Permanent War: A Treacherous Path toward Afghan Peace

In the mid of December, Kabul’s Deputy Governor and his assistant were assassinated in the capital by an improvised explosive device (IED). Subsequently, 13 Afghan police officers were killed during an attack on their checkpoint in the province of Baghlan. Before this latest spate of attacks, 22 people were killed in a shocking attack by the Islamic State (IS) on the Kabul University. While in May, the IS monstrously attacked a maternity hospital in Kabul, killing 24 people, including newborn babies. Then in October, a fatal car bomb rocked the police headquarters in the Ghor province and later 34 personnel from the Afghan security forces were killed in an ambush by the Taliban in the Takhar province. A common thread among these horrendous terrorist attacks is that they occurred in the backdrop of the United States (US) – Taliban peace deal, and different groups were responsible for these terror attacks.

As per the US-Taliban peace deal, the latter group ensured a political commitment to Afghanistan’s stability and restricting transnational terrorism from the Afghan territory. The former assured that all the foreign troops would leave Afghanistan by May 2021, if peace prevails. Peace is indeed a noble venture especially when there is a prospect of it in an almost two-decade-long conflict that has had a catastrophic toll on the conditions of a nation while representing an acute crisis for regional security and peace. Nevertheless, noble intentions do not necessarily pave the road for noble realities on the ground.

As argued earlier, endogenous confliction of ideas regarding nationalism, disarmament, and intra-Afghan dialogue may cripple the prospects for peace and order in the country for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding a recent glimmer of hope in the third aspect, substantial progress is still lacking as constituencies of the negotiating parties – Afghan government and Taliban – certainly do not share the enthusiasm for their leaderships’ pragmatic approach.

However, this subsequent analysis focuses on the following exogenously-predicated meta-questions, which might further complicate matters of war and peace in Afghanistan: Transnational terrorism, Great Power rivalry, and India-Pakistan security competition.

  1. Transnational Terrorism

In the peace deal, the Taliban did commit to refusing any terror group to use the territory of Afghanistan in launching attacks against the US and its allies. However, following through such a grand commitment is a labyrinth maze and will test the Taliban’s clout in the map of non-state groups currently existing in Afghanistan.

It will be profoundly challenging for the Taliban to suddenly extricate itself from the group-ties with a range of non-state actors (NSAs) including Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network.

However, there are marginal promising signs of the fulfilment of the commitment as the US and the Taliban jointly hunt down the IS in Afghanistan. The targeted elimination of the senior Al-Qaeda leadership may weaken the group’s ability in the country. Simultaneously, the Taliban edges towards a newer leadership upon which the regional countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, do not have substantial leverage.

It will be profoundly challenging for the Taliban to suddenly extricate itself from the group-ties with a range of non-state actors (NSAs) including Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. There are concerns that the Taliban’s promise may not be fulfilled as a separation between these groups on the ground is hard to ascertain.

Moreover, engagement with the US and other state actors has emboldened the Taliban and ascended its stature closer to being a state actor rather than a non-state one. While it did serve the Taliban to receive international recognition, it also complicated its internal processes. Fighters on the ground do not necessarily align with the realpolitik of the leadership.

The realpolitik entails compromises and concessions of a struggle which rhetorically was “a struggle against infidels”. Thus, a struggle perceived in the binary terms may not end easily in a compromised settlement irrespective of the concessions given to the Taliban. Augmenting these realities is the Taliban’s imperative to compete with the other non-state and state groups for power and influence in a “new, post-war Afghanistan”. Therefore, while a peace settlement is being negotiated, violence dramatically continues to surge.

  1. Great Power Rivalry

The restructuring of its geostrategic priorities may partly influence the US’ predilection toward seeking a negotiated political settlement of the war. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the US has reprioritized the Great Power rivalry as the primary concern of its geostrategy. Competing with China, Russia, and Iran on many global issues, the US international relations seek to divert and pool the national resources in this worldwide competition. In this context, the US military presence will likely experience a significant run-down in Afghanistan even with the President-elect Biden leading the White House. Also, the US’ appetite for “forever wars” is nearing exhaustion.

A downgraded military presence is not necessarily proportionate to a downgraded diplomatic and counterterrorism presence.

