By Prashasti Saxena, an international relations graduate from King’s College London who specialized in Conflicts and Security in the MENA region.
As the US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan despite tensions being excruciating between the Afghani government and the Taliban, it is easy to confer that Afghanistan’s immediate challenge is security, therefore leaving welfare, human rights, development, etc., all coming long after that.
This article draws links to the possibilities of hindrances raised by the withdrawal of troops at a stage that might be earlier than what Afghanistan is ready for. The basic assumption is that the security status of the country, in terms of both parties claiming autonomy, and the continual rise of armed clashes between the two, will remain the central focus of the country. Indeed, there are many reasons to believe so.
Starting off, the Afghanistan military currently does not seem to be sufficiently equipped to tackle and repress clashes between the government forces and the Taliban. Over the past few weeks, while the withdrawal of troops was taking place, the Taliban launched its campaign to massively expand its territorial control in the region. There are instances where the Taliban claims – and local leaders confirm – that districts and local villages are given up by the village elders and soldiers to the Taliban without any resistance. In other cases, the Taliban and the governmental forces report conflicting information, such as the control over districts or casualties and damages done to equipment that change depending on the source. If the ability of the Taliban to take over multiple districts time and again wasn’t proof enough of the insufficiency of the military capability of the current government to keep the security situation in control, the government urging civilians to fight alongside the army will probably tip one off. In many areas, civilians were encouraged, and subsequently assisted the army in resisting takeover Taliban forces. A telling example of this can be found in the Bakhlab district earlier in July.
An added reason to be concerned about military and governmental insufficient ability to maintain security in the region is the funding that comes for the Defence forces in Afghanistan. The US has been providing for the majority of the funding (estimated to be around $5 – $6 billion each year) for the Defence forces in Afghanistan. This funding was reduced in 2021 down to just over about $3 billion. The reasons to be concerned are outlined as follows: the country hardly has an economy that suffices to provide for government funds, and the military is already insufficient to control the expansion of Taliban’s territorial claims and damages done to public goods – like roads and electricity supplies – whereas they still have the US funds for their defence forces. Ergo it is unclear how the government will stabilize the security situation without hijacking all of the state’s resources to the sole benefit of defence and at the expense of national development.
Currently, amid the withdrawal of troops, the forces seem capable of resisting and tearing down some of the Taliban’s efforts. According to the Defence ministry, over a hundred Taliban insurgents are killed by the defence forces almost every day in security operations. However, it appears that the current capability of the security sector is not enough. The evidence for that is validated by instances such as the Taliban still being able to launch repeated attacks each day, in districts that the government forces take away from them in clashes, and also take control of key areas despite resistance. A few days ago, the Taliban took control over key ports in Afghanistan creating economic issues that would ripple down the entire country as they demanded tax for imports that had already been paid to the government. Insofar the Taliban controls or attacks areas of key economic importance in order to gain territory, meaning that the country’s economic policies will also be highly dependent on its security.
Moreover, one is led to believe that security will be the main focus of Afghans because of the spill over effects of the clashes between the government forces and the Taliban, which may impact their foreign policy with neighbouring countries. Only a couple of weeks ago, around a thousand Afghan soldiers fled into Tajikistan amid armed clashes with the Taliban and were sent back the next morning. Later, there was fierce fighting at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border after which a few Taliban insurgents were treated at Pakistani hospitals. The aftereffect of this security issue from local to international infiltration can possibly increase due to the borders being tactically good areas to gain territorial autonomy over, but more importantly Afghanistan’s foreign policy towards her neighbours will also have to tackle this first before they can promise better relations in any other sector.
Finally, it is not too far-fetched to confer that these clashes and attacks to gain territorial control from the Taliban are likely to occur until policies agreed upon by both the Afghani government and the Taliban leadership are implemented. However, this seems unlikely since both parties are aiming towards establishing different solutions and post troop withdrawal processes.
Particularly the tipping factor to delaying the peace process or proving it to be inefficient could be the lack of trust and compliance each side expects from the other in this process. This is highlighted in conflicting information about the intent of both the government and the Taliban towards these negotiations. Peace processes would presumably require some form of trust on the other side to be complacent to a certain degree, this goes out when prominent members from either side are allegedly spreading false news. In the talks that were held in Doha recently, the Taliban alleged that the Afghanistan government wasn’t interested in peace talks, and accused the government’s delegation of “leaking information about the peace discussions to the media and other contact groups”.
In so far as the hold on the security situation is not under control by either of the actors, clashes are likely to continue to take place in the foreseeable future, as part of a strategy to acquire and maintain as much territory from both the sides. A possible effort could be made by assigning the control of areas covered by the troops safely over to the Afghanistan government, in order to ensure that proper control remains over a few key areas. But the USA noticing the rising tensions and clashes in the region and claiming to be impartial, shouldn’t have taken the decision to remove troops until there was a sure sum calculus on the security situation on ground.
The troops provided for an indirect check mechanism for both parties to negotiate to a certain extent, for this third party did not give either of them the complete autonomy of authority over the country. With the presence of foreign bodies in the country, there was some pressure on both ends to contribute to the peace process in so far as both actors wanted autonomy and control. This particular existence in an instable state should not have been weaponized by the US and supported by other states claiming to support the facilitation of the peace process, under which complete autonomy wouldn’t be given to either side without concrete plans for post troop removal. This kind of mechanism also increases pressure on the facilitators, the US and NATO, to implement the peace negotiations in a way that is more effective than the current one. Perhaps instances of inviting only one side to discuss the peace negotiations or there being disregard over issues of trust would play a lesser role in the participation of both the Taliban and Afghanistan in negotiations, than now when territory is up for grabs as the security becomes weaker and foreign troops leave the country.
The removal of troops and foreign presence may have removed that indirect pressure and incentive for both the Afghanistan government and the Taliban to get involved in peace talks and even encouraged them to use force and violence to gain control. How effective the peace process could’ve been under the presence of troops is unknown, but an external entity that restricts the complete autonomy of both these groups looks like a rational political decision to make, at least until a viable solution is reached. This is of course, a suggestion assuming that perhaps, American strategies and national interests in foreign policy played more importance than the benefits to Afghanistan in the decision to remove troops. Anyways, maintaining troops until stability was out of the question for the Biden administration. Whether or not there is aid to the peace process and other states are able to help, the ongoing uproar of violence and instability cannot be ignored and it cannot be denied to have been catalysed by removal of security stabilizing forces in a time that wasn’t quite the best.