The US had not visualised the resurgence of the Taliban in the initial operational plan, so did not make any serious effort to secure the eastern and southern Pakhtun provinces of Afghanistan, the strongholds of the Taliban. By mid-2002 the US was confident of having secured Afghanistan and that Al-Qaeda was in Waziristan and Pakistan Army with the help of the US would take care of them. And so in March 2003 the Americans went to war in Iraq.
The Taliban decided that was the right time to launch a resistance movement. They formed an alliance with Al-Qaeda and Gulbuddin; they regrouped, recruited and trained fresh volunteers. By mid-2003 they started attacking Nato forces in Afghanistan. By 2006, Afghan leaders and some other players in the conflict decided to engage the Taliban at different levels through various channels.
This process continued till June 2010, when with the support of the UN a Loya Jirga was convened. This was the first major public debate in Afghanistan to end the war. The jirga formed a 70-member High Peace Council (HPC), including four Taliban leaders who were on the UN’s Sanction List. The HPC was tasked to come up with a peace process road map. In November 2012, the HPC developed ‘Peace Process Roadmap – 2015’ which envisions that by 2015, the Taliban will have given up armed opposition, and participated in elections.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be the only force in Afghanistan and all foreign forces would have left by 2014.The road map lays out a plan for peace and consists of a five-step process with specific goals and timelines.
The first step, which ended in March 2012, before the road map appeared in written form, was mainly focused on gaining the support of Pakistan and other countries for the peace process, improve relations on the Pak-Afghan border, get released Taliban leaders detained in Pakistan and ask Pakistan to use its influence to encourage the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda. Most of these goals have been achieved.
The second step was aimed at confidence building measures like delisting and safe passage for Taliban leaders who are willing to engage in peace talk and to facilitate direct contact between the HPC and nominated Taliban leaders. Detainees were released and their meeting with the HPC facilitated. An office was established in Qatar and the Taliban nominated delegation moved to this office for talks. This phase was completed by May 2013.
The third step of formal direct talks between the HPC and the Taliban was mired in controversy from the outset, and no talks were held. However there are reports that the HPC has opened back channel contact and met some Taliban leaders in different Arab countries. As per the HPC a meeting was held in February with a breakaway faction of senior Taliban leaders in the UAE.
With his term coming to an end in April, Karzai seems to be trying to mend fences with the Taliban. He has refused so far to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US. Afghan authorities have recently released 65 detainees considered a threat to its forces by the US. The situation may change with a new man in the presidency.
What different scenarios are likely to emerge after withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan?
One scenario could be that a breakthrough is achieved in the peace process with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. They all decide to give up armed resistance and are transformed into political parties, as envisioned in the peace road map. With peace in Afghanistan, and in case the present talks between the government and the TTP fail, Kabul may deny sanctuaries to the TTP across the border. If North Waziristan is not cleared by then, drone attacks will continue against Al-Qaeda. These are the ideal and most desirable conditions for a smooth exit and transition but may not materialise as the agenda set by the HPC is too ambitious.
In the second scenario, a partial success is achieved in the peace process. The HPC manages to split the Taliban and the breakaway faction is taken on board and they show their willingness to end the war. The momentum of the Taliban insurgency will be retarded to a great extent; however, they will continue with their activities to destabilise the government in Kabul.
The Taliban may not be able to capture major cities but are likely to establish their hold in some eastern provinces, depending on the Haqqanis’ role in the peace process. In this situation, US may have to leave some forces, intelligence setup, fighter aircraft and drones in Afghanistan. The TTP will continue with its activities by establishing sanctuaries in Afghan areas that are not in Kabul’s control. This is the most likely scenario.
The most dangerous scenario would be if the HPC failed to achieve any breakthrough in the peace process, if the Bilateral Security Agreement is not signed and the US sticks to its timetable of exit and withdraws from Afghanistan. This situation is likely to create a general perception that another superpower has been defeated through jihad.
This will give a new lease of life to Al-Qaeda and jihadists all over the world. There will be more violence against US facilities in the world. In case a division emerges in the Afghan National Security Forces, there may be a civil war there. The TTP will gain strength and make all possible efforts to regain ground lost to the Pakistan Army. Dealing with them will be an uphill task for the army. The region may witness instability of a kind never seen in the past.
The writer is a retired brigadier.