Monthly Archives: August 2021

Rewriting a new Afghan Constitution: A Briefing Paper

Syed Sharfuddin

The G7 countries met virtually on 24 August under the chairmanship of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and demanded that Taliban must extend the deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan beyond August to complete evacuation of all US and NATO troops, as well as stranded foreign nationals in Kabul and those Afghans who do not wish to live under a Taliban rule. The G7 statement also repeated the call of the UN Security Council (UNSC) made at its meeting on 16 August for Taliban to observe human rights and prevent terrorist acts against third countries. The only difference was that while the UNSC statement did not mention Taliban by name, the G7 did so as an indication that there is now an acknowledgement that the next government in Kabul will be formed by Taliban and they will be making the future decisions in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden, however, did not agree to the G7 demand. He insisted that the US was on course to complete the ongoing evacuation operation by 31 August. He also said that extending the deadline in the absence of an agreement with Taliban, which was not expected, will endanger the security of the US and other foreign troops remaining in Afghanistan after the August deadline.

Regrettably, the G7 call carries the potential of conveying a confusing message to the Afghans who are afraid of atrocities and human rights violations in a future Taliban government. After the airport is cleared and those Afghans whose papers are complete fly out of Kabul, thousands more will be getting ready to leave Afghanistan by air, land or long walk in the next few months to claim asylum in the countries which contributed troops to ISAF in the past. But their expectations would remain a pipe dream against the hard reality of international dynamics. The West had not foreseen such a large emigration of Afghans coming so soon, and neither is the public in the US, EU, UK, Australia and Canada ready to welcome new waves of refugees from Afghanistan. If this happens, thousands of Afghans will be disappointed and become marginalised in their own country because of the false hopes being built by civil society and media.

Ideally, the US and NATO should extract guarantees from the Taliban for giving the Afghan people full civil and political liberties and respecting their human rights in return for a Taliban government’s recognition by the UN and international institutions, including access to the much sought after trade and financial institutions such as the WTO, IMF and the World Bank. Afghanistan is a richly endowed but GDP wise a poor nation, but it is a member or partner of over fifty  intergovernmental, regional and international organisations. This may look like a huge burden for a small country to be representing itself in this high number of organisations, sometimes duplicating and at other times working at cross purposes, but it is also a huge reservoir for starting constructive engagement and promoting global good practice with the Taliban. It will be a waste not to use this great network of knowledge and resource for the rebuilding of a new, peaceful, just and rules-based Afghanistan owned and run by Afghans themselves. By not agreeing to the demand of his European allies in the G7 to extend the 31 August deadline, President Biden seems to be in favour of not pushing Taliban too much in a corner to force them to take unwanted extreme measures which would only add to the instability of Afghanistan in an already volatile strategic region which remains an active theatre of great power rivalry close to Iran, China and Russia.

On their part, the Taliban should not prevent any Afghan who has valid documents to travel to another country freely and without intimidation. The life and property of those Afghans who do not agree or welcome Taliban should be fully protected, and their rights should be recognised and granted by the new rulers. The Taliban have an opportunity to clear their image as barbarians and human rights violators. If any doors are to be knocked in Kabul by their fighters, they should be knocking these doors to offer scared people food and transport to the airport, should they have the right travel documents. As custodians of a new Islamic government in Afghanistan, the Taliban should follow the example of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, when he entered Makkah ten years after Hijrah. They should force no one to stay in Afghanistan against his/her will. This will be their first major test the world will be watching closely.  

What has happened in Afghanistan in August 2021 is not less than a revolution. Afghans have paid dearly until this moment whether they supported Taliban or fought against them. Their capture of Afghanistan was not a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power from one party to another. A Taliban-led government cannot automatically expect to be recognised by the UN and other countries. Taliban also cannot, as a matter of routine, lay claim to Afghan overseas assets and development funds committed to the former government of Afghanistan by international financial institutions. They will need to work their way to earn it back. They will need to show with their actions in the next few months and years that they are capable of running a responsible and law abiding government.

