by M Waqas Jan 14 March 2020
In the wake of last month’s highly publicized peace agreement between the US and the Taliban, as well as the recently concluded Presidential elections, political turmoil in Afghanistan has once again taken center stage. While both these developments represent much welcomed progress of sorts in helping stabilize a fragile and war-torn country on the surface, there still however remain a whole host of underlying issues that have cast even greater uncertainty over the prospects of achieving lasting peace and stability. The kind of peace that would benefit not only the Afghan Nation, but the wider South Asian, Central Asian and Persian Gulf regions.
These issues include the finer points of the US’s agreements with the Taliban particularly regarding prisoner exchanges, as well as the highly public rifts within the Afghan state apparatus that have brought serious challenges to the legitimacy of its newly re-elected President and his accompanying cabinet. The kind of legitimacy which otherwise holds the key to presenting a united and credible negotiating team to represent the Afghan government in its dealings with the Taliban. Thus, taken together, these issues present dangerous obstacles which need to be overcome if the country’s nascent peace process is to stop from being derailed even before having properly begun.
For instance, the spectacle of two rival presidential inaugurations that were aired in split screen throughout Afghan news channels earlier this week represented the clear schism that exists within the country’s more mainstream politics. Fueled by yet another controversial presidential election result, this tussle for power between former president Ashraf Ghani and his long-time rival Abdullah Abdullah manifests the deep-rooted differences that have existed amongst Kabul’s ruling elites for almost two decades since the US toppled the Taliban. Hence, it is no surprise that both Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, despite their diverse support bases within the war-torn country, have repeatedly relied on the US as a key mediator and power broker within the Afghan political system.
These difficulties are in turn further indicative of the immense complexity associated with the many tasks assigned to the US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. Not only has Mr. Khalilzad been made responsible for bringing about an equitable peace deal between the US and the Taliban from a position of relative weakness, but also to reconcile the deep seeded political differences that have permeated through the Afghan democratic system, most of which are of the US’s own making. In fact, the very advent of a democratic Afghanistan since the creation of its 2004 constitution is of the US’s own making with all its so-called victories and failures.
The Afghanistan Papers that were released just a few months back have presented ample reasons for these outcomes. They have provided key insights into the unrealistic expectations and lack of appreciation on the US’s part for the extremely difficult task it had set out for itself in its ‘nation-building’ experiment. Attributed to a clear lack of goals and strategy, the US is estimated to have spent $133 billion just to have built up Afghanistan, with only rampant political instability and insecurity to show for it. What’s worse, the US (ironically along with Russia) has had to now condemn and downplay recent statements from boisterous Taliban representatives that they would soon be restoring the Islamic government that had existed before the US invasion in 2001. Hence, nullifying whatever achievements the US had to show for in terms of bringing an inclusive democracy backed by a capably enforced rule of law.
The initial catchphrases of ‘empowering’, ‘bringing freedom’ to, and ‘enabling political representation’ for the Afghan people were touted globally as huge successes. Built on the back of championing women’s rights and amidst promises of unfettered development and investment these presented as one of the many goals the US had achieved over the course of its campaign in Afghanistan . However, the succeeding lawlessness, rampant nepotism and corruption that has since plagued the Afghanistan has marred whatever political gains the US had to show for on the international stage over the last decade and half.
Rather, one of the very reasons why the Taliban have gained so much traction politically, and why they still enjoy a considerable support base amongst the local population, is primarily because of the rampant corruption and bureaucratic in-fighting that has since characterized the US backed Afghan government. It also stands as one of the primary reasons why the Taliban beyond its power as a militant force has still come to politically represent considerable swathes of the Afghan population. Thus, representing a reality which even Pakistan had been trying to get the US to realize ever since the US embarked on its hunt for Al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak theatre.
However, considering the haste and forced manner in which the US is going through with its current exit in Afghanistan, it seems there are still key lessons the US has once again ignored. Despite its attempts at fostering political reconciliation, empowering the Afghan military and police, as well as bringing about some semblance of modernity in what by US standards was an archaic country, the US is nowhere near achieving these ambitions for all its military and economic might. Instead what appear to be the primary factors driving Afghan reconciliation at the moment are the much-needed headlines and photo-ops required for an embattled president to win re-election. Not to mention the mounting domestic pressure to bring US troops back home from an unending quagmire that has seen the US sink limitless amounts of blood and treasure in. A glaring truth which no optics or spin doctoring has been able to convince the American public let alone the rest of the world.