The past four decades have shown that it was not without a rationale that the poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, described Afghanistan as “the heart of Asia”. Iqbal made a profound prophecy. If Afghanistan was not at peace, the Asian continent would not prosper, and vice versa. Afghanistan connects three sub regions—West, Central and South Asia. With the theme of connectivity buzzing the Asian continent, these sub regions have a profound stake in Afghan stability. As the Taliban seek to consolidate their rule within the confines of an inclusive set up, the key question is whether lasting peace and political stability would return to this war-torn country. To get an answer, one needs to investigate the intersection of key actors—the US, the Taliban and other Afghan factions and regional countries.
When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the international community whole-heartedly supported the US because militants and terrorists of the world had all converged into the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan, posing an ominous threat to world peace. Following the US invasion, the Taliban regime of the time melted away, and within a short time, Al-Qaeda was decimated, thanks mainly to the help that Pakistan extended. The world appeared that much safer. But then, the goal post shifted. The US embarked upon building an Afghan nation in the image of Western liberal democracy. The Taliban regarded this as continuation of the foreign occupation, and resisted both the international forces and successive Afghan governments, which they regarded as puppets of the US. The war raged in Afghanistan for two decades, costing valuable lives and huge sums of money.
The prospects of peace brightened only when the US-led coalition decided to give up the military solution to the Afghan conundrum, and instead engaged in talks with the Taliban. Since Pakistan had all along called for a political approach, it facilitated the talks culminating in the February 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban. One key element of the deal was intra-Afghan talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, leading to a political settlement. The Afghan government did not engage in these talks seriously, and the stalemate continued until it was time for the US troops to leave. The Afghan government, which the US and its allies had helped sustain all these years, fell like a house of cards, along with its National Army. The Taliban captured the country at a lightning pace and moved into Kabul within days.
The hasty US withdrawal without first securing a political settlement enabled a swift takeover of the country by the Taliban. That said, there is merit to the argument that the US leadership took the right decision, as it no longer wanted to lose American lives for a war that had no end in sight. But the US still has a vital role to play in securing peace in Afghanistan. It must stay engaged in efforts to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and ensure that Afghan soil is not used by terrorist outfits.
As for the Afghan leadership, the successive Afghan governments projected a false impression to the outside world that they were firmly in control, while the situation on ground was constantly deteriorating. The quarterly reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) were a constant reminder that over forty percent of the Afghan territory was never under the control of the Afghan government, and that massive corruption was afflicting the government and its Army. Sadly, no one heeded to these warnings. Instead, the focus remained on scapegoating Pakistan to explain the lack of success in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s denial of sanctuaries on its soil and the contention that the bulk of the Taliban cadre was in Afghanistan were simply brushed aside. Pakistan’s advice to win peace rather than the war was also ignored, until the US made a course correction, leading to the Doha agreement. The Afghan government failed to see the writing on the wall, and consequently, with the initiation of the US withdrawal, the Taliban quickly began to consolidate their hold, while Ashraf Ghani fled unceremoniously.
Yet, the main responsibility still rests with Afghan leaders, who must decide for once that their nation has had enough, and that it is time to give peace a chance. The Taliban must respond to calls for an inclusive government if they wish to see peace return. If they try to rule Afghanistan in entirety, they would face serious challenges since Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic society with historically decentralised governance. Only time will tell if the group heeds to the calls for an inclusive political set up.
What did the region (West, Central and South Asia) do while the Afghan conflict simmered? For greater measure, the neighbours of Afghanistan suffered silently as the US and NATO forces relentlessly pursued a military victory. Of all its neighbours, Pakistan bore the brunt of the fallout. With approximately four million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees, gun culture, narcotics inflows, infiltration of terrorists that led to a war that took thousands of Pakistani lives and enormous economic losses, Pakistan has paid a heavy price. Iran, the Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan, and China, too, found themselves confronting cross-border terrorist threats.
The regional countries seem to have reached the conclusion that Afghanistan cannot be left alone to descend into a civil war yet again. Increasingly, the neighbours of Afghanistan along with Russia and Turkey, are gearing up their role to facilitate peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is these states, who have suffered the most from Afghan instability, and it is now up to them to shoulder their collective responsibility. They must be consistent in their calls on the Taliban to accommodate and include other ethnic and religious groups such as the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara. That they must honour their commitments to respect human rights, especially Afghan women, who must have the freedom to study, work, and move freely. The group must not allow any terrorist entity to dig into Afghanistan and use Afghan soil against other countries. The recent terrorist attacks by ISKP in Afghanistan at the Kabul airport are a reminder that the Taliban would need to work much harder to honour their counter terrorism commitments. Regional countries, including Pakistan, which has suffered at the hands of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), must elicit a categoric assurance from the Taliban that there would be no place for such proxies, nor their internal and external backers. Lastly, legitimacy and recognition of the Taliban will depend on whether they honour these commitments.
It is not clear what kind of government would eventually rule Afghanistan and how it would survive without technical and financial assistance from the international community. It appears that the Western countries are not likely to extend the kind of generous assistance they had extended to the Ashraf Ghani government. The regional countries must rise to the occasion and provide necessary financial, logistical, trade, and developmental support to establish conditions of peace, without which serious concerns regarding high inflation, low employment, disruption of governance mechanisms, could very well plunge Afghanistan into civil strife. In such an eventuality, regional countries would need to focus on the management of their borders and prepare for potential flows of refugees. Moreover, regional countries as well as the West must also exchange intel on transnational terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including the ISKP.
When Iqbal called Afghanistan ‘the heart of Asia’, the wisdom of his message could not have been more evident than it is today. The heart must be healed and should remain healthy, if the body politic of Asia, and by extension the world, is to thrive and prosper.