By Mehmet Kıvanç
Security experts and diplomats from Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan met at a webinar held by the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), an Islamabad, Pakistan based think-thank, on May 27.
The experts interchanged their experience and shared predictions in a broader context regarding Afghanistan’s future after the U.S. government’s decision to withdraw troops. United World International has observed the webinar and prepared presents an indicative abstract.
“The US and NATO forces will be gone by September 11th if not sooner. It appears to be the fact that there will be no residual ground presence of foreign forces”, told Professor Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director of Afghan and Pakistan Studies in the Middle East Institute, Washington DC.
“This was really not appreciated”, he told, referring to possible negative outcomes of withdrawal, and indicated that the situation in Afghanistan was worsening from the last year to the present.
“I think we could accept the fact that the Taliban presently operates from a position of military strength. They have positioned themselves particularly well to cut off all traffic and to co-opt areas we thought that were going to be secure. There is going to be an upsurge in violence already. As we all know, there has been violence at a far greater intensity then we had hoped for with the beginning of peace talks, but the fact is that we have seen more violence since the signing of the U.S. Taliban agreement in February of 2020.”
“Every expectation is to renew the campaign on the Taliban’s part once the foreign forces are gone. There will be no negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban and certainly not a grand bargain variety. It seems clear that the Taliban are not now and have never really been interested in power sharing, if that meant making serious compromises on the demands that they had set forth from the very beginning. They have not given up on the restoration of an emirate.”
This is not unique and this not a fight for territory. This is not a fight for power for its own sake, but rather a fight over values. There are two different conceptions here about what the Afghan state should look like. Two different perspectives and two different visions we have on what Afghanistan is about.”
Importance of the strength of Afghan Security Forces
How long can the Afghan Security forces sustain themselves? There is no clear answer to this hard question says Dr. Weinbaum, and outlines some of the security problems, which the Kabul government possibly will face on the long term, when the foreign forces have completed withdrawal. He also talks about the international community’s limited ability to counter the Taliban.
“As we look at the political system it hinges on the success of the Defence Forces to stand up. We don’t know at this point to what extent the US is going to have its follow through on what it says is its commitment to Afghanistan of a non-military sort. We here talk about maintaining an over the horizon air power. At first we thought it was just going to be against ISIS and Al-Qaeda but now it seems it has been broaden also to include the Taliban. So in this sense, the US would have a military role to play. However in doing it over the horizon, over the off shore, there is a question whether it is effective. Providing close air support has been so critical here to the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan militarily, and the question is whether that in any way will continue. Most of the experts on this have doubts.”
International community exhausted
“How long will the already fatigued international community continue to provide resources? We have seen certainly that all of the NATO countries and Turkey have some doubt about that they are not to going to remain, once the main force of the international military presence is gone. Without the finances to support the NSF, there is not going to be a viable Afghan militarily response to the Taliban and to Islamic State.”
“They believe to reach ascendency militarily, but this would be long and difficult. They can reach what they can aspire to, as I say, in the way of political dominance. An emirate would be different than the emirate of the 90s, to some extend, this would be more inclusive of other groups. But at the same time, it would be entirely on the Taliban’s terms.”
Neighbour’s role: Constructive or competitive?
Afghanistan is located in a very unique geopolitical part in the heartland of Asia. It is surrounded in the west by Iran, the northeast by China, has a very long border with Pakistan from south and east axes and ex-Soviet republics from the north. In this context, the Afghan issue is a kind of a new Syria. Every neighbour of Afghanistan can benefit in case that peaceful dynamics works in there. But who will take the lead, and how will a common mechanism be built to ensure stability in Afghanistan? In this respect, Dr. Weinbaum is not optimistic.
“Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and behind them the Russians, China, India, Saudi Arabia all of them in the past have had a role if we go back to the 90s. We were aware of this and we are also aware of the fact that under certain conditions, they may themselves become involved in future conflict. If the international community cannot resolve or help to resolve it, the neighbours cannot bring peace. But on the other hand, it is hard to imagine a successful Afghanistan, both in its political existence as well as its economic success without the neighbours.”
“The neighbours are absolutely critical for the success of any Afghan state. Are they going to be helpful, can they be on the same page? They have not been so in the past. Or will they be spoilers as they have at times in the past and actually indirectly participants in the conflict as it occurred in 1990s.”
Scenarios from uncertainty to unknown future: 4 scenarios from Dr. Weinbaum resulting in “Buy the time”
“What can Afghan elites do under these circumstances? To maintain stability that’s needed over the next few years, if nothing else, to buy time to strengthen the military forces, to resolve differences. Can this be done? It seems difficult for me to imagine that there can be any success here unless the various factions who have been at such odds are able to pull together. And we have one hopeful development. Again we have had many false signs here, but the establishment of the state supreme council suggest here there is recognition that unless they stand together, they will fall apart separately.”
