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Wednesday December 01, 2021

The Afghanistan conundrum

By S.m. Hali
July 19, 2021

Volumes have been written on the Afghanistan conundrum but for more than four decades, the country is ravaged by war, conflict and strife. In 1979, the erstwhile Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan but a fierce guerrilla war forced the Red Army to retreat by 1989. A period of peace should have followed but internecine warfare and battles for supremacy between various tribes and warlords wasted the country till the Taliban brought a modicum of stability, which was shattered by 9/11. An enraged US, seeking to destroy Al Qaeda, responsible for the reprehensible attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, unleashed its fury on Afghanistan in October 2001. Twenty years of warfare failed to bring order to Afghanistan. Now, the US and NATO troops have been drawn down, apart from approximately 650 US soldiers, who are expected to remain in Afghanistan with the limited mission of protecting the US Embassy and Kabul’s international airport.

Emboldened by the American withdrawal, the Taliban have made advances and captured vast areas previously under the Afghan government’s control and the prospects for a negotiated peace for Afghanistan have grown exceedingly dim.

The Afghanistan conundrum has become even more muddled and the war torn country has plunged into a deeper abyss while the nation of Afghanistan exists in a precarious position. Little resistance has been offered by the Afghan government troops, enabling the Taliban to gain broad swathes of territories while more than 1,000 Afghan government troops fled across the border to escape the wrath of the Taliban.

Nations in the region and those invested or having a stake in Afghanistan have seen the writing on the wall regarding Afghanistan’s future. Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the Gulf States, who supported the Afghan Mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, have suffered because of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Through the years, many of these countries have been preparing for the American departure and have even come forward to lend support to negotiations with the Taliban to bring about a modicum of peace.

One country, which has suffered the most because of the Afghanistan conundrum, is Pakistan. It has sacrificed nearly a 100,000 souls and is hosting at least three hundred thousand Afghan refugees on its soil. Islamabad’s influence on the Taliban has dwindled over the decades, and there is a strong likelihood of the number of Afghan refugees entering Pakistan to swell in the aftermath of the Taliban onslaught.

Unfortunately, the Afghan government, instead of taking steps to defend itself from the advancing Taliban militia and engaging them in a negotiated peace settlement, is blaming Pakistan for its woes. At the international conference on “Central and South Asia Regional Connectivity: Challenges and Opportunities” held at Tashkent, President Ashraf Ghani alleged that 10,000 militants sneaked into Afghanistan from Pakistan to create unrest there.

In a sharp retort to Ashraf Ghani, Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 16, 2021, gave a robust response to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s allegation about Pakistan’s “negative role” in the Afghan peace process and said it was “extremely unfair” to blame Islamabad for the situation in Afghanistan.

Terming that Pakistan is the last country that seeks conflict, Imran Khan said after withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban were hopeful for their win in the current war in the neighbouring country, adding that why Taliban would come for dialogue when they were sensing victory in their country. The Pakistani PM reiterated that the “Taliban are no longer willing to compromise after the United States gave a date for the withdrawal of troops. When there were 150,000 NATO troops [...] that was the time to ask the Taliban to come to the table. Why were the Taliban going to compromise once the exit date was given [...] why would they listen to us (Pakistan) when they are sensing victory.”

Meanwhile Pakistan was constrained to postpone the Afghan Peace Conference — which was scheduled from July 17-19 — after Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to “cancel” it. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s Foreign Office denied allegations leveled by Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh that Pakistan Air Force provided aerial support to the Taliban insurgents who had occupied Spin Boldak border crossing.

In a spinoff to the Tashkent conference, the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have agreed in principle to establish a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform focused on enhancing regional connectivity, both the US State Department and Pakistan’s Foreign Office announced.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast and representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Doha for talks on July 17. The two sides have been meeting on and off for months in the Qatari capital, but the talks have lost momentum as the Taliban have made battlefield gains. The Afghan government is represented by Abdullah Abdullah but it appears that the Taliban military gains will be forcing the Afghan government to negotiate on the insurgents’ terms or suffer complete military defeat. In the opinion of this scribe, the only outcome of the talks may be that the Taliban may offer the Afghan government a chance to capitulate with dignity.

Afghanistan remains a conundrum. There is no simple answer to what lies ahead but peace talks must be pursued and given a chance. It is the last best hope for Afghanistan and its people.