released on by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team on 2 June 2020, has revealed the worst about the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Stating that the Taliban continues to maintain close ideological and operational ties with the Al-Qaeda, the UN report has, in effect, debunked the premise for the signing of the US-Taliban deal, and cast a shadow of doubt on the future of peace in Afghanistan.
As per the report, the Taliban, and particularly the Haqqani Network wing of the group, which is known to operate out of Pakistan, maintain friendly relations with the al-Qaeda, based on “a shared history of struggle, ideological sympathy, and intermarriage”. Further, the report not only contends that the al-Qaeda and a number of other terror outfits affiliated to the Taliban continue to remain in Afghanistan, but also that the Taliban held regular consultations
with the Al-Qaeda while negotiations with the US were on, providing guarantees that they would honour their historical ties even after the deal was signed.
The Taliban, on their part, have rebuked
the UN report and reiterated their commitment to the Doha agreement. However, reports of fissures within the Taliban leadership and the emergence of a hard-line breakaway faction called the ‘Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami’
, have underscored the possibility of continued violence even if intra-Afghan talks result in political mainstreaming of the Taliban. The splinter group is reportedly based in Iran, and is quite possibly closely aligned with the hardliners within the Taliban who oppose the pro-settlement efforts led by Abdul Ghani Baradar at the Political Office of the Taliban in Doha. Despite reports of internal divisions along political – military, tribal – religious lines in the Taliban, and reduced enthusiasm among the fighting cadres to continue engaging in combat, any decision by the group leadership will largely be implemented on the ground, observers suggest
Adding to existing fears about instability is the seemingly resolute decision of the Trump administration to continue the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is expected to render the Ghani establishment further vulnerable to encirclement by the Taliban, both politically and militarily. With US troops around, the Taliban were arguably able to maintain the integrity of their rank-and-file as the cadres could coalesce around the idea of defeating a common enemy – a foreign occupation that they wanted to drive out of their homeland. In the absence of the US, however, that common agenda will cease to exist and instead, be replaced by an unending quest for a greater share of power and control. The result will likely be continued hostilities among the various factions of the Taliban, and with the forces of the Afghan government.
Against that background, the presence of foreign terror groups in Afghanistan will surely result in consequences graver than one could imagine right now. Among the first signs of what may follow is the fact that the Al-Qaeda has reacted
positively to the US-Taliban agreement, not because they are ardent advocates for peace, but because to them, the deal signifies victory for global militancy, as per the UN report.
Undoubtedly then, the challenge will be to ensure that the counter-terrorism gains of the past are retained, and the Taliban deliver on their commitment to abide by the Doha agreement, by severing ties with the Al-Qaeda. Existing evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Moreover, although the US may not be able to disengage completely, a significantly reduced US presence will make the business of monitoring whether the Al-Qaeda and other groups are being offered patronage by the Taliban, a difficult prospect.
In the absence of the US therefore, Afghanistan’s regional stakeholders will likely assume a greater role in shaping the trajectory of the Afghan peace process, by stepping up engagement with all parties involved, to further the reconciliation agenda and secure their respective economic and strategic interests. On the other hand, if intra-Afghan negotiations collapsed after US withdrawal, South Asia would arguably bear the direst consequences, given the close geographical proximity with Afghanistan, and a growing network of terror groups already operating in the region.
However, it remains to be seen how the future of the peace process unfolds, and the ways in which in implicates stakeholders in the neighbourhood. It would be prudent for states to therefore, prepare for all eventualities, but especially brace themselves to engage with the Taliban substantively, even if they hadn’t thus far. Moreover, Afghanistan must also equip itself to initiate a process of ironing of differences with regional players, an endeavour that will require immense diplomatic finesse and far-sighted policy making, to ensure lasting stability.
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