The USA invaded Afghanistan in 2001 intending to drive out the Taliban with the help of the Northern Alliance. Twenty years later, they are pulling out of the country after signing a contract with the Taliban and leaving the Northern Alliance government on their own. Experts are predicting that the puppet government could fall within three to six months. The withdrawal of US forces will mark the end of the war for the USA but it seems quite unlikely that Afghanistan will see peace soon.
It looks like history is
The Soviets left Afghanistan after a decade-long fight leaving behind a puppet government of Muhammad Najeebullah Ahmadzai that could not survive for long. Afterward, Mujahedeen failed to reach a power-sharing formula thus resulting in a civil war that devastated Afghanistan far more than the Russian invasion. Afghanistan fell under the control of different warlords that ruled with an iron fist and continuously fighting amongst themselves.
The Afghans attributed all kinds of evils to the warlords of the early 1990s. The Taliban movement, first seen in 1994, was a result of a revolt against corrupt practices by local warlords. Mullah Omar, teaching at a local madrasah (religious school) in Kandahar, gathered his followers, the refugees educated in the Pakistanis’ madrasah (that’s why they were called Taliban or students) announced to wage war against the corrupt warlords and to establish a pure Islamic society. Within a short span of few years, they controlled the majority of Afghan provinces. Militias often surrendered without a fight and warlords either escaped or were captured. The Taliban entered Kabul on 27 September 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Pakistan did not play any role in the initial organization of the Taliban movement but seeing the peace and stability that they brought to the provinces they captured, Pakistan started supporting them. Pakistan was the only country that recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and its Taliban Government. KSA and UAE followed suit but the UN did not recognize them as legitimate rulers. The Taliban were, therefore, dependent on Pakistan’s support and Pakistan has some leverage over them. Around 3 million refugees, mostly the Pashtuns, the ethnicity making the majority of the Taliban, were in Pakistan. Pakistan was also providing financial as well as diplomatic support to them. But, against the common belief, the Taliban were not a puppet in Islamabad’s hands, non-recognizing the Durand Line as an international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the point in the case.
Later, after 9/11 the USA invaded Afghanistan blaming that the attacks on the Twin Towers were planned by Osama bin Laden who was under the protection of the Taliban. Northern Alliance, deposed by Taliban from Kabul in 1996, played in the hands of US forces and Kabul was captured. Taliban did not offer any pitched battle as a strategy of living to fight another day. Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf switched sides, when threatened by the USA of throwing her back into the stone ages, and helped the USA in its “war on terror” and ditched the Taliban. The Taliban’s ambassador was deported unceremoniously into Afghanistan, despite having diplomatic immunity, where he was captured by the US forces and dispatched to Guantanamo Bay prison. The Northern Alliance government was anti-Pakistan as their leadership blamed Pakistan for providing support to the Taliban that ousted their government.
Now when the US forces are finally withdrawing after getting assurance from the Taliban that Afghan soil would not be used in any activity against her and her allies, Pakistan faces very challenging tasks. It is finding itself between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whether to support the puppet government of the Northern Alliance or to try and befriend the Taliban.
Options for Pakistan are limited. But one thing is clear that there is no military solution to Afghanistan rather a political settlement amongst the stakeholders is the only way to lasting peace and stability.
Will the Taliban agree to a political settlement when they can sense victory? A remote chance, as they are gaining control of vast lands of Afghanistan without any serious opposition. Even if they agree to some power-sharing formulae, they will only want to do it on their terms – that’s what the victors do. The puppet government would not be satisfied with the few crumbs that they would be offered. Therefore, a political settlement between the two sides seems unlikely, resultantly, an all-out civil war is a very real possibility. Pakistan simply cannot afford a prolonged civil war in Afghanistan as it could push more Afghan refugees across the border that can burden its already fragile economy.
Another option is that of an interim government in Afghanistan that can ensure that some framework is established before transferring power. This idea is also not workable as the same had already been tried in 1992 when a road map was signed in the holy city of Makkah by all the stakeholders, yet the participants could not hold on to their solemn assurances. Another such interim government will suffer a similar fate.
A regional solution involving Iran, China, Pakistan, Russia, and the Central Asian States is another option. But each of the regional players has its interests to watch, which may conflict with the interests of other regional players. Therefore, unless all regional powers sit together and decide that stability and peace in Afghanistan are in their national interest, this option would be unviable too.
Therefore, if the world does not want to witness a blood bath in Afghanistan on the same scale that was seen in the 1990s, a power-sharing arrangement by all regional powers and Afghan stakeholders must be achieved to get through Afghanistan’s labyrinth safely.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Manchester, UK. [email protected]