‘The era of saving failed states is over’: The Afghan withdrawal and its regional implications, with special focus on Pakistan

by Zoha Waseem

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Speaking at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on Friday 17 January 2014, Ahmed Rashid, journalist and author of Taliban, Descent into Chaos, and most recently, Pakistan on the Brink, confidently asserted that the West will no longer be a major stakeholder in the Afghan region as ‘the era of saving failed states is over’. According to Rashid, all regional players must accept this and take responsibility instead of ‘weeping tears’ of betrayal or abandonment.

Another era of transitions

Rashid, addressing a gathering on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and its regional implications, argued that although the military transition in Afghanistan has been the primary focus of the West, it is the political and economic transitions that are more relevant in the short-term. He noted that the coming elections must give credibility to the next president (sans rigging); without a legitimate government, there may never be a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan between the government and the Taliban. This settlement, Rashid believes, will be the major deterrent to a multi-faceted civil war.

The Taliban are ripe for a peace settlement. There is a lobby for it within the Afghan Taliban. They are fed up of fighting, or living in Pakistan. They are fed up with al Qaeda. The older generation of Taliban understand that they cannot govern Afghanistan. [They] know that they are a basket case. Therefore, [they] need a peaceful power-sharing agreement.

Just how supposed free-and-fair elections should take place during a ‘dodgy transition’ in a corrupt and battle-ridden country where everything is up for grabs is not a subject matter the speaker delved into.

Economically, Rashid reminds us, there has not been the creation of an indigenous economy, a reason that could deter the Taliban from taking over cities. ‘The Taliban are not in a position to take over cities. They need the cities for economic reasons. They will let the cities flourish and act sensibly.’ Rashid rejected the ‘Helmand paranoia in the UK’ (that the Taliban will re-enter their former provinces), arguing that it is only inevitable for them to return to their natural habitat.

Of course, they will come in. They come from Helmand; the population in Helmand is pro-Taliban; poppy production is allowed by the Taliban; and [their] families reside in Helmand too.

‘A Pandora’s Box is about to be opened’

At the moment, Rashid believes, there is power equilibrium in the region as all stakeholders are taking a hands-off approach. Nevertheless, he warns us that should even one country interfere, it could disturb the delicate balance within the region. India and Pakistan are the most likely to play out their rivalries in Afghanistan; Iran does not want the Taliban coming into power, which could upset the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan dynamics in the country; Russia and Central Asian countries are equally nervous, having been left out of post-war negotiations. China appears to be uninterested in mediation, but is likely to step in for economic reasons once the conflict comes to an end.

In Rashid’s opinion, all regional players want stability in Kabul, especially Pakistan. ‘Backing Taliban for the second time will have a blowback in Pakistan’, he argued, as an insurgency across the border is likely to keep trickling into Islamabad’s territories. Because of this, current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government has been working on bettering civil-military relations, as both organs of the state finally have a consensus for a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan.

For this, Pakistan (as well as the US) needs to speed up the facilitation of dialogue but efforts towards dialogue as part of the reconciliation have not been good, argued Ahmed Rashid. There appears to be a lack of clarity for Americans, Pakistanis, as well as Karzai.

More authoritarian regimes in [Islamic] states will emerge the West takes a hands off approach towards failed or failing states [and] if they don’t be careful with nation-building. Right now, the US do not have a clear agenda for the troops that are intended to remain in Afghanistan’.

A Pakistani official, who wishes to remain anonymous, addressed the Afghan question vis-a-vis Pakistan:

Pakistan has limited influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani army and the civilian government are on the same page. Pakistan does not have favourites in Afghanistan anymore [but] it does not want to abandon the Taliban [again]. But also, we don’t have Mullah Omar in our pocket.

Much of Rashid’s analysis echoed that of other Pakistani analysts. Journalist Zahid Hussain, speaking at the London School of Economics in November 2013, rejected the theory that Islamabad has strategic depth in Afghanistan. Rather, Hussain claimed, it is the Afghan Taliban has that has strategic depth in Pakistan. Similarly, the Pakistani official quoted above and Ahmed Rashid both maintained that there is no longer a doctrine of strategic depth for the Pakistani army or state.

‘Fixing’ Afghanistan

Nevertheless, some of the arguments put forth by the speaker require further analysis. Rashid pointed that Afghanis have done nothing to fix themselves (‘What have Afghanis done to fix themselves? There is still intrinsic corruption – shameful!’), without clarifying how they should be expected to ‘fix themselves’. On elections, it seems that the speaker emphasised that the centre (Kabul) cannot hold unless the next government is legitimate. But can western-style, free-and-fair elections take place in Afghanistan, minus corruption and minus political agreements signed covertly?

Anatol Lieven, a professor at the Department of War Studies (King’s College London) writing for the New York Review of Books, has already pointed out that this view may be too idealistic.

The choice Afghanistan faces is not between some idealized version of Western democracy and a corrupt state; it is between a corrupt but more or less consensual Afghan state and the horrors of no state at all.

Furthermore, Rashid highlighted the supposed desires of the Taliban to stop fighting and work towards improving their economic conditions. While it could be accepted that the insurgency may have reached exhaustion, to expect a group that is acknowledged historically as trained fighters, known to have battle in their blood and revenge in their code, to simply go home with weapons and work in the fields is unconvincing.

Lieven has also pointed out, like Ahmed Rashid, that there is no risk of the Taliban taking over Kabul, but, is less optimistic about how things may progress if the West disrupts its flow of cash.

US and international aid now account for around nine-tenths of the Afghan national budget… Today, we too have created an Afghan state and army that cannot survive without our help, and that will also disintegrate again into warlord anarchy if our help is withdrawn. The West has a deep moral and historical responsibility to make sure that this does not happen.

Rashid also placed little emphasis on the Durand Line (the 2,640 kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan): ‘It’s an issue, but I don’t think this is occupying people’s minds’. It is unclear why the question of the Durand Line has been sidelined, when it is still not recognised by the Afghan Taliban – and the Pakistani Taliban for that matter – who move freely between the porous territorial divisions. It also remains to be seen that, should there be a peace settlement with the Taliban, could it amount to the recognition of the Durand Line? If not, what is to stop the Pakistani Taliban from travelling across the Line, making Pakistani military efforts against its own militant groups in its tribal areas that much more futile? And without a clear understanding of how the Afghan Taliban seeks to deal with the Pakistan Taliban (and vice versa), can you reasonably expect all regional players to just sit tight?


Zoha Waseem is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. You can follower her on Twitter @ZohaWaseem.

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