But the revolution also gives Taliban advantages. They are not obliged to follow the commitments the previous government made to its international partners, or continue with the projects the previous government signed with foreign investors and countries. They are free to renegotiate investment agreements with overseas private investors, institutions and governments. They can launch an inquiry into corruption and kickbacks on commercial deals made by the leaders of the previous government. They are also free to impose limits on the number of foreign diplomats a country can send to its embassy in Afghanistan or open consulates or trade offices in their country. They can sign new treaties of friendship and cooperation with their neighbouring countries or request technical assistance from third countries if faced by brain drain in the short term. They do not have to give a blanket approval for accepting the UN and international covenants without adding any reservations on clauses which contradict their Islamic ideology. They do not have to stop narcotics production or sell arms they have acquired in the war booty to third parties in order to pay their officials salaries. They do not have to give any guarantees that they will not use unconventional methods to defend Afghan territory if it is attacked from outside. All these instruments are now open to Taliban for fresh negotiations with international organisations and third countries. Everything is on the table for negotiation on both sides.

The Taliban have postponed the announcement of their government structure until after the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. This has more to do with their own internal issues than international troops withdrawal. It is hard for them to reach power sharing arrangements within their ranks on forming an inclusive government with Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek leaders, women and tribal elders. It will be even harder for them to make compromises on implementing their Islamic ideology and its acceptance by the people of Afghanistan. They will also need to make compromises when political expediency, pluralism and diversity require them to go slow, when they are writing the new laws and regulations.

The Taliban have indicated that they will keep the 2004 constitution of Afghanistan but change it to incorporate their vision of an Islamic Emirate. The 2004 Constitution is a document which was adopted without wider consultations among Afghans. It was drafted with the help of Afghanistan’s external partners. As a primary legal document of the country, it must be Afghan written and Afghan owned. The Taliban were not part of the of the constitution writing process. It was drafted in a hurry in December 2003 and approved and ratified within one month in January 2004.

Even from the perspective of a modern democratic constitution, the 2004 constitution lacks many important features. It provides for an independent election commission (article 86) but it is silent about the appointment, terms of reference and statutory funding of the chief election commission and other members of the commission. The 2004 constitution provides for the establishment of an independent human rights commission (article 58), a central bank (article 12) and an attorney general (article 64.11), but it does not provide for the establishment of an independent public services commission (article 50), an armed forces commission, a truth and reconciliation commission, an inter-provincial disputes resolution council, an auditor general and an independent police commission. Afghanistan needs these institutions backed by the constitution in order to overcome its special vulnerabilities through its internal political processes.

With regard to the Islamic character of the constitution, it is clear that an attempt was made by the framers of the constitution in 2003 to give it an Islamic baptism without much thought. For example, article 4 of the constitution states that “national sovereignty in Afghanistan shall belong to the nation, manifested directly and through its elected representatives.” In the Islamic system of governance, sovereignty belongs to Almighty Allah and is exercised by the people on earth as his representatives, who in turn mandate their leaders to govern them in their land according to the teachings of Quran and the sunnah of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. However, the people retain the power to change their leaders if they do not follow Allah’s commands in the function of governance, especially in administering justice, ensuring peace and providing livelihood and sustenance. This concept is missing in the constitution. In another example, article 64.11 mentions, among others, the appointment of the head of the Red Cross. It could be a typo but it reveals the written source. In Islamic countries, including Afghanistan it is known as Red Crescent.

In the Afghan constitution, the idea of presidential form of government is derived from the US system. However, the safeguards provided in the US constitution to prevent a situation where individual electors might be inclined to choose a leader from their own tribal and political circle, creating the danger of a crippling post-election deadlock are not provided in the Afghanistan constitution. Afghanistan is a deeply divided state with as many as 14 recognised ethnic nationalities. It is also divided along linguistic and sectarian lines. These safeguards are necessary to give confidence to ethnic and religious minorities that they will not be swept by the tyranny of majority in the name of democracy. Under article 6, the presidential candidate is not obliged to provide the names of two vice presidential running mates on the panel from another ethnic group or region. There is also no provision to break a tie if the two vice presidential candidates receive the same number of votes as happened in the US elections in the year 1800 resulting in a political crisis and leading to 12th amendment.

The 2004 constitution mentions ‘national treason’ twice in articles 69 and 78 but it does not define what constitutes national treason and what should be the sentence for a person who commits this crime and is convicted by the courts.

In articles 3 and 35, the constitution says that no law shall be enacted that contravenes the “tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam” and that “manifestos and charter of political parties shall” also abide by this restriction. However, in article 34 relating to the right of expression, no restriction is placed on individuals to respect the religion of Islam and refrain from expression of “thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations, as well as other means” that attack the beliefs, principles and values of Islam, as enshrined in the Quran and sunnah, including attacks on the Quran, the personality of prophet Mohammad and members of his noble household, and his companions.

Articles 7 and 8 relating to multilateral and bilateral relations of Afghanistan should be amended to state that “the the guiding principles of Afghanistan’s foreign relations will be: promoting regional and global peace and cooperation, respecting the territorial integrity of other states, pursuing friendly relations with Islamic and other countries, applying the UN principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and actively pursuing mutually beneficial economic and trade relations with Afghanistan’s regional and external partners.

Afghanistan has been through wars for most of its history. Defence of the fatherland is a quintessential part of the Afghan national character. However, the document is silent about the composition and mandate of the armed forces of Afghanistan and the appointment of the chiefs of the army and air-force. The constitution also does not mention that the military commanders will be subservient to civilian authorities and overthrow of a civilian elected government by the military overtly or covertly will amount to national treason and invoke capital punishment for those involved in treason. Only under the powers of the president, article 64.3 states that the chief executive of the country is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The 2004 constitution incorporates the concept of social welfare by making the state responsible for providing free of charge education up to college level (article 43), free healthcare and medical facilities (article 52) and financial support to families of martyrs and handicapped persons (article 53). However, the constitution does not state anywhere that the country will follow the principles of social welfare economy. Instead, the constitution declares in article 10 that the state shall protect and encourage market economy. The article should be amended to say that “the guiding principles of Afghanistan’s economy will be Islamic social welfare system and a privately-owned but state-guided free trade and individual enterprise that supports investment, services, equality of opportunity for all citizens, and fair division and circulation of national wealth.”

The 2004 constitution is silent about the territory that comprises the state of Afghanistan. Articles 1 and 21 should be amended to read: “the territory of a sovereign, independent and unitary Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan shall comprise 34 provinces (wilayaat) each of which will be an integral part of the indivisible Afghan state. The capital of Afghanistan shall be Kabul.”

The articles relating to the judiciary should be sufficiently amended to incorporate in the country’s criminal justice system the traditional Afghan system of dispensing justice by involving the local jury and fast tracking the process to avoid delays in the judicial process. This system has been practiced by Taliban in the areas under their control and was popular with the people.

The texts of the oaths of the President, ministers and higher judiciary in articles 63, 74 and 119 should be removed from the main body and placed as annex to the constitution.

Given that Taliban will need to satisfy many smaller minority groups and ethnic populations about the decisions they make in the new government, there is a need to expand the composition of the House of Elders (Mashrono Jirga) hundred percent from the present 102 to 204. Of these, 102 members should come through the procedure stated in article 84 of the 2004 constitution but the other 102 members should consist of the tribal leaders and religious elders representing the ethnic and regional breadth of Afghanistan, as well as gender representation, irrespective of whether they supported the Taliban or the previous governments. These representatives should be elected by the local Jirgas of people from their respective tribes and regions for a fixed but renewable term.

If Taliban use the present constitution as the basis of forming a new government, President Ashraf Ghani’s escape from Kabul together with his entire team of two vice presidents, foreign minister and other ministers, makes it impossible to implement articles 67 and 68, as well as 69 to appoint a new chief executive and his team through fresh elections. The Taliban can also ignore the procedure of forming a new government in the 2004 constitution but still announce new elections within 3 to 6 months. However, holding elections  before a new constitution is agreed and adopted would be a meaningless exercise and could weaken their hold on power.

For amending the existing 2004 constitution, Taliban can use the procedure provided under article 150 of the 2004 constitution. They can use the present independent commission (article 157) or appoint a new independent commission to amend the 2004 constitution. Alternately, they can dismiss the previous Loya Jirga and start the process of drafting the constitution from the scratch. However, they should not throw away the work that has been done so far and has the agreement of many parties and groups, if not them. They should therefore announce a new interim and inclusive administration with a view to drafting, as a first step, a new constitution in a period of 12 to 18 months, using the 2004 constitution as the basis of their new draft. In the next stage, the new draft constitution can then be presented for a national debate. The government can then convene a Special Loya Jirga, constituted only for the purpose of discussing and approving the new constitution. This should be followed by an announcement for a free, inclusive and multi-party election in Afghanistan, observed by local and international observers, hopefully in 2024 or earlier, if possible.

