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The future of Afghanistan The Statesman 04 May 2021
A report stated that talks, sponsored by Turkey, the UN and US, aimed at reaching a power sharing agreement in Afghanistan, scheduled to be held last month in Istanbul, has been pushed to May, as the Taliban indicated their unwillingness to attend. There is a likelihood that these may not be held at all as the Taliban remains defiant. This, despite the US and NATO announcing their withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept 11.
Possibly, the Taliban leadership is sensing blood and hoping to take over the country, post exiting of foreign forces. The Taliban released a statement mentioning that a media campaign has been launched with expectations of a peace deal being signed during this planned 10-day conference. It has also criticised the US decision to delay its withdrawal from 01 May to 11 Sept.
The US military had envisaged reluctance of the Taliban to come to a peace agreement and their intention to launch operations against the Afghan forces. They had therefore demanded a conditional withdrawal which would enable them to support the Kabul government, employing air power, in case the Taliban increased attacks without reaching an agreement. This was turned down by Biden. In this emerging scenario, there is a need by all stakeholders seeking peace in Afghanistan, to reconsider their strategy.
Post the withdrawal of the Soviets in Feb 1989, Kabul was taken over by rebel forces only in 1992. This was a result of disintegration of the Soviet Union in Dec 1991, blocking equipment and monetary support. Internally there was a strong anti-communist wave, and the populace was willing to support any group which opposed Kabul communists. The Afghan army was largely untrained and conscript leading to mass desertions. The Taliban finally came to power in 1996 and established an Islamic state. Currently, the scenario is vastly different.
The populace largely supports the Kabul government as it has witnessed years of freedom and progress. The Taliban are no longer as popular as they were in the nineties. Even in areas under their control, their power stems from their brutality. Their interpretation of Islamic laws and punishment is no longer acceptable to the public as it was in the nineties, when anything was better than communism.
The Afghan army is also reasonably well trained and equipped. It has been able to hold ground, despite setbacks, and currently controls 33% of the country against 19% with the Taliban, the balance remains disputed. It has trained and motivated leadership and the capability to withstand Taliban attacks.
The major strength of the Taliban are suicide attacks and IEDs. These can cause casualties, impose caution, but are not battle winning factors. Intelligence reports state that the Taliban has 80,000-1,00,000 troops, while the Afghan army possesses over 2 Lakhs. Parts of Afghanistan are controlled by other groups and militia opposed to the Taliban. It is reported that the Taliban deployed its soldiers around foreign bases to protect them from these groups, post the agreement, to secure its side of the bargain. The Taliban can add to its military power only if supported by the Pak army.
In case the Taliban seeks to launch a civil war to regain Kabul, it would face strong resistance. While current talks and global recognition have led to the Taliban believing it has an easy entry into Kabul or that the world would hand over Afghanistan to it on a platter, the reality appears different. The Afghan armed forces are determined to deny it a free run. A stalemate in operations, with pressure on Pak to stop support, could push the Taliban into talks, where the global community has failed or split the country into two or more parts.
Considering this, nations with a desire to promote stability in Afghanistan need to reconsider their strategy before the US and NATO troops leave the country. These must include strengthening the capability of Afghan forces to counter the Taliban and application of pressure on Pakistan to deny any form of support to it. The Afghan forces need weapons and ammunition as also air support in operations. While equipping Afghan forces can be done, arrangements to provide air support must remain. The US government must reconsider its military’s demand of a conditional withdrawal to enable air support to Afghan forces in case the Taliban are unwilling to come forward for talks.
Reports state that Pakistan is attempting to convince the Taliban leadership to re-join the peace process, otherwise it may lose its support. Pakistan realises that the road to Kabul, for the Taliban, is dotted with pitfalls. The longer civil war rages within Afghanistan, the larger would-be influx of refugees into Pak. Pakistani security agencies are claiming that they are discovering links between the Taliban and groups affiliated to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an anti-Pak terrorist group. The TTP targets the Pak army and has vowed revenge for killing of Pashtuns. Baluch rebels would find instability in Afghanistan an ideal opportunity for enhancing operations against the CPEC.
More importantly, an Islamic government in Afghanistan and Iran would enhance the standing of radical clerics in Pak. There would be demands for a similar form of Islamic government within the country. The recent uprising by the TLP, where it gained support even from elements within the Pak army, is an indicator of the depth of radicalization which exists in the country. Pakistan’s only logical hope is either an inclusive government in Kabul or a democracy. Pak leadership must comprehend this scenario.
The impact of instability in Afghanistan will also be felt on Russia and China as terrorist groups alienated to them would find space to grow amidst the civil war. Once these groups gain strength, subsequently eradicating them may not be easy.
Therefore, it would be ideal if the Afghan government and Taliban come to a peace agreement of power sharing, rather than push the country towards a civil war. A civil war would be detrimental for all neighbours of Afghanistan. For a civil war to be prevented and the Taliban forced to talk, the Afghan army must be strengthened.