By Ubaid Ahmed*
On February 29, 2020, the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal following months of tense, highly publicized bilateral peace talks. The finalized agreement had four key points, firstly a staggered withdrawal of foreign troops over fourteen months. Secondly assurances by the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be used as a base to launch terror attacks against the US nor provide haven to other extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the IS. Thirdly, the beginning of an Intra-Afghan Dialogue and lastly a cessation of violence. Surprisingly, since the very beginnings the negotiations had barred the Afghan government and nowhere near had it seemed happening that Taliban are going for peace with the Afghan government. Additionally, the Taliban’s long-standing refusal to recognize Kabul as the legitimate government of Afghanistan also did not bode well for successful implementation of a substantively meaningful Intra-Afghan Dialogue.
Buoyed by the aforementioned peace agreement signed by the Trump administration and with Biden upholding America’s no obligation in Afghanistan, the Taliban have now gained almost complete control of Afghanistan. However, the fall of Kabul did not come as a surprise, since 2018 reports have been pouring in about how the US has betrayed the people within and abroad. Various reports by the UN had already thrown cold water onto the notion that the Taliban have changed. The UN issued a report in 2020 suggesting that the groups messaging remained hard-lined and is unwilling for a political compromise. It further argued that Senior Al-Qaeda leadership remained present in the Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan and the relationship between the two is not at all passive. Both the groups share a history of struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The report alleged that both the groups had held secret meetings to discuss operational planning, training, and the provision by the Taliban of safe-havens for Al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the report also suggested that the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri also held meeting with the members of Haqqani Network in February 2020, days before signing of the infamous ‘peace deal’.
From strategy to foreign policy, many things went wrong in US’ misadventure in Afghanistan most importantly during and post peace deal. For instance, the US conciliatory methodology toward the Taliban was neither rhyme nor reason. The State Department needed the Taliban’s trial of truthfulness by requesting a discontinuance of viciousness prior the snow melts. It held additions to its understanding mystery. It failed to address the Pakistan problem.
The Taliban played the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad escort like a fiddle in his enthusiasm to make a quick exit from Afghanistan. Likewise, Khalilzad’s proposition of participation with the Taliban against the Islamic State (IS) were significantly increasingly foolhardy. The facts demonstrate that the Taliban have battled against the Islamic State in certain areas in eastern Afghanistan. This isn’t because of the Taliban’s freshly discovered Afghan patriotism as Khalilzad claims, but instead in light of the fact that the Taliban looked to push back a gathering which looked for advances into a locale in which the Taliban trusted it had an imposing business model. It was less the Taliban acting benevolently to free Afghanistan of the Islamic State and progressively a mafia turf war.
Meanwhile, coming to the Pakistan-Taliban plan the greatest flaw in the US state Department conciliatory procedure with the Taliban had been its close to total refusal to address the Pakistan issue. Pakistan is to the Taliban what Iran is to Hezbollah. Neither one of the terrorists group would exist as such had it not been provided for a considerable length of time of support and training. What lies as a problem at the part of Pakistani academicians/scholars is the constant denial of the cold war politics, instead just projecting themselves as the victim of the global war on terror. However, one hardly need a crystal ball to extrapolate the sacrifices made by Pakistan in this regard but one should also keep in mind that denial has never been a policy.
Being victimized by terror groups doesn’t absolve Pakistan for how entwined its Intelligence and security agencies have become with the Taliban and its fraction groups. This, obviously, is best represented by the way that Pakistan was caught in the alleged act of accommodating Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Additionally, only a few of Taliban actual negotiators had been residing practically in Qatar, whereas the rest of the leadership let it be the Quetta Shura, the Peshawar Shura, the Miran Shah Shura, and the Haqqanis, all live in Pakistan. Thus a constant denial would not suffice the greater goal. Pakistan at this point must have to devise a clear foreign policy objective pertaining Afghanistan.
Having said that the question that arises in mind is, did the Taliban win?
This could better be argued in a way that the geography has been a strategic curse to the Afghanistan or maybe the blessing in disguise. Afghanistan for the long time has been termed as the “Graveyard of Empires’, and none of the Empires that invaded Afghanistan managed to conquer it. The reason why Afghanistan is almost impossible to conquer primarily is the geography. For instance, almost 75 percent of Afghanistan’s area is considered to be mountainous and with a monumentally difficult terrain. Besides, all the borders are drawn arbitrarily by the outside invaders.
Moreover, the population of the country consists of a loose association of 14 ethno linguistic groups, among them the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pashtuns occupy the border areas. Pashtuns make up nearly half of Afghanistan’s population but two third of the Pashtuns live next door in the neighboring Pakistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan runs directly through the Tribal area of Pakistan. However, to this date not a single Afghan government nor the Taliban has ratified or recognize the border between these two states. Thus to establish command and control through the entire length of the country would definitely going to a great task for the Taliban regime. Moreover, all the militant organizations which supported the afghan Taliban in this power transition would also be asking for the power sharing let it be the Al-Qaeda linked East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), ISKP, Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) etc.
To conclude, the Afghan War now has entered in its most crucial phase. And with this begins also the real test of the Taliban. Indubitably the Taliban today are more sophisticated in their war and propaganda machine but would that be enough to rule the ‘Graveyard of Empires’?
*Ubaid Ahmed, Independent Researcher. Mphil. Scholar at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid e Azam University, Islamabad.