*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter.

Afghanistan: Collapse of a Government or a Grand Strategy

Syed Sharfuddin

Executive Summary

This essays argues that the major reason for the fall of Afghanistan was Taliban fighters’ surprisingly quick move into Afghan provinces and the capital Kabul in August 2021 in a matter of weeks rather than months. It cannot be doubted that the Taliban had prepared for this move in advance, making deals with local Afghan leaders where possible, and using violence or twisting arms where required. Their organised and speedy advance was not foreseen by the intelligence community, nor by diplomats who were assisting the US and UN-led peace process in Doha, New York and other cities for a political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The unexpected refusal of the former Afghan government to confront Taliban militarily added to the failure of expectations for holding the ground and preventing a total collapse of the government and its institutions. Had a civil war ensued, which seemed imminent, it would have been bloody, dirty and prolonged. It would have threatened the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and gone deep in the country along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. It would have inevitably forced the UN Security Council (UNSC) to mandate the creation of a UN Peace Keeping Force in Afghanistan replacing US and NATO troops with UN peacekeepers.

The seeds for such a scenario were sowed in the Doha peace talks, which began cautiously in 2018 between the US and Taliban. The talks did not initially include a road map for a political settlement of Afghanistan but focused only on Taliban ceasefire and phased US troops’ reduction and withdrawal. The former government of Afghanistan was not part of the Doha peace process from the very start of the talks except when the exchange or release of Taliban prisoners was discussed between the US and Taliban. It was only after February 2020 when a peace deal had been reached between the US and Taliban that the US and UN started talking about the political future of Afghanistan following the US troops’ withdrawal. By then, it was too late for the former government to extract any concessions from Taliban. On their part, the Taliban regarded the former government of Afghanistan as a puppet administration imposed by force from abroad whose days were numbered with the dates of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Despite the surprise takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and an expected new and peaceful beginning announced by them, the country remains exposed to armed conflict and proxy wars in a post US/NATO troops free Afghanistan, reinforced by the geopolitical location of the country in the arena of great power rivalry for political influence and global trade routes. They have been tied in so many knots of international conditionalities that their goose appears to be dressed up for an easy meal. But no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.

Introduction

Everyone from military analysts to political leaders, war veterans, intelligence community, Afghans, Indians, Americans and Europeans is asking one question: “Why were Taliban able to retake Afghanistan so easily and quickly when in the assessment of Afghanistan’s friends and supporters, the former government of Mr Ashraf Ghani was well armed and claimed to be under control of the situation?”

After the collapse of the former Afghan government on 15 August 2021 with dramatic scenes of Taliban fighters taking photos in an empty presidential palace in Kabul and saying they were waiting to hear from their leadership what was the next task for them, President Biden said in a televised address to the Americans that evening that he stood by his decision to pull out US troops from Afghanistan by September 2021. But he also blamed the former Afghan government for surrendering to the Taliban and refusing to fight against them, despite the superior firepower and aircover of the Afghan armed forces which the US had ensured after spending $82 billion in creating, funding and training the Afghan military in the last twenty years.

The Big Conversation

Western analysists are trying to find answers to the question what went so wrong in Afghanistan that an investment of over 2 trillion dollars, spent over the last 2 decades did not produce any results when it came to defending the country against a tribally based and loosely organised group of hard core militants not backed by any country in the world. A number of reasons are being advanced. These include the US decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and its bad timing, backing the wrong horse in the race, failure of military intelligence, the rising influence of Taliban in those areas of Afghanistan where the writ of the former government was missing, rampant corruption of Afghan leadership at the centre and the provinces, a bad criminal justice system and poor governance, and fatigue on the part of the Afghan people to carryon fighting after the US troops left the country without giving an agreed political roadmap for the future of Afghanistan

A Fall Guy

There have been accusations against Pakistan from some retired Western diplomats, resident news reporters and NGO personnel, who served in Kabul, that Pakistani agencies created, armed and trained Taliban. But if the US, NATO and the UN could not find any evidence to support those allegations, revisiting these now is no more than a hogwash and amounts to passing the blame of failure to a weaker ally. These diplomats forget that working in a foreign country with the host government 24/7 for a couple of years creates sympathy for the host government of the day and they no longer remain impartial and neutral. This condition is known as “localitis’ in the Foreign Ministries of many countries. To mitigate this, governments keep rotating their diplomats and expatriates on their posts. Pakistan was and remains a partner of the US and NATO on the war against terror but like the US which changed its policy last year about not sending troops to fight in foreign conflicts, Pakistan has also taken a decision that it will not be involved in other countries’ wars in the future. 

