Afghanistan: the end game

How would Afghanistan be affected once Americans pull their troops out from the country after a presence of 40 years?

Shahid Javed Burki March 15, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

It appears that the Americans may be finally heading towards spelling out the terms on which they would end their two-decade long involvement in Afghanistan. While he served as vice-president in the administration headed by president Barack Obama, Joe Biden even then wanted the US to exit. “Nearly 20 years into the US effort to modernise and liberalise that notoriously difficult land, Taliban forces once more control the countryside, and they appear to be poised for a final spring offensive against the parts of Afghan cities that remain under government control,” wrote David Von Drehle in one of the several “obituaries” of the misguided and misunderstood US effort in the landlocked country. “President Biden faces a choice — but it is not really a choice. He can continue the process begun under president Barack Obama, and ramped up under president Donald Trump, to cut losses and get out of Afghanistan.” This seems to be the direction President Biden seems to be taking.

While the Biden administration was involved in studying its options in Afghanistan, it thought it prudent to test some of the ideas it was considering by sending a letter to President Ashraf Ghani with a copy to the Taliban. The content of the three-page letter with an eight-page attachment signed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken was first made public on March 7, 2021, by an Afghanistan news agency. It covered a great deal of ground. There was a warning to the Afghan President that he had to move to bring peace to his troubled nation. The time had arrived to prepare the country for the entry of the Taliban in the system of government. Until that happened, an interim government should be established and given the responsibility for drafting a new constitution. There was the need to protect female rights in the country. The role of religion in Afghan society needed to be defined. Finally, some regional powers should be involved in overseeing the process that needed to bring peace back to this long-troubled country.

“I am making this clear so that you understand the urgency of my tones,” said Blinken to Ghani. The Secretary requested the Afghan leader’s “urgent leadership in the coming weeks. We have reached an initial conclusion that the best way to advance our shared interests is to do all we can to accelerate peace talks and to bring all parties into compliance with their commitments.” But the letter warned that the US was looking at a wide range of options. “I must make clear to you, Mr President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option.” Among these, the letter said, was “the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1”. The interim government would be responsible for coming up with a new constitution that would use as a template the one that was written in 2004.

The letter proposed sweeping plans for an interim power-sharing government between the Taliban and other Afghan leaders. The letter provided some details for the work the interim government would be assigned to do. The “transitional Peace Government of Afghanistan”, it said, should “include separate but coequal executive, parliamentary and judicial branches adhering to the current 2004 Constitution until it can be revised”.

Under a section titled “Guiding Principles” the US proposal took up the matter of the role of religion in the country. It said that Islam would be Afghanistan’s official religion with a new High Council of Islamic Jurisprudence (HCIJ) to provide guidance to all levels of government but an independent judiciary would have the last word. Although the Taliban had said that they would not encroach upon the rights of women in their country, they had made the promise subject to what they considered as Islamic principles. Ultimately the issue would be debated and decided upon by the proposed HCIJ.

Continued the Blinken letter: “To move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and a comprehensive ceasefire we are immediately pursuing a high-level diplomatic effort”, including a request to the United Nations to convene a meeting among foreign ministers of regional countries and the US. Secretary Blinken suggested that invitees should include Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India. “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed,” said the letter. Blinken also wrote that Washington would ask Turkey to host a senior-level meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government “in the coming weeks”. The letter also suggested what needed to happen after the peace agreement it had proposed was signed. “Each side shall immediately announce and implement an end to all military and offensive operations and hostile activities against the other.” The process of transition should be watched by a joint commission from each side, with three international observers, that would follow written rules for monitoring.

By now the Taliban have a history of reacting with common citizens that has lasted for more than a quarter century. They were founded in 1994 in the country’s southern province of Kandahar on the border with Pakistan. Sidelining the Mujahideen groups that were successful in pushing out the forces of the Soviet Union that had invaded the country, they were able to create a government in Kabul. They allowed Osama bin Laden, the founder of the Al Qaeda, to operate from Kandahar. It was from there that they planned and launched attacks on some highly visible targets in the US. George W Bush, the then US president, vowed to avenge these acts and the result was the invasion of Afghanistan. This was done in December 2001 with the help of a militia that went under the name of Northern Alliance. The alliance drew mostly from the Tajik community in the northeast of the country. The Taliban drew upon the Pashtun population that accounted for 45% of the ethnically diverse country.

How would Afghanistan be affected once the Americans pull their troops out from the country after a presence of 40 years? Would the government-controlled security forces have the wherewithal to prevent the insurgents from establishing their dominion over the country? Two American journalists set out to find answers to these questions. They interviewed 19 civilians living or working in the territories controlled by the Taliban. “Over two decades of conflict and politicking, Taliban control in Afghanistan has become a patchwork of edicts and codes, with some areas seeing modest reform,” they wrote in a dispatch. Reviewing the situation in different parts of the country, they found that in some cases elders in the local population succeeded in getting the Taliban to open high schools for girls. During their 1996-2001 rule over the country, they had banned female education. “But in those same places, harsh often public punishments remain common. Torture and imprisonment are widely used for infringements as minor as possession of the wrong SIM card.” The deliberate, often slow, putting to death of captives also occurs. The US hopes that their departure would not recreate that situation.



Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2021.

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