The beginning or the end?

As 600 US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan as the first contingent of withdrawing troops and 3,000 Canadian troops end their combat mission in Kandahar, the province of Bamiyan witnessed one of the first transitions from foreign security forces to the Afghan army and police. Relatively secure and peaceful though it is, Bamiyan’s transition was handled secretively and even local media were not permitted to cover it. President Karzai was not there, nor were any government leaders or officials of note.

This ‘discretion’ can only be a reflection of the fears surrounding the Afghan Taliban’s stated intent to target all transition ceremonies. Panjsher, the base of the redoubtable late Ahmed Shah Masoud and his Northern Alliance militia, has already moved considerably in its transition to Afghan control, but this was made easy by the fact that there has hardly been any fighting in that area for years. Bamiyan will be followed by seven districts up for a transition. It may be recalled that Bamiyan hit the headlines in 2001 when the then ruling Taliban blew up the ancient giant Buddha statues.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban by the invading US forces, it has remained relatively quiet, but the transition has sparked off fears amongst local officials and people that their district could become the focus of the Taliban’s sabotage campaign against the indigenisation process.

The point to reflect on is if Bamiyan, despite being relatively peaceful, can generate such anxiety around the transition process, what about the restive south, southeast and east of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are still a formidable insurgent enemy? Kandahar has been left headless after the assassination of the president’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai. The vacuum his death has left behind is difficult to fill, and attempts to do so may engender rivalries and even conflict between aspirants to succeed him.

And if anyone is under the illusion that the Taliban strongholds in the south and east are the only dangerous areas, the killing of the president’s ally Jan Mohammad Khan in Kabul the other day betrays the state of insecurity even in the capital and the reach of the Taliban. A former governor of Uruzgan province (Mulla Omar’s home), Jan Mohammad Khan’s death within days of Ahmad Wali Karzai’s assassination may be the beginning of a targeted campaign against the Karzai regime’s Pashtun members. Naturally it would suit the Taliban if they can decapitate the Pashtun element of the Karzai regime, leaving it a non-Pashtun entity. The Taliban could then reassert their claim to represent all Pashtuns.

Reservations about the withdrawal per se as well its pace are not confined to local Afghan officials. Voices are being heard even in the US that the withdrawal may be premature and poorly designed to ensure no vacuum is left behind that could be exploited by the insurgents. If this argument is taken on board, the planned phase-wise withdrawal to culminate in 2014 could very well presage a disaster if the Taliban, emboldened by the prospect of having to fight the weaker Afghan forces and arguably backed by ISI, decide to go for broke as far as capturing power in Afghanistan is concerned, unlike the hope not so long ago that they may agree to a compromise negotiated political settlement of post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

This time round though, the Taliban may well be in for a surprise. The Karzai regime, with all its faults and warts, does enjoy the support of a considerable anti-Taliban Pashtun element that will fight shoulder to shoulder with the non-Pashtun groups to the bitter end to prevent a return of Taliban rule. Were the Taliban to push the envelope too far, the benighted country may well see the beginning of another civil war that could easily last 20-30 years, with a devastating spillover into Pakistan, given the Tehreek-i-Taliban’s newfound safe havens across the border on Afghan soil, as confirmed by ISPR the other day. Afghanistan and Pakistan, let alone the region as a whole, is unlikely to see peace unless the policy of gaining control in Kabul through extremist proxies is abandoned. And in the quest for the elusive Holy Grail of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistan itself may suffer incalculable damage. It is still not too late to realign Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan with the interests of peace in the region by letting the Afghan people decide their own fate, without outside interference, of which there has been all too much for decades. * – Dailytimes