One fact stands out in a glaring manner in the peace talks being conducted between the Taliban and Afghan and United States envoys – the Afghan government is conspicuously absent from the negotiations. The Afghan government’s absence sends a negative message and can create an impression among the Afghan people that it lacks authority and strength. The Taliban’s refusal to engage with the Afghan government, which they consider as “a puppet of Washington,” is not a good sign. Consequently, the Afghan government has been expressing skepticism about the negotiations and has said no deal will hold unless it is involved in the process. However, the ground realities are quite different for the Ashraf Ghani government, with the Afghan government controlling around 50% of the country’s territory. The Taliban insurgency has increased in its ferocity over the past few years and the Afghan National Security Forces are struggling to manage the situation. They face severe manpower shortages, with a shortfall of nearly 40,000 personnel in 2018.
The prospect of a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is likely to aggravate the situation and, in a worst case scenario, lead to a complete collapse of the Afghan army. Not just rank and file soldiers face threats; the Taliban managed to assassinate the Kandahar police chief – General Achakzai, in October 2018, an attack in which U.S. General Austin Scott Miller escaped with his life.
The Taliban want the removal of all foreign troops from Afghan soil before they agree to a ceasefire. As far as reduction in the level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is concerned, there are no concrete plans to evacuate the troops despite talk of withdrawal. In fact, the German government has decided to extend its military presence in Afghanistan as a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. The U.S. and NATO troops are vital for the support they provide to the Afghan army in countering anti-government forces. Yet despite this support, Afghan security forces are being slowly pushed on to the back foot.
The Taliban have mentioned during recent peace talks in Moscow that they want to replace the current Afghan constitution with an Islamic one. Given their history and the brutality associated with the regime, carried out in the name of religion, it would not be wrong to assume that the Taliban is intent on bringing back the old regime. As far as the Taliban are concerned, before the American invasion, Afghanistan under their administration was a stable nation with social order maintained by a strict interpretation of Sharia. However, times have changed and the Taliban are seeking to project themselves as a more moderate avatar of their former selves. To this end, they have made statements saying they are committed to preventing civilian casualties and to make utmost efforts to achieve the same, along with commitments to healthcare and building a functional healthcare system through the areas under their control. They have also talked about ending the cultivation of poppy and trafficking of drugs, ignoring the fact that they impose taxes on the drug trade in areas they control and earn millions of dollars annually from the same.
Another major concern about the prospect of the Taliban returning to power is the issue of women’s rights. While Taliban have said they are committed to women’s rights, these rights would be in accordance with Islamic and Afghan values. This leaves a lot unsaid. Taliban have accused women’s rights activists in Afghanistan of undermining ‘Islamic values’ by spreading immorality and indecency in the name of rights. Women in Afghanistan are therefore rightly concerned and fear for the freedom which they have achieved and which the Afghan Constitution guarantees to them, the same Constitution which the Taliban wants to replace.
The peace process is not black and white and the Taliban must be dealt with carefully to ensure that whatever peace is achieved is a lasting one. Afghanistan has been mired in war for too long and this affects not only just Afghanistan. The United States has been fighting its longest war there and prospects of peace should not blind it into making compromises that could undo years of hard work and sacrifice.
It would be worthwhile to keep in mind what happened to South Vietnam after the withdrawal of US forces. At the same time, an eye needs to be kept on external players like Pakistan, which backs the Taliban and sees it as an instrument to further its own Afghanistan policy. The risk of Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists again cannot be discounted. Such a reality would affect not only the United States and its allies but also countries like India, where terror can be exported from bases in Afghanistan.