Afghanistan: War Without End, Peace Without Beginning

It’s a bad deal for the people of Afghanistan as the US troops call it quits, and the Taliban regain lost ground

They have all experienced that cliffhanger moment before, and it is returning to haunt them. For the people of Afghanistan, peace is never without a problem and war always without a closure. With the US forces set to leave by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a sense of chaos has gripped the war-torn nation. Will the pullout trigger civil war? Will the elected government of Afghanistan fall? If not, how long will the government last? Several questions arise as the final exit draws nearer.

US President Joe Biden, an ardent advocate of troop withdrawal right from his days as vice-president in the Barack Obama-led administration, has been adamant on pulling out all forces and equipment from Afghanistan. “It is time to end America’s longest war… We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” Biden said on April 14, while announcing the exit schedule. The timeline was slightly altered a few days ago to allow 650 troops to stay back to provide security for diplomats. Additional forces will stay put at the Kabul airport, mostly up to September, to assist Turkish forces, until a more formal Ankara-led security operation is in place. In any case, the US expects to extricate American military leadership and troops from all war duties by July 4, or shortly after that. The NATO command, which relies on the US for air support and planning, will exit in tandem.

Future imperfect

During his June 25 meeting with Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani at the White House, President Biden explicitly stated that only the troops were leaving and that economic and political support for Afghanistan will not end. “The Afghans are gonna have to decide their future, what they want,” he said, in a bleak reminder of what was at stake. The future that Biden seems to hold out undoubtedly looks perilous for the 39 million residents of the landlocked country, where the Taliban are gaining ground with each passing day. The irony of the situation is the US has failed to secure a hopeful future for Afghans, despite spending US $2.3 trillion dollars at war. The human cost has also been particularly alarming. Nearly 47,600 civilians lost their lives in the last two decades, with Afghan and US-led NATO forces killing more people than the Taliban in the first half of 2019.

The withdrawal of international forces without brokering a proper peace accord may reverse the small yet significant progress made in many areas of Afghani life. A lot is at stake for women, who have enjoyed the benefits of education and freedom in the last two decades. Ethnic and religious minorities fear attacks from the Taliban. Investors may wind up operations if restrictions and instabilities spiral. Few want a return to the draconian Taliban rule of the 1990s. But President Biden has turned his back on them, probably because he feels insulated from criticism since the historic US-Taliban peace deal was inked during the tenure of his predecessor Donald Trump. As per the February 29, 2020, agreement reached in Doha, all foreign troops will exit Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban severing ties with al-Qaeda, the outfit behind the 9/11 attacks. It said the Taliban and Afghanistan government will engage in further talks to piece together a lasting solution. But the talks have not progressed well, leaving many ends of the peace deal open. The Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees, ceasefire discussion and withdrawal of US troops are interconnected subjects, but all that has been achieved is the Taliban’s goal of US exit from Afghan soil.

“Peace was always the demand of the people of Afghanistan, but if the war has been imposed on them, they have no choice but to defend themselves,” Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, was quoted as saying by TOLO News on June 28. In a bid to equip the nation, the US has spent US $87 billion for training and weaponizing the 300,000-strong Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in the last 20 years. It has regularly supplied all types of equipment ranging from Humvees to body armored jackets, fighter planes, and assault rifles. But the ANDSF will lose its airpower advantage over the Taliban in a matter of months from now as the US contractors who repair and maintain fleets and equipment are also departing Afghanistan. While Washington’s financial support may keep the army and police going, its air force will be grounded. To prevent such a hazard, the Afghan government is scouting for non-American maintenance crews and new ammunition suppliers.

Though President Ghani has exuded confidence stressing “unity, coherence, and a national sense of sacrifice”, the general feeling is that his government will fall within six months, if not in three. The Twitter handle of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense conveys a picture of how hostilities between government forces and the Taliban are escalating. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Afghan forces are frequently surrendering with little to no fight, leaving arms and ammunition behind in exchange for a safe passage.

The Taliban recently jolted the neighboring Central Asian countries out of their Afghan policy slumber by capturing Shir Khan Bandar, the country’s vital border crossing with Tajikistan located about 50 km from Kunduz city in northern Afghanistan. At least 100 soldiers were killed or captured, while another 134 managed to flee across the border. Eight Afghan provinces – Herat, Badghis, Faryab, Jowzjan, Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan – border Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The Taliban has captured Khash in Badakhshan, while 500 residents of Guzara in Herat have vowed to fight them off. There is no second opinion that big cities like Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, will fall once the US fully withdraws. Last month, they captured Dahla dam, the second biggest in the country, after months of a fierce battle in their former bastion Kandahar. The outfit already controls over 140 districts, while the fighting is currently on in another 170. Certain key areas surrounding Kabul have also been taken.

According to UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons, the Taliban fighters have captured more than 50 districts since May. “Those districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” Lyons told the UN Security Council recently. The terror outfit has eschewed violence against the returning troops, but has stepped up its onslaught against the ANDSF in a strategy that puts them ahead of the game. “What we want to see, what we’d like to see is the Taliban return to the peace process in a credible way,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing on June 29. Such a return is unlikely as the Taliban already realize that half the battle is won with the US departure.

Big Brother watching?

The return of forces from Afghanistan will throw up new challenges for the US intelligence agencies, with no options other than to operate from outside the country’s borders. America’s first line of defense, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is scrambling to secure bases close to Afghan borders, but its efforts are caught up in thorny diplomatic negotiations, according to a recent New York Times report. “One focus has been Pakistan. The CIA used a base (Shamsi airbase) there for years to launch drone strikes against militants in the country’s western mountains, but was kicked out of the facility in 2011, when US relations with Pakistan unraveled. Any deal now would have to work around the uncomfortable reality that Pakistan’s government has long supported the Taliban. In discussions between US and Pakistani officials, the Pakistanis have demanded a variety of restrictions in exchange for the use of a base in the country, and they have effectively required that they sign off on any targets that either the CIA or the military would want to hit inside Afghanistan, according to three Americans familiar with the discussions,” the report said.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, ruled out any possibility of hosting US forces. “Absolutely not. There is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not,” Khan recently told Jonathan Swan of HBO Axios, according to a report in the Dawn. On June 26, Khan said Pakistan would close borders – 2,640 km long to be precise – if the Taliban forcibly seized power in Afghanistan. “… we will seal the border because now we can, because we have fenced our border, which was previously [open], because Pakistan does not want to get into, number one, conflict. Secondly, we do not want another influx of refugees,” he said. Pakistan claims to have sheltered 3.5 million Afghan refugees over the years.

Another option before the US is to regain access to Central Asian sites – Afghanistan’s other two neighbors Iran and China can be ruled out straight away – that hosted its officers during the war, a move that Russia has strongly opposed. A pointer to such an initiative was the mid-June meeting that US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad had with Kazhakistan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan. But a permanent US base in the country is highly unlikely, given its close ties with Beijing and Moscow. Its distance with Afghanistan is also a handicap. Turkmenistan, meanwhile, is unlikely to change its isolationist approach, leaving the US with only Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as potential candidates sharing borders with Afghanistan, besides Kyrgyzstan.

For now, the CIA will have to rely on its informants for intelligence as discussions on potential bases in Central Asia can be a painfully slow process. According to the United States Institute of Peace, Washington in the meantime is toying with the idea of engaging with warlords to boost its intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities, a strategy it relied on in the 1980s and 90s while risking a multi-front civil war. Quite evidently, the cost of peace in Afghanistan is war itself.

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