US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, regardless of whether a peace settlement has been achieved in the war-torn nation, opens the way for a Taliban takeover of Kabul and ouster of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
Indeed, compromise was not in the air when the Islamic rebel group recently refused to participate in a US-backed, Turkey-sponsored peace conference, an attempt to revive the now-stalled talks in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban instead put forward various conditions before it would attend any such conference, with an unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops atop the list.
Fears are rising that the rebel group will seek to restore the strict Sharia law it imposed when in power from 1996-2001; the Taliban was knocked from power by the US’ post-9/11 invasion of the country.
The Taliban says there will be no return to the conditions prevalent when it was in power and in particular that it does not oppose the women’s rights and education that have firmly taken hold in the country since its ouster.
Accounts from the areas it now controls tell a different story. Human Rights Watch says girls’ education is patchy in Taliban-administered areas with some officials letting girls attend school after puberty but others not permitting girls’ schools at all.
Morality police still patrol streets. Taliban commanders have threatened and attacked journalists. In some places, watching television is banned. Mobile phones are banned or restricted, making it hard for people to communicate, work or study, HRW says.
The US decision to withdraw by September 11 will simply meet one of the Taliban’s conditions for further dialogue and leave the ground open for the Taliban to push for a final military victory. US assurances of continued diplomatic support to Ghani for a political settlement with the Taliban will thus be increasingly hollow.
America’s backing for Ghani was underlined on Thursday (April 15) when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Kabul. Blinken vowed that the US will have a lasting partnership with Afghanistan even after it withdraws all forces from the country.
However, the deadlock in peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government threatens to leave a power vacuum that could plunge the country deeper into violence.
Statements, comments and reports on the Taliban’s website show that the group continues to see the Kabul administration as “slaves and protectors” of foreign interests, who can neither defend the religious nor the national values of the Afghan people.
If this is not evident enough, the group continues to decry “Western democracy” and aims to establish an “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan after the war.
The Taliban, therefore, continue to pursue objectives that put it in a position where negotiations with an “elected” group of “Western puppets” become meaningless for deciding Afghanistan’s future. And in pursuing these objectives, analysts and observers say, they are unlikely to discontinue the use of violence.
Indeed, if recent trends give a glimpse into the future, Afghanistan is already facing more civilian casualties today than last year when the fateful Doha agreement was signed between the US and Taliban in February 2020, at which Washington vowed to withdraw all its troops by May this year. The US currently maintains over 3,000 troops in the country.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) most recent report documented “1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured), a 29% increase compared with the same period in 2020. Of particular concern is the 37% increase in the number of women killed and injured, and a 23% increase in child casualties compared with the first quarter of 2020.”
The report further shows that “Anti-government Elements continued to be responsible for the majority (61%) of all civilian casualties in the first three months of 2021, while pro-government Forces continued to cause approximately one quarter (27%) of the total civilian casualties.”
The war, as it stands, is already intensifying in Afghanistan, showing how months of talks between Kabul and the Taliban in late 2020 and early 2021 have failed to bring any meaningful change to ground realities – although the Taliban has reduced its attacks on US troops and facilities while maintaining pressure on Ghani’s national forces.
As such, there is a high potential for a return to large-scale civil war in Afghanistan once the US forces withdraw in September without a political settlement.
Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of the country’s intelligence services, recently told the New York Times that Kabul is weak. “We’re getting weaker. Security is weak, everything is getting weaker, and the Taliban are taking advantage,” he said according to the report.
The US has walked away from conflicts before, with unhappy results. Its agreement in 1973 to pull its troops from South Vietnam led to two years of war and eventual takeover by communist forces. Revenge attacks against US allies in South Vietnam caused a mass exodus of “boat people” and one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century.
A similar onslaught was seen in the aftermath of the first short-lived US intervention in Iraq in 1991, when dictator Saddam Hussein launched a bloody assault against anti-regime Shiites in the country’s southern region. When Saddam Hussein was ousted after the second US intervention in 2003, disaffected Sunni tribal leaders joined forces with the emerging Islamic State insurgents.
When US troops eventually pulled out, Islamic State took over much of the country and neighboring Syria.
In Afghanistan, Ghani is determined to fight and has vowed to use all possible means available to resist a Taliban military victory. Local Afghan media have recently quoted him as saying, “The tool for legitimacy is an election. Our promise and commitment to you are the national power will be transferred to our elected successor based on your will.”
Significantly, the Taliban have never publicly committed to holding popular elections and/or agreed to be content with power-sharing with Kabul.
Their stance and statements have been more focused on the withdrawal of foreign troops than on the mechanisms of dialogue, or even on broader parameters of Afghanistan’s future political set-up apart from seeking to turn the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” into an “Islamic Emirate.”
With the US withdrawing without any political settlement and leaving a void for anyone with power and resources to fill, Afghanistan’s prospective civil war could quickly morphe into a wider proxy war with countries like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India supporting their respective favorites to maintain influence and control over Kabul.
Despite the fact that Russia, China and Pakistan all have direct ties with the Taliban, all of these actors strongly oppose a full-blown civil war and the wider regional instability it could cause.
Another era of full, as opposed to limited, war could send fresh waves of refugees into neighboring Pakistan at a time when the latter’s economy is shattered. For Russia and China, a full civil war scenario could destabilize both the Caucasus and Xinjiang regions at a time when Moscow and Beijing are pursuing regional connectivity projects.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently told a media briefing that Washington should consider the security concerns of regional countries to prevent “terrorist forces” from taking advantage of chaos in the war-torn country.
“The current security situation in Afghanistan is still complex and grim and the problem of terrorism is far from being solved. Foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan should withdraw in a responsible and orderly manner to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan and to avoid terrorist forces from taking advantage of chaos.”
The Chinese official also said that the “US side links its withdrawal from Afghanistan to China’s challenge. This reflects a deep-rooted zero-sum mindset from the Cold War which is detrimental to mutual trust between the two countries.”
While there is no doubt the security stakes are high for China in Afghanistan, Beijing is unlikely any time soon to replace the US in Afghanistan as an external military force. China has already offered the Taliban “development” in exchange for “peace.” Russia has it’s own unfortunate history of launching war on Afghanistan, a quagmire that contributed largely to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan all understand that the Taliban is unlikely to concede power to Kabul while it has the advantage on the battlefield, or even agree to a power-sharing formula that reduces its military strength or diminishes its current strong political position.
Building on their established links with Afghanistan and the Taliban, the four nations will likely try to use the next five months before the US troop withdrawal to push for a settlement that satisfies the Taliban, accommodates Ghani and avoids a full civil war.
But it’s not clear to most observers they will be any more successful than the US has been in trying to achieve peace and stability through negotiations.