InternationalVolume 14 Issue # 13

Understanding the Afghan endgame

The 2019 thrill is that Afghanistan is readying itself for experiencing once again the endgame of invasion. All efforts are underway to circumvent the repeat of 1989 withdrawal episode trailed by a civil war.

Despite the fact that, since 2001, the US is said to have invested one trillion dollars in Afghanistan to install a new government and to reconstruct the country, the Taliban wrote an open letter (released by their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid) addressed to the American people in February 2018, calling on them to demand an end the conflict in Afghanistan. It was an exigent and solemn call for ending hostilities, both local and foreign. On 20 December 2018, the US responded eventually by initiating the Afghan endgame when US President Donald Trump announced withdrawing up to half of the 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan in next few months.

In January 2019, the Doha US-Taliban peace talks vented voices that converged on two points. First, the US pledged to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Second, the Afghan Taliban assured that they would not let the al-Qaeda use the Afghan land again. The convergence is a great achievement, thereby indicating that the US and its allies dispatched their forces to Afghanistan to root out the menace of terrorism actuated by al-Qaeda. The obverse side of the convergence is that in one go it dismisses a three-pronged conspiracy theory. That is, the US and allies invaded Afghanistan, first, to occupy some subsoil sequestered resources detectable only through their satellites; second, to coerce Pakistan to roll back its nuclear program; and third, to establish a vigilant node to watch over the activities of China. The late General Hameed Gul was the main proponent of this package of the conspiracy theory.

Two factors are bringing about the endgame possible. First, US President Trump’s preparation for the next presidential elections in 2020, as he had made it an electoral pledge to withdraw the US forces from Afghanistan – the unfinished agenda of Barack Obama. Second, the claim of the Afghan Taliban to have under their control more than 50% of Afghanistan’s territory. Nevertheless, the same factors also imply that two failures are dictating the endgame. First, the failure of the US forces to stamp on the Afghan Taliban to claim a complete conquest. Second, the failure of the Afghan Taliban to take over Kabul to claim a comprehensive triumph. Hence, both parties are speaking from their respective strengths, but after they are encumbered by their own weaknesses.

In the modern day warfare, victory is a misnomer. Instead of achieving physical annihilation in an absolute sense, victory is meant for embracing a majority of certain objectives. So far, the US has achieved three objectives. First, the US ousted the Afghan Taliban’s government in 2001 and substituted it with a democratic and constitutional regime. This was the beginning of a constitutional, federal, democratic system in Afghanistan. Second, buttressed by drone strikes, the US has routed al-Qaeda not only from Afghanistan but also from the tribal belt of Pakistan. Third, supported by a splendid airpower, the US has kept Kabul under its control and pushed the Afghan Taliban to the periphery of the country. Many took refuge in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the US favoured Pakistan by not extending the war into its territory. The US left Pakistan to its own devices.  

The Afghan Taliban have achieved one major objective: making the US think of departure. Nevertheless, there are still three layers of obstacles to the way of the Afghan Taliban to declare an eventual triumph. First, the presence of the US forces laden with superior air power. Second, the intra-Afghan dialogue. Third, the Afghan Constitution.

US President Trump has announced the removal of the first layer of obstacle by declaring to vacate Afghanistan. The peeling of this layer makes the Afghan Taliban reach the second layer: intra-Afghan dialogue. The Afghan Taliban demand that they were the rulers of Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates legitimized the Taliban rule in 1996. Hence, the power should be simply handed over back to them, instead of resorting to any intra-Afghan dialogue, which would sanction the ruling regime of Ashraf Ghani. The US, however, wants the Afghan Taliban to pass through the rigmarole of dialogue. The apprehension is that the Afghan Taliban would overwhelm the Kabul regime of President Ashraf Ghani. That is, the Kabul regime would meet the fate of the Najeebullah regime. Dr Najeebullah, former President of Afghanistan (1987-1992), was hanged in Kabul outside the United Nation’s compound in September 1996.

The success of the intra-Afghan dialogue bordering on how to accommodate each other would expose the third layer of obstacle: the Afghan Constitution. The Afghan Constitution is a document approved by a Loya Jirga (a grand tribal constituent assembly) in 2004. To equipoise the Constitution, the Afghan Taliban, however, issued (uploaded on their website with dozens of signatures) the Order (or Constitution) of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2005. In this regard, the apprehension is that the Afghan Taliban would abnegate the Afghan Constitution to restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Two things are impossible. First, the US leaving Afghanistan without mediating an intra-Afghan dialogue as a pre-requisite. Second, the US leaving the Kabul regime at the mercy of the Afghan Taliban. That is, the US would require that the negotiations and agreements about the future of Afghanistan take place in their presence before the stated withdrawal.

Through its special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US is talking to the representatives of the Afghan Taliban to agree to a framework for a peace settlement. The US wants the Afghan Taliban to prepare themselves to be part of the ruling order. It simply means that the Taliban should be participating in the forthcoming Afghan presidential elections in July this year. That is, the elections offer an opportunity of participation in the government. The elections would make another thing clear. Despite claiming monopoly over more than 50% of Afghan territory, whether or not the Afghan Taliban are more than 50% popular in the Afghan voters.

If controlling more than 50% territory in Afghanistan is a strength of the Afghan Taliban, the strength is going to be tested through the electoral process. If the Afghan Taliban convert their territorial strength to electoral strength, they would take over Kabul, otherwise not. This is going to be a defining moment for the Afghans, if they are ready to live under the regime of the Afghan Taliban or not. The ground realities have changed in Afghanistan. The Afghans have tasted democracy and savoured freedom from oppression. Human rights and women rights group are active to watch their interests.

In essence, through elections (and not by force) under the Afghan Constitution is the only opening available for the Afghan Taliban to break the status quo and take over Kabul.