However, a downgraded military presence is not necessarily proportionate to a downgraded diplomatic and counterterrorism presence. On the contrary, while Biden is not in favour of “forever wars”, he recognizes the realities of war and peace and favours a more counterterrorism (CT)-prone approach toward Afghanistan. Then again, keeping in view the centrality of Afghanistan in the political geography, the US presence can metamorphose into more than a CT-based approach as the competition with Iran, Russia, and China intensifies.

Consequently, a downgraded military presence will also give the US a freer-hand to compete as its rivals will not be able to respond in kind by killing the US troops on the ground if a total US military withdrawal occurs at all. Unlike Vietnam or Korea, Afghanistan represents a territory where the US could covertly and surgically bleed its enemies while competing with them elsewhere. Signs of this already started to appear as the US removes the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its designated terrorist organization list.

The commitment to restrict the various groups from using the Afghan territory to launch attacks is fraught with stressing limitations of control and writ.

Conspicuously, the Taliban committed in the peace agreement with the US that the Afghan territory will not be used against the US and its allies. However, the Taliban never committed to a full-spectrum erasure of the spatial presence of groups threatening to the security of the regional countries. Historically, the governing structure in Kabul has never been fully able to project power over all of Afghanistan. Therefore, the commitment to restrict the various groups from using the Afghan territory to launch attacks is fraught with stressing limitations of control and writ.

  1. India-Pakistan Security Competition:

In the mid of November, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister and military spokesman in a high-profile press conference provided incriminating evidence of the extensive Indian involvement in the acts of terror and mayhem within Pakistan. The geography that features prominently, in the Indian government-sponsored terror network, is Afghanistan. Over the years, Pakistan has shared its apprehensions on India’s destabilizing role in Pakistan’s internal security through Afghanistan. However, the November’s press conference was the most detailed as it comprised evidence of contacts, financial transactions, and audio clips that provide a critical indication of the Indian acts. It is one of the primary elements in the India-Pakistan security competition. With the increasing geopolitical tensions with India on intractable matters, Pakistan is continually apprehensive of being squeezed by the Indian stratagem of a dual-threat environment. On the one hand, India has been applying conventional pressures from the Line of Control (LoC) while on the other; it has been disturbing Pakistan’s internal security by interfering from the Afghan territory.

Learning from the past and observing a principled approach to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s contemporary policy of dealing with whoever rules in Kabul and interlinking securities of both nation-states is a conspicuous change in Pakistan’s outlook toward Afghanistan over the decades. However, there are significant uncertainties over the continuation of the relative equilibrium of understanding between the leadership of both countries.

In its competition with China, the US may be inclined to give India a free-pass or at least a relative degree of freedom, in exchange for the latter’s commitment to competing with China, to continue with its detrimental actions by sowing chaos and instability within Pakistan. Furthermore, it does benefit the US grand ambitions to constrain Pakistan to a certain degree when it comes to China’s influence.

Interacting with this dynamic is the fact that Pakistan’s clout over the Taliban is not proportionate to what it once was. Taliban’s increasing ascendancy as a prominent state-actor gives it considerable freedom of action regarding its relationship with Pakistan. Taliban may not have come out entirely from Pakistan’s orbit of influence, but progressive elation of its stature did punctured holes in the way it was influenced by Islamabad previously.

Building upon this is the volatile situation in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) and the larger eastern front with India. Increasing pressures from the Indian authoritarian policies in IIOJK and the intermittent violence emanating from Afghanistan may boil over the threshold of patience in Pakistan. The situation may then take a bloodier turn if Pakistan communicates with India in the same language as the latter communicates with the former.

Since the beginning, the prospect of peace and order in Afghanistan has remained bleak. The high degree of animosities between the domestic competing parties representing divergent interests with regional and global geopolitical players playing out their power games on Afghan territory is a cataclysmic cauldron that can only be negotiated through instruments of gunpowder and gasoline.

The prospect of peace in this particular kind of situation is only certain to occur once the clashing parties exhaust their limited firepower and find a convergence of interests in upholding order and stability, a situation which seems very far from reach at this moment.

Hassan Zaheer

Hassan Zaheer

is a postgraduate in Sociology from the University of Karachi with specialization in Sociology of Religion and Politics. He is currently working as a Non-Resident Research Associate with the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad.

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