The post-2014 situation in Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of the US/Nato/ International Security Assistance Force, has been the subject of a most vexing debate in recent times.
The main difficulty lies in predicting the real intentions of various actors involved in the Afghan imbroglio, particularly of the US.
The US is under domestic pressure to pull out its forces from this unwinnable war but is trying to avoid the stigma of defeat. The Americans appear confused and are hardly realistic when it comes to putting together a coherent policy for the end of the Afghan mission.
The US, without any proper strategy, has been unable to sort out the mess in Afghanistan for which it is partially responsible. It has destabilised the whole region through faulty strategies. The only ‘trophy’ which it can claim is the elimination of Osama bin Laden. Otherwise, the ‘terrorism’ which the Americans came to eliminate has increased, not decreased.
The US decision to maintain bases in Afghanistan after 2014 lends itself to certain interpretations, particularly keeping in view America’s worldwide ambitions in general and in this region in particular.
The presence of US bases will not only be unacceptable to many Afghans; Russia, China, the Central Asian republics, Iran, Pakistan and possibly India too may have reservations regarding American presence in this region.
The US believes that besides a reduced presence in terms of American bases, Afghan security forces, including the army and police, will be in a position to take over the responsibilities of maintaining law and order from 2014 onwards. However, those who understand Afghanistan fully know that such arrangements will never bring peace and stability to the country.
There are four possible scenarios which may emerge by 2014.
The first scenario is that the US will seriously negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, accept some of their demands and make them part of the Afghan government. This would be an ideal arrangement but is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. The Taliban are not likely to accept a US presence on Afghan soil even if all other issues are amicably resolved between the two sides.
The provision of bases will be a deal-wrecker. Besides, other stakeholders like the Northern Alliance will not accept a deal between the US and the Taliban.
The second scenario is an intra-Afghan dialogue, which Pakistan supports. The Afghan government has constituted an Afghan High Peace Council headed by Salahuddin Rabbani, who succeeded his father the late Burhanuddin Rabbani.
This council has the backing of the Northern Alliance. Pakistan has released certain mid-ranking Taliban prisoners on the recommendations of the council and is prepared to release more high-ranking detainees if the US expresses no objections.
The Afghan Taliban so far have not agreed to negotiations with this council as the militia does not recognise the current Afghan government. But they have softened their stance somewhat, particularly with the release of Taliban prisoners by Pakistan.
Pakistan also wants the US to initiate talks with the Taliban to support the intra-Afghan dialogue and to enable it to withdraw from Afghanistan in a peaceful manner. But the US has yet to take a firm decision.
The third scenario, which is most likely, is that the negotiations and posturing will continue with frequent breakdowns and the use of force by both sides until the final withdrawal date arrives. The situation at that time will be that the US will have five major bases in Afghanistan and Afghan security forces would be taking responsibility for maintaining law and order.
The present Afghan government will be in place bolstered by the American bases with an adequate US air force presence. But as soon as the bulk of the forces leave Afghanistan, there will be a Taliban resurgence in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
Although the US has built a formidable base in Kandahar, the Taliban may well be able to overrun this. And the US will continue to hold on to bases such as Bagram (Kabul), Shin Dhand (Herat) and bases in the north, particularly in Mazar-i-Sharif.
That would mean a de facto division of Afghanistan: the Taliban would have their ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ with its capital at Kandahar, separate from the north of the country. They would continue with their sporadic attacks in the north, though the US will not let Kabul fall to the militia. This means that civil war in Afghanistan would continue, with serious implications for Pakistan.
The north of Afghanistan is less inhospitable for US troops, but it is vulnerable to attacks from Pakistan’s tribal areas of Mohmand, Bajaur and from Dir from the Pakistani Taliban.
The fourth possibility, which is highly unlikely, is that the US pulls out entirely from Afghanistan in the manner of the Soviet withdrawal in 1988.
This would make sense if the intra-Afghan dialogue succeeded and the US and other stakeholders were satisfied that the Afghans, including the Afghan Taliban, would live peacefully, and Afghanistan’s neighbours would guarantee they would not interfere in that country.
This is idealistic but not impossible. It would be the best option and the international community should support it in political and financial terms.
All possibilities visualised here have varying implications for Pakistan. But Pakistan should not have any favourites in Afghanistan. It should treat all Afghans as equal and make special efforts to mend relations with the Northern Alliance.
It should also be ready to launch effective operations against the Pakistani Taliban in Fata as soon as possible.
This can be done immediately after 2014 or before, because the Pakistani Taliban have their sights set on Islamabad, not Kabul.
The writer is an ex-brigadier and former secretary home and tribal affairs, KP, and ex-secretary Fata.