Power shift in Afghanistan


By: Air Chief Marshal Gagan Bulathsinghala 

Let me share some of my thoughts with my own experiences and unfolding events in Kabul. Afghanistan has been in deep political divisions, structural governance challenges, and economic insecurity to impede durable peace and development progress for years. The interruption of the fragile peace talks with the Taliban and the withdrawal of the NATO troops have created more uncertainty for Afghanistans. The power shift made on August 15 has complicated the matter further to a very higher proportion.

Afghanistan is located in the Central Asian region, north and west of Pakistan, east of Iran Land: 652,230 sq. km. bordered by 6 countries with a 2,670 km border with Pakistan, 1,357 km with Tajikistan, 921 km with Iran, 804 km with Turkmenistan, 144 km with Uzbekistan, 91 km with China with 34 provinces. The population has four main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, with 11 other ethnic groups.

Civil wars
Afghanistan was founded in 1747 when the Pashtun tribes were unified. The country gained independence from notional British control in 1919. Increased democracy ended in a 1973 coup and a 1978 communist countercoup. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the Afghan communist regime, which led to a lodestructive war. The USSR withdrew in 1989 under relentless pressure by internationally supported anti-communist Mujahidin rebels. A series of subsequent civil wars saw Kabul finally fall in 1996 to the Taliban. Following 2001, 09/11 attacks, a US, Allied, and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance sprung military action toppled the Taliban for sheltering Osama Bin Laden.

An UN-sponsored Bonn Conference in 2001 established a process for political reconstruction that included the adoption of a new constitution, a presidential election in 2004, and National Assembly elections in 2005. In December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president, and the National Assembly was inaugurated the following December. President Karzai was re-elected in August 2009 for a second term.

In 2014 the presidential election was contested by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani. Throughout July and August 2014 the two groups disputed the results and traded accusations of fraud, leading to a US-led diplomatic intervention that included a full vote audit as well as political negotiations between the two camps. In September 2014, Dr. Ghani and Abdullah agreed to form the Government of National Unity, with Ghani inaugurated as president and Dr. Abdullah elevated to the newly created position of Chief Executive Officer. The day after the inauguration the Ghani administration signed the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO Status of Forces Agreement, which provide the legal basis for the post-2014 international military presence in Afghanistan.
The presidential elections were held again in September 2019. Further, in 2019, negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Doha entered their highest level. Underlying the negotiations was the unsettled state of Afghan politics. Prospects for a sustainable political settlement remained unclear.

According to preliminary results Dr. Ashraf Ghani was re-elected with 50.64% of the votes; a result which runner-up Dr. Abdullah Abdullah contested and  appealed against. After the disputed election Dr. Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner in the final results on February 18, 2020. The results triggered a political crisis. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah rejected the results and called for the formation of a parallel government in northern Afghanistan.

Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad attempted to mediate between Dr. Ghani and Dr.Abdullah, but the two were unable to reach an agreement and the duo took the presidential oath of office at separate inauguration ceremonies on March 9. However, Dr. Ghani was officially sworn in for a second term on March 9, 2020. In the interim on March 23, 2020, the United States announced that following the political crisis it would reduce aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion, if Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah did not reach an agreement and that it may reduce further aid. The political crisis concluded on May 17, 2020, when Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal, in which Dr. Ghani would remain president and Dr. Abdullah would lead the peace talks with the Taliban when they commence.

The Taliban remained a serious challenge for the Afghan Government in almost every province. The Taliban still considered itself the rightful government of Afghanistan and it remains a capable and confident insurgent force fighting for the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Afghanistan, the establishment of sharia law, and rewriting of the Afghan constitution.

The political system of Afghanistan consists of the cabinet of ministers, provincial governors, and the national assembly, with a president serving as the head of state and commander-in-chief of the Afghan Armed Forces. President Dr. Ashraf Ghani was backed by two vice presidents, Amrullah Saleh, and Sarwar Danish to lead the nation.

During the last decade Afghan politics have been influenced by NATO countries, particularly the United States, in an effort to stabilise and democratise the country. The National assembly: Wolesi Jirga/House of the People has 248 total seats out of which female representation is 67 members that amounts to 27%.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is a political UN mission established at the request of the Government of Afghanistan to assist it and the people of Afghanistan in laying the foundations for sustainable peace and development. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1401 established UNAMA on March 28, 2002. Its original mandate was to support the Bonn Agreement of December 2001. UNAMA mandate is reviewed annually and has been altered over time to reflect the needs of the country and was extended for another year on September 15, 2020.

