The challenges ahead

Published April 23, 2021
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.

PRESIDENT Joe Biden has announced that all US troops will be unconditionally withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept 11. He has also stated that the US will continue to support the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF), provide the already pledged financial support that the Afghan government will need and continue to urge all Afghan parties to agree to an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process.

Addressing the press in Kabul on April 15, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We will remain side by side going forward … including as I said, ongoing support for the Afghan National Security Forces; work together on development, on economic progress; support for civil society; and our strong diplomatic engagement and bringing other countries into the effort to advance the prospects for peace.” He added, “… the Taliban says that it wants certain things, including international recognition, including international support for Afghanistan, including have the ability of its leaders to travel freely. And if it were to provoke a civil war, none of those things would be possible.”

Can any objective observer share this optimistic assessment of what lies ahead? The US has at this time an acknowledged military force of 3,500 in Afghanistan and an additional 16,000 Defence Department-financed support personnel of which 6,000 are Americans and the rest foreign nationals. Theoretically, all of them will have to be withdrawn alongside the acknowledged military contingent.

The report of the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says that the Afghan Air Force has no trained personnel for the maintenance of the aircraft it operates and is dependent on the personnel of Resolute Support for this purpose. So, it will be necessary for some trained men from the American contingent to stay back beyond Sept 11 if the air force, the main anti-insurgency tool available to the ANDSF, is to remain operational.

What will follow an unconditional American withdrawal from Afghanistan?

SIGAR has said that the payroll system it purchased for $29 million, to eliminate payments to fictitious/ghost soldiers has not been activated and much money is being embezzled by corrupt officials in the ANDSF. The agreement for providing financial support from the US and its partners up to 2024 states that there be strict accounting but this has not happened. Afghanistan is currently (2020 report) listed as 165 out of 180 countries on the Transparency International Corruption Index and, for the moment President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts notwithstanding, there is little chance of any substantive improvement.

Much of the corruption is linked to narcotics cultivation and trafficking and illegal mining. The proceeds of this corruption are by most accounts shared between the Taliban and government officials or local warlords. It is highly unlikely in these circumstances that the US Congress already weary of Afghanistan will appropriate funds for Afghanistan.

Apart from the forces that have been mentioned here, there are also the CIA-financed Afghan militias which are largely Afghan but mentored or commanded by retired US military personnel. Are these going to be wound up? Past experience would suggest that an effort to dismantle them would be resisted with the CIA perhaps pleading that these forces would be needed to monitor Daesh (Islamic State) and Al Qaeda forces.

One has been envious of the fact that despite all the turbulence that has been observed in Afghanistan since the Saur Revolution of 1978, no Afghan politician has spoken of the division of Afghanistan (President Biden as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did suggest this as the way to bring peace to the region but dropped the idea when he found that it had no traction.) It should be recalled that the Pakhtuns who comprise 42 per cent of the population have always been rulers in Afghanistan except for one short period in 1929 when Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik, defeated King Amanullah in what was termed the Afghan Civil War and became king for some nine months. His defeat by King Zahir Shah in October 1929 was immediately welcomed by the British, who at that time wielded the most influence in the region and traditional Pakhtun primacy was thus restored.

The question is, does this hold true today? In the years since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, the support of the Tajiks along with the Uzbeks was relied upon by the US forces as they used their Daisy Cutter bombs and other weapons to obliterate the Taliban. It was the Tajiks who took over Kabul in 2001 and while the Bonn Conference installed Hamid Karzai as president, a great deal of the power in Kabul and elsewhere in the country was with the Tajiks. Today, one can say that Tajiks like Atta Mohammed Noor in Balkh and Ismail Khan in Herat are not only dominant in their provinces but have the influence wealth brings throughout the country. In these areas, the Taliban will face fierce resistance. Similarly, the Hazaras will resist the Taliban.

For the Taliban, the Al Qaeda ideology they have embraced means that they are anti-Shia and this alienates them from the Hazaras (9pc of the population) and Pakhtun Shias (their number could be about another 6pc to 9pc). These are people they will want to subjugate. Elsewhere, what sort of vengeance will they seek against Rashid Dostum who killed hundreds of Taliban by packing them in containers and letting them suffocate to death?

Two conclusions from the foregoing: American presence will remain even if Biden does not want it and a civil war will come whether the Afghan Taliban attend the Istanbul Conference (postponed to May) or not.

For Pakistan, beset with its own problem of religious extremism and knowing that the world will seek a scapegoat for Afghanistan’s civil war, the best course would be to ask the Taliban to leave Pakistan and conduct their negotiations with other Afghan parties from their strongholds in Afghanistan. In the meanwhile, Pakistan must complete the fencing of its border with Afghanistan and insulate itself to the extent possible from Afghanistan even while keeping trade routes open and providing whatever assistance it can to the peace process.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2021

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