AN ENDGAME IN AFGHANISTAN

Relatively unnoticed amid the heat and noise coming from the Trump White House, and the bitter conflicts in Syria and Iraq, one or two quiet notes of hope are coming from another quarter of the world which has known its own share of strife: Afghanistan.

In this issue we publish a Stratfor analysis examining the process which has seen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, agree to cease fighting and engage in politics under the Kabul government. It is true that few, if any, other options were open to Hekmatyar, who lacked both battlefield success and international support, having lost the backing first of Pakistan and later of Iran. But Stratfor believes the settlement could provide a template for a much more significant deal, between President Ashraf Ghani’s administration and the Taliban.

It would be remarkable, to say the least, if such an accommodation could be reached. No Afghan under the age of 50 can remember a time when the country enjoyed anything like peace, let alone prosperity. Instead Afghanistan has resembled the prize in the violent traditional sport of buzkashi, in which troops of horsemen compete for a headless calf. Almost anything goes in the struggle to grab the carcass and gallop away with it.

The country was a hapless victim of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, in which Pakistan was used as the channel for money, arms and training for the anti-Soviet resistance. Not surprisingly, the Pakistanis exploited their position to seek their own ends in Afghanistan, principally the creation of a friendly, Pashtun-dominated regime. When Hekmatyar proved unequal to the task, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence fostered the creation of the Taliban, but the movement gave al-Qaeda a home, forcing the wider world to turn its attention once again to Afghanistan.

More than 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, Western forces are still on Afghan soil, though now mainly in support of Afghan government troops fighting the Taliban. So has nothing changed? Not according to another analysis, by two academics with long knowledge of, and contacts with, the Taliban.

Theo Farrell of City University, London and Michael Semple of Queen’s University, Belfast conclude in a study for the Royal United Services Institute that despite its still considerable power, the movement is in disarray, with its new leader, Maulawi Habibatullah Akhundzada, widely seen as weak and ineffective. Factions are appearing, and the Taliban’s base within Pakistan is being eroded by Islamabad’s decision to expel Afghan refugees back to their homeland.

The academics add that despite battlefield successes, the Taliban has proved unable to seize and hold any provincial capitals, and heavy losses have undermined morale and respect for the leadership. Over a decade since the movement’s resurgence, rank and file fighters are questioning the continuing purpose of the conflict, as well as criticising suicide bombings and the killing of civilians as un-Islamic.

Farrell and Semple argue that the way might be open for ‘insurgent peace-making’, bypassing the Quetta-based leadership. This could see disillusioned Taliban members ‘extricating themselves from unproductive violence’, though they would be unlikely to seek accommodation with a government that most Taliban abhor, especially if Kabul treated them as ‘mere defectors who have submitted’.

Ideally, Afghans would be able to agree among themselves on a course towards a more stable and peaceful future. In practice, at least two other players matter in this game: Pakistan and the United States. Any patchwork of peace deals would happen in spite of Islamabad (or Rawalpindi) rather than with their blessing, and would be the result of Pakistan’s inability to prevent fissures within the Taliban.

As for the US, its forces remain essential to maintaining military pressure on the Taliban. On this matter President Trump has been uncharacteristically silent – the fact that Afghanistan was not one of the Muslim-majority countries listed in his controversial travel ban has somewhat eased fears that he would announce an abrupt withdrawal of American troops – but the desire of his administration to commit much effort to peace-making must remain in doubt.

All the same, it is many years since Afghans could enjoy even a glimmer of hope that the country could find a way out of conflict. Any group or government which does not keep such hope alive should have to answer to them.

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