VIEW : An all-inclusive government in Kabul: hoping against hope — Khuram Iqbal
The electoral success of Islamist groups in the Arab world has already set a precedent where western capitals are comfortable working with the former jihadis upon denouncing al Qaeda
President Obama’s re-election has sealed the end of the war in Afghanistan by 2014. This development has intensified the discussions in the intelligence community, academia and policy makers all across the world over the future of Afghanistan and global terrorism after the departure of international troops from the country. Many agree that the country will plunge into a civil war, which will be more intense and prolonged than what the world witnessed after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Under such circumstances, Pakistan and Iran should expect an overflow of millions of refugees from Afghanistan; China must be concerned about losing billions of dollars invested in the oil and minerals sectors of Afghanistan and Central Asian states including parts of Russia must be prepared to face a resurgence of jihadist movements. Such a scenario can also hamper Russia’s ambition to emerge as a Eurasian power.
For Pakistan, at stake are her gains made against militant organisations during the last decade. In the past, the cause to liberate Afghanistan from foreign occupation has gelled together and in some cases, proved to be a strong recruitment tool for multiple militant outfits operating from the Pak-Afghan border region. As the Americans depart from the Hindukush, the ideological centre of gravity will explode and lead to further chaos. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) transformation from an anti-occupation group to an anti-Pakistan and pro-global jihad entity is a case in point that gives a peep into further complicating the jihadi landscape of the region after the drawdown. Therefore, Pakistani policy makers must be extremely careful in what they wish for a post-US Afghanistan.
The Chinese have much more to worry about than billions of dollars going down the drain. Due to the geographic proximity of Xinjiang to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor, there is certainly potential for violence and instability to spill over into China. A country that aspires to lead the world in coming decades can hardly afford a civil war in her backyard that can potentially jeopardise the internal security of her bordering provinces. A recently developed nexus between the anti-China terrorist groups and intelligence agencies hostile to Beijing can further shore up the level of threat in Xinjiang.
To avoid such a doomsday scenario, the neighbouring countries with high stakes in the stability of Afghanistan are pondering various proposals to prevent a total collapse of the present power structure in Afghanistan. With the explicit approval of the US, regional powers including Pakistan, Russia and China are arbitrating a power sharing deal between the Afghan Taliban and the current Karzai administration. The historic visits to Afghanistan by high-profile Chinese officials, the not so quiet rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan and Islamabad’s decision to facilitate contacts between Afghan High Peace Council and some of the top Afghan Taliban leaders detained in Pakistan are some important steps in that direction.
The solution proposed by Pakistan is instructive of the emerging strategic doctrine of Islamabad, in which an all-inclusive friendly government in Kabul is deemed best suited for Pakistan’s national and regional security interests instead of hedging all bets on the Afghan Taliban. Having lost thousands of civilians, military personnel, scholars and prominent politicians, Pakistan has learnt the hard way that a total and unconditional victory for the Afghan Taliban can boost the morale of expansionist militant groups such as the TTP, which seek nothing less than implementing their version of Islam across Pakistan and beyond.
The practical implementation of a power-sharing proposal is, however, fraught with various challenges. Expecting Mulla Omar to agree to join a government planted by the ‘occupiers’ and to allow permanent American bases in Afghanistan is close to impossible. Should Mulla Omar accept the proposal, his credibility within the movement and Afghan society will erode, and it would cause splits in the Afghan Taliban movement. Disintegration of the Afghan Taliban can multiply the lethality and longevity of the civil war in Afghanistan, with deep regional and international implications. The Afghan Taliban realise the dangers associated with such proposals. Therefore they have repeatedly distanced themselves from any political initiative aimed at providing military bases to the US or sharing power with Karzai following the departure of international troops.
Sensing the possible failure of these political initiatives, a number of former warlords and the beneficiaries of American intervention including Ismail Khan, Engineer Ahmed Shah, Ustad Sayyaf and many others have already started organising their personal militias to prevent the potential onslaught by the Taliban in the aftermath of NATO’s withdrawal in 2014. According to Tolo News, a group calling itself the Council of Jihadi Commanders has, over the last few weeks, begun to distribute weapons illegally in Herat province, the traditional stronghold of Ismail Khan. Such pre-emptive moves motivated by unfounded or founded paranoia and mutual mistrust among top Afghan officials and former warlords threaten to wreck the regional political initiatives that seek to ensure a peaceful transition.
Doubtless, ensuring a smooth transition of power following the drawdown from Afghanistan is a global imperative. However, such political initiatives cannot ignore the socio-cultural and geo-political realities of the country. For more than a decade, the Afghan Taliban waged classic guerilla warfare against the ‘aggressors’. They organised their rank and file after initial defeats, sought cross-border sanctuaries, maintained large pockets of support within and outside the country, established political fronts at the right time, and most importantly, successfully projected themselves as a localised struggle opposed to al Qaeda’s agenda of global jihad. Maintaining unity of command and organisational structure in the face of a prolonged resistance against a powerful enemy is another feature to their credit. Their namesakes on the other side of the Pak-Afghan border, however, failed miserably to organise as a movement.
If all else fails in Afghanistan, the international community is most likely to embrace and reform the Afghan Taliban instead of outrightly rejecting them as fanatics. The electoral success of Islamist groups in the Arab world has already set a precedent where western capitals are comfortable working with the former jihadis upon denouncing al Qaeda. The thought that Mulla Omar can influence other jihadi forces active in the region to denounce violence and global aspirations is further cementing the stature of the Afghan Taliban vis-à-vis other contestants for power in Kabul.
Since the stakes are high for Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, the task to achieve a relatively stable Afghanistan and a regime representative of the aspirations and ethnic identities of all Afghans must not be constrained by the legacy of the past.
The writer is the co-author of Pakistan Terrorism Ground Zero, a researcher and PhD student at the Centre for Transnational Crimes Prevention at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com