While the US is struggling hard to carve out a political solution to end the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, the peace process continues to ignore some potential security challenges. Afghanistan is a very fractured and fragile state and a small step in the wrong direction may jeopardise the entire process. It is true that ceasefire and counter-terrorism assurances are already on the table between the US and the Taliban but the missing aspect is the fate of the Taliban as a movement, whose majority is busy in fighting across Afghanistan and seem unconvinced of the peace process. There is a need to deliberate the fate of local commanders and foot soldiers along with the political future of their leaders in the ongoing peace process. If overlooked, they may become a security challenge not only for Afghanistan but for the whole region as well.
So far the Taliban leadership does not seem to have taken these local commanders and fighters into confidence about the intricacies of the ongoing peace process. That may well be a reason which is compelling the Taliban to demand a US withdrawal before they could consider a truce with the Afghan government. It is an alarming situation where the internal strife within the rank and file of the 60,000 battle-hardened Taliban could disintegrate the movement into various splinter factions, thereby multiplying the security challenges.
Another possibility is that these armed Taliban fighters may intensify their criminal activities which could be of trans-regional nature, just out of sheer frustration. Crime-terror nexus has always remained a challenge in a fragile post-conflict society like Afghanistan and it could become a Frankenstein monster when the militant force is neither convinced of abandoning their armed struggle nor taken into confidence regarding their future in case of a political deal between the US and their leadership.
The situation becomes more alarming with the Taliban’s control over some of the pre-existing structures of illegal economic activities, especially extortion, kidnapping, drug and arms trafficking, and illegal road taxes being collected inside Afghanistan with strong cross-border links. The Taliban are infamous for their indulgence in all such activities to generate funds. The intra-Afghan trade routes and cross-border trade routes connecting Torkhum and Chaman in Pakistan with Kabul will require strict security. Otherwise these militants may assert their control just as a pressure tactic.
These disgruntled Taliban fighters may even opt to cross border into the newly-merged tribal districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) as they had done previously when the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001. Pakistan’s former Fata has always remained a focal gathering point of militants being flushed out of Afghanistan. Though the tribal borderland may not prove that easy a place for the fleeing Taliban militants to regroup as it was back in 2001, it may create an alarming security situation for Pakistan which is struggling to rehabilitate and reconstruct the area.
A viable option before the US, Afghan government and the Taliban leadership can be to deliberate the possibilities of integrating these fighters into the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) in a post-deal Afghanistan. However, it will not be an easy task considering the fact that both the ANDSF and the Taliban have remained a bitter foe and harbour enormous trust deficit towards each other. It will be a challenging task for them to accept each other as partners and there is a possibility that the Taliban may emerge as a parallel force challenging the position of ANDSF.
Any peace deal which ignores these intricacies and complexities may not last very long in Afghanistan. The Taliban do not comprise a few hand-picked leaders. By ignoring the rank and file of the Taliban group, they may emerge as a peace spoiler. It is wise if the negotiating parties could take these sensitivities into consideration for ensuring a durable peace in the strive-torn Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2019.