Everyone wants a piece of Afghanistan
After four decades of war and chaos, situation in Afghanistan is likely to enter a new phase –US withdrawal and a peace deal between Taliban and the United States and Afghan government. On various grounds, questions are arising about the future setup in Afghanistan with apprehensions that it might plunge into a situation where it was during the Civil War in the 1990s. Why the peace deal, if it actually is clinched, came so late? What would be the future government setup in the country? What would be the implications of the US withdrawal? How its result would be different from that of the Soviet withdrawal? What role the Taliban would play in the Afghan parliament? Would a Taliban-included government or political setup be successful in avoiding a Civil War akin to that the country witnessed in the 1990s? What would be the input of the regional countries to the upcoming political landscape of the Afghan theatre of war? All these questions warrant answers; however, most experts, in one way or another, seem in disarray vis-à-vis the future political setup in Afghanistan.
When the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban regime thereupon, the world hoped that Afghanistan would now enter an era of peace and stability as efforts in this regard had the support of international community, world powers and regional stakeholders. However, it did not happen. Afghanistan did not stabilize. The US-led coalition forces could not bring peace to this war-torn country.
US approach to dealing with the Taliban and other ‘insurgent’ groups was quintessentially militaristic. It wanted to eliminate such elements by the use of force as they were ‘a threat to international peace’. After the US invasion in 2001, Pakistan advised the United States to strike a peace deal with the Taliban, however; the US paid no heed and adamantly continued with its militaristic approach to achieve its objectives. When the neo-Taliban emerged and the insurgency kept on intensifying after 2004, the US expedited search operations and expanded the presence of its troops to many additional areas of the country.
When Obama ascended to the Presidency in the United States in 2009, Afghanistan was his main focus – to handle the situation and push it towards a solution. His policy was pragmatic. He surged the level of troops on the one hand, while ordered his Special Representative, Richard Holbrooke to contact the Taliban for a peace process, on the other. The US made its first-ever contacts with the Taliban in 2009. The Obama administration had realized that the US cannot win the Afghan war by military means only, so it is better to embark on a peace process as well. The establishment of Taliban’s Qatar office later and the role of other actors augmented the peace process which in current situation is a ray of hope not only for Afghanistan but also for the countries in the region and beyond.
Current developments are critically important for Afghanistan as all the three parties to the Afghan conflict, i.e. the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government, seem very serious to bring about a deal for a peaceful Afghanistan even if they have to compromise on some of their interests. For the last four years, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has been putting in strenuous efforts, but he could not succeed unless the US showed seriousness, and taken the Taliban’s demands seriously. The Trump administration, though adopted a very tough approach on Pakistan and the insurgents in his early days, finally realized the sensitivity of the issue, and of cutting a deal with the Taliban. Besides, the Taliban – though it compromised a little on its demands – showed flexibility and earnestness for the peace process which yielded encouraging results in the six-day talks in Doha, Qatar. Both the antagonists – the US and the Taliban – have agreed to a peace deal which will result in the US withdrawal and mainstreaming of the Taliban who, in turn, will not allow Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group to use the Afghan soil in future. Though the final agreement has not come out yet; the points of agreement show a sort of conciliation on both sides.
Although hopes are high for a peace deal, scepticism, too, is rife in various circles as they apprehend that the future of Afghanistan might be volatile after the US withdrawal and that the country might fall into the traps of another civil war akin to the one that erupted after the Soviets withdrew in the 1990s. But, it is hardly deniable that the current situation is much different from that in the 1990s. At that time, three factors led to the Civil War and the subsequent fall of Najibullah government – the central government, the internal actors (anti-government Mujahideen and warlords) and the external actors (the most active players like the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the United States).
At that time, though the Soviets withdrew, their aid continued for a couple of years. The Soviet-backed Najibullah government survived till the Soviet aid continued pouring in. However, the downfall of Gorbachev and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1991, caused the cessation of the Soviet assistance. Najibullah was not able to face a number of powerful warlords who had their own strong militias and weaponry that had been provided to the Mujahideen by the US-led coalition during the 1980s. Najibullah resigned from presidency ten days before the Peshawar Accord was signed by the Mujahideen on April 26, 1992.
In addition, the internal factors – the anti-government coalition of Mujahideen – were strong enough to compel Najibullah to resign from the presidency. Major Mujahideen factions were on one page against the communist-backed regime and Najib had no external financial, military or political support to sustain his power.
