KARACHI: The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) held on Thursday evening a webinar on the topic ‘Afghanistan at the Crossroads’.

Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Washington, was the first of the three main speakers. He said he was a journalist with the Mujahideen in the late 1980s and then briefly on the government side. He has visited Afghanistan intermittently since then, so his association with the country goes back 34 years. In his view what is happening seems to be in accordance with certain basic patterns of modern Afghan history; above all, the failure to establish a modern state, whether by Afghans themselves or outside forces.

Mr Lieven said: “It is my sense that the current Afghan state is finished. It may last for longer than some people expect, but according to independent analysts 197 district centres have fallen to the Taliban since May. Much will depend upon whether the US will continue airstrikes to defend the main cities, but I don’t think that will be enough. If patterns of Afghan history are anything to go by, the collapse of the state, when it comes, may come very quickly and unexpectedly. The reason is, as we saw in 1992, Afghan society is [in] a kind of process of constant conversation and negotiation. In the late 1980s it was common knowledge that there were endless negotiations between themselves and local state garrisons.”

He said, on the other hand, we will see in certain areas that certain ethno-religious minority groups, notably the Hazaras and the Panjshiris, will not surrender to the Taliban. Therefore, the subsequent history of Afghanistan will be determined by the following questions:

1: Will the Taliban as the predominant political and armed force in the country be willing to negotiate compromises with key ethnic and ethno-religious minorities?

2: What kind of help, and degree of help, will outside powers give to ethnic, ethno-religious minorities and anti-Taliban forces? This means the US, but in the long run, Iran and India.

3: Will an Afghan state dominated by the Taliban continue to receive sufficient and substantial international aid?

Mr Lieven said Pakistan’s role is crucial in terms of the approach of regional powers to the Afghan situation. Pakistan is in a happy position of having good relations with four out of the five major regional powers; not with the fifth, which is India. Pakistan has also had good working relations with the Taliban. The goals of Pakistani policy on the basis of these strengths should be:

Pakistan should use its influence over the Taliban to get them to assure rights and autonomy for certain ethno-religious minorities.

Pakistan must ensure that Afgh­anistan doesn’t become a base for anti-India extremists.

Pakistan needs to assure continued international aid to the Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. It will involve China.

Senior journalist Zahid Hussain, the second speaker, said the rapid developments in Afghanistan after the drawing down of American forces have been quite spectacular but not unexpected. It was in a way building up. The withdrawal of foreign forces had almost led to a collapse of whatever control the administration had over certain areas. Over the years the authority of the state had weakened. A large part of the country may not be under Taliban control, but basically the authority of the administration was being contested.

Mr Hussain said that after the Americans started negotiating with the Taliban in Doha in 2019, it was a clear indication that finally the Americans had recognised the Taliban’s legitimacy as a resurgent force in Afghanistan. This was the kind of legitimacy that the Taliban needed. “It was clear that the Americans were in a hurry to leave Afghanistan. But the way they left is quite astonishing.”

Dr Saba Gul Khattak, former executive director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), was the last speaker of the programme.

She said in the morning [on Thursday] there was a press conference in Kabul held by Afghan women leaders, political and civil society activists where they outlined their fears about the current situation. “There are no winners in any conflict. The fears of a Taliban government and the fears of the current situation of uncertainty is not something new, but at the same time we do need to remember history. When I talk about women, I wonder who wants to hear stuff which they’ve been hearing for the last 25 years. I also realise there are many younger people who haven’t been around that long.”

She underlined that the first thing that comes to her mind are the refugee camps in Pakistan and how women were integral to the jihad in Afghanistan; because with the nine Mujahideen parties at the time ‘what kind of aid would go to which party’ depended upon their following.

Earlier, PIIA chairperson Dr Masuma Hasan welcomed the guests.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2021

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