AS the Sept 11 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan draws closer, genuine concerns are being raised by this country about the shape of things to come after American and Nato troops leave. Afghanistan remains politically unstable; in fact, violent incidents involving loss of life continue apace. What Pakistan and many other regional states fear is a return to total anarchy in Afghanistan, and the after-effects of this in the region. These concerns have been amplified, among others, by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who told an Afghan delegation on Tuesday that all sides needed to “seize the historic opportunity” to reach a broad-based settlement. But the million-dollar question remains: are the Afghan Taliban — the most powerful force opposing the Kabul government — willing to listen to such advice?
At present, it appears that the Taliban are playing hardball. Their military victories on the battlefield against government troops have seemingly given the militia the idea that they can take power through force, bypassing the negotiating table. Moreover, as some observers have noted, Pakistan’s influence over the group appears exaggerated, as the Taliban are not this country’s proxy, and are very much independent actors. What they mean is that while Pakistan can urge the group to make peace, the decision would be that of the Taliban alone. Indeed, the situation does not look promising. Western forces are biding their time, waiting eagerly for the last flight out of Kabul. If a security vacuum is created in the country in the absence of a peace deal accepted by all Afghan stakeholders, the Afghan nightmare may continue indefinitely, with regional states left to deal with the mess.
In many ways, this situation mirrors what happened at the end of the Afghan ‘jihad’. A defeated Soviet Union cut and ran, while the Americans were also not keen to stick around for long after their ‘victory’. The result was an implosion in Afghanistan, the rise of the Afghan Taliban and the country becoming a hub for transnational militancy. The script may not be very different this time around, with newer, more ferocious players such as the local chapter of the so-called Islamic State entering the scene. Therefore, all countries — Afghanistan’s neighbours and global powers — must do whatever is possible to help formulate a lasting Afghan peace accord, though by no means should foreign forces get involved in nation-building. This might be easier said than done but the solution should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, with foreign states providing their good offices to facilitate agreement. Most of all, the Taliban must ask themselves if they want to prolong the war, or share power in a democratic manner. The militia should realise that even if they defeat government forces, other militant players will be quite eager to dislodge them from power in Kabul.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2021