This article was first published in ThePrint.
Afghanistan is living proof that technological superiority in warfare is an insufficient condition for winning wars. The political outcomes of wars are hostage to success on the political table of diplomatic parleys. How else can one explain that the most powerful nation in the world, equipped with state-of-the-art technology and after having expended a great deal of blood and costly resources, has been unable to achieve favourable political outcomes. Yes, the US has so far prevented the Taliban from coming back to power in Kabul. But even that accomplishment was, for all practical purposes, undermined when the Donald Trump administration negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 and conceded that the militants can share power with the Afghan government as long as Afghanistan is not utilised as a base to launch terrorist attacks against the US. A peace deal that was done without the concurrence of the democratically elected government of Ashraf Ghani. Dumping allies has never troubled the US too much.
The peace process had envisaged the withdrawal of all American troops by 1 May 2021. But with Joe Biden as president now, the deal seems to be in jeopardy, because the US has serious concerns of a Taliban takeover once the withdrawal takes place without a power-sharing agreement between the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban. The US is pressuring the Ghani government for an agreement and is, in all probability, pushing Pakistan to get the Taliban to make concessions including the continued presence of US troops. Pakistan’s supposed change of stance was publicly projected through a tweet on what the DG ISPR said on 25 February: “Today’s Afghanistan is not the country it was in the nineties, whose state structure collapsed easily. Pakistan has also changed. It is not possible for [the] Taliban to take over Kabul and for Pakistan to support them. That will never happen.”
Meanwhile, the US leverage with Pakistan has strengthened somewhat due to the latter’s dire economic status and weakened support from its traditional Arab friends.
The Intra-Afghan negotiations are expected to discuss the ceasefire; agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan; the rights of women, free speech, and changes to the country’s constitution. The talks would also have to chalk out the fate of Taliban fighters as well as all the armed militias. This is a tall order to meet before the 1 May deadline.
Missing the wood for the trees
The Biden administration is backing several meetings between high-level Afghan government and Taliban officials. One such was hosted in Moscow in mid-March, which was also attended by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and representatives of Iran, India, China and Pakistan. The next one is to follow in Turkey in April. Afghanistan was the focus at the Heart of Asia Conference held in Tajikistan on 30 March and India was represented by foreign minister S. Jaishankar who stated: “India has been supportive of all the efforts being made to accelerate the dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, including intra-Afghan negotiations”. He also declared India’s support for a regional process to be convened under the aegis of the United Nations.
The conventional wisdom in India has always been that withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan will be detrimental to New Delhi’s interests as the Taliban could come to power and that would halt India’s aspirations to access Central Asia through the Chabahar Port. Also, a Taliban in power may provide the impetus of breeding terrorists that Pakistan would channelise towards India. These concerns are valid. But this view may be missing the wood for the trees.
The real battle involving force in Afghanistan has been between a US-backed Afghan government and the Pakistan-backed Taliban. The US is no longer willing to pay the price for its continued backing of the government. It is desperate for an honourable exit. There is now an increased likelihood that the US will first try with the help of Pakistan to get the Taliban to agree to an extension of the withdrawal date. Broadly, three scenarios could now unfold.
Three options for Afghanistan
Scenario One. The Intra-Afghan talks fail, and the Taliban starts an offensive and takes control of key road communication links weakening the Afghan government’s ability to govern its provinces. The US stays put and further Intra-Afghan talks are stalled. Violence spikes and the civil war deepens endlessly.
Scenario Two. The Intra-Afghan talks fail. The US exits. Taliban launches a major offensive with Pakistan support and Kabul falls. Pakistan recognises the Taliban government. Former Afghan forces consolidate in northern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Some forces are given shelter in Iran. Taliban establishes an ideologically extremist State.
Scenario Three. Intra-Afghan talks succeed. The Taliban shares power. The US exits. A fragile peace prevails for a year or two but is followed by a civil war with Pakistan backing the Taliban. The global community’s attention to violence receives a resigned acknowledgement. Russia, Iran, China and India take sides and provide support in various forms. Pakistan evades US pressure and that pushes it deeper into China’s embrace.
US must leave, Afghans must decide
None of these scenarios has a happy ending. However, the complex web of actors in Afghanistan tends to distract attention from the primary issue that must be resolved even if it has to be done through the currency of violence. It is about the rejection or acceptance by the Afghan people of the Taliban as an extremist religious entity. Decades of foreign interference has only prolonged the long and tortuous journey to peace. Afghans themselves must be left to resolve this ideological war. The US must exit with or without progress on Intra-Afghan talks and most importantly, all international actors, preferably through the UN Security Council, must mutually agree to non-interference and only provide humanitarian aid and developmental assistance. Pakistan’s public change of posture enunciated by its DG ISPR is encouraging, but it will require both the US and China to help Islamabad keep its word.
India’s recent tacit recognition of the Taliban should at best be a tactical move. Strategically, the Taliban in power in Afghanistan is detrimental to India’s interest. India must not waver from its stand on the ideological front even as it leaves it to the Afghans to resolve the resultant imbroglio. The exit of the US will deny the Taliban the narrative of pushing its ideology in the garb of fighting the foreigners and will be a strategic blow for them. For India, Pakistan will lose leverage with the US and that can only be to our benefit. A US exit can only do good. Prolonging its stay also deepens the misery of the Afghan people without an end in sight.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.