Bangla Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Ultimate gainers of Afghan power struggle will be US and Taliban

SUNDAY SPECIAL-ENG-22-03-2020

Whereas the US-Taliban ‘peace deal’ was supposed to be followed by an ‘intra-Afghan’ talks involving all Afghan stakeholders, what has actually happened is an intense power struggle between President Ashraf Ghani and his former CEO-turned rival, Abdullah Abdullah. 

While Ghani was declared winner in the Presidential election held last year, Abdullah disputed the results and declared himself President, vowing to establish a parallel government. 

There are, as such, three power centres currently operating in Afghanistan, and power is unevenly distributed between the Taliban, Kabul and Abdullah’s group. The power distribution and struggle also show deep inter and intra-ethnic fault lines. 

Whereas the power struggle between Ghani and Abdullah shows a struggle for the control of Afghanistan between Afghanistan’s two biggest ethnic groups i.e., the Pashtun and the Tajik, the Taliban’s opposition to Ghani presents a glaring example of intra-Pashtun rivalry. 

Ghani’s initial refusal and then a very reluctant nod to releasing Taliban prisoners shows his reluctance to share political power with the Taliban. 

All these divisions combine to create friction deep enough to defy a negotiated political settlement acceptable to all political stakeholders. 

The current scenario in Kabul presents a grim picture. Just a short walk from the Presidential palace in Kabul, armed gunmen can be seen guarding Abdullah Abdullah’s compound. Across the same street, Abdurrashid Dostom, a former army General now allied with Abdullah, has reoccupied the compound he once used as a Vice President under Ghani. Dostom is an ethnic Uzbek and an old foe of the Taliban, representing the ‘Northern Alliance,’

Whereas Kabul and Abdullah are in political conflict, the Taliban are beginning to project themselves as a ‘political force’ capable of running the country. In a recent statement put online, the Taliban said that the celebration surrounding the announcement of ‘Termination of Occupation Agreement’ shows that people know that “the Islamic Emirate is not a mere fighting group but is the representative force of a people and a country as it struggles for the worldly and everlasting bliss of its people while showing exemplary fortitude and perseverance in the face of a multitude of trials.”

A political conflict between Afghan politicians will create a justification for the Taliban to intensify their war on Kabul. The Taliban, as they stand, would aim at a military walk over, especially when the US is agreement-bound to withdraw its forces, leaving Kabul with no helping hand. 

In other words, the US, in the wake of executing its withdrawal plans, may not be too willing to commit militarily to any conflict among the three most visible power centres of Afghanistan. 

The US has not so far done anything practical and meaningful to restore a political balance in Kabul at least among the politicians. Whereas the international community largely attended Ghani’s oath-taking ceremony, granting him legitimacy, the US has not been able to convince Abdullah of the need to present a united front to the Taliban in the ‘intra-Afghan’ talks. 

This crisis not only enhances the Taliban’s position in the eyes of the general public, but also gives credence to their opposition to what they call the ‘Western stooge’ in Kabul. 

Instead of becoming a source of peace, Kabul is increasingly turning out to be the biggest obstacle to it, threatening to reverse all the important and progressive political and social achievements in the last 19 years. 

Prevalent political divisions are also going to leave a negative impact on the military situation. As said earlier, a divided Kabul might give the Taliban a chance of a military walk over. This is what might cause it:

In the Afghan countryside, where the Afghan security forces have been fighting the Taliban for years, Abdullah Abdullah, the self-proclaimed President, is attempting to replace provincial officials with his own allies, potentially dividing the security forces which are struggling to put national loyalty over ethnic loyalties. 

According to a former Afghan intelligence officer, “If things deepen, it would only take one spark to re-start the war. We could end up with government troops fighting the Taliban. We could end up with triangular negotiations and the country divided into three territories.”

Ultimately, such a scenario will benefit the Taliban only.

The crucial question then is: Will the international community, particularly the US, still continue to support the Afghan peace process and not change its withdrawal plans? 

It is imperative to take into account the fact that Afghanistan, even after a formal US withdrawal, would continue to stay deeply relevant to the US’ Central Asia strategy. A divided Afghanistan, immersed in an armed struggle, will only allow the US to keep its tentacles of influence and continue over the region using Afghanistan as a base.