The rapid developments in Afghanistan have revived the phantom of al-Qaeda and spiked worries that Taliban’s firm control over most Afghani governorates will ultimately breathe new life into the shunned organization. But does Taliban necessarily mean al-Qaeda?
Firstly, Taliban’s recent captures of Afghani governorates, districts, and even the Bagram base, which was the US operations center for twenty years, is a precursor of big changes in a country polarized by the interests of many states, including Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Central Asian countries.
In his last year in the White House, former US President Donald Trump signed a bilateral peace deal with Taliban that excluded the Afghani government, in which the US pledges full withdrawal of its 2,400 soldiers in return for Taliban reducing its acts of violence. A simple deal that achieves Washington’s objective of withdrawing from a battlefield that cost it 3,400 lives and $1 trillion, though it could have withdrawn at least 10 years ago after overthrowing Taliban, al-Qaeda’s ideological and logistic sponsor, in 2001 when it avenged the 9/11 attacks.
The US wanted deliverance from the spell of long wars that keep its soldiers on the soil of communities built on hostility and infighting, and the Doha Agreement delivered. The US got its withdrawal and assurances of peace while Afghanistan and the idle Afghani government watching from its spectator seat got nothing.
Today, US troops are on the verge of full withdrawal by the end of August, leaving behind a rising Taliban and an Afghani government that struggles to simultaneously prevent the fall of the country in the movement’s hands once again while also repelling its attacks on security centers and governorates, especially in the north and northeast of the country. Meanwhile, everyone is frightened: Iran is urging the Shia minority in Afghanistan to concert with the government on positions and efforts. Russia fears extremist Sunni groups and their infiltration of Central Asia, just like it did before the fall of the USSR. India sees in Taliban a strategic depth for Pakistan. Neighboring China dreads a destabilized front.
In short, the US punished everyone by withdrawing from Afghanistan and leaving the country to its fate. Even Iran, which was tampering with the future of Afghanis by embracing Taliban leaders here and dividing its ranks there, finds itself in a quagmire should the movement assume full control of the country and occupy the capital, Kabul. This perhaps explains its rush to host political negotiations between Taliban leaders and the Afghani government in an attempt to reach a satisfactory formula for a consensus government.
Many scenarios are currently viable. The worst is the eruption of a civil war between the government, Taliban, and ISIS in Khorasan, and the return of al-Qaeda’s threats to the world. However, there is also a chance that Taliban will realize its long-lost dream of reaching power. All circumstances are in Taliban’s favor bar one: its unacceptability in the international community, which can nonetheless be settled through political participation in the government, especially since its deal with Washington bestowed on it the symbolism of a political entity and a tacit recognition of its influence on the Afghani scene. The Taliban leadership wants to negotiate while having the upper hand after occupying governorates and perhaps the capital, and to impose their conditions regarding the mechanism of government, elections, and the Constitution. Though the Afghani government fears and refuses this, it will be difficult to judge before all negotiation chances are available, whether by international sponsorship or under the auspices of one of the concerned states, such as Iran or Turkey.
Taliban’s greatest privilege is its military force on the ground and its popularity, which places it in a solid negotiating position. The movement may opt for the first path: civil war, guerilla and cave wars, and omens of the return of terror, or it may opt for government halls and institutions and international acceptance. This will depend on its leaders’ pragmatism and understanding of the status quo and the changes taking place, especially with the lack of a Western enemy after the US departure, and as such, the lack of a combat ideology against foreign enemies, which was a key moral pillar for the movement.
Should Taliban achieve its objective of participating in the government after transparent elections, it will get power and control, and can then begin to join international institutions, especially the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as an important component of the Afghani government. This chapter would end with bringing stability to one of the world’s most inflamed regions for the past few decades.
For its part, the Afghani government has few options. Western states have completely washed their hands of Afghanistan and left the government to battle reality on its own while its grip loosens. Nonetheless, it has international recognition, but, frankly, it no longer means much given the vast differences in the balance of power on the ground compared to Taliban.
After decades of bloody conflicts, Afghanistan finally has the chance to achieve stability and become a viable state. After all, achieving stability in a sensitive region is tantamount to a security valve.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.