Peace negotiations
Peace negotiations resumed in December 2019. An agreement to bringing Peace to Afghanistan was signed in Doha, Qatar on February 29,  2020. US representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the agreement on behalf of the United States and the Taliban a conditional peace deal called for a prisoner exchange within ten days and was supposed

to lead to U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months. At this juncture President Dr. Ghani stated that the Afghan Government had “made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners” and that such an action “is not the United States” authority, but it is the authority of the government of Afghanistan.” Further, Dr.Ghani also stated that any prisoner exchange “cannot be a prerequisite for talks” but rather must be negotiated within the talks. The Taliban resumed offensive operations against the Afghan Army and Police on March 3, 2020; conducting attacks in Kunduz and Helmand provinces. The agreement that was signed following a seven-day reduction in violence, a period that required the Taliban to adhere to a “significant and nationwide” reduction in violence, and was required that U.S. and Afghan forces refrain from targeting Taliban-controlled areas of the country. Despite this new agreement there was still no official ceasefire in place. Throughout 2019 and into 2020 violence continued across Afghanistan as the United States increased airstrikes and raids targeting the Taliban, while the Taliban continued to carry out attacks on Afghan government targets, make territorial gains, and target Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) bases and outposts. The Taliban had also carried out high-profile attacks across the country, including in Kabul.

Uncertainty surrounding the future of international donor assistance has strained the Afghan economy. While the United States and its allies have pledged to provide support to Kabul, the transition to a peacetime economy risks further destabilising the Afghan society by inflating the budget deficit and increasing unemployment rates. In the present context international donor assistance remains a question mark.

Respect for women’s rights
The Taliban vowed on Tuesday (17th Aug 2021) to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists as part of a publicity blitz aimed at reassuring world powers and a fearful population. Following a lightning offensive across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a strict form of Islamic rule in the late 1990s. However, many Afghans remain skeptical and thousands have raced to the airport, desperate to flee the country. Older generations remember the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s longtime spokesperson, emerged from the shadows on August 17 in his first-ever public appearance to address those concerns at a news conference. He promised the Taliban would honour women’s rights “within the norms of Islamic law”, without elaborating. The Taliban have encouraged women to return to work and have allowed girls to return to school, handing out Islamic headscarves at the door. A female news anchor interviewed a Taliban official on August 16 in a TV studio. The treatment of women varies widely across the Muslim world and sometimes even within the same country, with rural areas tending to be far more conservative. Some Muslim countries, including neighbouring Pakistan, have had female prime ministers, while ultraconservative Saudi Arabia only recently allowed women to drive.

Further U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement saying the events raised “deep concern,” especially when it comes to the future of women and girls. The United Nations Security Council was expected to hold an emergency meeting regarding Afghanistan in the morning of August 23.

The US had vital interest in preserving the many political, economic, and security gains that have not been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. The resurgence of the Taliban has once again turned Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven. Moreover, internal instability in Afghanistan could have larger regional ramifications as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia all have competed for influence in Kabul and with subnational actors. China has also joined this group expressing the “friendly approach” with the present regime. China says it is ready to move ahead in its relations with the Taliban, but foreign policy experts say Beijing remains apprehensive about what comes next and may not devote a vast security and economic commitment to Afghanistan in the near future.

Pakistan has sent troops across and built fences along with some remote tribal areas of its treaty defined Durand Line border with Afghanistan, which serves as bases for foreign terrorists and other illegal activities; Russia remains concerned about the smuggling of poppy derivatives from Afghanistan through Central Asian countries.
Mid-April 2021, President Joe Biden announced of the decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, completing the military exit by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. This decision kept thousands of U.S. forces in the country beyond the May 1 exit deadline that the Trump administration negotiated last year with the Taliban.
Importantly, Taliban asserted to renew attacks on U.S. and NATO personnel if foreign troops are not out by the deadline and further they would not continue to participate in “any conference” regarding Afghanistan’s future until all ‘foreign forces’ have departed.

Biden’s plan was for a phased withdrawal until September. The Taliban conducted sputtering talks with the Afghan Government, begun under the Trump deal, since last fall. By mid-June Afghan security forces in remote areas, operating without support from the distant Afghan Government, had begun abandoning their posts, with many complaining that they had run out of food. The Taliban’s momentum began to build. It took control of even more rural territory in July, and by the beginning of August, had begun to target urban areas as well. Then it began a stunning advance on Afghanistan’s major cities and provincial power centres. The militant group captured its first provincial capital on August 6 with next to no fighting. Nine days later it had control of every major city in the country, including Kabul, and had only met resistance from Afghan forces in a handful of them. In additional high-level inter-Afghan discussion in Turkey was scheduled for later this month.

With these developments Afghanistan is seeing an enormous rise in the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) and also since the withdrawal of foreign troops began in May, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 244,000 people have been internally displaced since the beginning of May when the Taliban group began multiple offensives against the Afghan Government, an increase of more than 300

percent compared with the same period last year. Many initially fled their homes in rural areas due to fighting, seeking refuge in provincial capitals. However the fighting shifted to urban centres during the past weeks as a result of the Taliban closing in on many of Afghanistan’s larger cities. As the Taliban advances rapidly Afghanistan the number of IDPs is expected to exponentially increase further. With the ongoing instability, the spill of IDPs to the immediate neighbourhood is also of great concern. As of now Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan are facing the brunt of it.

