As the days go by, there are only two things that are certain as far as Afghanistan is concerned: that the United States is definitely out by September 11; and what the future beholds for that hapless country is anything but optimistic. If the current trend of the pullout is anything to go by, the Biden administration may even hand over the “keys” ahead of the self-imposed deadline to mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America. Bagram Air Base, which was home to thousands of American troops in the initial days and months of the war in October 2001, will soon return to Afghanistan even as the Pentagon has started winding up several key posts and installations in a country that was also a frontline state in the war against terrorism.
There are many things that President Joseph Biden has walked away from what his predecessor Donald Trump had put in place during his four years between 2017 and 2021; but one thing that the 46th President was not about to do was to pull the plug on bringing the boys home from Afghanistan. Right from the very beginning of his administration, Biden had made it known that he was for staying with the Doha Accord of February 2020, to which the Taliban was also a party. The only thing that the Democratic administration would do was to push back that final date from May to September. The Taliban, by the Doha Accords, agreed not to allow Al Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in the areas under their control. “I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time. If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force line no-one’s ever seen,” Trump had said.
There is no doubt that when Biden is in Europe next week, Afghanistan will indeed be on the agenda, in bilateral and multilateral forums, as NATO had also been part of the deployment all these years and is also winding down its operations. The question of American or NATO forces re-assembling in massive numbers in Afghanistan in the face of Taliban offensives is not seen as a likely proposition even though Washington and its allies might have some sort of an aerial comeback, if necessary. The Afghan leader, President Ashraf Ghani, is supremely confident of the capabilities of the government forces and that the Taliban will end up finding peace only in the grave should they try anything. In Ghani’s perception, once the American and NATO forces are out, there is no reason for the Taliban to start fighting. “Who are you killing? What are you destroying? Your pretext of fighting the foreigners is now over.”
But not all share the optimism of Ghani or his confidence in the ability of the government forces, least of all the common person in Afghanistan who is seeing the prospect of all hell breaking loose once the last chopper and fixed-wing aircraft of allied forces leave. The latest alarm bell is being sounded not by frightened civilians in Kabul seeing the acceleration in bomb blasts, including in schools, killing young girl children by the dozens, but by the United Nations, which has painted a dire situation in its latest report. “…the Taliban now control an estimated 50 to 70 per cent of Afghan territory outside of urban centres while also exerting direct control over 57 per cent of district administrative centres,” the Monitoring Group has told the Security Council.
“Both the Taliban and Afghan forces are assessed to have suffered high attrition rates during the 2020 fighting season. While Taliban recruitment has remained steady to coincide with renewed spring offensives, Afghan forces recruitment has continued to decline… Afghan forces have successfully reversed many Taliban gains with the assistance of international coalition close air support, but have done so with heavy casualty rates. Air contributions provided by coalition forces have been an essential support for ground operations; it remains to be seen how Afghan forces will perform without it. Specially trained units such as the Afghan commandos have traditionally enjoyed higher levels of morale even while shouldering much of the burden of fighting against the Taliban. This burden would dramatically increase if lesser disciplined units within the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police begin to collapse or defect,” the world body has warned.
The real story is not in how well the Afghan government forces could perform or how its recruitment drive may be short of 50,000; it is in the stark observation of the United Nations that the Taliban is once again in cahoots with Al Qaeda, the terror outfit just biding time until the last of the American and NATO boots leave the country. In April Biden argued that the American task in Afghanistan had been completed. “We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We delivered justice to Osama Bin Laden and we degraded the terrorist threat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said.
But the UN monitors see it differently — that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign terrorists belonging to various groups in Afghanistan who are at a minimum “tolerated or protected” by the Taliban, and that while the Taliban might be trying to exert greater control over Al Qaeda, “it is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan”. The UN report goes on to make the point that the “primary component of the Taliban in dealing with Al Qaeda is the Haqqani Network. Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.”
In all the prognosis of an impending political instability in Afghanistan, the report has also taken critical note of one issue that the so-called peace process has not addressed — that of narcotics, the production and trafficking of opium, heroin and other poppy-based drugs. “The issue of narcotics in Afghanistan – the production and trafficking of poppy-based drugs and methamphetamine – remains unaddressed as yet in the Afghan peace process. This remains the Taliban’s largest single source of income. It also has a destabilising and corrupting effect within Afghanistan and contributes significantly to the narcotics challenges facing the wider international community.”
And this opium-poppy-heroin cash machine is said to fetch the Taliban an estimated $200 million annually, something that neither the most expensive boots on the ground nor the most sophisticated eyes in the skies could come to terms with.
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.