It has been nearly twelve days since Taliban took over the Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, but the fight for the control of the city continues despite government claims of having made major gains.
With the Taliban simultaneously launching a bigger offensive in number of other provinces including Badakhshan, Baghlan, and Takhar, the outlook for Afghanistan is bleak, to say the least.
Even if Afghan security forces manage to gain full control of Kunduz, Afghanistan would emerge weaker from this episode. This could potentially pose serious problems for Pakistan too, even though this aspect has not been discussed too much in the country so far.
“Afghanistan can become a liability for the region”
In terms of immediate impact, the latest developments – coupled with the already poor state of economy and governance – will further lower the level of trust of Afghans in their government. Taliban’s offensive has laid bare the rifts within Afghanistan’s National Unity Government.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is already talking about “Taliban sympathizers within the government” – in a reference to the Pashtun component of the ruling alliance. It implies that the consensus within the NUG on security and dealing with Taliban has been dented.
Fears about a Taliban takeover have, meanwhile, also been reinforced.
This uncertainty may compel many Afghans to move out. Pakistan, in this case, could be one of the preferred destinations.
Afghan analyst Haroun Mir agrees that an exodus is likely.
“Instability would impact Pakistan because of its long term connection with the Afghan people,” he added.
Besides a refugee crisis, which could be one of the fallouts of growing chaos in Afghanistan, the situation could affect security here as well. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has sanctuaries in Afghanistan, can particularly benefit from the situation.
“Afghanistan can become a liability for the region,” Mir warns, adding that Pakistan and Iran would be affected the most.
So an inconvenient question that is staring Pakistani strategists is if Islamabad is ready for such a scenario. Pakistan’s economy isn’t in a comfortable zone, while the security forces are still busy with counter-terrorism operations.
Pakistan’s response to the evolving crisis has been quite feeble so far. The takeover was denounced as “illegal”, while the military rejected allegations of its involvement in the fall of Kunduz in a separate statement.
Islamabad, analysts say, needs to immediately tighten border controls. Thousands of Afghans are already entering Pakistan every day without any valid travel documents.
Additionally, Pakistani leaders are required to do some out-of-the-box thinking about how a reconciliation process can be facilitated, even though the Afghan government is presently not amenable to Pakistan’s role in any dialogue.
By taking over Kunduz, the Taliban have clearly sent a message to the Afghan government. Contrary to their assessments that the insurgency is in disarray after the change in its leadership, the Taliban have shown that they are a resilient and relevant force. The other takeaway from Kunduz is that pending a peaceful settlement (the prospects of which are getting increasingly dimmer), Afghanistan would continue to face an insurgency for a very long time.
NATO Commander in Afghanistan Gen John Campbell rightly pointed out in a testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week that any reconciliation process would have to be preceded by a rapprochement between Islamabad and Kabul.
Kunduz has, however, only widened the gulf between the two countries.
“The Kunduz episode has made prospects of (Afghanistan’s) rapprochement with Pakistan even more remote than they already were—and they were quite remote to start with,” US Analyst Michael Kugelman says. “The Kunduz seizure will deepen the perceptions of many if not most Afghans that Pakistan plays a role in fueling the Taliban’s activities inside Afghanistan.”
He believes that the “anger (in Kabul) will further complicate the efforts of President Ghani to reach out to Pakistan. Ghani was already walking on political eggshells in pursuing his earlier outreach to General Sharif, and now with Kunduz, it is unclear how he can pull such efforts off at all.”
Afghan officials too used Kunduz to inflame anti-Pakistan sentiments to cover up their own follies. It is well known that many domestic factors, such as poor preparedness of Afghan security forces, increased lawlessness, power struggles, ethnic tensions and presence of Taliban in areas surrounding Kunduz city, precipitated the Taliban’s capture of the city.
Notwithstanding its concerns about the Afghan intelligence agency and some politicians, Pakistan needs to engage with the government in Kabul and reassure it of its sincerity. Afghanistan’s failure is not an option for Pakistan.
Kunduz must also be of concern to Central Asian States, particularly Tajikistan, which shares a border with the province.
“The Kunduz fall has emboldened militants across northeast Afghanistan and beyond, and many of the militants in that region are from Central Asia,” Kugelman says. “I fear that some of these militant fighters, particularly those from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, will be sufficiently galvanized that they could engineer new campaigns in Central Asia.”
Russia has been expressing concerns over Taliban activity in the North over the last few months, but Central Asian states have been quiet over Kunduz.
This may be because, as Kugelman believes, “the implications of Kunduz’s fall will be more traumatic for Afghanistan than Central Asia. Those that took Kunduz have their eyes on Afghanistan, not Central Asia—and this goes even for the Central Asian militants involved. Quite simply, at least at this point, Afghanistan is a bigger prize than any of the other –stans.”
Analyst Haroun Mir is of the same opinion. If the situation in Afghanistan gets out of control, the consequences will not be as series for the Central Asian states, he says.
“They may close down the border,” Mir believes, but that Afghans find it much easier to live in Pakistan and Iran than Central Asian countries. “Therefore, in case of an exodus, the direction would most likely be towards Pakistan and Iran.”
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad