Qadir Khan Yousafzai
Afghanistan has not been in the midst of war for the past 17 years but for 39 years. The devastating war was brought to the country when Soviet forces attacked and invaded its territory on 27th December, 1979. Deemed as a superpower, the Soviet Union was defeated after roughing it out in Afghanistan for 9 years. On 15th February, 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan but not before losing their erstwhile preponderance and power. However, war in Afghanistan was far from over as the country slipped into a brutal civil war in which warlords vied for the throne in Kabul. The likes of Ahmed Shah Masood, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, Sighbatullah Mujadi and Barhanuddin Rabbani could not manage the interim government and were instead at each other’s throats. The intra-Afghan tussle was typified with gory events like the rocket attack on Kabul in August 1992 that took 1,800 Afghan lives. Differences were so major that when Gulbadin Hekmatyar was the Prime Minister, Barhanuddin Rabbani, as President, was not allowed to enter Kabul.
The tumultuous situation and the growing infighting in Afghanistan paved way for a new movement. In 1994, Mullah Umar, a veteran of the Soviet Afghan war, organized a ragtag bunch of students and laid the foundation of an Islamic movement. In 1996, he established the Islamic Emirate by taking over Kabul. Lawlessness, ruckus and mayhem brought Mullah Umar back into limelight. After the Soviet withdrawal , he went into isolation only to be forced back by a series of condemnable incidents committed by warlords and their soldiers.
The Mullah Umar-led Taliban established its rule over 90% of Afghanistan. Neither did the one-eyed Mullah Umar wage war on any Western country nor ever expressed the desire to do so. The US left Afghanistan to its own devices after the Soviet withdrawal, causing it to drift into a civil war. However, when the Taliban helped end the conflict by gaining power, the US got perturbed. It feared that the Taliban might turn against it. The US prepared the West to launch a war on the Taliban by citing the demolition of the Bamiyan statues and other internal issues in Afghanistan. The tragic events of 9/11 triggered the next war in Afghanistan. Mullah Umar refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the US. The impasse eventually led to the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001.
Post 1991, the US had emerged as the sole superpower and established a New World Order. However, despite claiming itself to be mighty and impregnable, the US apparently feared the Afghan Taliban. Hence, the US used massive firepower to pulverize Afghanistan. The use of airpower was rampant. Heavy bombings were carried out with impunity. So much so, that the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) was dropped in the Nangarhar province in 2017.
With no counter to US’ airpower, the Taliban retreated in a bid to force the US to fight battles on ground. US and NATO forces were confident that the Taliban will be overpowered after being obliterated by airstrikes. However, the retreat on part of Mullah Umar was tactical, for he not only reorganized his outfit but also prepared an extensive guerilla campaign. Mullah Umar remained at large and undetected till his demise. Mullah Umer’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was able to thwart efforts to drive a wedge within the ranks of the Taliban, something that the US was trying to do.
Mullah Mansoor was killed in a drone strike inside Pakistan while he was returning from Iran. This was probably yet another attempt by the US to cause a divide between the Taliban, a group it was finding hard to defeat despite the application of massive military power.
The situation on the ground remained abysmal for the US and encouraging for the Taliban. In 2009-10, US Commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal advocated the induction of more troops and termed the situation severe. However, he was shown the door when he was quoted as being utterly critical of the US managers of the Afghan war including President Barack Obama.
Irrespective of skepticism, the US justified its presence in Afghanistan because it wanted to achieve the following objectives: end of the Sharia-based Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; eliminate drugs and narcotics from Afghanistan; introduce a broad-based government in Afghanistan and; end war and conflict. However, the US has been unable to achieve any of these objectives. The Taliban still control 60% of Afghan territory and the opium production and drug smuggling have increased. The government is weak, fragmented and US-controlled. US’ so-called peace efforts have been heavily lambasted by its erstwhile partner in former President, Hamid Karzai. He feels that the US has failed and its clout has dwindled.
The Taliban, while ramping up its military activities, have also actively participated in peace initiatives. Other than partaking in various conferences, meeting with representatives of regional countries like Iran, Pakistan and Russia, the Taliban are now directly talking with the US. The dialogue process was initiated by Russia, for it felt that in order to defeat the Islamic State, the support of the Taliban was essential. The Taliban have participated in the process but have been adamant in not talking to the National Unity Government (NUG) because it is deemed as a puppet of the US.
The US on the other hand wants to maintain its footprints in Afghanistan to keep a check on Russia’s resurgence in the region. Also, its simmering rivalry with Iran is another factor that is likely to keep the US engaged in the region. China’s rise and growing preponderance have turned into a challenge for the US. Beijing’s closeness to Pakistan under the aegis of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor has caused ripples in the ranks of US and India. The intensity of the Sino-US trade war could result in an increased proxy war aimed at China.
Whereas Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia and China are trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, the US has given mixed signals. Its policy has oscillated from rejecting talks, to talking to hinting at troops withdrawal. Ostensibly, the US wants to keep its air bases in Afghanistan, and hence has been reticent to acquiesce to Taliban’s demands. Taliban contend that the choice of a governance system is solely to be made by the people of Afghanistan. While the US wants India to play a greater role in Afghanistan, the Taliban are wary of New Delhi’s role.
Taliban have warned against foreign meddling in subversive activities but have guaranteed protection to foreigners, embassies and development workers.
There are impediments aplenty to peace in Afghanistan. One of the hitches is US’ inflexibility towards mending fences with Pakistan, a country that has greatly facilitated talks between Washington and Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban reject US-sponsored elections and its troops’ presence. The US seemingly does not want to leave Afghanistan and is hence trying to offer concessions that cut no ice with the Taliban. With geopolitics trumping sincere peace efforts, it remains to be seen whether the 39-year old war in Afghanistan can be brought to an end. By the looks of things, it is somewhat difficult.
Qadir Khan Yousafzai is a Columnist at Jehan Pakistan.