FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

Afghanistan – an uncertain future

The United States has finally wound up its 20-year mission in Afghanistan. US officials announced that American troops had left their last military base in the war-ravaged country — a move that effectively spelled the end of US military operations. At the peak of the war, there were more than 130,000 troops in Afghanistan from 50 Nato nations and partner countries. That dwindled to about 10,000 troops from 36 nations for the Resolute Support mission, and as of last week, most had withdrawn their troops.

With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban have made rapid military gains, extending their control over a large part of the country. According to observers of the Afghan scene, the Taliban offensive in the northeast and south of the country has brought the country closer to a full scale civil war. The fighting has gradually spread from the north to the south as US forces vacated their largest military base in Bagram.

The Afghan Taliban’s military blitz has taken everyone by surprise. In the northeast the insurgent forces have gained more ground in recent days, though the region has never been considered their stronghold. At the same time, there has been a virtual meltdown of Afghan government forces, many of whom have fled to Tajikistan, while many others have surrendered.

The Taliban forces have achieved their most important victory in southern Kandahar province as they took control of Panjwai district. It needs mentioning here that the region, which is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, has been the venue of fierce battles against Nato forces for more than a decade. But it fell to the Taliban within hours of the American evacuation of the Kandahar military base.

The capture of Panjwai has enabled the Taliban to consolidate their hold over the southern Pakhtun-dominated areas. The Taliban now claim to have control over 150 out of 460 districts. Most of them surrendered to the Taliban in the last one month after the withdrawal of the residual US forces began.

With the fall of Panjwai, there have been reports of an exodus of the local Afghan population. That could also lead to a large influx of refugees into Pakistan. It may have already started, as the latest reports suggest, and there is no way of stopping it. Although Pakistan has been voicing concern over a new refugee inflow from Afghanistan, how prepared the authorities are for the expected refugee inflow is still not clear.

But the influx of refugees is only one of the challenges that Pakistan would be facing with the outbreak of a new Afghan civil war. The fallout of the conflict is already reflected in the rise of militant activities in parts of former Fata and Balochistan recently. Given the rising power of the Afghan Taliban across the border and the grim prospects of a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan, it is the responsibility of the Pakistan government to put together a well thought out strategy to deal with the situation. In this context, Pakistan has said that it will not take sides in the Afghan conflict. Islamabad’s standpoint rightly is that it is an Afghan problem and let Afghans sort it out among themselves.

This is a good response to the tirade from Kabul as the government of Ashraf Ghani is in the habit of blaming Pakistan for its troubles and failings. The fact is that deprived of the American prop there is a growing sense of insecurity in Kabul. It is well known that Ashraf Ghani heads a regime which is wrecked by corruption and is hated by the Afghan people.

According to some analysts, the situation is perhaps more serious than what the country faced in the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent outbreak of civil war in Afghanistan. Some other developments such as the emergence of regional militias under different warlords have also raised the spectre of a civil war, with many predicting the fragmentation of Afghanistan along ethnic lines.

There is a need for a more proactive approach by Pakistan to minimise the negative effects of the situation developing in Afghanistan. With the US out, any peace process between the Taliban and other stakeholders seems dead. In this situation the challenge for regional stakeholders is to find a way to convince the Taliban to talk to the government for a peaceful transfer of power and establishment of a composite government comprising all segments of the Afghan population

In a recent statement, a Taliban spokesman said the group would present a peace proposal to the Afghan government. All regional powers agree that the only path to peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated settlement. The Trump administration had signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020. Russia has also hosted peace talks on Afghanistan. China too has a big stake in stability in the war-torn country. At this juncture, let Pakistan take the lead and provide a platform to the Taliban and other Afghan factions as well as Russia, China and the Arab friends to come together and hammer out a peace agreement to ensure security and prosperity in a country scarred by two decades of incessant war, conflict and violence.