The April 5 election in Afghanistan to choose Hamid Karzai’s successor saw a voter turnout of about 58 percent or some 7 million people. While the vote represents an important transition, there’s another key change that occurs in Afghanistan later this year: the drawdown of foreign forces. Afghanistan is an uncertain picture, but it offers some discernible trends and issues to help gauge its and the region’s future.
The nearly 35 years of conflict in Afghanistan have made Pakistan a virtual war zone. Will the election and drawdown move Afghanistan toward stability and peace?
In the immediate context, the situation has become clearer on two counts. Despite flaws and controversies, the presidential election marks a relatively peaceful, political change in a deeply turbulent country. Second, it appears increasingly likely that Karzai’s successor will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. paving the way for a residual international security force to remain in Afghanistan.
The American public’s fatigue with the Afghan conflict means there is little buy-in for any further ambitious engagement in Afghanistan. At the same time, America’s threatened “zero option” for Afghanistan now stands politically ruled out since pulling up all stakes in Afghanistan would, in the context of the Ukraine crisis, give the appearance of retreat and weakness. Can the BSA with the diminished presence of foreign forces do what 13 years of full-scale international military deployment could not?
The BSA, according to Washington, will provide for continuation of counterterrorism operations and keep the NATO-built Afghan National Army together. Karzai demurred on the agreement perhaps because such apparent defiance could help his political future and legacy. The next president should be willing to oblige the U.S. because the residual foreign security presence will keep Kabul in international focus and ensure desperately needed monetary assistance continues flowing in. The presence of some foreign troops will stave off a possible scenario of the country breaking down into full-on civil war. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban will continue to use such presence, however small, to justify their militancy and sustain their motivation. The trend to watch is whether the violence escalates or tapers off.
If it materializes, the start of dialogue for political adjustments, peace, and stabilization will be as intractable, if not more so, as that in hand across the border in Pakistan. The best hope for weaning away reconcilable Afghan Taliban existed on the eve of the Bonn process when the Taliban’s strength stood shattered. But the Taliban were lumped together with Al Qaeda and declared terrorists without a thought. This rendered the objective of reconciliation with the insurgents meaningless. By the time the U.S. reviewed this position, in 2009, the Taliban, taking advantage of U.S. distraction in Iraq and “safe havens” in Pakistan, had regrouped. Subsequent reconciliation initiatives by the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey simply did not take off. Complexities of culture and mindset and disconnect and distrust proved insurmountable for the process to lead anywhere.
Kabul and Washington hope for a gradual whittling down of Taliban strength through accommodation and pacification, which could mark the beginning of de facto reconciliation. Meanwhile, there is virtue in keeping the offer and process of reconciliation alive. And it must be Afghan-led. The frontrunners in the Afghan presidential election are personalities with modern education and outlook. The likely successor to Karzai can be expected to accommodate Taliban interests in areas where they already exercise influence but to resist and reject Taliban ideology and creed, which are anachronisms bound to fade away. But how long will this take and at what cost to Afghanistan and its neighbors? Are the Taliban on the rise again? And can the Afghan National Army contain them?
The Afghan Taliban’s revival and strength owe in good measure to the ruffled sentiment widely prevalent among the Pakhtun population on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Many Pakhtuns sympathized with the Taliban not because they shared an ideology but because American military intervention had allowed the control of Kabul to pass into the hands of non-Pakhtuns. The deeply conservative, religious, and tribal traditions of this population engender empathy for the Taliban, who also enjoy support from Pakistan’s religious right. Yet all these factors do not add up to a renewed Afghan Taliban capacity to reenact their ascent of the mid-1990s. Afghanistan and the international environment stand much changed since then.
Despite myriad problems—the insurgency, weak governance, an anemic reconstruction effort beset with corruption and waste—more than a decade of foreign military intervention has transformed Afghanistan. Urban centers especially in the north and center of the country are experiencing significant economic activity thanks to the infusion of vast funds allocated over the years for the war effort and to the rise of sociopolitical forces who reject Taliban ideology and politics.
Much of Afghanistan remains politically fragmented and divided among powerful warlords who resist central control. Yet, unlike in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, these warlords are not at each other’s throats; they have learnt to coexist while consolidating hold over their respective regions. They are one with Kabul in opposing the Taliban militancy. In most urban centers, the Afghan Army has demonstrated capacity to counter Taliban operations—which come largely in the shape of suicide bombings, use of IEDs, and surprise attacks in small groups such as those witnessed during the course of the election. These are disruptive activities which do not topple governments or overturn political systems. We also cannot overlook the impressive turnout, despite Taliban threats, for the presidential poll.
The Afghan Taliban wield influence and freely move in many areas of the Pakhtun belt stretching along south and southeast Afghanistan where the Afghan Army maintains a tenuous presence and lacks operational capacity. However, to stage a comeback, the Taliban would need to gather in sufficient strength to launch large-scale military campaigns. This was possible in the 1990s when Afghanistan was isolated and exhausted by internecine war among squabbling warlords and errant Mujahideen bands. Today, with Afghanistan in the global spotlight and with decidedly improved internal conditions, such Taliban operations are impossible. It is also worth recalling that during the latter part of their rule, the Afghan Taliban had become increasingly dependent on the Pakistani Taliban and religious-extremist elements in Pakistan. In the present international environment, the Afghan Taliban will no longer be able to avail such resources. So the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Kabul is dim, but they are capable of sustaining the militancy and violence.