Doha Talks

The seeds of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban were sown in the Doha negotiations which started cautiously in the capital of Qatar in 2018 and gained momentum in the spring of 2019. The negotiations were long and protracted and had no timeline. Eventually the US and Taliban reached an agreement in February 2020. In November 2020 at the end of his first term, President Trump announced a reduction in active US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. After Trump, President Biden followed on his predecessor’s policy of cutting down US involvement in foreign conflicts and decided that US troops will leave Afghanistan by May 2021. He later extended this date to September 2021. The February 2020 peace agreement agreed at Doha did not include the political future of Afghanistan after US troops’ withdrawal. The US assumed that the former government in Kabul will remain in-charge of Afghanistan and defend itself against the Taliban, who are already subject to sanctions’ measures under the 1988 UN sanctions regime, which is implemented through the 2011 UN Security Council (UNSC) Sanctions Committee . Taliban are still regarded as a threat to peace, stability and security of Afghanistan in the UN documents. In many capitals of the world, they are seen as a threat to human rights, liberty, peace and security of the world.

The Cost of Withdrawal

The exclusion of the former Afghan government from the Doha agreement of February 2020 meant that whatever the Taliban offered to the US in their peace deal was limited between them and the US, and did not apply to the former government of Afghanistan except when exchange of prisoners was involved. An intra Afghan dialogue commenced in September 2020 to reach a political settlement of the conflict but it was too late to extract any concessions from Taliban who were aware that the US would not be militarily supporting the puppet government in Kabul indefinitely. President Ghani on his part insisted that Taliban announce a ceasefire and agree to his government’s terms for a peace deal. Could this be a neglect on the part of the US not to include the political settlement of Afghanistan in the February 2020 peace deal is hard to say. But the historical record of foreign troops’ withdrawal from conflict countries is poor in supporting the claim that the departing powers care about resolving ongoing disputes politically and peacefully after them. Take for instance the recent examples of Somalia and Iraq. Going further back in time, the departure of the British from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 shows a similar pattern. There was no agreement on the boundary in Punjab or the status of Muslim majority princely states in the dominion. The partition itself was bloody and painful because no thought was given to peacefully manage the mass migration of Hindus and Muslims between the two newly independent countries. In Afghanistan two major mistakes were made: 1) absence of the former Afghan government in the Doha peace talks from the beginning, and 2) absence of a timely agreement on the political roadmap of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops from the country.

Flawed Assessment

The US assessment that the former Afghan government was capable of defending itself against the Taliban was wrong, even though Taliban had gained more firepower in the last few years and had captured many remote regions of Afghanistan. The US and NATO miscalculated that the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan would result in reduction of Taliban’s attacks and dampen their appeal to the people of Afghanistan as freedom fighters against foreign troops. But it was obvious that their fight was not against foreign troops only. They were after political power which was snatched away from them by force in November 2001.

The US was also wrong in concluding that if Taliban continued their attacks against the former government, it would mount a credible defence for at least between three to six  months. During this period, the US and NATO countries among the P5 could move a resolution at the UNSC to establish a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. A friendly India at the UNSC would be too happy to support the passage of such a resolution by the Council on grounds of responsibility to protect. The US and its NATO allies would have also agreed to provide supplementary funding for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Afghanistan and a contingent comprising military and intelligence officers from many troops-contributing countries including from India and other non-Western countries would be effectively based in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban advance and overthrow of the former government by force. In August, a panel of experts set up by the UN Human Rights Council had suggested to the UNSC to consider invoking Chapter VII for Afghanistan. It allows the Council to respond to threats of peace, or acts of aggression by authorising military and non-military action. Decisions taken by the UNSC under Chapter VII are mandatory.