Weak scenario: The Taliban can be defeated militarily. I don’t think anyone seriously predicts this, at least with the current alignment forces. It is only slightly probable that, if time were bought, that it would be possible by unifying itself able to deliver for the people to rebuild the confidence of the Afghan people in their government and its capacity to make their lives safer and provide jobs particularly. If this could be accomplished, then there is the possibility here on, not of reconciliation of the Taliban, but of reintegration and that is peeling of the opposition not the hard core but the fighters who are in it for a variety reasons. And we would classify them therefore as non ideological by comparison which some of the leadership.
Second scenario: The Taliban is able in the very near future to completely overrun the government and consolidate power. I don’t know to what extent it may have success in capturing territory now controlled by the government, but the idea that they can consolidate power seems to me highly unlikely. The reason is that even if the government in Kabul were to collapse, there are today power brokers who have their own militias, who are prepared to stand and fight against the Taliban and will do so much more effectively even though they don’t have a leader like (Ahmad Shah) Masood. They will do so much more effectively, because they will get the deserters from the Afghan national security forces, getting them to return with their arms, their know-how. And then we can look forward to a very different kind of at least a holding off the Taliban for period of time.
Third scenario: The government will maintain its control over the population and the Taliban will have, as it has now, the run on much of the rural area. That is certainly a greater possibility than the first two.
Fourth scenario: The Taliban is unable to consolidate power over the country, it dissolves into an open ended, chaotic civil war. This is the worst of all possibilities, the nightmare of the Afghans. And it really should be a nightmare of the region and globally. This could turn into something far more intense, with far more possibilities of expanding beyond Afghanistan then anything we saw in the 1990s. This would not be easily contained. But it is possible, if the military should dissolve, if the political elite is unable to reach a degree of accommodation, of reconciliation among itself. If the warlords fall back on their militias, as I suggest, if neighbouring countries become involved through proxies, as some did in the 1990s, and then on top of that, we have the possible serious effects of having millions of refugees. I think this has been underplayed that there are already six hundred thousand refugees in Turkey. This is going to increase as Pakistan has put up a fence, but that won’t matter if millions are trying to make it to the borders. There were approximately 6 million refugees earlier in 80s and 90s and that was when the population was in 1980 one third of what it is today.
Optimistic view from Afghanistan
What are the opportunities of future in the Afghanistan? How can Afghanistan build a peaceful partnership with its neighbours? Former Advisor to President of Afghanistan Dr. Tarek Farhadi focuses on these topics and gives many examples from an optimistic point of view.
“To build joint partnership with Pakistan. Pakistan is an important neighbour to Afghanistan. After all the miscalculations that our joint history has had by our politicians, most of our politicians have had mercurial characters. And history will demonstrate that mercurial characters can have more negative and malignant long-term effects for the relations between the two countries than Indians.”
He emphasized that future opportunities between two countries Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he referred that if the cooperation develops between two nations, civil war scenarios could be avoided. Dr. Ferhadi proposed four areas of co-operations:
- Trade potential and complementarities.
- Tourism, environment and climate
- Culture, people to people linkages
“There was a time where Pakistan exported 4 billion dollars worth of goods to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s exports right now stand about 23 million dollars. This was not all the potential. If you calculate trade to Afghanistan at 4 billion, if you add the potential for Central Asian countries such as not only Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan but also Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, perhaps even Kazakhstan if there was a peaceful situation, then the trade potential from Pakistan to Afghanistan is about 8 billion dollars. That’s 40 per cent of the Pakistan’s exports.”
“Of course complementarities exist between the two countries. Pakistan has an industry, which is very developed, and it has textile, leather and other small manufacturing. Afghanistan has a labour force. Especially in southern Afghanistan, our labour force has worked in Gulf countries so there is a lot of trading here that can be brought to bear and benefit both countries. There is a project in the U.S. Senate right now called the Special Economic Zones, that, if it is approved by the congress, it will introduce industries that could make textile products for export to the U.S duty free.”
Tourism, environment and climate
“Afghanistan has types of dried fruits that don’t grow in Pakistan and vice versa. The Karachi stock exchange also could host some public offerings of Afghan corporations and there we can attract capital from the Gulf from the Asia.”
“We can do a lot of work on the water issue, the climate, on regenerative energy. Both countries have areas with mountains. Imagine for a moment if we brought the world’s tourism to Afghanistan and Pakistan together. For that, we need peace, we need to deal with extremism. Western tourists are not coming right now but we can could change that.”
