Afghanistan is now experiencing the pangs of US withdrawal. The Taliban has unleashed a reign of terror in the areas under its control and launched large-scale military offensives that threaten major population centres. A humanitarian disaster of catastrophic proportions is unfolding, and the people of Afghanistan are getting lip support in distant New York. A negotiated peace settlement is being touted as the best way forward. A pact with the devil is being heartily recommended.
The United Nations Security Council met on 6 August 2021 and heard the anguished voices of the Afghan people through their representatives. Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said the country is at a dangerous turning point. “Ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises: an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses”.
Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said, “The ongoing storm of atrocities is costing lives and spreading terror and uncertainty, pushing the possibility of peace further away.
Members called for the Taliban to halt its military offensive, pursue a peace process and advocated a negotiated political settlement that must be ‘Afghan-led and owned’. They also called for an immediate halt to the violations of international humanitarian laws, and few expected progress in the Doha talks scheduled for August. The special US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said that the Taliban has been seeking “the lion’s share of power”. The ongoing military offensive is clearly in pursuit of such an objective.
Afghan scenario now
The Taliban’s military success in taking over large parts of Afghanistan provides them with no guarantee for political success. Converting military success into political victory is not going to be easy, unless it has China and Pakistan on its side with Russia acquiescing to what it may consider as realpolitik. Russia and China’s concerns of seepage of religious extremism to their underbelly in Central Asia and Xinjiang will endure. In the short term, the Taliban may give assurance to assuage such a threat, but it is a gamble that could well bite back at the regional and global level in the long term.
China has enough levers with Pakistan but has instead chosen to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. If China hopes that Pakistan’s ability to control the Taliban will translate into reducing the threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), provide better access to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf via Iran, while ensuring Pakistan’s internal stability, it would be mistaken. If China prefers the Taliban, the support could be diplomatic, fiscal and infrastructure. China would refrain from putting boots on the ground and expect Pakistan to provide its well-oiled machinery for clandestine support.
It would be reasonable to assume that in the first iteration of the post-US withdrawal phase, the civil war would continue. The Taliban and its supporters would prefer a negotiated power-sharing agreement with the Ashraf Ghani government. Once in Kabul, it would be far easier to seize power under some pretext or the other. This should not come as a surprise.
It should be obvious that any attempt at brokering an agreement in the name of reducing violence and achieving stability provides Taliban with the diplomatic space to make its entry into Kabul. The Ghani government is not in a position to refuse negotiations, but it would be surprising if any agreement on power-sharing is reached. The negotiations would also provide time for the Taliban to prepare its offensive. But if reports of the Taliban’s behaviour towards the people are any indication, there would be a concomitant build-up of animosity against it that could eventually be the showstopper.
Even if the Taliban captures Kabul, it cannot succeed without sufficient support of the people. In the next iteration, the people, however impoverished, would ascend to be the centre of gravity. This could upend the Taliban’s capacity for territorial and administrative control even if there is tacit support from Pakistan and China. There is also the possibility that, at some stage, the historically rooted Pashtun and Punjabi Muslim animosities will surface, and Taliban will fall out with Pakistan. A seemingly endless civil war would ensue. The people will have to bear the cross of suffering.
Call a spade a spade
The international community is still harbouring the notion of the Taliban turning a new leaf from obscurantism and religious extremism. The latter has been on clear display and seems to have deepened, given that the Taliban is also in bed with elements of al-Qaeda. Both groups remain on the UN Security Council’s list of Terrorist Organisations.
The current Afghan situation must be viewed as yet another chapter in the tortured path of its history. At this juncture, the international community must stop sitting on the fence and take sides with the objective of reeling back the Taliban and hastening its eventual demise. Pakistan is key, and it was only the representative of Afghanistan, Ghulam Isaczai, who called out Pakistan’s role. Even India did not. Unless the members of the international community take Pakistan to task, civilian causalities will keep increasing and the civil war will prolong, but it still won’t assure a stable Taliban rule.
The international community must step in and treat the Taliban and Pakistan as forces to be controlled. A United Nations Force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that consists mainly air power elements and is supported by electronic intelligence must be sent in to support the Afghan National Security Forces. Military wherewithal should also be provided under UN supervision. This would require a Security Council Resolution to invoke Chapter Seven of the UN Charter – even though it is an uphill task given current global and regional geopolitical tensions. The feasibility of cooperation stems from the US and China’s acceptance of the future possibility of Afghanistan and Pakistan harbouring terrorist sanctuaries. The Security Council must also take note of Pakistan’s devious role and impose sanctions on it if it violates the principle of non-interference.
Time for UN security council to step in
The foremost requirement is for the international community to recognise the nature of the Taliban. It must be treated as a terrorist organisation and provided no political and diplomatic space to buy time. The current trajectory of negotiated political settlement must be halted and seen as a failed endeavour. The United States must complete its withdrawal and be also quickly replaced by UN-mandated multi-national forces to protect identified assets such as the Bagram Airfield that is now planned to be protected by Turkey. The Afghan government would be supportive of such a move.
Let there be no illusions that the complexities of the Afghan quagmire, which consist of multiple actors other than the Taliban, will also pose problems. Local warlords and porous borders, for instance, will also have to be dealt with. The strategic objective must be to defeat the Taliban militarily, and it cannot be done without China in the main, applying pressure on Pakistan.
From an Indian perspective, the control of Afghanistan by the Taliban could provide a base for religious extremism that could coalesce with similar forces and threaten security and block India’s access to Central Asia. Fuelling the flame of discontent in Kashmir is likely. India’s concerns of Afghanistan acting as a safe haven converges with that of most countries, except Pakistan. India’s interests are best served by providing maximum support to the Ghani government in whatever form feasible. There should be no Indian boots on the ground. A policy and process for civilian activities should be evolved.
Afghanistan is a prisoner of geography, and global and regional geopolitics will always cast a shadow on it. The Taliban has revealed its hand, but may now have provided the reason for international cooperation against a common enemy. The opportunity if ignored will imperil the main stakeholders. Time is of the essence and the situation demands the UN Security Council alter its course from seeking a negotiated political agreement. It must invoke Chapter Seven of the UN Charter and proceed to deal with the Taliban as a terrorist organisation. The US and China hold the keys. In the absence of such an action, the UN Security Council could have the blood of innocent Afghan civilians on their hands.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat; and former Member, Executive Council, IDSA. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.