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May 12, 2021

Afghanistan amid uncertainties

The US's military invasion of Afghanistan seems to be finally ending on September 11 this year – marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC.

US President Joe Biden stated on April 13, “It’s time to end America’s longest war....It’s time for American troops to come home”. A day later at the Nato HQ in Brussels, the US secretaries of state and defense – Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin III – along with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the plan for the withdrawal of the remaining 9,600 US and Nato troops currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support Mission (RSM).

America’s longest war has cost them over $2 trillion and the lives of 2,448 servicemen. It would have been a much larger war-bill for the US Treasury and a greater death toll if Barack Obama had not significantly reduced the number of US troops. Security experts and media commentators are asking several questions about the withdrawal – the timing, the process, and any future security arrangements to ensure Afghanistan’s stability and security. Ironically, neither the US and its military allies nor President Ashraf Ghani have any clue about this.

However, the Taliban with their 100,000 fighters know exactly what to do after Afghanistan has been cleared of foreign invaders. They learnt the art of war from their ancestors who defeated British colonial troops. Employing the same war tactics and using the same weapons, they clobbered the Soviet invasion forces, and now they have emerged victorious against the troops of the 30 Western powers that waged the 20-year war on them. The American military commanders in Afghanistan pursued the notion: ‘God created war so that Americans would learn world geography’. The Taliban’s response was simpler: 'You must not fight too often with the same enemy; you will teach him your art of war’.

Today, the Taliban occupy 70 percent of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and 407 districts. They have won the political support of more than 50 percent of 40 million Afghan citizens. They have organised and well-trained warriors to defend themselves in the event of a foreign invasion. They have acquired the capacity to negotiate peace with the US, UK and Europe, and engage the Chinese and Russians. They can use modern tanks, artillery vehicles, self-propelled rockets, missiles, UAVs/military drones and all types of assault weapons.

On the other side, President Ashraf Ghani’s government has a weak position in the 103-member Meshrano Jirga (upper house) and 250-member Wolesi Jirga (lower house). According to Defence Minister General Asadullah Khalid and Afghan Army Chief General Yasin Zia, their 200,000 men in arms are adequately trained and equipped to defend their country. US CENTCOM Chief General Ken McKenzie and his commanding general in Kabul, General Austin Miller, claim that they have adequately trained Afghan armed forces – spending $12 billion on them during the last decade.

India considers itself a key stakeholder in a post-US Afghanistan. It claims to have modernised Afghanistan’s infrastructure – building military hospitals and roads, training Afghan forces in India, grooming Afghan politicians and civil servants, and raising Afghanistan’s cricket team. The five Indian ambassadors to Afghanistan – from Rakesh Sood (2005-08) to Manpreet Vohra (2015-18) – often boast that India’s $3 billion investment in Afghanistan will dwarf Pakistan’s political influence on the Taliban. Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya (2010-13) calls himself India’s George C Marshall for Afghanistan. But their lack of border with Kabul and absence of a sea between them cannot match Pakistan’s strategic edge. Moreover, given their exclusive ties with Islamabad, the Taliban would not allow India to play any future role towards Afghanistan’s stability and security.

On the contrary, China and Russia have greater relevance to Afghanistan’s progress, prosperity and security. The former shares a border with Afghanistan through it’s Muslim-populated Xinjiang province, while the latter has sizeable territorial proximity with Afghanistan through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have cultivated cordial relations since they met in Kyrgyzstan in June 2019. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Afghan president have met on numerous occasions at different forums. Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are ready to work with Ashraf Ghani to bolster Afghanistan’s security through military cooperation and collaboration. The combined military prowess of Russia and China – especially their airpower – will deter the US and its allies from using the revolving door for a military comeback in Afghanistan. The US/Allied land forces will have little bearing on Afghanistan, but the USAF and combat drones will remain a cause of concern for both Moscow and Beijing.

Being the key player in stability and security of a post-US Afghanistan, the Taliban will dominate the country’s military doctrine, planning, force-posture, training, weapons, and deployment. They will be comfortable with military cooperation with China and Russia, but may oppose deployment of their troops in any part of Afghanistan. With generous financial support from Qatar and a few other friendly nations, the Taliban will reorganise the Afghan armed forces and build the required inventory of arms/weapons and equipment.

Apart from cultural, social and religious compatibility, Pakistan shares a long border with Afghanistan – the 2,670 km Durand Line. Islamabad has been host to more than three million Afghan refugees for four decades. Resource-strapped Pakistan will be prepared to accommodate more Afghan refugees should the Taliban and the Afghan forces continue fighting each other. The same is the case with Iran, whose 1,000 km border with Afghanistan gives Tehran strategic edge over most countries in the region. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are Iranian residents.

After the complete withdrawal of US/Nato troops, Afghanistan needs to come out of the ongoing political instability and strategic chaos, which is only possible in the presence of a peace-keeping force of friendly countries working under the UN umbrella. Supporting troops from Pakistan, Iran and Turkey would be acceptable to both Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban. The current Taliban leadership – Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Hebatullah Akhundzada – have expressed their conditional willingness to work with peacekeepers from Ankara, Tehran and Islamabad – working under the UN mandate, but without influence of the US. However, Ghani and his political allies do not seem to be prepared to work without the Americans.

A power-sharing consensus between the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani’s administration is indispensable to peace, progress and security in Afghanistan. It is only possible if Russia and China play a greater role – with Pakistan, Turkey and Iran willing to contribute peacekeeping troops, and the UN ready to offer it’s full support. If that doesn’t happen, Afghanistan will continue to bleed indefinitely, as it’s people languish in protracted uncertainty and chaos.

The writer is a London-based analyst on South Asian and Middle East Security.