THE end-game in Afghanistan has begun in right earnest with President Joe Biden’s announcement of the completion of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by Aug 31. The Afghan Taliban, taking advantage of the demoralising effect of the departure of the American troops on the Afghan government forces, have snatched the initiative from the hands of their opponents by launching a well-planned offensive to expand the territory under their control. There are daily reports of districts in different parts of Afghanistan falling into their hands. In many cases, the Afghan government forces have surrendered without much resistance.
Considering the ease with which the Taliban have scored victories over the Afghan government forces, it would be reasonable to predict that the days of the Kabul regime are numbered.
The failure of the American military misadventure in Afghanistan despite the huge loss in blood and treasure raises important questions about the rationale of the US invasion of the country and the subsequent strategy pursued by it. In retrospect, it is obvious that the invasion was an overreaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which there was no direct involvement of the Taliban government or any Afghan national. Arguably, there were other ways in which Al Qaeda could have been punished for its crimes.
The immorality of the US invasion was aggravated by the flawed US strategy pursued in the wake of its invasion. In a nutshell, it imposed a government of its own choice on the Afghan people, ignored the implications of the Afghan tribal and ethnic divisions, sought a solution through military rather than political means, and tried to promote Western cultural values which were alien to the extremely conservative and religious character of Afghan society.
It would be reasonable to predict that the days of the Kabul regime are numbered.
Consequently, the system of governance imposed by the US-led West on Afghanistan failed to take root in Afghan society and win the hearts and minds of its people, especially those living in the rural heartland. Above all, the government in Kabul carried the stigma of having been imposed on Afghanistan by an occupation force. Anybody familiar with Afghan history would have predicted that such a government would not last long once the prop of the foreign military support was removed. This is precisely what is happening in Afghanistan right now.
Pakistan has rightly called for a peace settlement among the various Afghan factions to avoid a full-blown civil war and bloodshed in Afghanistan, which will have serious adverse implications for Pakistan’s security and economic well-being and for regional peace. But it is highly unlikely that the Taliban, sensing military victory in the aftermath of the US military withdrawal and the momentum of events in their favour, would go for such a settlement except on their own terms.
The peace plan that the Taliban intend to make public soon will just provide the proverbial fig leaf for a peaceful surrender by the Kabul government. The government of Pakistan, therefore, would be well advised to prepare itself for a Taliban or a Taliban-dominated government in Afghanistan in the not-too-distant future.
Hopefully, the Taliban have learnt their own lessons from the blunders committed by them during their earlier rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. It is in their own interest to exercise moderation in their internal and external policies. Internally, they should try to join forces with other Afghan parties and groups in forming their government in Afghanistan to make it broad-based and sustainable.
They should also assure the international community that they will not allow any terrorist groups to operate from the Afghan territory against any other country. Such assurances and a modicum of flexibility on the part of the Afghan Taliban in dealing with issues such as human rights and female education would help overcome the concerns of external powers and neutralise domestic opposition.
Pakistan should be prepared to deal with any government which comes into power in Afghanistan free of foreign interference, preferably peacefully. However, since the probability of a civil war and the victory of the Taliban is high, Islamabad should be prepared to deal with another wave of Afghan refugees and take steps to discourage the rise of extremism within Pakistan. Simultaneously, it should coordinate its policies with major powers as well as regional countries to support the peace process in Afghanistan while refraining from interference in its internal affairs. Besides the Taliban, we should also keep our lines of communication open with other factions and groups in Afghanistan.
The writer is a retired ambassador and president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2021