for its successor to create an environment of uncertainty and difficulty. The deal provided the American troops with much-needed safe passage to return home, leaving empires’ graveyards in more precarious situations than ever before.
Moreover, the deal aims to bring the Western-style democratic system into a land that is never ready for such experiments. In a country where tribalism and ethnic factionalism are the driving forces, which has a long history of power struggle and has always been under the influence of warlords, inculcating a borrowed system of governance in such a society is always a sterile exercise.
It seems like the US-Taliban deal did not pave the way for intra Afghan talks. The US lost all its leverage with the Taliban when it announced the withdrawal date, even when the intra Afghan talks were yet to be started. Now the US has nothing solid to offer to the Taliban which can convince them for the interviews.
The stubborn attitude on the part of the incumbent Afghan leaders has deteriorated the situation even further. The Doha deal fails to protect the Afghan government in the face of a looming civil war from the Taliban, which is why the current leadership is afraid of deposition and is not ready to talk. The obstinate behaviour of the Afghan government can also be accredited to the spoiler role that India has been playing throughout the peace process. India is the only regional country that does not want the Taliban to come out victorious on the Afghan front because both of them have never been on good terms which each other, and India has historically opposed the Taliban on every negotiation forum, whether it’s the QCG Talks or the Moscow lead peace process. India is well aware that post-US withdrawal would have a minimal role in Afghanistan, so it always wanted to derail the peace process.
Similarly, Joe Biden’s insensitiveness towards finishing the unfinished business of his predecessor has also complicated the issue. It was a general perception that Biden’s approach towards the problem would be the reversal of that of Donald Trump’s, keeping in mind the 17 executive orders of Biden’s first day in the White House, which were mainly signed to correct the wrongdoings of Mr Trump. But, contrary to the expectations, Biden paid no heed to overcome the shortcomings of the Doha Deal and instead expedited the withdrawal of his troops.
What is Next?
The Taliban are already claiming 85 percent of the Afghan territory to be under their control. What experts predicted would take a year or two for the Taliban to capture entire Afghanistan, they are about to do it in few months. The Taliban are marching towards Kabul, and the resistance provided by the Afghan security forces is proving like a rope of sand. As mentioned earlier, the rigidity and intransigence on both the Taliban and the Afghan government will create a deadlock in the peace process. The neighbouring countries of Afghanistan are leaving no stone unturned in bringing the two parties to some power-sharing formula. The real solution lies in introducing a concurrent system and compatible with the on-ground realities of the Afghan mosaic, which takes all the stakeholders on board before arriving at any conclusion. The priority of any such endeavour should be the mitigation of risks of civil war.
Any future settlement would be majorly on the terms of the Taliban and would provide an upper hand to them vis-à-vis all the other stakeholders so, it is need of the hour that all the other concerned parties acknowledge Taliban as a major shareholder and start to act as minor claimants of the Afghan pie because antagonizing Taliban means no share at all.
The Taliban should also provide the road map for their future Islamic Emirate as soon as possible. Their intentions regarding statecraft are made clear and give the world ample time to contemplate ways of dealing with them. The Taliban should also keep in mind that the world is now ready to recognize them as a legitimate entity- the UK being the latest one- and therefore, their system of government needs to be flexible enough and must incorporate every segment of society, especially women so that this acceptability remains intact. Thus, the world does not find any pretext to turn its back on Afghanistan.
Afghanistan would need international support and aid for its development and nation-building. Similarly, it would need allies to garner political support on different forums. For this purpose, the future Afghan state would need to be open enough to attract international attention in every field of life. The changing regional dynamics have a lot to offer, provided that Afghanistan exploits its geostrategic location and acts as a response rather than a rogue state.