Should Afghanistan be left to its own devices?

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By Abdul Basit

In Afghanistan, the military momentum seems to be in favor of the Taliban. They are already in control of around 200 Afghan districts out of 419. On the diplomatic front, too, they have been conducting themselves unexpectedly remarkably. No wonder, most of the relevant players including US, China, Russia and Pakistan are talking to them. The US even signed an agreement with them on 29 February 2020, almost recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan in waiting.
Why should the Taliban then reconcile and acquiesce in playing second fiddle to the Kabul administration? To them, the latter has no legitimacy. Nor did they ever accept the UNSC resolutions on Afghanistan.
Ironically enough, the international community also never evinced any serious interest in engaging with the Taliban. They were never approached to join the Bonn process.
People who understand the domestic dynamics of Afghanistan remain doubtful that the Doha intra-Afghan reconciliation process has a realistic chance of success. The Taliban are not a political party. Being an ideological movement and that too embedded in the hidebound interpretation of Islam, they can barely afford to get engaged in a democratic process, at least not in the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, the Kabul administration is equally to be blamed for the present situation in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to hold the presidential election in September 2019 was a huge blunder. He should have postponed the election till after the US-Taliban agreement. Had he listened to the saner voices then, relatively better possibilities would have emerged for intra-Afghan reconciliation.
On the international plane, President Biden’s assertion that China is the biggest security threat to US interests around the world has created a difficult situation also for Afghanistan. China considers the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan as irresponsible. It holds the US accountable for the present imbroglio. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan also in a recent interview commented that it was the US that had created the mess in Afghanistan.

Afghan soldiers patrolling in a tense area

Given this mutual trust deficit, external stakeholders are also somewhat unsure about how to deal with the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan. They are meeting again in Doha on August 11. It remains to be seen if they can come up with a consensual and robust position on Afghanistan beyond the mantra of “Afghan led and Afghan-owned process.” 
It is the neighboring countries that will mostly take the brunt of a prolonged civil war in Afghanistan. However, unlike the US, their leverage vis-à-vis the Kabul administration is minimal if at all. They are also not in a position to put pressure on the Taliban and push them toward a modus vivendi.
As for the US, its Afghanistan policy remains mired in contradictions. Whereas it has secured from the Taliban safe withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, it is now resorting to airstrikes against them. This is a recipe only for more destruction in Afghanistan. Airstrikes may help push back the Taliban from important provincial capitals and Kabul for the time being but these cannot extirpate them. Such actions only help reinforce the Taliban narrative that the Kabul administration represents the interests of the US. 
In short, Afghanistan now finds itself in a cul de sac. Is there a way out of the blind alley? Or should the international community leave Afghanistan to its own recipes. If left alone, there may be a better chance for Afghanistan with either the Kabul administration or the Taliban achieving a decisive victory against the other.
However, many countries including Pakistan would not like to see innocent Afghans going through more internecine conflict with no end in sight. The international community cannot absolve itself of its responsibility to prevent further bloodshed. It was the erstwhile Soviet Union that first occupied Afghanistan in 1979, and then the US and its NATO allies that failed in every respect in Afghanistan since 2001 and now yet again, are leaving the landlocked country and its neighbors high and dry.
It may be helpful if the US and other Western countries build pressure on President Ashraf Ghani to step down. Indubitably, the Taliban would never accept him as head of an interim dispensation no matter how much pressure is exerted on them. The president may be replaced by a credible national figure who is also acceptable to the Taliban. This could be timed with coming into effect of a cease-fire for at least six months. The interim president may have a new ethnically balanced cabinet and also become head of the reconciliation council. His chances of success will be much better than Dr. Abdullah Abdullah at the helm.
Will this be enough for the Taliban to give up fighting? That depends on their diplomatic and military calculations. As they are confident of winning the war, chances of their amenability to any peace formula are rather slim. They may however be willing to form a broad-based government under their leadership. They may do this to win international recognition.
There are no easy solutions to the Afghan conundrum. Much before Afghans, we need the key external stakeholders to be on the same page. Let’s hope something concrete will come out of the August 11 meeting in Doha. Fingers crossed.

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Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India. Twitter: @abasitpak1