According to an AFP news report of December 28, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that “the US forces faced humiliation as they would face the same fate which the Soviet Union experienced in 1980s.” The question is not winning or losing a war in Afghanistan which has been going on for the last several decades but its fallout on the neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.
The Taliban warning to the United States was issued on the occasion of 39th anniversary of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and the reported announcement of American President Donald Trump the other day to withdraw half of the 14,000 troops deployed in that war-torn country. The Taliban’s warning to the United States to “take heed from the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and abandon thoughts of testing the mettle of the already proven Afghans” needs to be contested on two grounds. First, the Soviet Union was not defeated in Afghanistan and its honourable withdrawal was guaranteed by the Geneva accords signed on April 14, 1988. Second, confronting British, Soviet and American occupation in Afghanistan proved the failure of Afghans to prevent foreign intervention and occupation of their vulnerable country.
Deepening of the Afghan quagmire is a reflection of the inflexible and intransigent position taken by the Taliban groups and the United States despite several meetings held between American special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar. Furthermore, Pakistan has played a vital role in arranging Taliban-US talks in Abu Dhabi but it is Islamabad which will continue to face the devil and the deep sea-like situation in Afghanistan even if a deal is struck by May 2019 between the Taliban and America.
Political optimism in the wake of a breakthrough in US-Taliban talks however contradicts the ground realities in Afghanistan. The country since the outbreak of Saur revolution in April 1978 till today is in a state of armed conflicts. If the Soviet forces left Afghanistan in February 1989, the outcome was not peace in that war-torn country. Civil war among the Mujahideen groups and the Taliban rule followed by the US-led intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001 further deepened political schism, violence and instability in that country. If 100,000 Soviet forces failed to defeat Pakistan and US-backed Mujahideen resistance groups during their decade-long stay in Afghanistan, the American-led coalition is also bogged down against the Taliban groups. In the Soviet and American cases, one can find a similarity: both powers have not been defeated in the battlefield but have not been either victorious despite the claims made by both the superpowers that they will achieve victory against their opponents.
Pakistan’s predicament emanating from the deepening of Afghan quagmire is three-fold. First, the withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan will leave a void which will cause more instability, chaos and disorder in its western neighbour. In retrospect, when the Soviet forces had left Afghanistan leaving their supported regime in Kabul in the lurch, the outcome was a violent spell of civil war culminating in the seizure of power by the Taliban. Can Afghanistan afford another phase of bloody and violent civil war as the country for the last four decades has experienced enormous physical and material destruction? Second, any possibility of the Taliban again capturing power in Kabul will be fiercely resisted by their opponents particularly ethnic minorities namely Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Even the Pashtun segment of the Afghan population will not fully support the Taliban because like the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, they still recall harsh and brutal mode of governance of the Taliban particularly against women and minorities. The resurgence of Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition, cannot be ruled out to prevent the Taliban from taking control of Kabul.
There is no surety from the Taliban side that their behaviour and policies which were termed highly retrogressive and cruel will not be repeated if they again come to power. The Taliban spokesman may be giving assurances to the outside world that after the withdrawal of foreign forces and their return to power they will be compassionate and tolerant with those who are different in terms of their political ideology and way of life. Yet there is serious trust deficit between them and those who are still very suspicious about the Taliban, particularly their rejection to girls’ education, music and sports. Can the Taliban reverse the process of change which was unleashed in Afghanistan after 9/11 when the country was able to provide freedom to women education and employment or will they push the country back to an era of ultra-conservatism? One can expect fresh exodus of Afghans into Pakistan if civil war breaks out in that country between the Taliban and their opponents. Even the fence which is being erected on the Pak-Afghan border will not be able to prevent another spell of Afghan refugees crossing the Durand Line thus producing enormous socio-political and security implications.
Third, Afghanistan is like a ‘black hole’ because since 9/11 till today, the US and allied forces have spent around 1 trillion dollars on military and counter- terrorism operations but all this has failed to yield positive results. More so, billions of dollars were used in Afghanistan for its rebuilding and reconstruction but 17 years down the road the country is still as impoverished as it was before. The Afghan quagmire has a lot to do as far as deep-rooted corruption, nepotism and absence of good governance is concerned. When there is lack of ownership by Afghans of their country how can one expect things there to improve with external support? The bulk of Afghan annual budget is dependent on foreign aid and the country is still run by ‘mafias’ and warlords. The Taliban finance their so-called war against foreign forces by proceeds from the sale of poppy cultivation.
The Afghan issue also needs to be understood in terms of the Taliban’s denial of democratic and election process. If the Taliban believe that they are supported by the majority of the people of Afghanistan then in that case they should renounce terrorism and opt for political and peaceful way to gain power. One school of thought believes that the Taliban of today are different from what they were before and they have transformed from a ‘Salafist’ to ‘Sufi’ mode of Islam. But these are just speculations and there is no hardcore evidence to prove the positive transformation of the Taliban. Even if there is a deal with the US on the withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan, it may be like history repeating itself as was the case with the Geneva accords when the departure of Soviet forces ultimately led to the collapse of their supported regime in Kabul and the outbreak of a bloody civil war.
Pakistan will face double jeopardy if the American and foreign forces remain in Afghanistan and face pressure from Kabul and Washington of not doing enough to prevent cross-border intervention. And if there is the withdrawal of foreign forces then Afghanistan will be plunged into another phase of civil war having serious repercussions for its economy and security. The ‘shuttle diplomacy’ of Pakistan’s foreign minister to Beijing, Kabul, Moscow and Tehran may have helped to unleash the Afghan peace process but in reality unless the internal dynamics of Afghanistan are sorted out, Islamabad will not be able to play a meaningful role for a positive transformation of conflicts in that war-torn country in 2019.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2019.