National and International Issues

Ending the ‘Forever War’

Americans have been referring to their military involvement in Afghanistan for the last 20 years as the “forever war”. This is for a good reason because there appears to be no easy exit from the longest war in U.S. history. American hubris and thirst for revenge after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. led them to blunder into the “graveyard of empires”, ignoring the lessons of history. Just as the British and the Soviets before them, the Americans discovered that invading Afghanistan was easier than getting out as victors. Since a military victory has proved elusive after trying for nearly two decades, the U.S., under President Trump, finally decided to find a political solution through the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban and started an intra-Afghan peace process. In return for a Taliban commitment to sever links with terrorist groups threatening the U.S. and its allies, the Trump administration pledged to withdraw all U.S. and allied troops by May 1, 2021. However, with Trump’s defeat in December 2020 presidential elections, his successor, President Biden from the opposing Democratic Party, has called for a “review” of the deal with the Taliban, which has raised doubts about the complete withdrawal of American and NATO forces by the May deadline. There is now the danger that not only the agreement with the Taliban but the entire Afghan peace process may collapse. If that happens, those who would suffer the most are the hapless Afghan people who have been subjected to violence and conflict ever since the Soviet backed “Saur Revolution” in 1978. For them, this has been a truly “forever war” with no end in sight. The cycle of conflict has involved bouts of civil war, terrorism and external aggression. If sustainable peace does not now emerge in Afghanistan, there is every likelihood of continuing conflict. This raises the central question as to what are the requirements for a durable peace in Afghanistan? In this context, 5 broad requirements can be identified: i) Acceptance of ground realities by all concerned parties; ii) Accommodation among the diverse and opposing Afghan factions including the current Afghan government; iii) Elimination or at least degrading of Afghanistan based terrorist groups; iv) Positive role by all external players; and v) Continuing economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in the future. Admittedly, all of these factors are complex and difficult to achieve. But for peace to emerge and prevail in Afghanistan, these minimum requirements need to be met.
The ground realities in Afghanistan are clear. Most importantly, it has become obvious that there is no military solution. The only solution is a political agreement among the Afghan factions based on compromise and mutual accommodation. Secondly, the Taliban have managed to acquire control over more than half of the country, especially in the rural areas. The Afghan government forces are incapable of dislodging the Taliban from these areas or defeating them militarily. If the war drags on they are likely to lose even more territory, particularly if the American and NATO forces are withdrawn. But it is also true that the Taliban do not have the capability to secure a complete military victory either. If the fighting continues, there will be a stalemate that could continue for years, adding further to the misery of the Afghan people. Yet, these ground realities also provide the basis for a future power sharing agreement among the Afghans. Since none of the Afghan factions, including the present government or the Taliban, are in a position to control the country by themselves, there is a need for a realistic power sharing agreement between them based on their existing strength on the ground. Accordingly, the Taliban will seek a share in a future government commensurate with their control of Afghan territory. This would have to be recognized as the basis for any future dispensation in Afghanistan.
In order to reach such a power sharing agreement, all the Afghan parties, especially the incumbent government and the Taliban, would need to demonstrate mutual accommodation through compromise and cooperation. This would be no easy task, given the legacy of differences along ethnic, sectarian and ideological lines apart from political differences and personal ambitions. Indeed, the burden of history over the last 40 years weighs heavily on the Afghans. Even though all Afghans are at least united in favour of their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this has not prevented the animosity between the Pashtoons and the Tajiks or the rivalry between Shias and Sunnis. These differences became firmly entrenched during the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. It remains to be seen whether these differences can now be overcome. Then there has been the detrimental role of various warlords eager to protect their fiefdoms. Ideologically, the clash between secular western oriented Afghans and the ultra-conservative Taliban following their own interpretation of Islam would need to be reconciled. Perhaps most difficult to overcome would be the personal ambitions for wielding power of top leaders who presently dominate Afghan national political arena. Social issues such as rights of women and minorities, of particular interest to the U.S. and other western countries, would also need to be addressed. Therefore, there remain tremendous challenges that the Afghans would need to overcome for the sake of sustainable peace in their country. To do so would require change and compromise. Still, their problems are not insurmountable. The Afghans need to revert to their traditional means for resolving their differences and evolving a workable arrangement, such as through a Loya Jirga and devolution of power from the Center to the provinces for greater autonomy. In fact, one of the reasons for the political crisis in Afghanistan has been the centralization of power by the government in Kabul at the cost of the autonomy of the provinces and tribes which had worked well in the past but was disrupted by the Soviets and then by the Americans. Restoration of this traditional Afghan framework may provide the basis for a sustainable power sharing agreement in the future. 
