The situation in Afghanistan before the scheduled withdrawal of the US forces this year is so slippery that except for hoping for a less messy scenario, there isn’t much the stakeholders can do. This appeared to be the crux of the opinions of various experts at a session on the war-torn nation on Sunday.
They were speaking at a session, Dispensable Nation: Afghanistan after the US Withdrawal, at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
While Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai wants a sizable number of US troops to stay, the US is not interested in keeping its soldiers in an “electricity-less, water less, inhospitable terrain” spending billions of dollars, said Barnett Rubin, a political scientist and former senior advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Award-winning British journalist Ben Anderson, who spent two months filming a British army unit in Taliban-dominated Helmand province, chipped in: “Especially, when it costs the Taliban nothing. They fashion IEDs out of discarded plastic water cans and fertilizers."
At the same time, the Afghan president, said author William Dalrymple, doesn't trust Americans, the British or the Pakistanis. He believes that deep down these states are plotting his fall.
"It isn't true that one side wants peace and the other doesn't. Everybody wants peace, which they define as their enemy surrendering,” said Rubin.
Rubin said the one of the major reasons why the talks, that would end the problem, are yet to begin is that the parties disagree about what the conflict is all about and who will resolve it. Taliban, he said, believe, the conflict is between them and the US. They want the Americans to release its men, “wrongly bracketed with Al-Qaeda and imprisoned at Guantanamo”. They are apprehensive of the Americans sabotaging their dialogue with the Afghan government they don’t recognize in the first place, he said.
The Americans want the Taliban and the Afghan government to sit down and figure out the post-withdrawal dispensation.
The Afghan government’s position is that as a legitimate government, it should organise the peace process and invite the Taliban. The consensus seemed to be that a complete takeover by the Taliban post US withdrawal appears unlikely. The best case scenario would be Taliban restricting itself to the South and stitching a coalition with the existing government.
"But I think the biggest variables that will determine the outcome are not in Afghanistan. They are in the US and Pakistan. If the US and its partners maintain some sort of presence and continue funding for some more time, it will provide a breathing space for a potential political process to evolve,” Rubin said.
"And if the civilian government in Pakistan succeeds in conveying to the Taliban that while it supports its endeavor to be part of the process, it should not try to take cover of violence. The Taliban will realize that if it does not have the support of Pakistan, it cannot take over power. Then there is chance of peace emerging,” he added.
While this sounded optimistic, Anderson warned of potential dangers.
“This is about elections. They are already printing millions more voter cards than there are voters. That is a not a sign of good elections,” he said.
Then there are the players.
While India is the most popular foreign country in Afghanistan, Barnett said, Pakistan is the most influential, and the most hated.
“Very ambivalent feelings about Pakistan. I say the Pakistani state is hated, but parts of Afghan society and parts of Pakistan society are integrated and interpenetrate. And there are millions of Afghans in Pakistan,” he said.
What limits India’s influence is that it doesn't have a border with Pakistan and its access depends upon its cooperation with Iran.
Therefore, Barnett said, the US tried to work on a dialogue between Pakistan and India so that the former feels a little more secure about the perceived threat from the latter. This, he said, has lessened Pakistan’s worries about India.
Another potential danger is the collapse of urban structures in Afghanistan. The war economy has made the troubled nation the fastest urbanising country in Asia. People from rural areas have settled in urban areas for jobs, which are likely to shrink or dry up completely once the withdrawal happens.
One positive development for India has been the increasing Chinese disenchantment with Pakistan, as it believes the Pakistan is doing nothing to stop Uighur separatists from receiving military training on its land. Besides, all analyses seem to agree, the Chinese have limited their interest in Afghanistan to mining copper, Rubin said.
Summing up the “paradox of the situation” in the trouble country, he said, “I think the changes that have occurred in Afghanistan are irreversible. And the changes that have occurred in Afghanistan are unsustainable.”