The Taliban alone cannot be blamed for instability in Afghanistan. Political and ethnic divisions, mistaken Coalition policies, the failed reconstruction effort, misrule, corruption, drugs and an arms culture have all contributed to Afghanistan’s sorry predicament. The situation can fast regress if foreign assistance starts drying up and post-withdrawal Afghanistan becomes a target of intensified regional rivalries.
Keeping the Afghan economy viable and helping Kabul maintain the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army is a challenge for the international community beyond 2014. At present, Afghanistan is a war economy fed by billions of dollars spent on the large Coalition force deployed there. Changed circumstances post-drawdown will demand a more focused international effort to build the Afghan economy with better managed reconstruction to rehabilitate infrastructure and agriculture and create jobs. Without funds, the Afghan Army is likely to disintegrate. This would have disastrous consequences. The lesson of the 1990s is manifest: the international community can ill afford to walk away from Afghanistan.
The lurking danger of regional rivalries in the post-2014 scenario may well remain contained by the number of international forums and processes, including those active under the auspices of the United Nations, which engage all regional and outside powers with interests in Afghanistan. The latest of these is Istanbul’s Heart of Asia initiative. The expected residual U.S. military presence may also help to discourage an ugly jostle for influence in Afghanistan.
Tensions between Pakistan and India cast a distinct shadow over Afghanistan. Pakistan acquiesces in India’s economic presence in Afghanistan, but is wary of a possible Indian military role and perceived Indian intelligence activity there (with the connivance, if not support, of Afghan intelligence agencies). There are those who conjure up a two-front scenario, an anathema in strategic terms. Arguably, these fears may partly be more psychological than real, but given the history of hostility between the two South Asian neighbors, it will be impolitic for Kabul or the Coalition to enlist India for a military role in Afghanistan. Normalization of relations between Pakistan and India will have a salutary impact on the region. Meanwhile, it may be helpful for Pakistan and India to talk in order to dispel mutual suspicions, especially about each other’s intentions in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, analysts often underestimate the sinister fallout of the country’s long involvement with the Afghan conflict. Partly, it was inescapable in view of the demographic, historical, and cultural overlap shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan. Karzai aptly described the neighbors as “conjoined twins.” And partly, it owed to delusional and wrong policy choices made on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the Soviet Union’s Afghan debacle. The consequences have accentuated polarization within Pakistani society with extremist violence by private militias in the name of jihad challenging the writ of the state and stifling economic development. Pakistan missed out on the great transformation spurred by globalization. This was a huge price to pay and calls for introspection.
The lure of seeking “strategic depth” or the “Taliban option” to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan has only brought discredit to Pakistan internationally and obfuscated clear policy analysis at home. The reality is that Pakistan does not face a conventional threat on its western borders. The unconventional threat Pakistan faces from that direction already exists in the shape of the informal nexus between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban and other Pakistan-based militant elements. Every Pakistani Taliban leader declared allegiance to Mullah Omar as emir. But Mullah Omar has never condemned the Pakistani Taliban’s havoc inside Pakistan. Other elements allied with the Afghan Taliban, such as the Haqqani network, have also never obliged the Pakistani government on this count. This is not to say that Pakistan should hound the Afghan Taliban’s leadership. Rather, it should realize that on the Taliban issue, it is isolated internationally; that far from being an asset, the Taliban are catalysts for spawning extremism.
Pakistan’s close friends—China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia—want the Taliban leaders to renounce violence and cooperate for reconciliation and peace. Pakistan can help with peace and reconciliation prudently and in tandem with Kabul. The Taliban leaders who have found shelter in Pakistan should be encouraged to participate in the process, and they must be persuaded to desist from using Pakistani territory for military operations inside Afghanistan. Pakistan needs a clear narrative on the Afghan Taliban and its policy toward Afghanistan.
A most telling lesson of the Afghan conflict is that its continuation hurts Pakistan more than any other country apart from Afghanistan itself. To play favorites or allow its Afghan policy to slip into the familiar ethnic trap will only prolong and intensify the conflict. Pakistan cannot be the guarantor of the Afghan Taliban much less the Afghan Pakhtuns, many of whom would resent Pakistan claiming such a role. This can also easily stoke regional rivalries as Afghanistan is not just the Pakhtuns. It is in Pakistan’s interest that regional players, including India, act with restraint and develop a stake in the stabilization of Afghanistan.
For regional peace, Islamabad and Kabul will have to manage their relationship on the basis of confidence that neither has designs against the other. Recent statements by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the subject are cautious and point in the right direction. Pakistan and Afghanistan share much in common and this strength can serve as foundation for an enduring friendship. Yet the past seems hard to get over at the governmental and leadership level, in both countries. It’s time to change this.
Khan is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and the author, most recently, of Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity. From our April 12-19, 2014, issue.