If the year 2020 marked a breakthrough in US-Taliban negotiations leading to the signing of the Doha Accord on February 27, and the unleashing of intra-Afghan dialogue, the year 2021 will be quite challenging if during the first 100 days of the Biden-Kamala administration, American forces remain in Afghanistan and there is no positive development in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Since September 2020, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has been regularly visiting Islamabad, Kabul and Delhi in order to give an impetus to the Afghan peace process. During his visit to Islamabad in early January 2021, he met the Chief of Army Staff and other high-ranking Pakistani officials while expecting Islamabad to play a significant role in persuading the Taliban to help form an interim government which can pave the way for the ownership of the Afghan peace process and total withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Why is Khalilzad — who was also the US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, and as an Afghan-origin American official is an old guard ensuring US interests in the war-torn country — frequently visiting Pakistan? What are his intensions for the periodic meetings with high-ranking Pakistani officials? Will the Biden-Kamala administration retain him as a top negotiator for Afghanistan or will he be replaced?
Khalilzad, who had his schooling in Kabul, left Afghanistan for the US in 1970s and after studying in various American universities joined the State Department during mid-1980s. Fluent in Pashto and Dari, he has played a pivotal role in convincing the Taliban leadership during negotiations in Doha to reach an agreement with the US to not attack American forces in Afghanistan and not allow Afghan soil to be used for terrorism against America; and in return he gained consent from the Trump administration for the total withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Even then, violence has continued in Afghanistan and there is a question mark about the durability of the US-Taliban Doha Accord in the Biden-Kamala administration because of two main reasons.
First, the Doha agreement was reached after bypassing the Kabul regime and second, because of the reservations held by NATO allies and the Pentagon about the total withdrawal of American/foreign forces from Afghanistan out of fear that the vacuum will lead to a fresh outbreak of violence and another of civil war.
In a country like Afghanistan which is 200 years older than Pakistan and has not been able to settle down as a nation state, the root cause of unabated violence is the fragmented state and society of that country. Lack of common ground to pull Afghanistan from decades of instability and armed conflicts is because of the divisive culture and mindset which promotes disunity instead of cohesiveness and coexistence. Had this not been the case, the Taliban and other Afghan groups representing various interests would have agreed to resolve issues peacefully instead of trying to impose their will and ideology on others. It is this internal discord and polarisation in Afghanistan which has promoted foreign intervention and occupation. There is no other country in the modern era which has experienced attack and occupation by three major powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the US. The feudal, tribal, ultra-conservative, sectarian and ethnic cleavages in Afghanistan along with its failure to establish a central control over the countryside transformed the country into a fragile, failing and failed state.
After 9/11 and the disbanding of the Taliban regime by the US-led attack, thousands of Afghans who had left the country and settled in the West because of war, returned in order to contribute to the rebuilding of their destroyed homeland. Prosperous overseas Afghans thought that with the strong backing of the West and other friendly countries they could transform Afghanistan into a stable and thriving country. But soon they realised that they were wrong as due to failed governance, rampant corruption and insecurity, it was not possible for them to help change the destiny of Afghanistan.
Because of three main reasons, Afghanistan in unlikely to be peaceful and stable in 2021.
First, there is no indication on the part of the Taliban that they have renounced violence against the Afghan security forces. On January 15, a Taliban attack killed several Afghan soldiers. It is not possible for the Taliban to continue their attacks and target Afghan security forces and for intra-Afghan talks to also go on. Unless the Taliban amend their intransigent position, agree to become part of the political process, form a political party and participate in elections, one cannot expect peace in Afghanistan. If the Taliban leadership blames hardline field commanders for violence because of their rejection of the Afghan government, how can then intra-Afghan talks continue? The problem is that the Taliban still demand that the government should be handed over to them so that they can re-establish the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Their assertion to capture power by force will be counter-productive because of the predictable resistance from their opponents.
Second, it is yet to be seen whether the Biden-Kamala administration will own the Doha Accord which lacked the involvement of the Afghan government. Will the US now agree for a total withdrawal of its forces because both NATO and Pentagon have expressed their reservations about the exit strategy as the vacuum created will be dangerous and force Afghanistan into a fresh civil war?
Afghan critics of the Doha agreement argue that it was like making a deal with Al Qaeda. There is no indication that the Taliban have delinked themselves from their former erstwhile ally Al Qaeda, and deep down the nexus between the two will become obvious once foreign forces leave Afghanistan and the Kabul regime faces a collapse. The nightmare of the Taliban again seizing power and imposing their own brand of Shariah is not a myth but a reality because on numerous occasions the Taliban have made it clear that if they gain power again they will practise the same policies they were following from 1996-2001.
Third, Pakistan’s predicament is of the devil and deep blue sea: if foreign forces leave Afghanistan, the country will be plunged into a new phase of civil war resulting in a fresh influx of refugees dismantling the barbed fence along the Pak-Afghan border. And, if the foreign forces remain in Afghanistan, it would mean sustained violence and terrorism, thus deepening chaos, disorder and instability in Pakistan’s western neighbour.
Pakistan’s past patronage of the Taliban and its ‘interventionist’ policy in Afghanistan since the withdrawal of Soviet forces in February 1989 still haunts Islamabad because it led to deep scars and resentment in Afghan society about the manner in which Islamabad tried to impose its supported regime in Kabul.
The way out of violence and instability in Afghanistan is to hold a referendum about whether the Afghan Taliban join the political process and follow a democratic path through elections. A referendum, if held in an impartial and peaceful manner, will help decide the future role of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2021.