The future of Afghanistan – Asif Durrani

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Let us face the facts; the Taliban want a military solution for the simple reason that the US-led coalition has recognized the locus of the Taliban without conditions.

Now, those insisting that the Taliban may agree to come to terms with the Ashraf Ghani government are either too naive to not know what the militia is up to or they want to buy time for a safe departure.

For Ashraf Ghani, presiding over a dispensation bereft with rifts amongst various interest groups, creating a unified stand would be a tall order if not an impossibility. His helplessness was visible when the Americans kept him at bay while negotiating their withdrawal plans with the Taliban at Doha. Like his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani remains a titular head of state – sarcastically referred to as the ‘Mayor of Kabul’.

Whatever state machinery and financial resources President Ghani could command have only added to disorder, corruption and nepotism. The state administration, whether at the centre or in the provinces, could easily flout his orders. His appointed ministers or governors refuse to step down for the simple reason that warlords in the country are holding sway over the state apparatus. If a compromise fails between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country plunging into a civil war would be a foregone conclusion.

The Taliban will have to address scores of challenges if they consider themselves a major stakeholder or a ‘government-in-waiting’. The Taliban’s refusal to a ceasefire during negotiations, without a plausible reason, offers a glimpse of future events that may unfold with the American pullout.

The Taliban’s logic is rooted in the premise that a ceasefire would discourage their fighters, who may leave the movement in desperation or join Daesh/ISIS. It may be a plausible explanation for the continuation of war or insurgency but does not stand the logic of the peace process, especially when their primary condition of foreign troop withdrawal has been met.

Second, by not subscribing to a ceasefire, the Taliban may be losing local and international support as a major stakeholder. Also, their explanations about civilian casualties are not accepted. For instance, despite denial about their involvement in the massacre of over 80 young schoolgirls in the Dashte Barchi School in Kabul last month, Afghan society did not accept the Taliban’s explanations.

Third, the real test for the Taliban will begin once they come into power by force or become part of a reconciliation government. While they may control domestic criticism by intimidation or coercion, they will have to respect the international norms and commitments to which Afghanistan has been a signatory. Otherwise, they are well aware of the past experience when – except for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – no other country recognized their government.

Fourth, given past experience with the Taliban’s harsh rule in implementing Shariah, they will be expected to make their future plans public so as to address the general concerns of the people and the international community. In this regard, declaration of their policy on women’s rights would be crucial in determining the international community’s perception of the militia.

For the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, withdrawal of US/Nato troops would entail greater responsibilities. In an interview with BBC 4, on May 5, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated the US would remain engaged with Afghanistan even after withdrawal by assisting the country “economically, development assistance, humanitarian, supporting its security forces.” However, he bluntly alluded to the Afghans and their immediate neighbours, including Pakistan, enjoying a free ride on the “US, NATO and other partners”. In an implied warning, Blinken has been demanding that Afghanistan’s neighbours share greater responsibility to ensure that the peace process moves smoothly.

For Pakistan, it has been an unending cliffhanger for the past four decades. From ‘front-line status’ following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the Mujahideen’s chaos, to the Taliban’s rise leading up to 9/11, and again becoming a ‘front-line state’ against the ‘war on terror’, the country has been badly bruised in socio-cultural terms and in economic progress. Even if Pakistan may play a neutral role in the entire game, its protestations are taken with a pinch of salt. Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is praised to the extent that President Biden expects Pakistan to “do more” during the US troop withdrawal by September 11.

There has been talk of Pakistan giving bases to the US after the withdrawal. American media is persistent in its stories to that extent, quoting unnamed Pentagon sources. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has already denied the speculation in unequivocal terms in parliament. However, a slew of factors would keep Pakistan from granting bases to the Americans, foremost being the trust deficit deeply entrenched in Pakistan, especially after the Indo-US strategic partnership has concretized. Except for the economic realm, Pakistan would be reluctant to enter into any deal with the US which involves security issues or its emerging goodwill in the neighbourhood.

Finally, Pakistan would be weighing its options in the coming weeks and months as the situation in Afghanistan unfolds. Statements emanating from Afghanistan – whether President Ghani’s article in ‘Foreign Affairs’ on May 4, his interview with Der Spiegel, or his National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib’s uncharitable remarks about Pakistan – have poisoned an environment already infested with distrust and acrimony. Pakistan’s apprehensions about Indian machinations to keep the second front open through Afghanistan is well known and widely shared with the concerned quarters at the regional and international level.

The best course for Pakistan would be to keep a strict vigil along the borders, maintain an equal distance with all Afghan groups and forge a consensus amongst Afghanistan’s neighbours of complete neutrality and promotion of peace and stability in the war-ravaged country.

The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to Iran and UAE. He currently works as senior research fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).