Culture, people to people linkages
“Since 42 years Pakistan, has hosted close to 6 million refugees. We also have now refugees that are in Pakistan who benefit from the education system, from the infrastructure. In Afghanistan, in the past 20 years, a number of young Afghans who have been back and who are running the government and the private sector have benefited from the Pakistani education sector. There have been marriages which, even if we wanted to separate, we cannot.”
“Pakistan has security interests in Afghanistan, we can understand that. Pakistan sees Indian influence in Afghanistan as a risk. We can talk about that. In my opinion, it should not be a risk. Afghanistan has relations with India, it should have relations with Japan, South Korea and Australia. But we can also work together in such a way that our relation with India becomes also acceptable for Pakistan. We have to keep the small door, because someday Pakistan and India might make peace. So all of these scenarios are possible. If Pakistan and India make peace, there is also an enormous economic potential. Afghanistan also has security interests in Pakistan. Why? The Taliban leaders live in Pakistan. The Pakistani government acknowledges that they are living in Pakistan. If there was a paradigmatic change, then yes, Pakistan does have the possibility and the influence to pressure the Taliban leaders to go to towards a peaceful settlement. And not follow the past that was described by Dr. Weinbaum.”
Antagonism between Afghanistan and Pakistan
Dr Tarek Fahradi, mentioned the importance of Pakistan’s pressure on the Taliban forces to avoid civil war.
“I appreciate the foreign minister (Pakistan) Mahmood Qureshi’s recent declaration at the parliament, who said the Afghans have to decide what they want from us. One day it’s blame, one day it’s offers of hugs. Me as an individual Afghan, I would like to send one message to the foreign minister Qureshi, to the government of Pakistan, to the military establishment: Tell the Taliban that if you want to get to the government by force in Afghanistan, Pakistan will not recognize such a government.”
“We agree there is a need for political settlement in Afghanistan between the Talibans or Afghans as well. Tell the Taliban; now that the foreigners are gone, that the Americans are gone, now if you want to fight and if there is a civil war in Afghanistan, it is not going benefit Pakistan, because all the trade potential the economic potential, cultural potential, the tourism potential, all of them will be postponed for some decades. We will all lose out with violence and extremism in the region, we will lose out. This could be told to the Taliban.”
Taliban’s plan to topple Kabul
“They think they have won this big war and now, they think now that they are going to overthrow the government in Kabul. Kabul also has changed. There is a lot of young population in Kabul. The big cities in Afghanistan do not fall easily into the hands of the Taliban. Yes, some sort of territory has already fallen to Taliban. Parts of other provinces might fall as well, but the fight for Kabul will be very long and very hard and inconclusive actually. It is not sure that the Taliban will win this war. Not at all. There will be a mobilization of the people against them if they want to push by violence. The people will be afraid of them and the people will mobilize around the government, and eventually, they will find leaders and fight against them.”
“There is a lot of economic interests now in Afghanistan. In the last 20 years a lot of Afghans have gotten very rich actually. There are Afghans who have 300 – 400 hundred million dollars in their bank account as a result of the intervention of the U.S. And these people hire militias actually and fight against the Taliban. Why? Because they want to preserve their economic interests. They don’t want the Taliban to come in and take the power and ask questions ‘where did you get your wealth from’, even some of the wealth is abroad. But these are Afghans, they are never going to let the Taliban win again. Because we have had this experience, when Kabul was evacuated for the Taliban, This time it will be a fight, there is no guarantee for the Taliban, they need to understand that. There is a need to deal with the Taliban in Pakistan, there is a need to deal with extremism in the region.”
The most likely scenario for Pakistan
Lt. General Isfaq Nadeem Ahmad (Ret.), Former Chief of General Staff of the Pakistani Army, shared his very pessimistic view in the webinar. He criticized the early U.S withdrawal and underlined strongly the risks for civil and proxy wars as very probable scenarios in Afghanistan. Here are his detailed remarks.
“The departure of the U.S forces will a have policy ramification far and wide. They’ll affect China, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, USA and the NATO. This will be affect future US’ military interventions. I believe they will be in retreat due to the Afghan experience.”
Unplanned withdrawal of U.S
“It is not a condition based withdrawal, it is not a responsible one. Therefore most of the countries have been requesting, suggesting to the U.S. to make the withdrawal a condition based and responsible one. It is not obvious that the U.S. is leaving regardless of the peace agreement. The agreement signed between the Taliban and the U.S. in February 2020 is only the first step. In my opinion, it is only a brief agreement that does not cover so many details as it should have.”
