BACKGROUND: The 9/11 terror attack led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan in 2001, removing the Taliban from power and subsequently engaging in a protracted U.S.-Taliban conflict for power and ideological domination in Afghanistan. However, neither the U.S. nor the Taliban could outweigh each other in this war, notwithstanding immense human losses and infrastructural damage.
Nevertheless, the U.S. attempted indirect peace talks with the Taliban for conflict resolution amid strong opposition both from hard-core militants and many U.S. policy planners. The former thought that the process would divert the Jihadists from their basic Islamic mission, whereas the latter feared it would legitimize the Taliban’s resumption of power and the establishment of a theocratic state in Afghanistan. Since 2010, various confidence building measures were conceived and adopted for a political settlement of the Afghan crisis. But nothing substantial followed for number of reasons, most importantly the U.S.-Karzai logjam over the retention of foreign forces in post-2014 Afghanistan.
Yet in May 2014, the U.S. set free five top brass Taliban from the Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for one U.S. soldier, Bowe Berghdahl. While the deal was described in optimistic and reconciliatory terms, it proved largely symbolic as both parties had hidden motives. The U.S. sought to sway the Taliban into a safeguard for its future interests in the region, while the Taliban saw the deal as a step toward reasserting their power and gaining the release of remaining detainees in U.S. captivity. Hence, the Taliban termed the deal a “big victory.”
For various reasons, the deal did not serve the U.S. purpose of ensuring stability in Afghanistan before the withdrawal. The U.S. and Taliban worldviews are strikingly at odds. Whereas the U.S. advocates the concept of global citizenship irrespective of confession, the Taliban espouse a citizenship rooted in Islam alone. The Taliban advocate a total pull out of foreign troops from Afghanistan regardless of the nod given by Afghanistan’s largest Jirga (tribal assemblage) for their prolonged stay. Obviously, President Obama’s recent suggestion to retain 9,800 residual U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2015 to blunt the insurgency and train Afghan troops will not improve prospects for peace with the Taliban.
The Taliban also denounce the idea of sharing power with the Northern Alliance (NA), the non-Pashtun militant group composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara, due to their support of the U.S. in the current war against the Taliban. The NA also opposes a stronger position for the Taliban for fear of ensuing ethnic cleansing and a loss of their currently strong grip on the existing power structure in Afghanistan.
IMPLICATIONS: The Taliban reject the Western democratic vision as a threat to the country’s rich rural-tribal tradition and hereditary warlord rights over their respective domains. Assuming the Taliban agree to a U.S.–supported political rapprochement with President Karzai or his successor, its most dreaded Haqqani faction will hardly subscribe to it. They simply read it as a calculated U.S. agenda to hinder a Taliban resurgence and avenge Western military and financial losses. Instead, they want a complete withdrawal of foreign troops before “becoming part of a political settlement” with Karzai, whom they consider a “hand-picked U.S. ally” and a “traitor,” incapable of representing Afghanistan. They feel that Karzai has nothing to show for his time in power except corruption and poor governance.
Obviously, the Taliban are unimpressed with Karzai’s strategic moves to refuse signing a security deal with U.S., his release of Taliban militants from Afghan jails, his formation of alliances with some non-Pashtun power brokers and his sponsorship of the High Peace Council Road Map to 2015. Importantly, the Roadmap recognizes the Taliban as a major political party and concedes prominent executive and cabinet positions to its top leadership. It also assigns a greater role to Pakistan, the Taliban’s friend and patron, about which a spokesperson of the Afghan army averred, “The Afghan conflict can be sorted out in a week’s time if Pakistan holds back support to the Taliban.” Obviously, peace and stability in Afghanistan is technically impossible before the U.S. pullout in 2014. But it is equally unlikely after 2014, due to the risks of civil war or the country’s partition along ethnic lines.
The U.S. drawdown in 2014 may temporarily introduce a modicum of physical security in Afghanistan. In the long run, however, it risks exposing the country and the region to a multitude of complications.
Afghanistan could conceivably descend into a civil war between pro and anti-Taliban factions for political power and ethno-ideological supremacy. It will become exacerbated by the involvement of competing foreign powers pursuing their respective stakes. Consequently, the quantum of human casualties and infrastructural damage would grow and add to the woes and worries of haggard Afghan citizens.
The civil war could well end in the Taliban’s favor as they have already made some gains in the south. But the country’s future would be fluid. Recently set democratic trends would weaken in the face of the traditional tribal-warlord fabric. The gap between secular and radical forces would widen and various multi-billion-dollar projects conceived for Afghanistan’s empowerment and its intra-regional transportation and trade with Central and South Asia would become increasingly difficult to implement.
Radical forces will seek to forcefully push through their agenda of regime change and theocracy in Afghanistan and possibly beyond in Central, South and South East Asia. This would endanger the region’s rich tradition of multiculturalism and human coexistence.
No doubt, the soaring U.S. war expenses would plummet and give a slight respite to its citizens from the current economic meltdown. But its decade-old influence in Afghanistan and the region will decline in the process. China will seek to fill the ensuing vacuum through regional and economic integration of Afghanistan, though its earlier US$10 billion investment may itself run a security risk due to the Taliban’s assumed comeback after the civil war.
Secessionism and religious violence risks deepening in the disputed part of Jammu and Kashmir under India and in Xinjiang under China. Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan will certainly increase due to its historical association with the Afghan Taliban. But it would lose its Western assistance and its claim to U.S. military aid for counter-terrorism initiatives. Still more alarming is the prospect that the activities of the Pakistani Taliban (Tahrikh-i Taliban Pakistan), will increase and force the government to bring about some constitutional changes to accommodate their Islamist view, no matter how unpopular this would be among many Pakistanis.
CONCLUSIONS: As the date for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan approaches, the U.S. made a last-ditch effort to settle its dispute with the Taliban and, as a confidence building measure, exchanged five Taliban leaders for one U.S. soldier in May 2014. However, the deal yielded no desired results, ultimately due to the Taliban’s aspiration to absolute power and a theocratic state, and its contempt for the democratic culture. The given predicament rules out any political settlement before the U.S. troops pull out in 2014. Yet a settlement is equally unlikely immediately after 2014, due to the considerable risk of a civil war or a division of Afghanistan on ethno-ideological grounds. In any case, Afghanistan’s fragility will remain until the Taliban change their conservative mindset from “co-annihilation” to “co-existence.”
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Mushtaq A. Kaw is a former Professor of the University of Kashmir.