Civil War in Afghanistan Will Threaten Afghanistan, China and Pakistan
By Vijay Prashad *
– Globetrotter, Independent Media
The United States, which has prosecuted a war against
Afghanistan since October 2001, has promised to withdraw its
combat troops by September 11, 2021. This war has failed to attain any of the
gains that were promised after 20 years of fighting: neither has it resulted in
the actual fragmentation of terrorist groups nor has it led to the destruction
of the Taliban. The great suffering and great waste of social wealth caused due
to the war will finally end with the Taliban’s return to power, and with
terrorist groups, which are entrenched in parts of Central Asia, seizing this
prospect to make a full return to Afghanistan.
There are two forms of war that exist in Afghanistan.
First, there is the war prosecuted by the United States—and
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—against their adversaries in
Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO have allied with a range of political projects,
which certainly includes the government of the President of Afghanistan Ashraf
Ghani. This is the war that the U.S. and NATO have indicated will now be
Second, there is the ongoing civil war between the Ashraf
Ghani government, backed by the West, and the forces around the Taliban. This
is a war among Afghans, which has roots that go back several decades. As the
first form of the war ends, the civil war will continue. The two principal
forces in Afghanistan—the government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban—are
unwilling to form a government of national unity or to create a mechanism to
end the civil war.
Failure of peace talks between the various stakeholders in
Afghanistan—including the United States—in Doha,
Qatar, suggests the continuation of the civil war. The United States, since
2001, has not drawn up any serious political road map for a withdrawal. The
U.S. will leave as it came, with the U.S. troops taking off as abruptly as they
Already, the Afghan National Army is weakened, much of the
Afghan territory outside its full control. In recent months, the Taliban has
been keeping its powder dry, waiting for the U.S. to withdraw before it steps
up its attack against the government in Kabul. A report by the Analytical
Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which was submitted to the United Nations
Security Council on June 1, suggests that Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network
prepare to strike as soon as the opportunity arises. Al Qaeda is “such an
‘organic’ or essential part of the insurgency that it would be difficult, if
not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies,” the report noted.
A Pakistani intelligence official, who is well-informed
about the situation in Afghanistan, told me that the countryside will gradually
slip further out of Kabul’s control, with the Taliban and its allies—including
Al Qaeda and other regional terrorist groups—confident of victory by the end of
the summer in 2022.
There is no appetite either in the United States or in
Central Asia for the continuation of the U.S. military presence. Nothing good
has come of it, and it does not promise any advantage in the future.
On June 3, 2021, Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad
Haneef Atmar, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, and Pakistan’s
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi held their
fourth trilateral dialogue. This was the first high-level meeting held since
September 2019. There was no direct reference to the withdrawal of the U.S.
forces, but it set the context for the two most important outcomes of the
First, China pledged to play a “constructive role” to
improve the long-fraught relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have
become more heated up because of the regional conflict between India and
Pakistan. China has close ties with the governments in both Afghanistan and
Pakistan, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) requiring peace in Central
Asia for the success of the massive infrastructure and trade project, which
runs from China’s Pacific coast to the Indian Ocean and to the Mediterranean
Sea. China’s leverage over these countries is considerable. Even if China can
create a modus vivendi between President Ghani and Pakistan’s Prime Minister
Imran Khan, it does not settle the deeper problems, such as the military
weakness of Ghani’s government.
Second, based on these governments’ cooperation in the
counterterrorism process, the foreign ministers agreed to jointly tackle
terrorist outfits that operate in Afghanistan and in its neighboring countries:
such as the Turkistan Islamic Party or East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM),
ISIS, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan’s government is troubled by
the operations of the TTP, which operates along the borderlines of the two
countries but is based in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. China, meanwhile, is very
concerned about the ETIM, which operates in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and has
been trying to destabilize the Chinese province of the Xinjiang Uyghur
Autonomous Region. The ETIM has close ties with the Taliban, which—while it has
held discussions with the Chinese—understands that its use of the ETIM gives it
leverage against China. Whether or not these three governments will actually be
able to weaken these terrorist groups, incubated by the Taliban, is unclear.
It now seems impossible for the United States to formally
remain in Afghanistan. There is simply no political will for the troops to
remain in the country, even as the U.S. will keep paramilitary
and mercenary forces in Afghanistan.
Given the heightened U.S. pressure on China, however, there
is plenty of evidence that the U.S. is not unhappy with the possibility of
instability that will come to the heart of Asia after the summer of 2021. In
2003, the U.S. designated the ETIM as a terrorist group, but it removed it
from that list in 2020. This is clear evidence of the U.S. motives to
destabilize China’s Xinjiang province.
The Pakistani intelligence official suggests that if the
Taliban takes Kabul, groups such as the TTP and the ETIM will be emboldened to conduct
attacks in Pakistan and China respectively. These groups, he tells me, will
fight alongside the Taliban to weaken Kabul’s hold and to use the countryside
to launch these attacks; there is no necessity for the Taliban to actually take
control of Kabul.
The question that remains is whether or not the Taliban can
be divided. The Taliban is a tangle of Afghan nationalism and patriotism as
well as various forms of political Islam. There are elements in the Taliban
that are far more nationalistic and patriotic than they are committed to the
Islamist currents. Attempts to peel the “moderates” away from the more hardcore
sections have largely failed, which has been evident since at least former U.S.
President Barack Obama’s failed plea to the “moderate Taliban” in 2009.
There is simply not sufficient strength in Afghanistan’s
society to resist the spread of the Taliban. Nor is there an organized capacity
of Afghan citizens present yet to build a new bloc against both the failed
U.S.-backed governments (from Hamid Karzai to Ghani) and the Taliban. But if
Afghanistan’s neighbors cut off their support to the Taliban, and if they are
able to deepen an economic project (such as the BRI), then there is the
possibility for this new bloc to eventually emerge. That is why the dialogue
between Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan is central. It might, in fact, be more
important in the long run than the conversations with the Taliban.