“The challenge for the US is that it cannot hold the Taliban accountable for fulfilling their end of the bargain, once the US forces have left. And I think this is the biggest mistake that the US is making, that rather pursuing a gradual departure, there will be no one responsible for ensuring that the Afghan-Taliban agreement is followed and it is implemented what has been agreed upon.”
Is the Taliban an enemy?
“We are actually still looking at the Taliban as if they were the force which begin to create doubts and difficulties for the peace process. And therefore I suspect, although I feel that the Taliban may have a thing or two up their sleeves, but at this point, where the peace process stands, the Taliban in my opinion have to be looked at not as an enemy. They may eventually become one subsequently, but at this point, I think it would be wrong to do that.”
Naive structure of ANSF
“The ANSF’s representation right now covers most of the ethnicities especially in the offices class. There are about 288.000 police officers or so, though people speak of its actual strength as over 500.000. I believe currently that’s the strength. Because of the ethnicities involved, which is a good thing for a national army, but when it comes under pressure, the ANSF I feel and I am very sort of to be saying that, but I suspect that it will actually begin to disintegrate. There is a good potential or fear that some percentage of these ethnicities may abandon the Afghan Army. I suspect some of the Pashtuns may actually decide to do so.”
“Eventually, in any combat people would be willing to side with the power which they consider to be winning or is likely to win, and to protect their life, limb and property. So if it is the government and the NSF stands firm, people would stand with them. And even if they don’t, they may not be willing to stand with the Taliban. But they will be coursed into doing that.”
“Pakistan has limited effect on the Taliban”, said General Nadeem Ahmad as an answer to Dr. Farhadi, former Advisor to the President of Afghanistan and Mr. Ahmad, strongly indicating that civil war is a possibility.
“I hope I am wrong, I pray I am wrong, but I feel that a comprehensive peace agreement will elude us, even if we get to the peace agreement, it will eventually fail. Afghanistan will unfortunately most likely descend into a chaotic civil war with the Taliban as the dominant player with control of Kabul. I would beg to disagree with Dr. Farhadi. The current government in Kabul will potentially be overthrown and the Afghan military, I feel, could possibly disintegrate.”
“There will however be islands of comparative stability. Stabilized by local warlords and their militias as I had highlighted that those militias would fight the Taliban. But whether they fight them or not, there will be a civil war. Even if they are militias who are paid by certain circles to fight the Taliban, there will be a civil war.”
Same outcomes as the Iraq withdrawal
“Afghanistan with all probability would replicate the violence which broke out in Iraq, when the Americans left. And please remember that in Iraq, there have been a clear military victory, which cannot be said for Afghanistan right now. This scenario needs to be avoided. Yes, in my opinion, it can be avoided and the only that it can be mitigated is by a delay in the departure of the U.S troops, until elections are held and the transitional government is in place and so on so forth. But that is not going to be happen.”
Risk of proxy war
“Due to the political and security vacuum, regional countries like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India would get more actively involved and proxy wars would be played out in Afghanistan potentially. The most significant proxy, as Mr. Farhadi was saying, would be that of India and Pakistan, which could lead to the deterioration of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan but also between India and Pakistan.”
“Bad Moon rising”
(Ret.) Ambassador Jalill Abbas Jilani, Director of CASS and former Foreign Secretary, agreed with the upcoming chaotic storm on Afghanistan and warned that the regional countries should not intervene in Afghanistan’s domestic policy.
“The absence of a national consensus in support of the peace process, which in my view is the most important element, to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan and the absence of a national consensus coupled with a spurt in violence the resurgence of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Turkistan Islamic Party and other extremist organizations and the emergence of foreign-funded militia suggest that we can not rule out the chances of Afghanistan descending into a greater chaos. Or maybe if not greater, then of the same kind that we witnessed in the 1990s. This time it appears that the bad moon is rising once again over Afghanistan and quite possibly over Pakistan as well.”
“Will the Taliban and other factions come down from their maximalist positions? The answer, as of now, has to be ‘no’. Will regional countries overcome their temptations to meddle in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and contribute to a stable Afghanistan? Again the answer does not give any confidence that something like that is going to happen. Because according to various reports, Taliban prepares to pressure various war lords in Afghanistan that are receiving funds and equipment from other countries. They develop their armies in anticipation of the civil war that everybody is talking about.”
“Civil war Afghanistan or its neighbours intervention for it will provide space to Al-Qaeda, ISIS, TTP etc. to exploit the situation to their advantage. Regional countries must stay away from the internal military and political dynamics of Afghanistan and confine their role to the economic well-being of the people of Afghanistan. A secure and stable Afghanistan is a necessary condition for Pakistan’s geo strategic, economic and security interest.”