Things aren’t looking good for the Afghan government. A little over a week after its representatives were excluded from a six-day long talk between negotiators representing Washington and the Afghan Taliban in Doha – where the Taliban agreed to never allow Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) to have space in Afghanistan — the Ashraf Ghani government has been snubbed again. The Afghan Taliban announced on Sunday that it would be sending a delegation to Russia for a rare meeting with Afghan opposition leaders. This includes former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former warlord Atta Muhammad Noor and Haneef Atmar – who will be running against Ghani in the next Afghan presidential elections.
Historically the Afghan Taliban has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and has used this pretext to justify its refusal to negotiate with Kabul, insisting on direct talks with Washington. In the last days of January Ghani did call on the Taliban to “enter serious talks” with Kabul. However, why would they do this? The Taliban is all but dominating Afghanistan. It’s active in 70 percent of Afghan districts, fully controlling four percent of the country and demonstrating an open physical presence in another 66 percent. This is a major improvement for the militia since October 2017, when they contested or controlled only 44 percent of Afghan districts. In short, the Taliban’s position is simply too strong for them to consider compromising on their stance against the government. Why play by the other team’s rules when your own team seems to be winning the game?
To make matters worse for Ghani, now major world powers like the United States and Russia have practically endorsed the Taliban’s position. Alas, this should have been expected. Moscow is concerned by the IS footprint in Afghanistan, which could expand upward into Central Asia. In the US, President Donald Trump is under increasing political pressure to make good on at least one of his campaign promises. One of them was to pull out of Afghanistan, where it is estimated the US spends $45 billion a year. In short, it is no longer 2001 and the world can’t wait for the Afghan government to pull its socks up.
Pakistan too has a stake in all this. One of Islamabad’s main priorities must be to ensure that whoever is left in Afghanistan after the US pull out of Afghanistan is to ensure that anti-Pakistan factions like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan aren’t allowed to conduct their activities across the Durand Line, while reciprocate with similar measures on our side of the border.
Additionally, should things go south once American troops aren’t in Afghanistan to keep the peace, and a civil war like situation emerges, Pakistan could find itself dealing with a refugee crisis it isn’t equipped to deal with. Not only would this be a humanitarian crisis, it could also undo years of progress made in Pakistan’s fight against polio.
What must be ensured is that Afghanistan is not abandoned and left to the devices of hardliners once more. That is what the US and Russia did when the Soviet-Afghan war concluded in 1989. And the world has been dealing with the consequences of that misstep since. *
Published in Daily Times, February 6th 2019.