What’s Next for Afghanistan?

“Whatever countries I conquer in the world, I would never forget your beautiful gardens. When I remember the summits of your beautiful mountains, I forget the greatness of the Delhi throne.”

– Ahmad Shah Durrani, Founder of the Afghan Empire (1747-1773)

Afghanistan sits at a crossroads. For decades, it has endured a ceaseless and brutal civil war that has left the country devastated. It now has the possibility to carve out a path for the future. The U.S. and the Taliban have signed a historic deal earlier this year, potentially putting an end to the bloodshed and chaos engulfing the country of 37 million. But as talks proceed, there are a number of questions to consider. Does a peace deal mean a resurgence of the Taliban? Will a power-sharing agreement really materialize? And what does a future with an absence of the U.S. look like for Afghanistan?  

Witnessing the U.S. government and Taliban exchange words across the palatial halls of Doha was a somewhat surreal experience, given the long-held motto of the Bush administration, which has been an unyielding refusal to negotiate with terrorists. But times have changed. No longer is the U.S. engaged in the early and ebullient years of war. Rather, it finds itself mired in the longest conflict in its history, and President Donald Trump is itching for his country to find the exit door. This is not surprising, as Trump ran on a firm message of ending America’s ‘forever wars’ and ridiculing his competitors for their historic eagerness to support interventions in the Middle East. “A complete waste”, he tweeted back in 2012, “Time to come home!”

But this desire extends beyond Trump. The U.S. has indicated a need to divert focus from the Middle East to Asia since the Obama administration. Why sink trillions of dollars into Afghanistan when a towering China looms larger than ever as a strategic threat? Likewise, it has become increasingly difficult to continue to sell the Afghan War to the American people. The government’s profligate spending and the loss of lives that the military have incurred on what is perceived as a remote conflict in South-Central Asia has rightfully angered a large swathe of the American populace. For years now, even among the architects of the war itself, reasons for remaining in the country have grown harder to define. The U.S. achieved its initial goal, after all, expelling al-Qaeda and killing Bin Laden. Since then, ambitions have become murkier and pressure to vacate the country has escalated. But is U.S. withdrawal really so simple, if desirable at all? The reality is there are numerous repercussions to consider – both for Afghanistan and the realm of geopolitics. 

One of the largest concerns is that current peace-deal negotiations lean far too favorably on the side of the Taliban. The group has already seen the release of thousands of their troops from prison (only having to provide a meagre written guarantee not to return to the battlefield) and they are soon to observe a complete surrender of their primary military threat once the U.S. withdraws its troops. All things considered, if one were to step into the shoes of a Taliban right now, the future would be looking fairly auspicious. But why do the Taliban appear to possess the greater advantage?

This can largely be blamed on the actions of the U.S., who in their years of obstinance and refusal to engage in dialogue, gave up far better opportunities to forge a deal, particularly when America was at the height of its power after driving the Taliban out of power in 2001. Indeed, the U.S. today is coming to the table at a moment of weakness. The Taliban have control over or contest large chunks of the country. The U.S. has even permitted the Taliban to employ the term ‘the Emirate of Afghanistan’ throughout documents that the U.S. has co-signed – even while claiming that it doesn’t recognize the state (The Emirate of Afghanistan being the Taliban’s name for the country when they ruled previously in 2001).

Only 8,600 American troops remain in Afghanistan, a number that is intended to decline over the next 14 months. The Kabul government is frail – largely kept afloat by U.S. support and aid. Perhaps the biggest fear is a complete takeover of the country by the Taliban, with two decades of work in stabilizing the country vanishing instantly. Many have indeed argued that the Taliban are merely using peace talks as a bargaining chip to further their own plans, stalling negotiations to build up their own forces as the U.S. abscond.

Some evidence bears this out. Since talks began, violence perpetrated by the Taliban has only increased. Certain Taliban figures have proven increasingly recalcitrant, vowing to wage jihad until an Islamic state is established. Many point to these actions as a lack of seriousness in attempting to foster peace. What if they’re right? A real fear is a repeat of America’s experience in Vietnam – where the U.S. signed a deal with the North Vietnamese and departed, only to have the North pour in and take charge of the entire country soon after. On the other hand, the Afghan Armed Forces remain standing and well-armed, and will possibly put up a vigorous effort in refusing Taliban encroachment into major cities if push came to shove. Perhaps, then, what is more likely is a situation akin to the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 – an event that precipitated a civil war of cataclysmic proportions.

In order to avoid such an outcome, it is crucial that peace negotiations spend a great deal of time focusing on the Afghan government and state. At the moment, there are floating tensions concerning the prospects of power-sharing, transitional justice, disarmament, and the reintegration of the Taliban into the Afghan security forces. The Taliban have been clear in their desire to re-establish an Islamic Emirate, a clerical system analogous to that which existed the last time they ruled in 2001. Completely against this notion is the Afghan government, who wish for the country to remain a democratic Islamic Republic. But for negotiations to succeed, there must be compromise.

Lingering questions must also be addressed. What, for instance, is to occur regarding rule of law in the country? Or women’s rights? The Taliban claim they have evolved when it comes to permitting girls to attend school, but this comes from the same organization whose previous minister of education claimed that a woman is “like a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it. It is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled.” And what about the threat of organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have a presence both in Afghanistan and near its borders? Without the shadow of U.S. forces as a deterrence, it is entirely possible to see a resurgence of these terrorist groups. The Taliban, for their part, have appeared to ‘clean up their act’ and insist they have reformed. They have composed op-eds in the New York Times, opened up channels of dialogue, and have made efforts to place non-Pashtun ethnic minorities into leadership positions of their organization. An optimist might look at these as positive developments. A cynic, as mere tactics.

A peace deal with the Taliban has ignited questions on the fate of women in Afghanistan

Reforms aside, one can nevertheless glance back at the Taliban’s rule in 2001 to discern what the group could do if they achieve power once again. The overwhelming rationale behind their former rule was a strict interpretation of Sharia law that forbade consumer technology like music, television, photography and the internet. Participating in sports, flying kites, and attending films at the cinema were banned. Citizens could not own pets, nor could they celebrate Persian New Year. Women could not work or attend school and were only authorized to leave their homes with a male relative. Beards and turbans were deemed mandatory, so too were prayers. The environment also took a hammering – with massive deforestation efforts and no attempts to restore land. The Taliban enjoy pointing to their successful eradication of opium production in the country – but a systemic disregard of human rights accompanied this accomplishment. This is not to mention the near total collapse of the economy and destruction of the country’s infrastructure. 

When it came to the government itself, things seldom looked better. The Taliban were quick to replace all senior Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara bureaucrats with Pashtuns. Elections were ignored. After all, Sharia dictates that political parties and politics itself is forbidden. Thus, officials and soldiers did not even receive salaries – only food, clothes, shoes and weapons. Rule of law was also distorted to fit the Taliban’s agenda. Medieval punishments were instituted, and politicians and diplomats were murdered. The cherished Buddha statue in Bamiyan, a prodigious monument of history, was blown into pieces on a whim. “Taliban’s should be proud of smashing idols,” claimed Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, “It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them”. 

Augmenting these worries is the fear that the U.S. is intent on rushing the peace process to provide a win for Donald Trump. Illustrative of this is a report revealing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to cut $1 billion in Afghan aid if the government refused to unite and speak with the Taliban. Beyond this, Pompeo threatened to abruptly withdraw all its troops if the government did not get their act together with respect to the Ghani-Abdullah feud (a situation where both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah claimed to hold the title of President after the 2019 election).

Although hurtling threats has never proved propitious for hastening peace, Pompeo’s words hold a modicum of truth. The Afghan government cannot succeed in negotiations if they are unable to put up a united front. Despite the Ghani-Abdullah discord being resolved, the government remains divided between the two factions. Curiously, a similar issue plagues the Taliban, who suffer from their own internal divisions. Some Taliban have already spurned the idea of striking an agreement with the U.S., for instance. As talks proceed, deep divisions could prove damaging when it comes to crafting a peace agreement. 

But what if peace talks were to fall apart entirely, and the U.S. were to remain in Afghanistan? The likely result would be an elongation of an already endless war between the Taliban and U.S. Any conception of the latter ‘winning’ the war by wiping out the Taliban is quixotic thinking. America has operated in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, why should the next two decades look any different? The country has not earned the moniker ‘graveyard of Empires’ in vain. First off, the country boasts a geography that is hostile to occupation. Its vast, mountainous landscape proves exceptionally difficult to penetrate by the U.S. – who are more adroit at air and sea warfare. Some hailed the introduction of airstrikes as a revolutionary new step in waging the war, but it has done little in furthering overall strategy – only dealing enormous harm in its killing of civilians. Obama’s attempted ‘surge’ of 10,000 troops also peaked a great deal of interest, only to prove futile in accomplishing anything long-lasting. Indeed, kindred to America’s experience in Vietnam, the question of waging war against guerrilla fighters like the Taliban amid tangled geography can never be boiled down to manpower and weaponry.

Teeming with mountains and deserts, Afghanistan’s landscape has never been friendly to invaders

Secondly, the U.S. remains ideologically and culturally distant from the Afghan people, a gulf that has only widened since its initial invasion (recently, it was revealed that Afghan security forces and their American-led international allies have killed more civilians in the first half of 2019 than the Taliban). Any hopes of changing hearts and minds is folly; the Taliban will continue to wield the advantage when it comes to convincing locals to turn against their occupiers. They, in fact, remain quite popular in rural areas of the South and East of the country. Lastly, military solutions cannot dismantle the entrenched ethnic and domestic tensions that permeate Afghanistan. As arduously as America may try, they will never procure the trust of the entire population, thanks largely to deep and historic rifts between the nation’s ethnic group.  

The U.S. has also achieved surprisingly little with respect to security, human development and building democracy in Afghanistan – especially when we look outside major cities. Tragically, since the genesis of the war, over 150,000 Afghans have died. This number does not even include members of the Afghan security forces, as the data is kept hidden by Kabul to avoid lowering morale. The recently released Afghan Papers have also revealed that America’s occupation has been plagued with lies, failure and corruption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it divulged that high-ranking officials admitted the war was ‘unwinnable’, but failed to inform the public.

Endeavours to help construct an Afghan government have also run into problems. The winner-take-all, centralized system has proven divisive in a country that yearns for unity. It also has led to the heavy disenchantment of citizens with politics. For reference: more money was spent on the latest 2019 election than any other in the country’s past – but turnout was historically low. Not even one million of nine million eligible voters showed up to the polls. In order to avoid such high levels of atomization and discontent, power must be dispersed more widely across the country and formal mechanisms must be introduced to better and more fairly share power.  

Stepping outside Afghanistan, there is also the role of neighbouring countries to consider. No matter which direction the country heads in – its future poses broad ramifications for the world at large. If the U.S. were to suddenly depart, an inevitable power vacuum would open up (indeed, America’s gradual departure from the Middle East as a whole has left the region up for grabs – see the actions of Turkey and Russia in Syria). Thinking geo-strategically, it’s little wonder that America has been an occupying force for so long. Possessing over $1 trillion worth of natural resources, many countries have long dreamt of dipping their fingers into the lucrative Afghan market. China, for instance, has a keen interest in Central Asia and the Middle East, viewing Afghanistan as a potential corridor for the Belt and Road Initiative – their massive global infrastructure and development strategy. The signing of the Beijing-Tehran strategic agreement, allowing for joint intelligence sharing with Iran, is one example of China’s growing interest in the region. They have also established a military base in nearby Tajikistan, on the Wakhan border – a strip of land linking China to Afghanistan.

In general, most countries aspire to see stability in Afghanistan. True, nations like Russia and Iran may have some interest in supporting the Taliban – but this has only been to kick the U.S. out of what they perceive as their backyard. It is certainly not in the interest of countries in the region to see a return of the Taliban to power. This would mean chaos at their borders. China has long feared the threat of Afghan-based terrorist groups spilling into their territory, along with the prospect of Uyghur secessionist groups setting up bases in the country. Instability would also mean an unsuitable environment to invest in and build infrastructure. Likewise, China, Russia and India recall when the Taliban were in power before – and their support for Islamic militants in Xinjiang, Chechnya and Kashmir. 

A retreat of American troops entails an Afghanistan up for grabs in the eyes of regional powers

Pakistan might be an exception. The Taliban have regularly used their neighbour to the East as a base to hide and maintain cover, straining relations between Kabul and Islamabad. It is largely in Pakistan’s interest to keep the U.S. engaged in a quagmire, as it receives huge funds from America in exchange for providing their troops with access to Afghanistan. The U.S. and Pakistan are already an unlikely and frankly unstable pair of allies, brought together in part merely because of the latter’s border with Afghanistan. If a peace deal were to succeed, and America were to withdraw its troops, it would likely no longer require Pakistan as their ally. Instead, the U.S. would probably shift their focus towards the more relevant India, whom they can work with to contain a rising China. India itself has increasingly felt surrounded on all sides – from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China – making its forging of closer ties with America almost inevitable. 

Let us conclude where we began: at the encouraging signs of a peace deal. It is difficult to tell whether talks will succeed, and even more difficult to envision an Afghanistan not beset by war. What is certain is that Afghanistan must emerge from its state of combative limbo. It must no longer be made beholden to the agonizing logic of war, nor to the dark and harrowing threat of Taliban rule. The fact that dialogue has begun to unfold between the U.S. and the Taliban is a monumental step in this direction. But it is one of innumerable steps to come. Dialogue must continue and compromises must be made. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban must respectively unify and emphatically reject fragmentation. A power-sharing agreement must be the objective – one that grants concessions to both sides and one that, most importantly, grants a voice to the Afghan people, who have largely been exempt from discussions. Is this a sanguine vision of the future? It likely is. But at least peace talks have begun to re-incorporate the language of ‘a future’ back into the Afghan vocabulary. With dialogue emerges infinite possibilities of what lies ahead.

Perhaps it is misleading to liken Afghanistan to a nation sitting at the crossroads. Perhaps Afghanistan is a nation that has found itself floating amid a tumultuous sea, torn by a wind and assaulted by rain. Only now, for the first time in years, have the stormclouds revealed signs of parting. A trace of light, though trembling and ephemeral, touches the surface of the water. The possibilities of which direction to steer seem endless. But the storm will only rest for so long. 

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