The Afghan debate is marred by misinformation, disinformation and manipulated analyses. On the one hand is the ‘noisier group’ — comprising members of CIA, Pentagon, the contractor community and at least 12 American lawmakers having financial stakes linked with contractors, and heavy weights like Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice. This group asks for an “inclusive political settlement”, where “distrustful” Taliban should share power expansively with Ashraf Ghani and his cabal. Their Pakistani interlocutors hide behind cliches like “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led solution” etc.
They overplay the Taliban threat to the Afghan Constitution, Afghan women and minorities, citing the dreadful rollback of the freedoms, won by women/minorities under the US/western influence. Hardly a day goes by without an article/news in the mainstream US/western media, citing urbanite, mostly non-Pashtun Kabuli womenfolk, lamenting the potential loss of freedoms after foreign forces leave. They want the occupiers’ protection against their countrymen… feeling no shame in occupation.
There is a perceptible shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy, urging the Taliban to reconcile “on international terms” for ceasefire, peace and inclusivity. This policy recalibration appears hasty and perhaps “forced”. However, the consequent appeasement drive seems to have died its expected death, after Ghani, Amrullah Saleh and Hamdullah Mohib, et al kept sticking to their poisonous guns against Pakistan, targeting the movers and shakers of this change of heart.
Certain reinforcing developments include appointment of a US national, Dr Moeed Yusuf as Pakistan’s NSA and the Senate testimony by David F Helvey (Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Affairs), about Pakistan’s willingness to offer overflight rights and land access to (any) residual US forces inside Afghanistan after September 2021. The last time, air/ground lines of communications (A/GLOCs) were offered in 2001, Pakistan did so after under UN Resolution and international support. The Taliban, naturally took exception to this offering, terming basing and support hostile activities. One hopes Islamabad and Rawalpindi are on the “same page” even if in different “paragraphs”.
The other (less noisy) group of stakeholders comprises realists with deep insight in the region especially Afghan demography, political anthropology and social economy. These realists argue Afghanistan needs to be nudged towards a “practically possible solution” in the short-term, as its traditional conflict resolution mechanism (CRM) stands badly mauled by extensive social breakdown of traditional authority and institutions. They, however, realise that future Afghan political dispensation should and would be dictated by ground realities, particularly the military situation. This group favours pragmatic policy rationalism over wishful thinking and non-sustainable goals. They consider ending violence and protecting life/property more important than trivialities like Constitution, women right and minorities etc.
Realists cite “humanization” of the Taliban by the US after decades of demonisation and the consequent Doha peace deal as indications of US pragmatism. They see President Joe Biden’s decision to stick to withdrawal, despite extensive and continuing noise by the first group, as realistic. Biden had called the Taliban an “indigenous political force” as early as 2009.
Without getting into the “what and how” debate about the Afghan predicament, some broad conclusions need to be re-stated. Washington Papers had extensively covered (as commented upon by this scribe) the US strategic policy misdirection, futility of its nation-building, nurturing corruption in Afghanistan, the sorry state of Afghan security forces and drug trafficking etc.
The US had pursued contradictory goals of reconciliation, defeating the Taliban and establishing a strong central government. Reconciliation was/is not possible without Taliban, representing a crucial rural Pashtun constituency. Likewise, Afghans have resisted a strong Centre and the new state (if any) is “foreign to many Afghans” as it tries to displace and replace local, traditional institutions. Centralisation also leads to corruption, where elites are able to buy access and favour through elections… which produce imperfect solutions for most societies.
The second issue is of an Afghan Constitution that “reimagined the Afghan state, once decentralised but stable for generations, into a super-centralised presidency meant to rule every corner of Afghanistan directly from Kabul.” Again historically, culturally and traditionally, Afghanistan was a confederation of tribes under Ahmadzai/Muhammadzai monarchy; where the king — an equal among equals — drew strength from the Pashtun tribes and not the other way round.
The third misconception is the role of women in future Afghanistan. Women do exercise immense power in the traditional Afghan/Pakhtun sociology. She is revered as a mother (adeke mor), adored as a wife (janan/sanamjan), nurtured as a daughter (gulalai) and respected as a sister (khorjan)… and protected with life in all cases. The 21st century Taliban leadership — compared to their older folks — read the situation differently, given their social media exposure and their stated dependence on continued US/western financials, and intelligence/military support (against ISIS) etc.
That brings us to the revealed US behaviour of “leaving but not leaving Afghanistan.” If media reports are to be believed, the US plans to leave behind an army of paid contractors to outsource the war inside Afghanistan after September 2021. Reportedly, a private security company (Triple Canopy with Constellis as its parent company. Constellis owns Academi, the new name for Blackwater) is hiring armed guards for Afghanistan deployment. The withdrawal also does not include “some” special forces.
US, France and Germany are already cultivating Ahmed Massoud, 32, the Sandhurst educated son of late Ahmed Shah Massoud, for intelligence-gathering… much like they cultivated his father, the fabled lion of Panjshir.
The US is also contacting regional countries for bases (possibly Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and logistics (Pakistan) to retain the ability to respond inside Afghanistan. This is ostensibly aimed at bolstering Ghani, hedging against Taliban take-over, pressurising Pakistan, keeping cost-effective presence in the region to watch China and Russia, and placate the noisy group.
For Pakistan, this situation offers certain lessons and pointers. First, any local or foreign grouping to coax/challenge Taliban would be at best a time-sensitive irritation akin to the dying pangs of a failed order. Aligning with it (directly or indirectly) is bad strategy and reinforcing failure.
Second, only Afghan Taliban can keep Afghanistan under order, united and peaceful. The US/West is hedging just to see their efficacy. Taliban challengers (ISIS, RAW, NDS, US-backed strongmen) do not have any chance, just like the 50-nation alliance in the 20 long years.
Third, the Taliban enjoy the strength of their cause (national liberation); have the will to fight and die for it and; are “their own men”. Being rational, they take advice “as needed”, according to recent social media interview of their spokesman, Sohail Shaheen. Leverages have changed with altered military balance. Withdrawing our support at this critical time (if so) would go in their long historic memory as another betrayal.
Fourth, re-orienting a long-held policy midway (if so) is poor strategy and recipe for disaster. Alienating the Taliban and their consequent alliance with TTP is never in our interest. India would be the ultimate beneficiary.
Fifth, a sharia-complaint future political order in Afghanistan under Taliban should not be our concern, as we have all along supported an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” solution.
Some U-turns are tricky and consequential.
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