External powers also contributed to the fall of the Najib government. The most active players in the Afghan issue, i.e. Pakistan, the US, and the Soviet Union, changed their roles. The Soviet Union withdrew and later terminated its financial support. The US having achieved its interests also went off the scene. Pakistan, nonetheless, remained in the game – being a next-door neighbour, its interests in Afghanistan were long-lasting. Since Pakistan had no cordial relations with the Afghan government owing to many reasons; therefore, it wanted to have a pro-Pakistan force in Kabul. Pakistan was supporting the Mujahideen, however, in late 1994 when the Taliban emerged, Pakistan cashed in on the situation by supporting them and they subsequently dominated Kabul in September 1996.
Even a cursory look would reveal that the current situation is somewhat similar in nature to that witnessed in the period leading to the civil war. Here too, there are three main actors: the internal, e.g. the Afghan government, the United States and the Taliban; and external, e.g. Pakistan, China, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and some others. All of them will play a critical role in deciding the fate of Afghanistan in terms of peace.
Internal actors seem serious to negotiate a peace settlement. The US and the Taliban are on the verge of inking a deal that will subsequently allow the Afghan government to enter into a peace deal with the Taliban or become a party to the agreement. Such kind of agreement was not there in the 1990s. Moreover, some influential entities would be the guarantors of this deal so that it would be difficult for the parties to break. Each party is gaining something due to the deal and they are happy over it.
The Taliban is in the win-win situation. On the one hand, the US would withdraw from Afghanistan – fulfilment of their top demand – and the Taliban will become a part of the mainstream political process as well. Taliban seem content with these gains as they are tired of the prolonged war they have been fighting since the time of the Soviet invasion. Having realized the situation, they know they can’t single-handedly rule over Afghanistan.
As for the external actors’ role, it is very important to have their positive input to the future Afghan setup in shape of support in the post-withdrawal time. Being the most actively involved in Afghan affairs since long, Pakistan also has a crucial role to play. It is an oft-repeated assertion that path to peace in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan and that sans Pakistan’s support no political settlement in the Afghan affairs would be possible. Pakistan, too, is fed up of the chronic sufferings it had faced due to terrorism and wants to overcome this menace for which peace in the region in general, and in Afghanistan in particular is indispensable. Moreover, Taliban will be more instrumental for Pakistan once they become a political force. Pakistan sees the non-Pushtun elements, the Northern Alliance as adversaries to it.
Furthermore, China also has stakes in Afghanistan and pursuing those requires peace in the country. Afghanistan would be a huge market for China; would help China tackle the Xinjiang insurgency; would provide China with ample opportunities to exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources and mineral wealth, and most importantly, would be a part of President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative.
For Iran, a peaceful Afghanistan and mainstreamed Taliban come as an encouraging development because it would bring stability in Afghanistan which will disseminate to the neighbouring countries as well. Secondly, due to the vociferous US opposition, Iran is in the process of developing contacts with the Taliban besides providing them with support. The ISIS threat to Iran would also be curtailed once the Taliban join the Afghan government. Iran’s relations with the Taliban had been antagonistic since the Afghan civil war when the Taliban assassinated Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif. However, the current situation is different; Iran does want the Taliban mainstreaming – for its own interests, though.
For India, peace in Afghanistan is apparently a great development, but it wants to have an active role. A peaceful Afghanistan would not serve as a breeding ground for mujahideen who fight in Kashmir. In case Afghanistan becomes stable and peaceful, Pakistan would not bother to use it against any state for pursuing its own strategic interests.
Last but not least, US withdrawal from, and peace in, Afghanistan would serve the interests of Russia and Central Asian Republics. Besides, Russia has entered the Afghan peace process in order to build its clout in the region. The US withdrawal would provide Russia an opportunity to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal.
In essence, the interests and priorities of the main actors of the Afghan conflict, in addition to the historical shreds of evidence, prove that the upcoming peace deal in Afghanistan would be a successful one. Huge scepticism is there in various circles about the future of Afghanistan that it might plunge into a civil war-like situation after the US withdrawal. However, the current situation is quite different from that of the post-Soviet withdrawal which led to the civil war. I don’t see the failure of the peace agreement because there is only one insurgent group that has a chain of command and works under a proper structure. When Taliban observed a ceasefire last year on the eve of Eid, no single bullet was fired during those days which showed unity and integration in its rank and file under one leadership. There were a number of groups and faction which did not allow Afghanistan to be stable after the Soviet withdrawal. Nonetheless, the current situation is much more different.