Afghanistan: A Not So New Story
The current situation in Afghanistan reminds one of 1991 when the US abandoned the Afghan Mujahedeen to their own devices when it had achieved its strategic objective: the ouster of USSR and fall of the Soviet Najibullah regime. What followed was a bloody civil war followed by the Taliban regime and the subsequent US invasion post 9/11.
Now the US is again abandoning Afghanistan after fighting its forever war leaving behind chaos. Signing the peace deal with the Taliban, the US has secured a safe exit for itself. According to three Western officials, the deal has a secret annex ensuring that the Taliban will provide a “ring of protection” to the western military bases from attacks by rival, or rogue Islamist groups. Indeed, 2020 proved to be the year with the lowest number of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan since the war began. But there is no such annex for the Afghan people who are in the line of fire. According to a report by the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA), there has been a spike in civilian casualties since peace negotiations started in September last year.
The Taliban have claimed the US withdrawal as a victory and see themselves as a government in waiting and thus continue to spread terror and gain territory without feeling the need to engage in dialogue. The bloodshed and violence continue to rise as the targets are Afghan security personnel and innocent civilians esp. religious and ethnic minorities like the Hazaras. In May, 405 pro-government forces and 260 civilians were killed in terror attacks across the country, the highest total death toll in a single month since July 2019.
As the violence surges, Afghan government is slowly losing its grip. The moral of the security force is plunging as the Taliban have been capturing bases and other strategic points. Since May 1st, at least 26 outposts and bases in four provinces have surrendered after negotiations.
With no progress in the peace talks between the government and Taliban, Afghanistan is on the crossroads of another bloody civil war. Unless a power sharing agreement is reached, it seems unlikely that the Afghan government would be able to hold its own for long without the US military technology and airpower.
Added to this complex equation are the ethnic factions led by Afghan warlords. Divided on ethnic lines, they killed 100,000 people and ravaged Kabul in the civil war from 1992 to 1996. Recently, the warlords have flexed their muscle to put up resistance fronts against the Taliban. The Afghan government might form alliances with some of the warlords making the conflict more complicated.
A civil war in Afghanistan will be disastrous not only for Afghanistan but also for the region. Indeed, the regional players are highly concerned about the potential conflict and its ramifications. Pakistan cannot afford a civil war in its neighborhood as it would mean a spillover of militancy and refugee crisis. China needs stability for its flagship Belt Road Initiative (of which Afghanistan is a part) to move ahead smoothly. India has invested heavily in development projects in Afghanistan worth more than $3 billion. A civil war and a Taliban regime would mean losing that space and a risk of increased militancy in Kashmir.
An ideal situation would be a joint dialogue like the Moscow Format consisting of Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan to strategically engage the Afghan government and the Taliban towards a political settlement. However, such a forum even though functioning will not be able to produce any tangible results. The reason is simple: every player in this game has conflicting interests. The strategic gains of one are the loss of the other which makes it a zero-sum game for Afghanistan. In this great game, the ultimate losers are the Afghan people who have been paying the price with their blood for too long.
Afghanistan has been an amphitheater for cold war and warring proxies supported by regional players. This has, like history tells us only resulted in escalation of the conflict and destabilization of the region. The violence and the instability in Afghanistan tell us that history is about to repeat itself. In the absence of a political settlement and the emerging security vacuum, the regional countries would again step in to protect their security interests. In this situation, hopes for a peaceful political solution remain bleak.
The Afghan conflict needs a major paradigm shift from geostrategic to geo-economic. For that to materialize, peace between regional power players is the primary prerequisite. With Indo-Pak and Sino-Indian rivalries in the region however, that doesn’t seem very likely. Until then all hopes of regional development, connectivity and cooperation in South and Central Asia remain empty buzzwords reserved for conferences and diplomatic forums.
The writer has a masters in Public Policy. He loves watching world cinema and having intellectually stimulating conversations.