Afghanistan After US Exit

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    Recently, US troops have departed from the Bagram Air Base, which coordinated the 20-year-long war in Afghanistan, effectively ending their military operations in the country.

    Bagram Air Base

    • It lies around 40km north of Kabul and is named after a nearby village.
    • It was built by the US for its Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the north.
    • Ironically, it became the staging point for the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, and the Red Army expanded it significantly during its near-decade-long occupation.
    • US-led coalition forces moved in during December 2001 and it was developed into a huge base capable of holding up to 10,000 troops.
    • The territory of the base has a piece of rubble from the World Trade Center, destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, buried under it.
    • It has two runways, 110 parking spots for aircraft, a 50-bed hospital, and a main prison facility for people detained by US forces at the height of the conflict, which became known as Afghanistan’s Guantanamo, after the infamous US military prison in Cuba.

     

    (Image Courtesy: BBC)

    Background

    • In February 2020, the US and Taliban signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, in Doha, Qatar.
      • Under it, the Trump administration made a similar decision of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 1st May 2021, however, it was conditional, viz.
        • Steps by Taliban to prevent Al-Qaeda or any other group from sheltering in Afghanistan.
        • A 90-day ceasefire.
        • Talks under the auspices of the UN for a consensus plan for Afghanistan among the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India.
        • A meeting in Turkey between the Taliban and Afghan government towards an “inclusive” interim government.
        • An agreement on the foundational principles of the future political order and for a permanent ceasefire.
      • Taliban had put a precondition of the release of Taliban prisoners for starting intra-Afghan talks, which began in September 2020 but did not reach any breakthrough.
    • In April 2021, the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by 11th September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (famously known as 9/11 attacks).
      • There were about 2,500-3,500 US troops in Afghanistan, along with a NATO force of under 8,000 during the initial announcement.
      • The troop pullout began around May and will conclude before the symbolic date of 09/11.

    Major Timeline of US War in Afghanistan

    • September 2001: After the 9/11 attacks, then US President George W. Bush declared war on Afghanistan, then ruled by the Taliban.
    • November 2001: The Taliban fled Kabul as the US-led coalition marched into the Afghan capital with the Northern Alliance.
      • The Northern Alliance, officially known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, was a united military front that came to formation in late 1996 after the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan took over Kabul.
    • December 2001: The Bonn Agreement was signed in Bonn, Germany, giving the majority of power to the Northern Alliance’s key players and strengthening the warlords. The Taliban regime officially collapses.
      • Karzai was sworn in as chairman of a 29-member governing council established under the Agreement.
    • 2004-2009: General elections were held and Karzai was elected President for two consecutive terms.
    • April 2014: After flawed elections, the US negotiated a power-sharing deal for a so-called Unity Government, with Ashraf Ghani serving as President and Abdullah Abdullah as Chief Executive.
    • December 2014: American and NATO troops formally ended their combat mission, transitioning to a support and training role and carrying out operations against Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets.
    • 2015-2018: An Islamic State group affiliate emerged in the east and the Taliban seized control of nearly half the country.
    • September 2018: The US appointed veteran Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as a negotiator with the Taliban.
    • September 2019: After intense escalation in Taliban attacks, the US scrapped talks with the Taliban.
    • February 2020: Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Agreement as the first step toward a final peace deal.

    Current Status

    • At present, the peace process is frozen and the Taliban has reduced hostilities against foreign troops but has continued to attack Afghan forces.
    • Afghanistan saw a series of targeted killings of journalists, activists and other civil society figures over the past many months, a Taliban act according to the Afghan government.
    • Pakistan’s Role
      • Kabul maintains that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is allowing the insurgents to overcome military pressure and carry forward with their agenda.
        • The Taliban captured much of the country with help from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
      • Pakistan was one of the countries to recognise the Taliban regime in the 1990s.
      • It played a double game of joining the US’s war against terrorism and also providing shelter to the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, a group composed of their top leaders.
      • In Pakistan, the Taliban regrouped, raised money and recruits, planned military strategy and staged a comeback in Afghanistan.
    • The divided Kabul government, faced with corruption allegations, incompetence, and the excesses of the invading forces, made matters easier for the Taliban.

    Reasons Behind US Pulling Back

    • The US had reached the conclusion long ago that the Afghanistan war was unwinnable but it wanted a face-saving exit.
    • The latest decision was based on data gathered by American intelligence, which suggested that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups do not pose an immediate threat in Afghanistan.
    • However, some troops will remain there to provide diplomatic security, which is the standard practice.
    • Post withdrawal, the US can use secretive Special Operations, Pentagon contractors and intelligence operatives to stem major threats from terrorist organisations in the nation.

    Immediate and Long-term Impact on Afghanistan

    • Ever since the remaining US troops began pulling out troops, the Taliban have made rapid territorial advances.
      • If the Taliban had controlled 73 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts before May, the number of districts went up to 157 in two months as of June end.
      • They contest another 151 districts, which leaves 79 districts firmly in the hands of the government.
      • The Taliban’s military offensive is focussed on the northern districts, far away from their southern strongholds and several provincial capitals are under threat.
    • The government of President Ashraf Ghani undoubtedly faces a tough task as the Taliban have been launching attacks.
    • The possibility of the Taliban being able to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government is low, as the Taliban believe that they can triumph militarily.
      • The American intelligence community has concluded that Kabul could fall within six months.
    • The American withdrawal has turned the balance of power in the battleground in favour of the Taliban.
      • They are already making rapid advances and could launch a major offensive targeting the city centres and provincial capitals once the Americans are out.
    • According to experts, there could be three scenarios
      • A political settlement in which the Taliban and the government agree to some power-sharing mechanism and jointly shape the future of Afghanistan, which looks like a remote possibility now.
      • An all-out civil war may be possible, in which the government, economically backed and militarily trained by the West, holds on to its positions in key cities and the Taliban expand its reach in the countryside, while other ethnic militias fight for their fiefs. This is already unfolding.
      • The Taliban taking over the country.

    Impact on Others

    • On Taliban
      • The latest announcement has removed all incentives for the Taliban to agree to a dialogue with the Afghan government.
      • It declared that the US has violated the agreement by putting off the withdrawal from May to September, opening ways for the Taliban to take “countermeasures”, and the US will be held responsible for all future consequences.
      • The Taliban would not be attending a new round of talks to decide Afghanistan’s future scheduled in Turkey later in April 2021.
    • On China
      • It would have much to lose from instability in Afghanistan as this could have an impact on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
      • A Taliban regime in Afghanistan might end up stirring unrest in the Xinjiang Autonomous region, home to the Uighur minority.
      • Conversely, as an ally of Pakistan, it could see a bigger role for itself in Afghanistan.
    • On Russia
      • The US exit is for Russia a full circle after its own defeat at the hands of US-backed Mujahideen and exit from Afghanistan three decades ago.
      • Russia has taken on the role of peacemaker in Afghanistan but both the Taliban and the Afghan government have been wary of its efforts.
      • Russia’s growing links with Pakistan could translate into a post-US role for Moscow in Afghanistan.
    • On Iran
      • It shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan so it perceives active security threats from both and a Taliban regime in Kabul would only increase this threat perception.
      • However, Iran, with links to the Hazaras in Afghanistan, has of late played all sides. Despite the mutual hostility and the theological divide between the two, Iran opened channels to the Taliban a few years ago and even hosted a Taliban delegation at Tehran.
    • On Pakistan
      • For the Pakistani Army, which has always seen Afghanistan in terms of “strategic depth” in its forever hostility with India, a Taliban capture of Afghanistan would finally bring a friendly force in power in Kabul.
      • Pakistan wants to check India’s influence in Afghanistan and bring the Taliban to Kabul. However, a violent takeover would lack international acceptability, leaving Afghanistan unstable.
      • In such a scenario, Pakistan could face another influx of refugees from Afghanistan and strengthening of anti-Pakistan terror groups, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban.
      • From a strategic point of view, Pakistan would prefer the Taliban being accommodated in power through negotiations and a peaceful settlement, which would also allow it to stabilise its conflict-ridden western border.
      • Pakistan will need to shoulder the entire burden of the chaos of a predicted civil war and the emerging issue of refugees. It will have to guard against instability in Afghanistan from spilling over the border.
    • On India
      • The earlier proposal by Trump gave India a role, by recognising it as a regional stakeholder, but the current proposal has ended all hopes for India’s involvement.
      • Another concern is India-focused militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which the Indian security establishment already believes to have relocated in large numbers to Afghanistan.
      • The Hindu reported in June, quoting a Qatari official, that 
      • India made contact with the Taliban in Doha, which signals a late but realistic acknowledgement from the Indian side that the Taliban would play a critical role in Afghanistan in the coming years.
      • India has three critical areas in dealing with the Taliban.
        • Protecting Indian investments, worth billions of rupees, in Afghanistan.
        • Preventing a future Taliban regime controlled by Pakistan.
        • Making sure that the Pakistan-backed anti-India terrorist groups do not get support from the Taliban.
      • Earlier, India chose not to engage the Taliban but now it seems to be testing another policy.

    Source: TH