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Islamabad is unlikely to benefit from US-Taliban pact

Fissures in Afghanistan's policy could spill into Pakistan, tilting balance in favour of madrasa-based radicalism.

Written by Khaled Ahmed |
Updated: March 7, 2020 11:38:25 am
US Taliban pact, US Taliban agreement, Taliban US agreement, Taliban US pact, US Taliban peace pact, Express Opinion, Indian Express If the Taliban talks to the Ghani government, it will be talking to a government divided down the middle.

The US-Taliban agreement on Afghanistan was signed on February 29 at Doha. America and its allies pledged to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan and begin what is called the Intra-Afghan Dialogue. The year 2020 has seen another disputed election in Afghanistan which returned President Ashraf Ghani to power. If the Taliban talks to the Ghani government, it will be talking to a government divided down the middle. President Ghani’s victory has been challenged by his non-Pashtun Tajik prime minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is from northern Afghanistan.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — an agency of the US government — in January 2019, 229 districts in the country were under the Afghan government’s control. This is about 56.3 per cent of all districts in Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled 59 districts, 14.5 per cent of all. The remaining 119 districts, about 29.2 per cent, remained contested — controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the rebels. The Taliban is scattered in gangs led by semi-autonomous warlords.

In the run-up to the signing of the Afghan accord, the main sticking point was the “intra-Afghan” negotiations in which the Taliban will “negotiate” its acceptance of the 2020 election. These elections have been reluctantly accepted by one half of the Ghani government, completely rejected by Kabul-dwelling warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and looked at with suspicion by the nationalities occupying northern Afghanistan — the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

The social change brought about by two decades of US presence in Afghanistan — human rights, female emancipation, entertainment — could be in peril. Most of the population may have been happy with the change but the minority conservative elements are likely to be empowered once again. Most women are likely to lose their jobs with the Taliban stalking the streets.

Some Indian analysts think Pakistan will be “empowered” in Afghanistan at the cost of their country. It is, however, time to reconsider the idea of Taliban being Pakistan’s “proxy” and rethink the “strategic depth” being claimed by some army leaders of Pakistan. Pakistan, in fact, lost its “internal sovereignty” in the tribal areas in North Waziristan after it sheltered the gangs of Taliban as well as in Quetta where it housed the government of the ousted Mullah Umar after 9/11.

After the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, Pakistan hosted Afghanistan’s resistance leaders in Peshawar and made a clear choice in favour of Pashtun leaders like Hekmatyar against the equally powerful Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. This divided Afghanistan into pro-Pakistan and pro-India regions — the northern population leaning on India for higher education despite the distance, and thus imbibing secular intellectual values — while the Pashtuns of the south went in great numbers to the madrasas in Pakistan for religious education.

Iran also came to the help of the isolated northern region of Pakistan, especially after 9/11. In the Persian language, Iran has common cultural links with the region. Iran also has connections with Central Afghanistan because of the region’s Shia population. Looking for revenge after the murder of its military leader Qasem Soleimani by the US, the country is likely to play an anti-Taliban role even though it has had links with the outfit in the past.

Iran’s Afghanistan policy, in fact, has not been as black-and-white as that of Pakistan. It established good relations with the Taliban leadership, allowing its Sunni warriors to consolidate their Northern Shura. It also allowed the Taliban to establish a command and control centre in the Iranian city of Mashhad. The Northern Shura is actually controlled by Iran. In the past, the Taliban has been using Iran as its retreat as was revealed when its leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by a US drone in May 2016 in Balochistan “while traveling back from Iran”.

Iran and India will be the “balancing” factors if Pakistan continues to back the Taliban whose ranks will include the Pakistani Taliban driven by the country’s army into northeastern Afghanistan. Iran will also look after the interests of the Hazara Shia of Bamyan, a community also found in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, where before 1947 they were part of the local community of Quetta city. Now they are being constantly targeted by the Taliban and Islamic State.

Iran’s Al Quds Force has organised the Fatemiyoun militia, drawn from the Afghan Shiite Hazaras and the 1.5 million Iran-based Afghan refugees. The 2,00,000-strong, US-funded Afghan Security Force — dominated by non-Pashtuns — has been subject to desertions. It is managing to hold together because of the subsistence it provides to many families in the country. With the intra-Afghan dialogue likely to break down, this force could be handicapped while fighting the Taliban. Fearing this outcome and the dominance of Iran and India, Pakistan has resorted to wire-fencing the Durand Line to prevent any Indian threat from the west. It also fears the pouring in of millions of Afghan refugees — it already has two million registered and unregistered ones — to upset the population balance in favour of madrasa-based radicalism.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 7, 2020 under the title ‘A bristling peace’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.

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