THE Afghan Taliban have emerged from the shadows to claim the right to again govern Afghanistan. Although the process may be tortuous, they are likely to succeed. Apart from President Ashraf Ghani and his coterie, and some others in Kabul, most Afghan groups and leaders appear ready to negotiate an Afghan political structure in which the Taliban would play a dominant role.
The Taliban’s impending triumph would vindicate the long-standing assessment of Pakistan’s security establishment that the US would eventually leave Afghanistan while the Taliban would prove resilient and eventually return to power. They have now been invited to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad where there is justifiable expectation of a resumed close relationship with Afghanistan once the Taliban assume a leading political role in Kabul.
Contrary to the propaganda spread by its adversaries about “strategic depth”, Pakistan’s core interest is the establishment of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. There are four formidable challenges which still stand in the way.
Durable peace and security in Afghanistan will depend on the level of external interference in its affairs.
The first, of course, is the development of an intra-Afghan consensus on the new structure of governance. US withdrawal will leave the Taliban as the main organised force in the country. The old north-south divide has been replaced by more complex power dynamics where, apart from the Taliban, power is exercised by a number of ethnic and regional groups and warlords and by several terrorist groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan, Al Qaeda and their affiliates. Like the US, Afghanistan’s neighbours — Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China — are all anxious to see a governance structure in Kabul which will oppose these groups and are pressing the Taliban and other Afghan parties towards an anti-terrorist compromise.
Yet, convergence on future governance will not be sufficient to usher in peace and stability. It will have to be accompanied by effective action against the Afghan-based terrorist groups. The Taliban have assured the US and others that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used again for extra-territorial terrorism. Thus, an international consensus should be possible to launch a concerted campaign against the terrorist groups located in and operating from Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. There are firmly held suspicions that some of these groups are being used by some state actors against their adversaries. Russia and Iran have accused the US of supporting IS-K elements in parts of Afghanistan. China has questions about the Uighur separatist ETIM’s presence there. Sponsored by Indian and Afghan intelligence, the TTP, HuA and the BLA conduct cross-border attacks against Pakistan from eastern Afghanistan. Tehran complains about anti-Iran extremist Sunni groups on its borders with Afghanistan (and Pakistan). In these circumstances, the US proposal that it retain a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of its troops is unlikely to be palatable either to the Taliban or most of Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Thus, even if an intra-Afghan consensus is reached on governance, an effective course of action against terrorism from Afghanistan will remain a continuing challenge to the new government in Kabul and to Afghanistan’s neighbours. A regional counterterrorism agreement encompassing the Taliban and other Afghan parties and Afghanistan’s neighbours appears essential.
Restoring peace in Afghanistan will also require money — lots of it. The US is spending an estimated $45 billion annually in Afghanistan, largely on its own military. An estimated $6-8bn is spent annually on the Afghan security forces and a fraction on the civilian government and programmes. Several billion dollars will be needed yearly to rehabilitate and reconstruct Afghanistan. Without money, the Afghan National Army would disintegrate, unpaid militias would resort to banditry and the country could descend into chaos. The US is unlikely to provide existing levels of military or civilian financing, especially if its ‘counterterrorism’ presence is rejected. Among Afghanistan’s neighbours only China, Saudi Arabia and some other GCC countries can afford large financial outlays.
In consultation with the Taliban, other interested Afghan parties, and neighbouring countries, Pakistan should activate regional development institutions (Islamic Development Bank, China Development Bank, etc) to identify and develop a plan to meet Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development requirements. Islamabad could then convene an international conference to secure the financial commitments to implement these plans.
Finally, durable peace and security in Afghanistan will depend on the level and nature of external interference in its internal affairs. This, in turn, will depend on whether the major powers, specially Russia, China and the US, cooperate to rebuild Afghanistan or if their strategic competition, radiating globally from Europe, the Middle East and the ‘Indo-Pacific’, envelops Afghanistan and its neighbourhood. Sadly, in Washington at least, the impulse for competition appears stronger than the compulsion of cooperation. Like Pakistan, Afghanistan will find it difficult to sit on the fence in the widening Sino-US rivalry. In another repeat of history, Kabul, under the Taliban, may move closer to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, rather than Washington and its allies.
Perhaps the most immediate concern hovering over Afghanistan’s future is the growing US confrontation with Iran. Iranian retaliation eg for death of 27 of its Revolutionary Guards recently, could expose US forces in Afghanistan to concerted attacks and impede US ability to withdraw its troops safely from there. This, in turn, could adversely affect the prospects of a US-Taliban withdrawal agreement and an intra-Afghan political settlement.
The continuing challenges to peace in Afghanistan, however, do not belie the shared interest of the Afghan people, the regional states and the great powers to promote sustainable stability in this strategically located country. The outbreak of a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ in and around Afghanistan would cause massive human suffering and pose a major threat to international peace and security. Global powers and the regional states must mobilise under the rubric of the United Nations or another international framework to fulfil the prerequisites for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2019