American exit

09 Jul 2020

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INDEED, the American counterterrorism and nation-building project in Afghanistan — much like the Soviet and British imperial forays in the past — has been an unmitigated disaster. While the US invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 ostensibly to hunt down Al Qaeda and punish the Afghan Taliban that sheltered the transnational terrorist conglomerate, today, nearly two decades on, while Al Qaeda may be scattered, the Taliban are very much in the ascendant. And while Washington has lost over 2,400 personnel and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the effort, there is not much to show for it as the Afghan government and military are widely seen as incapable of running and securing the country once their Western sponsors depart. In such circumstances, and considering it is an election year in America, President Donald Trump’s haste to ‘bring the boys back home’ can be understood. But as a trilateral communiqué jointly issued by Pakistan, Afghanistan and China on Tuesday warned, America’s rush to get up and leave before an intra-Afghan peace agreement is in place can pave the way for the resurgence of terrorist groups.

The broad consensus is that if the US and other Western forces leave without an agreement between Afghan stakeholders, the chaos that ensued after the Soviet withdrawal may be repeated. That is why the three sides “urged for an orderly, responsible and condition-based withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan. …” While the Afghan government would have a tough time maintaining peace in a post-withdrawal scenario, Pakistan and China also have legitimate security concerns, specifically if terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a launching pad to destabilise the region. While the post-Soviet period saw rival Mujahideen warlords battle each other as well as the government in Kabul, this time there are far more bloodthirsty players waiting in the wings, namely the local chapter of the self-styled Islamic State group. If foreign forces were to beat a hasty retreat, the government in Kabul — a weak construct riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries — would be faced with the gargantuan task of fending off the Taliban, IS and other militant groups alone.

There was a ray of hope when the US and Afghan Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha earlier this year. However, there has been no workable counterpart agreement between the government in Kabul and Afghan factions, principally the Taliban, which is a recipe for disaster. The main issue is the massive gulf of mistrust between Kabul and the Taliban; there is the prickly question of prisoner exchanges between the two sides, while the Taliban continue to hammer government forces. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban need to reconsider their rigid positions for the sake of their country. On its part, the US must realise that while its exit is long overdue, a messy, hasty withdrawal will only add to Afghanistan’s problems.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2020