Author: Jahangir HUSEYNOV
According to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, it is primarily necessary to agree with the Taliban on a ceasefire to ensure the political settlement of the situation in the country.
He shared his vision of the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Western coalition troops from the country in the American magazine Foreign Affairs. Ghani said he was ready to leave his post if he can reach an agreement with Taliban on the establishment of a transitional government and holding elections in the country. “I will not nominate myself in these elections, and I will leave my post before the expiration of my presidential term, if the one who replaces me has a mandate for peace,” he said.
In February 2020 the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban, according to which the US and other NATO countries pledged to completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. In turn, the Taliban promised to participate in peace negotiations with the government of the country and to prevent aggressive actions by Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist and anti-government forces in the areas they control.
However, the deadline set for May 1 seemed unlikely from the moment the agreement became effective, given the lack of proper preparation for its implementation. In April 2021, the US President Joe Biden announced new dates. The complete withdrawal of the coalition troops from Afghanistan will begin on May 1 and end on September 11, 2021, exactly 20 years after the tragic events that killed almost 3,000 Americans.
After al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, the then Afghan government run by Taliban was requested to hand over Osama bin Laden and other suspects of the 9/11 attacks, but were refused. Just a month later, anti-Taliban Afghan forces known as the Northern Alliance and supported by the US and Britain removed the Taliban from power. Al-Qaeda leaders fled to Pakistan. However, the military actions in Afghanistan did not end there and continue to this day.
The 20-year-old war in Afghanistan cost the US the lives of more than 2,200 soldiers and over $1 trillion. There are many more victims among the Afghans, including more than 70,000 servicemen of the government armed forces killed during the conflict. Systematic registration of civilian casualties began only in 2009, showing significantly more than 100,000 Afghans killed. Moreover, according to the UN, in 2019, the Afghan and American troops killed more civilians using ‘carpet bombing’ than the Taliban and other anti-government forces.
In fact, the Taliban emerged from the chaos of the civil war, later taking control of the capital of the country–Kabul–and over much of Afghanistan in 1996 up until a US-led invasion in 2001. However, despite the constantly increasing presence of foreign troops, the Taliban has gradually restored and expanded its influence in the country.
Emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan posed a serious challenge to Taliban's ambitions. But it also helped it gain the support of its rivals in the region. Taliban leaders entered into dialogue with several regional countries assuring them that they would not allow ISIS to strengthen in Afghanistan and threaten stability along their borders. Thus, Iran, China and Russia had to reconsider their policies regarding the contacts with the Taliban.
In September 2020, Taliban signed an agreement with the US theoretically designed to pave the way for peace in Afghanistan. But it obliged the Taliban to prevent attacks on the international coalition troops, not on the Afghan armed forces and citizens of the country. As a result, the number of killings has increased dramatically, despite the start of intra-Afghan peace talks in September 2020.
“Everyone hoped that the deal with the US would turn the Taliban from a military force into a political force that refused to act violently. But there is no sign that the Taliban have changed. It just changed the tactics, switching to targeted killings, because it does not strongly violate the terms of the agreement," said the former Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Tamim Asey.
The victims are mainly political and public figures, activists of the movement for women's equality, and simply educated people. This is done purposefully to eliminate some and intimidate other influential and popular citizens of the country who criticise Taliban before their very likely return to power. The UN report said that following the agreement with the US, the number of civilian casualties rose 45% compared to the year of 2020.
Attempts to secure more power
There are more than half a dozen peace plans circulating in Kabul, including those proposed by the rival warlords Gulbeddin Hekmatyar and Abdurrashid Dustum.
Dustum's plan assumes the granting of greater rights to ethnic minorities and the decentralisation of political and military control. Hekmatyar calls for a "non-coalition" government made up of "non-controversial individuals."
All f these plans vary greatly in content and depth. But they show that there is growing support in Kabul for the development of some kind of transitional government. At the same time, many of Ghani's political opponents are pondering how they can ensure their own security, and, on the other, to secure more power in the future.
International community is increasingly understanding that peace in Afghanistan and the region can only be achieved through contacts with the main regional leaders, including Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China, India and Saudi Arabia. But so far, suspicion and mistrust remain the biggest obstacle to achieving stability in such a strategically important country as Afghanistan.
The change in regional alliances was influenced by three main factors: the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan; changes in the approach of the new Afghan government; tensions between the US and regional leaders.
In recent years, anxiety in Russia and Central Asian countries has intensified with the combat operations spreading to the northern Afghan provinces close to their borders. Moscow has for years opposed the Taliban calling them terrorists, and supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. But faced with a common enemy ISIS, Russia changed its mind. In December 2015, a senior Russian diplomat said that "the interests of the Taliban objectively coincide with ours" in the fight against ISIS, and that Russia and Taliban "have channels to exchange information."
Like Russia, Iran supported anti-Taliban groups in the 1990s. Tehran also partnered with a US-led international coalition to overthrow the Taliban in late 2001. But at the same time, it sent the Taliban signals that Tehran was ready to support Taliban against the US. With the emergence of ISIS, Tehran's relationship with the Taliban has strengthened.
President Joe Biden says the US withdrawal is justified because the American troops have done everything possible to ensure that Afghanistan cannot once again become a staging ground for foreign jihadist plots against the West.
It is a controversial statement given that the US presence only slowed down the military and political gains of the Taliban, but did not reverse them. Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since it was toppled 20 years ago. Al Qaeda, ISIS and other militant groups have not disappeared and are now re-emerging amid the imminent withdrawal of international forces.
Apparently, Washington believes that the main task in Afghanistan has nevertheless been fulfilled - the potential of al-Qaeda is much lower compared to the previous military groups, while the ISIS militants are limited in their actions due to the Taliban.
When asked if the US would be responsible for a possible civil war in Afghanistan, Biden replied that America had priorities in the fight against external threats, and it would follow them, calling the possible feuds in Afghanistan ‘an internal affair of the country’. “There is no military solution to the problems Afghanistan is suffering from, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the White House said.
While negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are going on slowly, it is difficult to hope for a power-sharing agreement before the withdrawal of the US troops. Perhaps the Taliban’s intention to achieve international recognition will force them to make compromises, BBC reports. But many fear that the Taliban will simply wait for the American withdrawal and then will try to achieve a military victory - or at least an overwhelming advantage.
According to Afghan intelligence estimates, the Afghan government could contain the Taliban for several years. But international support in this war remained the most important factor for Kabul. So now there is a threat that the conflict will escalate and become even bloodier.
If the Taliban wins, many Western intelligence services do not exclude the possibility that Afghanistan may again become a hotbed of extremism, as it was back in the 1990s. A new wave of foreign terrorist fighters from the West is expected to travel to Afghanistan to set up training bases. This will depend on whether the Taliban, if they win, allows al-Qaeda and ISIS, and how prepared the international community is to fight them when it no longer has military resources in the country.