Without a political settlement, Afghanistan is poised for disaster
Following US President Joe Biden’s announcement in April that he wanted to complete the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the situation in the country has been quickly developing, with the Afghan government losing control of a large number of districts and key border crossings with Pakistan, Iran and the countries of Central Asia.
The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have been under intense pressure since the announcement and have limited supplies and air support. Just last week, two major districts in the eastern Kunar province fell to the Taliban after weeks of siege and with supply lines being cut off, hindering any support from the central government. Other districts that have fallen experienced similar circumstances. It is important to note that continuous logistical support is the key to success in modern warfare.
As per the Doha Agreement of February 2020 that was signed between the US under the Trump administration and the Taliban, American troops were to be withdrawn by May this year, but this was rescheduled by the Biden administration for logical reasons. The Taliban reacted by stating they would not participate in any peace conference until all US troops had left the country. Now that the American and other NATO troops have virtually all gone, the Taliban have no excuse not to engage in the peace initiative. But the reality on the ground is different, as the Taliban seem to now be more focused on a military takeover, which they think might be possible given the trend of recent gains.
While one reason for the ANDSF’s setbacks over the past couple of months is psychological in view of the certain exit of US troops, there is also a practical reason, as US air support was crucial in many circumstances when the Afghan army was in dire need on the battlefield. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has not been able to build its air force capability over the past 20 years and has remained largely dependent on US airpower.
It is a dilemma that, even after 20 years of NATO engagement with the Afghan government and billions of dollars spent on training and capacity building, the ANDSF are far from achieving the required professionalism to fight the insurgency. A lack of timely and continuous logistical support is another major limiting factor. The Afghan army’s heroism is beyond doubt, but when it comes to operations it is logistics that play a crucial role. There are reports that many Afghan army and police units across the country are poorly equipped. There are also complaints that even food supplies have become short, especially in remote locations.
The Taliban seem to be more focused on a military takeover, which they think might be possible given the trend of recent gains.
Injustices within the ranks of the ANDSF, especially pertaining to recruitment and promotions, are also to blame for the predicament. Both during former President Hamid Karzai’s rule and throughout the current administration, the ANDSF has been largely politicized, with ethnic composition the main criteria for assignments to key positions instead of merit, expertise and experience. In recent years, large numbers of individuals with no military background have been assigned key leadership positions. Also, many experienced army officers have been forced to retire and replaced by young and incompetent individuals. These measures have had an adverse impact on the operational capability of the ANDSF.
When the Trump administration initiated the peace process led by Zalmay Khalilzad, it offered both the Afghan government and the Taliban a unique opportunity to reach a political settlement. However, a lack of strong political will on both sides hindered genuine progress. The Taliban saw it as an opportunity for military gains to help them at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, the government suffered from a lack of trust within the administration and was unable to come up with a clear strategy.
What comes next, given the situation on the ground, is a question that has no easy answer. Although the US and Afghanistan’s other NATO allies are committed to continuing their support, the emphasis is still on a political rather than a military solution. Afghanistan cannot afford to see its civil and military institutions destroyed due to simmering turmoil in the wake of ongoing violence.
The proposed peace conference in Turkey is a potential opportunity that would complement the Doha process. Turkey is an important member of the Islamic world, with strong political influence globally. The same is true for Saudi Arabia, which is considered to be the leader of the Islamic world, as custodian of the religion’s most holy sites. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar, which has already been actively involved in the peace process, can play an effective mediating role. Saudi Arabia has the added advantage of its strong relations with Pakistan, whose role in the success of any political settlement is crucial.
Both the government and the Taliban still have a last-minute chance to listen to the silent majority of Afghans, as well as the international community, and reach a political settlement that can guarantee the preservation of state institutions and the gains of the past two decades. History will never forgive those who stand against the will of the people and choose war over peace.
- Ajmal Shams is Vice-President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and is based in Kabul. He is a former Deputy Minister in the Afghan National Unity Government. Twitter: @ajmshams