As an added option, the former government, in the event of a civil war and attacks on civilians, could request a Muslim country such as the UAE, Morocco or Turkey to provide troops to defend Kabul, Kandahar, Heart, Badakhshan and Mazar Sharif against Taliban attacks. Under international law asking a foreign government to send troops to supplement a country’s defence force against militants would be deemed legitimate which would push Taliban deeper in the quagmire of war crimes. But their quick takeover of Afghanistan before the end of August pre-empted all these options.

Changing Deadlines

One of the reasons for their quick movement was the uncertainty of US troops’ withdrawal date. President Trump lost the election in November leaving in limbo the claim that the US would reduce its troops’ presence in conflict countries. President Biden decided to follow through the announcement of his predecessor but in April 2021 he changed the May 1 deadline negotiated with the Taliban to 11 September 2021 to coincide with the anniversary of the Nine Eleven incident. The Taliban were not consulted about the extension and were unsure about September, lest the Biden Administration change this deadline again. The Taliban were also unsure about the outcome of negotiations at the Doha talks which resumed in 2021 involving the former Afghan government for a political settlement. Formation of an interim government of national unity which would include Taliban representation and calling new elections were not on the agenda of these talks. Meanwhile the agreements Taliban had made with individual provincial governors and army commanders individually to cooperate with them were drying on the vine. They had little option expect to move fast to achieve their military objectives in the summer.

Multilateral Diplomacy

While the actual situation on the ground in the years prior to Taliban takeover was mainly dictated by what happened in the military theatre, there was no shortage of diplomatic activity to seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. But these efforts were focused on strengthening the government in Kabul and asking Taliban to reduce violence and agree to a ceasefire, respect human rights, especially rights of women and minorities and not allow the areas under their control to be used for terrorist attacks against the US and its allies. In these negotiations, Taliban were no one’s favourite and suffered from their image as a backward and unorganised militant group.

The UN Secretary General (UNSG) periodically appointed Special Representatives (SR) to Afghanistan. The current SR is Deborah Lyons of Canada. She briefs the UNSC periodically on the situation in Afghanistan. She is also a member of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Mission was established in 2002 on the request of the Afghan government. Its mandate has been subsequently extended by the UNSC periodically to support the Afghan government, assist peace and reconciliation efforts and monitor human rights and protect civilians. This year in March, the UNSG additionally appointed Mr Jean Arnault of France as his new Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and the regional issues. The UN officials have worked closely with the diplomats and special representatives of the US and other NATO countries  to support the presence and mandate of foreign troops in Afghanistan. The UNSC also implements the 1988 Sanctions Committee mandate in proscribing and delisting members of Taliban by the US and other governments.

Security Council’s Engagement

In the wake of the fast deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in August, the UNSC met on 6 August for a closed briefing and consultations on Afghanistan. Under rule 37 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, it invited the Permanent Representative (PR) of the former Afghanistan government to the UNSC to brief members. But India blocked an invitation to the PR of Pakistan to brief the Council on Pakistan’s consultations with the Afghan government and Taliban for promoting peace and security in Afghanistan. The UNSC did not issue a statement at the end of its meeting.

The Council met again on 16 August 2021 under the Presidency of India and issued a statement reiterating its earlier demands made to the Taliban. It took cognizance of the change on the ground after 15 August 2021 but did not mention Taliban. In a clear indication that recognition of the de-facto situation in Afghanistan was a long way away, the Taliban were referred to in the UNSC statement as “all parties”.  

The UNSC statement copied the demands made by the US administration from the Taliban. These were earlier reiterated by the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who attended the resumed Doha talks on 12 August. These talks, however, collapsed due to the non-arrival of the Afghan High Council Representative at Doha on 15 August 2021. In that meeting Taliban were expected to agree to commit themselves to observe a comprehensive ceasefire, refrain from use of force, respect human rights, including rights of women and minorities, denounce terrorism and engage in an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process for a political settlement to maintain the status quo in Afghanistan.

The fact that this meeting did not take place and an agreement was not reached with the Taliban is the biggest failure of multilateral diplomacy on Afghanistan.

Taliban’s Military Strategy

The multiple layers of US and NATO military strategy supplemented by bilateral and UN diplomatic efforts to keep the Taliban under a straightjacket were timed out by the speed of Taliban’s move to different provincial capitals from end July to mid-August 2021 starting from the periphery and ending with the encirclement of Kabul on 14 and 15 August. On their part, the Taliban ensured that their peace agreement with the US concluded at Doha in 2020 was not violated. Technically, their agreement with the US had ended in May 2001 but they went along with the US extension in the withdrawal date without giving any commitments. They did not have any peace agreement with the former government to honour.