Challenges ahead
President Biden’s goal was to move to ‘zero’ troops by September, as per the senior administration official. The president has judged that a conditions-based approach is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever. He had reached the conclusion that the United States will complete its drawdown and remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11.” The decision highlights the trade-offs the Biden administration is willing to make to shift the U.S. global focus from the counterinsurgency campaigns that dominated the post-9/11 world to current priorities, including increasing military competition with China.

President Dr. Ghani left Afghanistan on August 15 evening with no announcement or clear reporting on where he was going. As the Taliban entered the presidential palace and declared the war over President Dr. Ghani said he fled to prevent “a flood of bloodshed.”

“The Taliban have won with the judgment of their swords and guns and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” Ghani added. In separate news briefings, President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg placed the blame squarely on the Afghan National Government for the stunning and swift Taliban takeover.

Further, in an address to the nation on August 16 afternoon President Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, blaming the Taliban’s takeover on the unwillingness of the Afghan Army to fight the militant group and arguing that remaining in the country was not in the U.S. national interest.

In addition to the major domestic challenges, “the reality is that the United States has big strategic interests in the world,” the person familiar with the deliberations said, “like non-proliferation; like an increasingly aggressive and assertive Russia; like North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear programmes pose a threat to the United States;” like China. “The main threats to the American homeland are actually from other places: from Africa, from parts of the Middle East — Syria and Yemen.”

Taliban co-founder and de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Afghanistan on August 17 just days after his fighters swept to power across the country. The Taliban announced a general amnesty for government officials and ordered fighters to maintain discipline as an uneasy calm settled over Kabul.

The United States and other nations resumed military evacuation efforts for allied Afghans and other civilians. However, the evacuation operations were suspended late Monday (August 23) when thousands of people swarmed the airport in Kabul in a desperate bid to flee.

Other areas of the Afghan economy and its society and governance also exemplify the bright and dark sides of Afghanistan’s global connectivity. International donor funding has been the mainstay of the country’s security sector, stimulated its economy and helped build vital institutional administrative capacity is frozen. Whatever the costs of being exposed to global and regional influences and forces, the price for Afghanistan of isolation or neglect is far greater. A modern Afghanistan cannot be sealed off. However, to optimise the opportunities offered by global engagement and avoid the pitfalls that can come with openness, Afghanistan needs the political leadership and institutions able to manage the pace and scope of interconnectivity. The political cohesion, legal framework, and infrastructure required to take advantage of globalization and minimise its vulnerabilities are unfortunately not in place now with the power shift with the required security and stability.

Less than a week after the Taliban swept into Kabul the militants are already facing the first stirrings of resistance to their renewed rule. Groups of women, fearful that the Taliban will try to re-impose their stringent and often brutal interpretation of Islamic law, have braved retribution and demanded their rights. Others have simply refused to fly the Taliban’s white flag; insisting that the Afghan national flag was the only banner they wanted to fly.

In addition a meeting was held on August 18 between former President Karzai and Anas Haqqani, a senior leader of the Haqqani Network militant group, an important faction of the Taliban. The previous government’s main peace envoy, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, was also present at this meeting. It is important to note that the US has classed the Haqqani Network, based in the border regions with Pakistan, as a terrorist network, holding it responsible for some of the most deadly militant attacks in Afghanistan in recent years. The group’s involvement in a future Taliban Government is likely to be problematic for the international community. A spokesperson for Karzai said the aim of the meeting was to facilitate negotiations with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the influential Taliban political leader who led the agreement for the withdrawal of US troops and is believed to be taking an important role in the government. Baradar just returned to Afghanistan on August 17 for the first time after 20 years. Waheedullah Hashimi, a spokesperson for the Taliban, told Reuters that the country was likely to be governed by a ruling Taliban council, while the Islamist militant movement’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was expected to remain in overall charge, in a role akin to the president.

The power structure that Hashimi outlined would bear similarities to how Afghanistan was run the last time the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001. Then, supreme leader Mullah Omar remained in the shadows and left the day-to-day running of the country to a council. Taliban leadership is to meet later this week to discuss and set out the system of governance, but any semblance of democracy is already been ruled out.

“There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country,” Hashimi said in an interview with Reuters. “We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.”

The uprising on August 20 took place to the north of the Panjshir Valley, a strategic sliver of territory where a handful of Afghan leaders were organizing a force to resist the Taliban. While former Afghan officials and reports from witnesses on social media suggested the uprising was local and spontaneous, one of the main leaders of the Panjshir resistance movement claimed on August 21 that “we are one.” Amrullah Saleh, who was the country’s first vice president until this week, wrote in a text message that his forces and the fighters to the north were “under one command structure.”

Against this backdrop, I wish that the resilient Afghan people who have an abundance of natural resources would get the much deserving peace and prosperity soon and bring regional stability overcoming the escalating crisis caused by the power shift.
(The writer is the formerly Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force and Sri Lankan Ambassador to Afghanistan)