Published in Hindustan Times on 29 April, 2021
Everyone agrees that 2021 will be a year of reckoning for Afghanistan; thereafter, the narratives begin to diverge. For the US, it marks the end of America’s longest war. For the Taliban, 2021 marks their victory over the most powerful military force, the sole superpower. In popular mythmaking, it adds to the notion of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires.
For the Afghans, it is the opening of yet another page in their unending conflict that began in 1973 with the coup by Sardar Mohammed Daud who deposed his cousin, King Zahir Shah, replacing the 200 year old monarchy with a socialist republic and sparking a chain of events leading to the Soviet intervention in 1979, the CIA-ISI jihad against the godless Communists during the 1980s, the collapse of the Communist regime and the deadly infighting among the Mujahiddin, emergence of the Taliban in 1994 and US entry in 2001 a month after the 9/11 attacks.
What makes the current chapter tragic is that the US intervention enjoyed the support of the international community and was also welcomed by the vast majority of the Afghan population. More than thirty countries contributed troops to the International Security Assistance Force; the UN Security Council backed it unanimously; and a large UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan was set up to coordinate international assistance for Afghan reconstruction and development.
Two decades later, having spent nearly $1.5 trillion on its war operations and nearly 2400 US soldiers killed, the US has no good options. A cumulative set of errors have led to a US fatigue with the Afghan project: A belief in 2002 that the Taliban was defeated when they had only dispersed to sanctuaries in Pakistan; introducing a centralised presidential system that lacked institutions for checks and balances, resulting in weak local governance; shifting focus to the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003; gradual return of the Taliban beginning in 2005 and US failure to check Pakistan’s duplicity on the matter; inability to curb opium production that fuelled the insurgency; President Barack Obama announcing the troop surge in 2009 along with the drawdown 18 months later; a growing legitimisation of Taliban as a political force, cemented by the opening of the Doha office in 2013, prodded by UK, Norway and Germany; and finally, the Doha agreement last year, packaged as a peace deal but essentially a US withdrawal deal.
During the past two decades, as Senator, as Vice-President, and now as President, Joe Biden has been through hundreds of briefings on Afghanistan and visited the region over a dozen times. He believed that the objective of delivering justice to those who perpetrated the 9/11 attack on the US had been achieved and the terrorist threat to the US homeland from Afghanistan was such that it did not require a permanent US military presence in Afghanistan. Yet, he did give diplomacy a chance. There was a new peace plan and a flurry of diplomatic activity for a Bonn 2 conference under UN auspices. Within a month, it was clear that it wouldn’t work. Taliban rejected any idea of a ceasefire; many Afghan politicians liked the idea of Ghani stepping down; and an unhappy Ghani suggested early elections instead. Biden announced the new deadline of implementing the withdrawal before 11 September.
However, a Taliban takeover is not a foregone conclusion as long as US funding continues and the Afghan security forces maintain the integrity of the chain of command. The Taliban will also learn that the Afghanistan of 2021 is very different from that of 1994. Nearly three-fourths of the Afghan population is below 30 and is used to living in a conservative but open society.
If the Kabul regime is divided so is the Taliban. There are at least five groupings: Mullah Haibatullah, head of the Quetta shura, Mullah Baradar, head of the Doha office and the public face, Mullah Yaqub, son of Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani who is the deputy leader and heads the Haqqani network out of Waziristan with his independent link with the ISI and ties with Al Qaeda, and the most hardline Helmand group led by Mullah Zakir and Mullah Sadr Ibrahim; in addition, there are many front line fighters whose commanders accept little external authority. Moreover, the region hosts 5000 foreign fighters with shifting allegiances.
Now that the US exit is a reality, concerns in Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China about restraining the Taliban from emerging as the sole power centre are surfacing. In a meeting in Moscow last month, the extended troika consisting of China, Pakistan, US and Russia issued a joint statement opposing the restoration of an Islamic Emirate. At the Raisina Dialogue recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif bluntly warned that an Islamic Emirate “is an existential threat to Pakistan and a national security threat to Iran and India.” He emphasised the need for an inclusive peace, not a Taliban-dictated peace.
For the last few years, India has been content with the mantra of “an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” peace process. In the new environment, we need to get over our hesitations and actively explore new coalitions that will safeguard our national interests.