As Afghanistan moves toward reclaiming full sovereignty in the wake of the planned departure of international troops and possible peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the country’s political elites in particular and Afghans in general need to unite to preserve their country’s republican democracy and the path to peace and prosperity.
In the past few decades and in recent years in particular, Afghans have sometimes felt they’re given a backseat in shaping their destiny. There has been a lot of talk about the endgame in Afghanistan since the 2014 drawdown plan of international troops -- as if the suffering of millions of Afghans is just another sport. Despite the major drawdown and significant political developments since then, including the signing of the US-Taliban accord on February 29, the bloodshed in Afghanistan continues. This is true except for the brief cease-fire during the recent Eid al-Fitr holidays, when the Taliban stopped attacks to ensure the release of their prisoners.
While Afghans continue to bury their dead and suffer all kinds of unimaginable violence, most major state players in Afghanistan’s 42-year-old war have been playing double games. They preach and say one thing but do the exact opposite in practice. One need look no further than what’s stopping the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue and cease-fire when all the processes required for it have already started.
In some ways, the scenario in the wake of the departure of the Red Army is being repeated in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, it was reiterated that the only factor responsible for continuing war in Afghanistan was the presence of Soviet troops. It was vehemently argued that their exit would immediately lead to a durable peace. But the narrative proved wrong as a new and destructive war started soon after withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in February 1989. This eventually led to the demise of the then prevailing state system. Then, as now, Pakistan tried to impose a puppet government on Afghanistan to establish so-called strategic depth. As the civil war raged, Iran, India, and Russia came forward in support of the Northern Alliance to counter Islamabad, which resulted in a destructive proxy war in Afghanistan.
In a replay of the same strategy, the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors have maintained that any deal resulting in the withdrawal of US and NATO forces will herald peace in Afghanistan. But even four months after signing a deal between Washington and the Taliban that delivered a timetable for the exit of US forces, the Taliban are continuing their war against the Afghan state and society, including suicide attacks and other war crimes against civilians.
The Taliban and their foreign patrons have been playing the waiting game. Fragmentation of the state system in Afghanistan is their best hope because talking to an established state system based on a legitimate constitution--and a member of the international community--is one thing, and talking to small discredited factions of warlords after the collapse of the state system is another. They expected the previous national unity government to fall apart because of its internal contradictions, which would have automatically led to the collapse of the current Afghan political system called the Islamic Republic. This would have paved the way for the “Islamic Emirate” of the Taliban without a military onslaught. The post-presidential election polarization in Afghanistan has only served to rekindle their hopes in this regard.
With the recent rapprochement between President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the internal political factor for disintegration of the Islamic Republic no longer exists. But there are still other factors that encourage them to drag their feet on intra-Afghan dialogue and a truce. The Taliban camp understands that the Doha deal is focused on justifying the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan rather than bringing reconciliation and establishing peace in Afghanistan.
The deal will also be projected as a major foreign policy win for US President Donald Trump’s re-election bid this November. The pandemic has further strengthened the Taliban’s hope that crises, such as the effect on the economy, could prevent US forces from prolonging their stay even if the United States wanted to remain in Afghanistan. A recent UN report rightly identified the group’s commitment to terrorism by still hosting thousands of foreign troops and maintaining close relations with international terrorist groups.
Unfortunately, the real power-wielders in both Iran and Pakistan cling to their hegemonic policies toward Afghanistan. If the experience of the past 40 years is anything to go by, this irrational policy by both neighbors has not only harmed Afghanistan but has also negatively impacted them. However, no significant change in their policies toward Afghanistan is visible.
Iran, despite its economic difficulties generated by draconian US sanctions and political complications produced by its military involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, hasn’t lost interest in Afghanistan. In recent years, that interest is not solely confined to the ethnic factor in Afghanistan; the country has expanded its influence by developing substantial relationships with the Taliban. Lest we forget, not unlike its old name Persia, Iran is the name of a wide region that the Iranian mullahs would like to dominate.
Similarly, for nearly a quarter-century, the Pakistani Army has too big an investment in the Taliban to give up. A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would be the ideal for this mindset -- particularly so after Narendra Modi’s India has strengthened its grip on Kashmir. A recent Pentagon report noted continued Pakistani support for the Taliban violence in Afghanistan. After the overthrow of Nawaz Sharif’s government by a creeping coup and fraudulent elections in 2018, Pakistan has transitioned into hybrid martial law from a hybrid democracy.
The civilian footprint on foreign policy in general and on Afghan policy in particular has diminished into nothing. After bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and midwifing the US-Taliban deal, Pakistani generals are quite relieved as US pressure has substantially decreased. Pashtuns in Pakistan are deeply concerned about the regrouping of the Taliban in districts adjacent to the Durand Line under state patronage, which creates new tensions.
Unfortunately, a new Cold War has gripped the world at a time when humanity grapples with the coronavirus crisis. The United States and other Western powers view China as a threat like the Soviet Union during the previous Cold War. They regard the Belt & Road Initiative of China as a basis for a new China-centric world order. This emerging confrontation has the potential to polarize the region and harm prospects for economic development through regional cooperation. Only a realistic and farsighted policy of regional players can save the region from the negative fallout of the new Cold War.
For Afghans, the only way out is to look more inward to their own people rather than having false expectations of foreign powers. The Afghan state system will have to become more inclusive, empowering women and youth. The older generation will have to let the young take over the driver’s seat. The energy, determination, and drive of Afghan youth can bring about the miracle for which Afghanistan is waiting. But it cannot happen without the current leaders prioritizing national interest over personal and parochial interests.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistani senator, is an analyst of regional affairs.