Things continue to look ugly in the war-torn Afghanistan. And it does not augur well for Pakistan. Already burdened with three million or so Afghan refugees for the last almost 40 years, Pakistan fears a fresh influx from the neighbouring country, probably in millions, if the ongoing fighting were to turn into an attritional civil war when the last US soldier would leave the country by September 11, 2021. And of course, one cannot also rule out the possibility of militancy spilling over into our side of the Durand Line if it continued unabated, meanwhile.
Pakistan has already paid a heavy price in men and material mainly because of being the most allied of ally of the US in the first Afghan war which was misleadingly called Jihad; and next, for being a non-NATO ally in the second Afghan war waged against the so-called global terrorism. According to one count we lost as many as 70,000 Pakistanis including some 40,000 troops and as much as $150 billion over the so-called forever war.
More Afghan blood is likely to be spilled as the Taliban look well set to shoot their way into the vacuum being caused by the US troop withdrawal (650 troops will remain to protect the embassy and airport). Figures published by the UN on July 26 found that civilian casualties from armed conflict in the country rose by nearly 50% in the first half of the year, compared with a year earlier. The violence is said to be nearing the level sustained before American diplomats began negotiating with the Taliban in 2019.
And it was wrong to believe that a peace deal could have been struck with Taliban if the US had sought one when its military presence in Afghanistan was at its highest. Taliban were never interested in any peace negotiations without it being preceded by troops’ withdrawal and lifting of occupation. But what is true as well is that when the NATO forces had decided that there was no military solution, the bargaining power they had was gone.
By the time the US finally decided that there is no military solution, unfortunately, the bargaining power of the American or NATO forces had dissipated. Once they had reduced the troops to barely 10,000 and gave the exit date, Taliban rightly thought they had won. And once they thought they had won, it was next to impossible to ask the group to compromise or “force them” to take a political solution.
According to figures from the Long War Journal, an American website, the share of the country’s 407 districts claimed by the militants has increased from 26% in mid-June to 55% on July 21. As a result, the UN reports that there have been almost as many civilian casualties in the two months since May 1 as occurred in the four months prior to that. The Taliban and other anti-government militias are said to have been responsible for about two-thirds of the civilian casualties.
When Donald Trump was still in the White House some had hoped that America’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan would lead to a reduction in violence, and allow true peace negotiations to begin with Afghanistan’s government. But instead of talking, the militants have taken the opportunity to gain ground from the demoralised Afghan army. They have launched audacious attacks even in urban areas, which have generally been held by government forces. Cities such as Kandahar, in the south, and Kunduz, in the north, are essentially under siege. In Kandahar over the past month America has launched air strikes to destroy equipment to stop it from falling into enemy hands, and to support Afghan forces, but it is unclear how long such support will continue; military chiefs have previously suggested that air support would end after the withdrawal is complete.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Many analysts fear that this is the beginning of a new civil war, like the one that tore Afghanistan apart in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The omens are bad. Reports coming out of Spin Boldak are too gruesome. Upon taking over, the Taliban are said to have been summarily executing people it thinks are government supporters.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2021.
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