As America exits Afghanistan, will the flames of war flare up?

Image source: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

With the impending withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the most pressing question is will there be an end to war, or a continuation of violence?

The lack of progress in the peace talks so far this year has been taken as an ominous sign. Experts warn of further chaos, perhaps lasting for decades. The key issue is to what extent the Taliban and the Western backed Kabul government can cooperate in finding some sort of power-sharing deal. 

The London-based think tank The Democracy Forum recently organised a high level discussion on the future of Afghanistan, involving experts from a number of countries. The whole event is available to view on YouTube. In this report compiled by Kavita Sewda of the Kootneeti and Duncan Bartlett of Asian Affairs magazine, we bring you some of the highlights of the discussion.

The event was opened by Lord Bruce, President of The Democracy Forum. He said that Afghanistan has been a bloody battle ground for decades involving many global, regional and domestic players. It remains one of the most dangerous places on earth. 

Lord Bruce explained that in February 2020, the United States agreed to withdraw all its military personnel from the region within 14 months. This means that 13,000 military personnel will have been repatriated. This would end the longest war the United States has ever fought. 

Lord Bruce said that the deal which the US has agreed with the Taliban envisages the start of Intra-Afghan talks and the cessation of violence. However, the Taliban has made little meaningful effort towards negotiating peace. 

Lord Bruce said that without the threat of American deterrence, it is doubtful whether the Taliban can be trusted to prevent al-Qaeda or Islamic State from operating in the region. He explained that Afghanistan’s political geography leaves it vulnerable to external interference by at least five regional powers and their proxies: Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. 

He said that Iran is working to improve its ties with the Taliban and that India and Pakistan will seek to counter each other’s influence. Russia withdrew its forces in 1988 and is now playing a key role in the peace process. 

Lord Bruce also reminded the audience that China is Afghanistan’s largest source of foreign investment and is the biggest investor in Afghan infrastructure.

The event’s moderator, former BBC Asia correspondent Humphrey Hawksley explained that the aim of the webinar was to dig deeper into what will occur following the proposed US withdrawal. He outlined several possible scenarios, including an accord between the Western backed government in Kabul and the Taliban, or a stalemate, or a deeper slide into civil war.

Dr Dawood Azami, Multimedia Editor at the BBC World Service, put the current situation into context. He said that the competition for influence in the Afghan region started during the 19th century, involving Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia and continues today. He said the new “great game” involves many more players, but is also a lot messier, with little or no respect for any rules.

Dr Azami said there is a consensus that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. Many regional players have reviewed their policy and have opened dialogue with the Taliban. He also said that China has emerged as a major player in the Afghan peace process. China is in a unique position because it has good relations with the Afghan government and cordial relations with Pakistan. 

Husain Haqqani, Former Ambassador of Pakistan to the US, and Director for South & Central Asia at the Hudson Institute said that understanding the core ideology and the belief-system of the Taliban was essential to understanding the conflict.

He described the Taliban as an “irreconcilable enemy” on account of their ideology and said that they still maintain ties with al-Qaeda. “They cannot  be trusted as negotiating partners given their track record,” said Mr Haqqani. 

Ambassador Haqqani also said that the Taliban today are much stronger than before because they are being armed by Pakistan. He also argued that the Taliban-US deal is designed to provide an exit route for the Americans and is not a path to peace. 

Naveed Noormal, First Secretary at the Afghanistan Embassy in London, noted concerns about the intra-Afghan peace talks. He said the government of Afghanistan has released more than four thousand Taliban prisoners to encourage a good atmosphere for dialogue but this has also created fear, as the Taliban are targeting more civilians in attacks. Minister Noormal also said there are concerns over preservation of women rights achieved over the past eighteen years.

Afrasiab Khattak, Former Pakistani Senator, talked about the role of regional players, particularly Pakistan and Iran. He said that prospects for peace are very bleak because the deal reached between the Taliban and US has a very narrow and flawed framework. His view is that Iran’s intentions are not good in Afghanistan, as it would like to obtain advantage by destabilizing Afghanistan. Pointing out a serious flaw in Pakistan’s policy, he said that Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are such that it is not open to non-Taliban Afghans.

Talking about the Taliban’s views on the peace negotiations, Dr Antonio Giustozzi, Visiting Professor at KCL and Fellow at the RUSI think tank said that the leadership of the Taliban want peace, not because they love peace or democracy, but because it is in their interest politically. 

Military analyst Tim Foxley predicted that following the withdrawal of the Americans, there would be continued instability, violence and fighting. He noted that the Afghan economy is almost entirely dependent on foreign funding, with no effective taxation system and much corruption. Mr Foxley also warned of the social problems that could arise with the release of tens of thousands of former fighters.

Rounding off the discussion, Barry Gardiner UK MP and former Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, summarised the role and interests of Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Russia in Afghanistan. In his opinion, the continued civil war, which he said many observers regard as inevitable, won’t be just between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. 

He said Afghanistan has many Islamist military groups, war lords and militias fighting for influence. This can be seen in its ethnic divisions, largely the Pashto Taliban and the rest, particularly the Northern Alliance, traditionally dominated by Tajiks. 

Mr Gardiner also said there are thousands of foreign fighters looking for a purpose in Afghanistan. He pointed out that apart from 60,000 of its own fighters, the Taliban maintains links with al-Qaeda and harbours fighters from Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. 

He called on all the countries taking part in the ministerial pledging conference in November 2020 to collect funding to support the Afghan peace process, and said that without international financial support for the Kabul government and the national security forces, the collapse of Western-led Kabul government is inevitable.

Click here to watch the full webinar

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Duncan Bartlett and Kavita Sewda

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and Kavita Sewda is an Intern at The Kootneeti

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