Having been left out of the Doha talks until November last year, and recovering from the shock that it will be all alone to fend for itself after the US and NATO troops had left Afghanistan by the end of the month, the former government in Kabul came under great pressure. Moreover, despite its bold claims to defend itself, its unpopularity with the Afghan government troops who had been underpaid, under fed and unmotivated did not help mount a defence of any sorts, let alone put up a good fight supported by air cover which the Taliban lacked. The Taliban capitalised on this weakness effectively. President Ashraf Ghani was not alone in his decision to leave the country. He had received credible reports that any armed resistance against the Taliban fighting machine would collapse like a pack of cards, leaving him and his close associates at the mercy of Taliban as war captives.

It is important to mention that Taliban had done elaborated planning before they moved to capture Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. They expanded their control in the rural areas by  exerting pressure through threats and offering social services where the government had completely failed to run basic services for the people. By July 2021, they were already in control of half of Afghanistan. They made deals with the provincial governors for surrender in return for money and other inducements, perhaps including a general amnesty or a role for them under a Taliban government. The Taliban started from the North where they expected the hardest resistance and moved to the South. They also started from the periphery cutting out supply routes before coming to the urban cities. They capitalised on the demoralised Afghan army and coerced their family members to ask them to sell them weapons and not take up arms against Taliban fighters. The Taliban fought a perfect guerrilla battle of modern times.

At the same time, the Taliban kept their political representation in the Doha talks, showing willingness to talk to the representatives of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation even when their fighters were entering the palace of the former President who had fled the country on 15 August with the message that he did not want to cause any bloodshed by fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Afghan High Council Mr Abdulla Abdulla never reached Doha on 15 August 2021 to achieve what he had discussed with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ten days before: “to accelerate peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement that is inclusive, respects the rights of all Afghans, including women and children, allows the Afghan people to have a say in choosing their leaders and prevents Afghan soil from being used to threaten the US and its allies and partners.” It was too late in the day by a losing side to offer Taliban a power sharing arrangement and then not show up when they were ready to talk peace with the former government in Doha on the day Kabul fell to their fighters without any armed resistance.

Political Minefields

Taliban’s political strategy is at present unknown. Perhaps the capture of Afghanistan came too soon for them. They are now trying to agree among themselves and with their allied partners a political arrangement for the future governance of the country reflecting their Islamic ethos and also meeting the expectations of the international community to be recognised as a legitimate, responsible and representative government. Afghanistan is a country with rich tribal, ethnic, sectarian and political diversity. If Taliban do not play their cards with political wisdom and inclusive governance, they could meet resistance from places such as Panjsher Valley where the First Vice President of the former government, Amrullah Saleh, former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, and Ahmad Massoud can become a problem for them in the future. The 300,000 Afghan army which melted away in the air still harbours hard core anti-Taliban commanders who can be organised by a disgruntled political group and used against the Taliban. Former President Hamid Karzai and Head of the still uncertain National Reconciliation Council, Abdulla Abdulla, are also potential threats to a Taliban government if they do not respect the political rights of minorities and repeat the mistakes of the earlier 2001 first Taliban government which made them unpopular in Afghanistan, as well as in the comity of the world. These potential pitfalls can be exploited by foreign powers who may want to settle scores with the Taliban for causing them humiliation and create small pockets of armed resistance witch overtime could become hotbeds of proxy wars, once again pushing Afghanistan into instability and conflict.

Conclusion

Capturing Afghanistan from the former government without a major battle was the easier part for the Taliban. Keeping Afghanistan united and peaceful and securing recognition from the international community to play their part as a government that respects international conventions and agreements and promotes democracy, peace and human rights is a much harder task the Taliban now face as they form the next government of Afghanistan. They also have a long road ahead clearing the political minefields inside the country and the institutional hurdles Western powers and multilateral institutions will place on their way. The country’s rich mineral wealth and sensitive geo-strategic location may also cause Afghanistan to remain unstable and in conflict for a long time before it can see the dawn of peace which has evaded the Afghan people for over half a century. But then, no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.

*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter