Whatever the nature of optimistic statements from the NATO command in Afghanistan, or Washington, DC, it is clear that the country is drifting towards civil war, and with no predictable outcome.
Should such an eventuality take place, it has the potential to suck in – however reluctantly – any one or more regional states including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and the central Asian states. Afghan officials speak openly of Chinese investment, for instance, as central to ensuring that the national government in Kabul will stay in power after 2014.
The Taliban have urged fighters to sabotage April 5 general elections by attacking polling staff and stations, voters and security forces, thus defying international actors’ claims that the expensive military and civilian intervention as well economic investment in Afghanistan since 2001 has made reasonable progress in establishing a functioning state system.
The Taliban said a statement emailed to the press that they “‘have given orders to all our mujahideen to use all force at their disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections to target all workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices.”
What seems to be the most probable outcome is an era of heightened civil war between Afghan Army troops, the majority of whom are non-Pashtun, and the Taliban. It seems unreasonable to say these elections are a key to understanding and evaluating the political future of Afghanistan and the progress it has made since 2001. To ‘prove’ this and to show the world in concrete terms that Afghanistan has made real progress, both NATO and Afghan soldiers have been extensively working on motivating and even coercing the Afghans, especially in remote and insurgency hit areas, to vote.
This strategy has, perhaps, pushed the Taliban to declare their intention to sabotage the polls by any and all means. Additionally, when we consider the facts that top candidates include some notorious warlords and that all would-be presidents support a continued US and NATO role in their country after 2014, recognizing that their young nation is still weak, and that the Loya Jirga has endorsed a pro-American stance on the Bilateral Security Agreement (which is still to be signed), civil war appears to be inevitable.
It is also questionable whether the regional states, would be able to remain neutral in such a scenario, especially in the wake of the US/NATO withdrawal. The emerging scenario suggests regionalization of conflict, with Pakistan, India and Iran playing leading roles in playing the proxy war.
The unrest in Central Asian States and in the Caspian sea region is also likely to push an extremely reluctant Russia, which was driven out of Afghanistan in 1989, into seeking to manage the conflict in Afghanistan in order to protect its own precarious position in the volatile region.
The Taliban can cause trouble by extending support to the anti-state and anti-Russian elements in the region next door. Similarly, neither can China remain immune to these developments given the kind of problems it has long face from the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority from Xinjiang, leadership and fighters of which are currently said to be based somewhere in between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The situation China could face is very significant. On March 14, Reuters reported a recent interview of Abdullah Mansour, the leader of the rebel Turkestan Islamic Party, who reportedly spoke on a crackly line using a mobile phone with an Afghan SIM card, expressing his determination to avenge the deaths of the associates in Beijing`s crackdown on a separatist movement.
Similarly, it has also been reported that two security reports sent by Chinese authorities to their expatriates working in Afghanistan this year warned of attacks on a Chinese hotel, Chinese companies and other targets in Kabul. However, no attacks have been carried out so far. According to Afghan Taliban sources, there are about 250 Uighur militants in Afghanistan`s Nuristan and Kunar provinces, who are ready to fight within and outside China.
In addition, civil war would have very adverse impact on the economic inroads that China has made into Afghanistan, with millions of dollars invested in different projects of economic significance.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say the spillover effects of civil war and the precarious domestic situation of regional states could potentially cause much trouble long after the US/NATO forces are gone.
Needless to say, Pakistan would again be the primary regional victim of another period of war in Afghanistan, or of regionalization of conflict. Pakistan would necessarily have to contain the effect of war on its own society and economy. There are already around 4 million Afghan refugees living in the country. Any further influx of refugees as a result of civil war would exacerbate the already critical situation.
Therefore, If Afghanistan destabilizes, Pakistan suffers and vice versa. For Pakistan, one of the fundamental concerns is a planned withdrawal of forces. An unplanned withdrawal and that too without establishing ‘peace’ with Taliban, would weaken control over the rough elements in the Afghan National Force which could further burden Pakistan’s security forces. Hence, assessing the risks of further infiltration from Afghanistan is vital for the security of Pakistan’s western borders
Pakistan will also have to worry about the increasing influence of India. The fact that India is giving military training to 200 Afghan soldiers per year and that it is also providing training to the Afghan intelligence services makes the entire situation highly unfavorable for Pakistan. This gives India an opportunity to exploit internal unrest into a sort of indirect battlefield against Pakistan.
William Dalrymple, a British historian, has warned that Afghanistan could be a ‘second Kashmir’ once the US forces pull out. These factors, given the extremely fragile politico-economic problems it faces, have pushed Pakistan to make changes in its erstwhile policy towards Afghanistan from domination to restraint and responsibility, i.e., minimum interference in Afghan internal affairs and playing a constructive role as a facilitator of establishing peace through dialogue.
However, Pakistan’s actions in case of civil war remain uncertain. After all, it is almost impossible for it to remain immune from war and disruption especially because of ethnic linkages of the Pashtun people of Pakistan with those of Afghanistan. It would also be unrealistic to assume that Pakistan would stay or even try to be neutral given the fact that the fallout of civil war involves both huge costs and dividends for all stakeholders. Pakistan, like any other involved state, should be expected to support those groups in the wake of civil war which can serve its interests.
The near future is marred with acute uncertainties, making the situation extremely dicey. But it is quite clear from the Talib stance that they are simply not going to accept what is being called the “political future” through elections, and that they will resist it through blatant use of force.
It seems futile to hold elections without first coming to terms with Taliban who have been fighting for years. Needless to say, Taliban’s aggression would necessarily be met by aggression---hence, more fighting, possibly leading to a fully-fledged civil war. Nonetheless, the period of war, amidst all this, for the people of Afghanistan would not come to end, no matter if it is ‘war on terror’, civil war of proxy wars among regional and extra regional states.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic who writes regularly for Asia Sentinel