Overcoming the scourge of terrorism will be a key factor for ensuring durable peace in Afghanistan. No other nation has suffered as much from terrorism as the Afghans. In the Global Terrorism Index Afghanistan still scores 9.5 out of 10, more than any other country. Al-Qaeda still survives despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, and remains a potent threat. The country’s vast ungoverned spaces have for long provided sanctuaries for other terrorist groups as well, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs and of course the TTP and BLA. But the most significant terrorist threat today is from ISIS or the “Islamic State in Khorasan”. While the Taliban maintained close relations with Al-Qaeda and some of the other groups, their objectives have been different. The Taliban have been fighting “foreign occupation” whereas Al-Qaeda and other groups have focused on targeting the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and beyond. Following their agreement with the Americans, the Taliban are now committed to break off links with all terrorist organizations. Some U.S. officials have, however, claimed that this has not happened as yet, a claim that the Taliban deny. This issue needs to be resolved to implement the U.S.-Taliban deal. It is also significant that the Taliban and the U.S. share their opposition to ISIS, which could become a point of cooperation between them. If such cooperation could emerge, it would greatly contribute towards degrading and eventually eliminating terrorism in Afghanistan.
Among the major external players, the most important role, of course, is of the U.S. Like Trump, President Biden has also advocated an American exit from Afghanistan. But unlike Trump, who wanted to withdraw all American forces irrespective of the consequences, Biden has indicated that he would prefer to have an Afghan peace agreement in place by the time the U.S. withdrawal has been completed. Currently, Biden is weighing his options by conducting a “review” of U.S. policy. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is reportedly working on 3 scenarios – heading for the exits by the 1 May deadline; staying the course until an Afghan settlement emerges; or indefinitely extending American military presence. A bipartisan study group has recommended extending the deadline for withdrawal in order to “protect the gains” of the American nation building efforts in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony J.  Blinken has written a letter to President Ghani and the Taliban, advocating the formation of an interim government based on power sharing between them. This “peace agreement” will ensure end of hostilities and adoption of a ceasefire while a new constitution is drawn up and elections held for the next Afghan government. To bring about the interim arrangement, the UN will convene a meeting in Turkey next month with the participation of the Afghan parties and the major external powers – the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India. The hope in Washington is that this initial process would be completed in time for U.S. troops to withdraw by the May deadline. While this American initiative seems to be a step in the right direction so as not to leave a power vacuum in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and the Taliban have yet to accept this proposal. 
Pakistan, which has consistently argued that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, has supported all efforts to bring durable peace in Afghanistan, since this is in Pakistan’s strategic interests. It has also maintained that the Taliban represent a major Afghan force and, therefore, need to be part of a national government. To promote these objectives, Islamabad facilitated the American dialogue with the Taliban and would now also endorse the Biden plan. The main concern for Pakistan, however, will remain the Indian role in Afghanistan which has consistently been to undermine Pakistani interests. The Indians, with the cooperation from Afghan side, have also used Afghan territory for launching terrorist attacks against Pakistan by the TTP and the BLA. For this reason, the future Afghan set-up would be expected by Pakistan to terminate the sanctuaries for anti-Pakistan terrorists and prevent India from undermining Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.
Among the other major external powers, Iran, Russia and China have supported and promoted peace efforts in Afghanistan. While they are expected to support the American initiative being organized by the UN, Russia has itself called a meeting on Afghanistan within a few weeks. This conference will include all Afghan parties along with the U.S., China, Pakistan and Iran. Notably, the Russians have excluded India from this meeting.
This is perhaps due to the negative role that India has played so far regarding the Afghan peace process. It is well known that India opposes any role for the Taliban in a future Afghan government, since it views the Taliban as being allied to Pakistan. Accordingly, New Delhi has coordinated closely with anti-Pakistan individuals in Afghan setup to scuttle the American-Taliban deal. Eventually, the U.S. itself warned India not to be a “spoiler” in this process. The Indians have also aligned with like-minded Americans to underscore the “dangers” of trusting the Taliban and risking the “gains” of American policies in Afghanistan. They have also used their alliance with the U.S. to gate-crash into the American proposed dialogue to be convened by the UN. It is unlikely that India will play a positive role in this initiative and the Americans would have to bring them in line.
Finally, if and when all the other pieces are in place and an Afghan peace process is underway, it would be essential for the international community to substantially assist Afghanistan. This would be a special responsibility of the major powers. Afghanistan should not be abandoned as it was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 which led to a civil war and the emergence of terrorism. Nor should there be empty promises as happened after the Bonn and Tokyo meetings post 2002. Afghanistan will desperately need support for reconstruction and rehabilitation; for economic development and employment creation; and for health and education. Unless such assistance is provided on a sustainable basis, Afghanistan could once again revert to violence and war. 
Ending the forever war in Afghanistan is a responsibility for all the stakeholders. But the Afghan leaders of all factions have a special role to play for peace in their country. They need to rise above personal ambitions and animosities for the sake of their country. For their part, all external players also need to play a positive role for a peaceful and durable Afghan settlement. Continuing warfare in Afghanistan is not in the interest of anyone.

The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan. 
E-mail: [email protected]   

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