Gulf Today

US withdrawal could prove costly for Afghans

Peace negotiator Fawzia Koofi told CNN the Western powers have shifted from a ‘conditionb­ased withdrawal to withdrawal at any cost’ — with a high price to be paid by Afghans

- Michael Jansen,

Afghans have been ratled by the Taliban’s claim to have won the war against US and its Nato forces which will begin a five-month staged pullout on May 1st. Afghans believe the evacuation will precipitat­e increasing violence rather than lead to a peace deal between the resurgent Taliban and the weak government. Since the US invaded the country in October 2001, 158,000 Afghans have been killed, 43,000 of them civilians.

Peace negotiator Fawzia Koofi told CNN the Western powers have shited from a “conditionb­ased withrawal to withdrawal at any cost” — with a high price to be paid by Afghans. Koofi, who has survived an assassinat­ion atempt, pointed out that 400 women have been killed by the hardline fundamenta­list Taliban or its radical allies since talks between the US and Taliban began in Doha last year.

The Taliban responded by saying the US postponeme­nt of the pullout until September amounts to a violation of the agreement reached in Doha in February 2020 for full withdrawal by May 1st this year and have refused to atend peace talks in Istanbul, scheduled for next week.

It is ironic that the Taliban should take such an uncompromi­sing stand. It was founded by Afghan mujahadeen who were supported by the US and Pakistan in the 1978-88 war to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanista­n. The group gained its name when it recruited students —

“Taliban” — from Afghanista­n’s Pashtun community who were studying in Pakistani seminaries. Thousands of foreign fighters recruited by Al Qaeda, founded by Osama bin Laden, were also funnelled into Afghanista­n to take part in this batle as the Cold War was winding down.

Ater the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanista­n erupted into civil war. The Taliban, organised, gained strength, and came to power during 1994-96. The group imposed social and cultural practices on Afghans and targeted nonPashtun minorities, particular­ly Shia Hazaras.

Following Al Qaeda’s September 2001 atacks on New York and Washington, the US invaded and toppled the Taliban, but the movement regrouped in the mountainou­s region between Afghanista­n and Pakistan.

The Taliban reject power-sharing with the government as its openly stated goal is to transform Afghanista­n, a fragile democracy, into a conservati­ve “emirate” led by a cleric. The rural-based Taliban dominates 20 per cent of the country while the writ of urban-based government holds 30 per cent and 50 per cent is contested.

During the past 19 years, areas outside Taliban control have seen significan­t advances in education, women’s participat­ion in the workforce, internet growth, and free media. There has been a reduction of persecutio­n of and atacks on minorities.

The eruption of full-scale civil war and/ or a return to power of the Taliban could reverse these gains. As the evacuation of the 2,500 US and 7,000 Nato forces proceeds, Afghans’ fears will grow apace. Many believe the Us/nato-recruited and trained Afghan army could fracture and dissolve if the Taliban mounts full-scale offensives, takes more territory, and stages attacks on targets in government-held cities.

The Taliban had halted operations against US and Nato forces during the talks, but stepped up strikes on the Afghan army and civilians and has failed to curb Daesh which also carries out brutal attacks on civilians. Now that talks are suspended, the Taliban could resume operations against Us/nato forces.

While retaining some popular support among traditiona­l allies, the Taliban has been weakened by the split between factions which seek a military solution leading to Taliban rule and groups prepared to accept a powershari­ng deal with the government — in the expectatio­n the Taliban will, eventually, seize power. It regards the government as Us-owned and considers democracy a Western import.

The Taliban have up to 85,000 full time fighters while the Afghan army claims 180,000 and should be able to contain the Taliban. After all, the US has had nearly two decades to train and equip Afghan forces for precisely this mission. However, the Afghan military suffers from the deficienci­es of the Us-recruited, trained and armed Iraqi army: corruption and “ghost soldiers” who do not exist but are on the books so commanders can collect their salaries. Consequent­ly, Afghans fear their army could cut and run, as did the Iraqi army when confronted by Daesh in Mosul in 2014.

In anticipati­on of renewed warfare and the possible return of the Taliban, Afghans could once again seek refuge in Pakistan, India, Iran, and other neighbouri­ng countries. Many could travel to Turkey to take smugglers’ routes to Europe. Officials and soldiers fearing retributio­n and women rejecting repressive Taliban rule would be prominent among the refugees. At least seven million fled Taliban rule from 1996 until late 2001 when the US invaded and occupied the country following Afghan-based Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington. More than 2.7 million remain refugees in Pakistan, Iran and Europe while 2.5 million are displaced within Afghanista­n. After Syria, Afghanista­n has produced the world’s second largest population outflow.

While the Biden administra­tion calculates that Al Qaeda and militants have been contained and the Taliban does not pose a threat to the US, withdrawal is a risky gamble for other countries near and far. Consequent­ly, Russia and Iran have already begun to coordinate policy on Afghanista­n and Tajikistan and Iran have formed a joint military commitee to tackle potential destabilis­ation.

Although the Taliban reject external interventi­on in Afghanista­n and say it would not interfere in the affairs of other states, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanista­n could boost the political ambitions and authority of fundamenta­lists in the Central Asian republics which gained independen­ce ater the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poverty in these countries has turned many to religion while youths, seeking salaries, have become prey to radical preachers and movements.

Since Daesh and Al Qaeda, both branded terrorist organisati­ons, remain embedded with the Taliban, they could be reinvigora­ted, secure fresh foreign recruits, and resume external operations. Their offshoots in the Middle East and North Africa could also revive and mount atacks in host countries and Europe. Al Qaedafound­ed Tahrir al-sham, which dominates Syria’s north-western Idlib province, could branch out and carry put strikes in Syria and Iraq. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — still active in war-ravaged Yemen — could also be strengthen­ed and energised. The unintentio­nal consequenc­es of withdrawal without seriously hobbling or defeating the Taliban are myriad.

Political Correspond­ent

 ?? File/associated Press ?? Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar speaks (bottom right) at the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
File/associated Press Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar speaks (bottom right) at the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

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