Home / Opinion / Columns /  Kabul’s fall may fuel Pakistan’s Frankenstein problem

There is nothing worse than a tragedy which never seems to end. And that could be the story of Afghanistan and its people for the last 43 years. While battles rage across the country between the Afghan army and the Taliban, and the United States readies to airlift out the last of its soldiers by the end of this month, a lasting peace appears close to impossible in the foreseeable future.

With the US military gone, the most likely scenario may be a protracted civil war. The Taliban are reported to have gained control of more than half the country. The next couple of months could see a determined push by this Islamist group before the onset of the harsh winter. No one can predict with any certainty how long the current phase of this war will last. It could be over within months or it may carry on for years. For instance, US financial assistance and air support are vital for the Afghan government and its army, and a cutback on these could potentially lead to a quick victory for the Taliban. There seems to be little clarity on how long the US will continue its bombing raids.

Yet, it must be recognized that the Afghan army will not give up easily. For the soldier fighting the Taliban, surrender means almost-certain death, since the Taliban are not known to take any prisoners. A compromise could be a transitional government in Kabul, with Taliban participation, but that will not be a long-term solution. Whatever the US may claim, the Taliban and their supporters see the American withdrawal as their triumph over the world’s most powerful country. And whatever the Taliban may assure the US and other interlocutors at the negotiation table, they are not known for keeping promises. They will want a dominant role in any transitional government and then go for a final bloody purge. Keep in mind that electoral democracy features nowhere in the Taliban ideology.

But the Taliban themselves are hardly a well-knit force. They have no clear central leadership, and in case they come to power, or obtain a share in power, internal dissonance could escalate. Afghanistan is ethnically diverse, and tribal loyalties reign supreme. War could just take on a new shape if Kabul falls.

Other than on a few matters like hatred for the US and the goal of imposing strict Sharia law, the so-called Taliban spokespersons routinely contradict one another. This has always presented a problem to other nations—who do you speak to if you want to speak to the Taliban? The men who have been talking to the US for the past 18 months at Doha, Qatar, are those who Pakistan projects as the Taliban leadership and are almost definitely controlled by handlers in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). How much value do their words hold among the chieftains and warlords in the various provinces of Afghanistan?

Even if the Taliban negotiators at Doha meant half of what they said, not a single promise has been met on the ground, from honouring ceasefires to not providing shelter to Al-Qaeda members.

As far as India is concerned, none of the possible scenarios that could play out seem to be positive. The government has reportedly been speaking to the Taliban, but here again, the same questions arise. Which factions of the Taliban? How much weight do they carry? How trustworthy are these men? And what could be the basis for striking any sort of rapport?

The Taliban believe in Islamist jihad. And for the last 30 years, Pakistan has been their sponsor, financier, arms supplier and safe haven. Also, in the entire wider neighbourhood, stretching from China to Central Asia and Iran to Russia, India has been the closest ally and biggest aid provider to the Kabul government. Naturally, India starts on a very weak wicket with the Taliban, and faces the danger of increased militant infiltration into the Kashmir Valley if they come to control Afghanistan.

Ironically, though the ISI and Pakistani army may celebrate a Taliban victory because it purportedly gives them “strategic depth", which has been something of an obsession with them for decades, it may not actually be very good news for Islamabad. Thousands of Pakistani Talibs have joined the Afghan Taliban in the war, and they are no friends of the Pakistani establishment. A Taliban capture of Kabul will greatly motivate Islamist radicals inside Pakistan, who have staged terror attacks in the country and have been involved in low-intensity warfare with the Pakistani army for years. And it may be rather optimistic of the ISI to believe that it will still be able to control the Taliban if they do grab power in Kabul, as they soon might.

Pakistani triumphalism may also harden America’s stance towards Islamabad. General Zia ul-Haq, who started it all in the 1980s, explained his strategy of handling the US quite simply: “The water in Afghanistan must be kept boiling at the right temperature, but not boil over." The pan may be about to overflow. Wrote Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US, recently in Foreign Affairs: “For decades, Pakistan has played a risky game by supporting or tolerating the Taliban and also trying to stay in Washington’s good graces… Pakistan has managed to kick the can down the road for a long time. Soon, however, it will reach the end of the road."

Meanwhile, the Afghan people will continue to suffer. Afghan women are already staring at a terrible future. Nothing good can come from all this.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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