In Afghanistan, Both War and Peace Remain Problematic

It also appears the Taliban’s allies aren’t too enthusiastic about them either

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

It has taken the United States 19 years to realize that war was not the solution to resolve what has been called the “Afghan problem.’ While the US military continues to have significant presence in Afghanistan, the emphasis has already shifted massively from battles to the negotiating table, although true peace is yet to be achieved.

The continuing friction between the US and Kabul and the US and the Taliban over the question of the release of Taliban prisoners, including some important commanders, illustrates the fact that in Afghanistan, it isn’t just the war that was problematic. Peace has its own problems that need to be resolved first. While it was never expected that the US-Taliban negotiations would quickly pave the way for peace, no one expected Kabul to change its position vis-à-vis the US policies and assert itself in an unprecedented way. 

It is also beginning to become apparent that the Taliban would have roadblocks from Iran and Russia – and surprisingly Pakistan – on its way to dominance once the allies leave.  As it stands, even Pakistan, the Taliban’s most ardent supporter in the region, no longer wants an Afghanistan solely dominated by the Taliban.

The recent visit by Pakistan’s Army chief, General Bajwa, and head of Inter-Services Intelligence, Islamabad’s premier intelligence agency, showed that Pakistan’s approach to the ‘Afghan conundrum’ is markedly different from what it was at the time of Soviet withdrawal and/or when the Taliban were in power before the US invasion.

While Pakistan still emphasizes the need to abide by the Doha agreement signed in Qatar’s capital in late February after months of negotiations and release Taliban prisoners, the visit amplified the range of issues Pakistan seeks to resolve, issues that go far beyond the agenda of a Taliban return to politics or their domination of the country.

It is clear that Pakistan equally values the importance of the question of repatriation of millions of Afghan refugees who have lived in Pakistan for decades and which Islamabad considers a burden on its economy. Linked with it is Pakistan’s emphasis on the crucial importance of Afghanistan’s economic prosperity – a fact that, if it materializes, could play a crucial role in mitigating the economically poor circumstances that prevent Afghan refugees from returning home. 

While Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban’s return to politics is obviously unchanged, that it does not want their sole domination is due also to the fact that it is no longer, unlike the 1990s, the sole player pulling all the strings. The quite visible presence of China, Russia and Iran in the peace process limits the extent to which Pakistan can or will push for an automatic translation of the Taliban’s strong battlefield position into a predominant political position.

The recent ‘virtual meeting’ of the special representatives of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran, which basically took place against the larger international context of the earlier-than-expected withdrawal of the US/NATO forces, illustrates that none of the parties was looking for a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. This is especially true of Russia and Iran, with both having a history of bad relations with the militant group.

The joint statement issued showed their support for an “Afghan-led & Afghan-owned” process of dialogue, followed by a “call on all Afghan ethnic groups and parties, including Taliban to act upon the opportunities preparing the situation to launch” the process as soon as possible.

If for China, Russia and Iran, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan might become a source of the transfer of Jihadi ideology to their countries, for Pakistan a Taliban dominated Afghanistan would once again hurt its relations with the US, a country that, despite all the friction, remains Pakistan’s top export market and one that Pakistan cannot afford to lose at a time when its exports are already extremely low and its growth rate is expected to remain negative for the rest of 2020.

Antagonizing the US further by following a policy of Taliban domination in Afghanistan is not something that Pakistan’s current military and political leadership seems to be pursuing, although Imran Khan has always supported negotiations with the Taliban as the only way out of the war.

Out of its interest as well as incapacity, Pakistan does not want these negotiations to be or even look like an invitation to the Taliban to just take over the country. But at the same time, the US government is running into trouble in convincing Kabul to move ahead, and has already announced to withdraw troops ahead of the schedule. This is largely regarded in the region as a US move to placate the Taliban, who have been increasingly frustrated by Kabul’s delaying tactics.

The Taliban have time and again threatened to withdraw from the agreement in case their demands are not met. While Kabul is yet to release about 2,000 Taliban prisoners, the US decision to withdraw a bit early is likely to calm the Taliban and remove their concerns with regards to actual US intentions, although this decision has also been influenced by the unchecked spread of Covid-19. The US Defense Department has concluded that as many as 50 percent of the Afghan security forces are likely to have the virus.

As a result, all joint operations and training programs have been paused, weakening a key pillar of the US war effort.  Other sources are reporting, however, that the Taliban themselves have not been immune to the virus, with Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada reported dead from Covid-19 by Foreign Policy, although the Taliban have publicly denied Akhunzada’s death. According to the magazine, that has led to a split in the Taliban itself over succession, although it is unclear how serious the split is

Certainly, however, the decision is also meant to send a clear and powerful message to Kabul, which has neither the resources nor enough military forces to tackle the Taliban on its own. Kabul’s initial refusal, followed by delaying tactics with regards to prisoner release, first led the US to seek help from New Delhi, which continues to maintain good relations with Kabul. Delhi’s unchanged, ambivalent position vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the whole peace process meant that it could not help the US convince Kabul of the need to abide by the Doha agreement. Hence the subsequent US decision to speed up its withdrawal plan, a decision that can suit the Taliban only.

The question, however, is: would such a decision directly lead to the Taliban’s unilateral domination of Afghanistan? The Taliban’s erstwhile allies appear not to want that.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel