So far, countless efforts aimed at bringing the warring parties to agree on a viable understanding have not made a tangible headway. The latest initiative spearheaded by the United States with lending unexpected legitimacy and recognition to the Taliban Movement is in progress with a slow pace. Though the current situation in Afghanistan does not fully resemble the state of affairs in the South Vietnam of post-Paris Peace Accord of 1973, the possibility of the recurrence of similar events leading to the fall of Saigon in April 1975, this time in Kabul may not be a remote possibility, should the present course of events remains unchecked.
The ethnicity issue
The core of internal disagreements and power struggle in Afghanistan to a great extent could be attributed to the ethnic and tribal divisions blended with mild sectarian orientations. Since its founding in 1709, Afghanistan has been traditionally dominated by Pashtuns as the largest ethnic group mainly settled in the southern and eastern regions with their presence felt in almost all corners of the country. On this background, and in contrast to the aspirations of other major ethnic groups, Pashtuns deem it their natural right to rule the entire nation disregarding the due share of other sections of the population. The contemporary history of Afghanistan is indicative of consecutive Pashtun dynasties sitting in Kabul (with the exception of the brief reign of the Tajik King Habibullah Kalakani better known as “Bachay-e-Saqaw”) that is also cited by Pashtuns as precedence cementing their cause.
Taliban movement despite all its efforts to present self as an inclusive and non-ethnic entity is evidently a predominantly Pashtun movement in pursuit of goals and objectives not much different from other defunct or functioning Pashtun groups. Even after the takeover of Kabul by the Mujahedeen in 1992 and eruption of another civil war, none of the Pashtun armed groups headed by a charismatic leader or warlord was able to expand its sphere of influence beyond the physical and social boundaries of its respective tribe. While some decided to join the interim government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, others with the all-out backing of Pakistan opted for the path of armed confrontation in hope of toppling the Tajik government of Kabul. Failure of the Pakistani backed Pashtun groups to dislodge President Rabbani culminated in Islamabad’s fresh initiative of forming a new Pashtun armed group not restricted to a specific tribe, that could act as an umbrella covering all Pashtuns of Afghanistan. The strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia adopted by Taliban leadership not only opened the gates of hard-line Sunni theological schools for them to recruit dedicated cadres but also earned them valuable spiritual backing of Salafis as well as official recognition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The post-911 events and fall of Taliban from power did not translate into the total demise of this movement. The group gradually reorganized and reverted back to the non-conventional tactics of confrontation with NATO forces and the newly formed Afghan National Army while most Mujahedeen leaders and warlords were compelled to abandon arm struggle and join the political process. The presence of a large number of coalition troops and pour-in of billions of dollars worth of military hardware and development funds provided the war-ravaged Afghanistan with a degree of stability and noticeable improvement in living standards, but despite all the global efforts to transform the country into a modern nation-state with a truly elected government capable of discharging its duties is yet to be materialized. International initiatives and most notably the 2001 Bonn Conference in search of a peaceful solution to afghan crisis finalized a power-sharing and state-building agreement that set the foundation for re-establishment of permanent government institutions. The agreement earned the concurrence of almost all key Afghan groups, factions and personalities except for the Taliban, which was not even invited to the conference. Ethnic groups and minorities were allocated cabinet seats proportional to their population with Pashtuns and Tajiks bagging 11 and 8 seats out of the 30 ministerial positions respectively. Subsequent adjustment at the top brass of the armed forces and high ups of the security apparatus traditionally dominated by Pashtun, in order to accommodate other ethnicities were also seen as a reduced vital Pashtun influence. Taliban being singled out of the entire venture rejected the whole process and wowed to continue insurgency till the exit all foreign forces and re-establishment of its “Islamic Emirates”. It quickly banked on the transformed nature of formerly armed Pashtun groups and drafted many of their militias into its rank and file. To seize territory beyond its traditional power base in Pashtun-majority areas, the Taliban went as far as recruiting disgruntled members of other ethnic communities mainly in the north of the country.
Hamid Karzai during his long term in office both as the interim leader and elected president focused mainly on power balancing rather than institution building and consolidating the central government. Poor handlings of the day-to-day affairs of the state, the ever-growing grievances of the alienated population and ethnic minorities, frequent Afghan civilian casualties and collateral damages as the result of US airstrikes, rampant corruption and inability of the state to provide basic services coupled with the open exchange of criticisms and accusations between Karzai and some high ranking NATO member state officials were all valuable opportunities at the disposal of Taliban to exploit. Pakistan’s dual policy of facilitating the US intervention in Afghanistan since 2001 on the one hand, and providing safe haven, weapon, intelligence and protection to Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network on the other has worked so far, despite all the American pressures and punitive measures.
The April 2014 presidential election of Afghanistan, similar to the one held in 2009, was marred by controversy at the very outset and created a “mobilization gap” built around ethnicity. Out of 11 candidates officially declared qualified to contest, 10 were ethnic Pashtuns leaving Dr Abdullah Abdullah the only Tajik candidate (he too, born from a Pashtun father and Tajik mother) to represent the non-Pashtun sections of the population. Abdullah, who came second to Hamid Karzai in the 2009 presidential election, comfortably won the first round of voting but lacked enough votes to avoid a run-off. However, in an unexpected turn of events and at the conclusion of an electoral process many observers describe as “fraudulent” and “massively rigged” the Karzai-appointed election commission declared Dr.Ashraf Ghani the winner of the second round of voting with a double-digit lead. This highly disputed election results plunged the country into months of uncertainty and fear of yet another round of armed hostilities. On September 2014 the deadlock was finally resolved through a power-sharing deal brokered by the then US secretary of state John Kerry. Under this agreement, the so-called “National Unity Government” was to be formed with Ashfar Ghani as the president and Abdullah Abdullah to assume the newly created office of the “Chief Executive”. Shortly after, Washington and Kabul inked their “Bilateral Security Agreement” under which some 10,000 American troops could remain in Afghanistan at the end of the international combat mission on Dec. 31, 2014, with validity until the end of 2024 and beyond.
The “national unity government” euphoria was short-lived as the implementation of the power-sharing deal met many stumbling blocks to overcome. Ashraf Ghani at his consolidated seat of presidency exercised the liberty of sidelining Abdullah Abdullah and his vaguely define the position of Chief executive. The long-simmering tension between the two leaders repeatedly broke out into open to the extent that Abdullah called Ghani “unfit” for the presidency and complained that his counsel was being ignored by Ghani, his position in the government was being marginalized, and his demands for reforms were being unmet. The ensuing uncertainty directly benefited the Taliban to reassert its influence in greater dimension and expand rapidly the scope of its insurgency. Large scale operations capturing whole districts with heavy casualty and devastating effects on the part of government troops became a matter of routine. On June 22, 2011, Barak Obama unveiled his plan to gradually reduce the number of US combat troops stationed in Afghanistan. Several months earlier the US administration had initiated direct talks with Taliban in Qatar and Germany in search of a peace deal much to the dismay of Kabul government and the already demoralized Afghan armed forces. This revised US policy towards Afghanistan and direct engagement with Taliban movement continued with Donald Trump in office. More concrete talks were conducted with the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the US peace envoy and mediator. Until March 2018 Khalilzad conducted at least five rounds of secret talks with Taliban delegates without many breakthroughs. On Oct. 2018 and in an apparent gesture of goodwill, Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of Taliban movement who in 2010 was captured by a joint CIA-ISI task force and jailed in Pakistan since then, was released and joined the mainstream of peace talks. The first open and preliminary round of US-Taliban meeting was held in UAE on December 2018 paving the way for the first formal peace dialogue scheduled for Feb. 25, 2019, in Qatar. The Qatar meeting presided over by Khalilzad and Mulla Baradar heading their own respective delegations mainly focused on four key issues of the withdrawal of foreign forces, counter-terrorism assurances, intra-Afghan dialogue, and reduction of violence leading to a comprehensive ceasefire. This round of talks ended without achieving any major breakthrough. The Afghan government was not invited to the meeting as the Taliban called it “puppet of the west” and remained rigid on its exclusion from any direct talk.
At the behest of the Russian Federation, an intra-Afghan dialogue was convened on Feb. 5, 2019, in Moscow. Representatives of Taliban and a 40 member Afghan delegation composed of prominent personalities including opposition figures and tribal leaders, but no representations from Kabul government, took part in the talks aimed at resolving the 18 years old civil war. The two sides while describing the dialogue as “very successful” agreed to continue it in Qatar. The second intra-Afghan dialogue scheduled for May 2019 in Qatar was cancelled in a row over the composition of the 250 member Kabul delegation and Taliban’s refusal to confer any legitimacy to the Afghan Government. With the shift of venue from Doha to Moscow, on May 28, 2019, the second intra-afghan dialogue resumed between the very enthusiast Afghan political, tribal and civil society figures and the 14 member Taliban delegation led by Mulla Baradar. Despite all the pleasantries exchanged during the meetings, Taliban displayed no flexibility as Mullah Baradar was quoted as saying that “Taliban is really committed to peace but thinks the obstacle to peace must be removed first, and that obstacle is the occupation of Afghanistan”. The sixth round of US-Taliban peace talks wrapped up earlier in Qatar also made no tangible progress with both sides asserting their own cases and only agreeing on further negotiations in the near future.
The current state of affairs
At present, 17000 NATO personnel including 14000 American troops are stationed in Afghanistan on training and advisory missions while US forces are also engaged in counter-terrorism operations as well as land and air support of Afghan troops. Afghanistan is the longest-running conflict of the United States at the estimated cost of $ 1 trillion and casualty figure of close to 2400 as of July 2018. The US military has stopped tracking the amount of territory controlled by the Kabul government and the armed insurgents which by itself is an indication of the worsening security situation. Based on the findings of the last tracking conducted by the US military on Oct. 2018, only 53.8% of the total districts and 63.5% of the population in Afghanistan is either controlled or influenced by the government with the rest controlled or influenced by Taliban. With all said, it appears that time is on the Taliban’s side. With an ever-growing sense of self-confidence, it is staging near-daily attacks, targeting and exacting a heavy toll on the embattled Afghan army and security forces. Their Frequent suicide bombings in urban areas seem to be unstoppable leaving a large number of civilian casualty. In light of all the realities, the United States logically finds no justifications for further engagement in an unwinnable and costly war. Under these circumstances, for Washington, the guarantee of non-return of the international terrorism to Afghanistan regardless of the nature of the government sitting in Kabul is the vital issue while the other 3 major elements pursued by Khalilzad in his negotiations with Taliban are aimed at the realization of that very same key demand. The departure of foreign forces even with a ceasefire in place and intra-afghan dialogue in progress is a valuable opportunity for Taliban to step away from its commitments and take on the incapable and demoralized Afghan army and to quickly conquer the rest of the country. The present Afghan government is heavily reliant on western political, economic, financial and military supports to survive without which its very existence would be at stake.
It appears now that Washington is actively pursuing the policy of leaving Afghans to fight their own war, carefully avoiding the term “Afghanization” just to shy away from the tragic conclusion of its “Vietnamization” scheme in Indochina towards the end of the 1960s. Any US-Taliban agreement even on terms demanded by the United States may lead to tragic consequences if crucial and the long-neglected measures to help Afghans defend themselves are not in place in advance. Return of Taliban to power using the vacuum left behind by the hasty departure of coalition forces shall plunge the country into another chaotic situation and intensified civil war paving the way for the international terrorism to find safe haven and turn Afghanistan into their breeding ground once more.
Major social, political and economic reforms benefiting all sections of the population irrespective of their tribal and sectarian affiliations are prerequisite for any successful peace arrangement in the war-ravaged Afghanistan. Without it, the formation of a truly representative national government strong enough to survive and withstand the might of Taliban or any other proxy force seems to be inconceivable. The Afghan Government and the coalition forces have so far failed to win the battle for hearts and minds, especially in Pashtun areas, whereas the Taliban, aware of the vitality of continued popular support to its cause has gone as far as considerably relaxing their harsh indoctrination and is now much tolerant of taboos such as music and beardless men than it was before 2001.
Also much more is yet to be done to persuade Pakistan to truly rectify its Afghan policy as all international efforts, including the punitive sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, have so far failed to convince Islamabad to adopt a more constructive attitude towards a peaceful settlement of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.