Could 2021 be the year Afghanistan’s destiny finally changes? Or will “spoilers” ruin this opportunity for peace in the region?
In the eighteenth (official) year of the war, Afghanistan continues to face significant challenges in stabilising the country. For more than four years, the war has been at a stalemate according to official US government estimates as of 2019, only 53.8 percent of Afghan districts are under government control or influence, 33.9 percent contested, and the remaining 12.3 percent are under the control or influence of the Taliban. The ANDSF continue to suffer heavy casualties and, while actual figures have now been classified by the US military, senior Afghan officials estimate that for several months in 2018, as many as thirty to forty ANDSF personnel were killed every day. 2018 also saw a record-high number of 10,993 civilian casualties, with the UN documenting 3,804 deaths and 7,189 injuries. While 2019 saw a slight decline, with 3,403 civilians killed and 6,989 injured, civilian casualties exceeded 10,000 for the sixth year in a row and brought the total UN-documented civilian casualties since 2010 to more than 100,000.
Given such a bleak picture, 2021 could potentially be a significant game-changer for the longest war in Afghanistan’s history. It could be a glorious end to almost 40 years of violence, bloodshed and trauma. The new generation of Afghans could finally breathe a sigh of relief and see peace and prosperity finally dawn in a new era for Afghanistan but only if the peace process that was initiated in September 2020 reaches a fruitful and positive conclusion. On the other hand, this year also has the potential to delve Afghanistan further into chaos. A few uncertainties that exist could make this upcoming year of 2021 a very difficult year in Afghanistan’s history; this year sees the US troop withdrawal to be carried out in May 2021. With a new Biden Administration coming in, it’ll be interesting to see how President-elect Biden steers the uncertainty that now exists between the US-Afghan relations. Will he take a different route than President Trump and keep some military bases in Afghanistan or will he follow through on the promises made by the outgoing administration and execute a complete troop withdrawal? In either case, how will Afghanistan fare without US assistance, training and air support to ANDSF forces? Some tough questions need to be answered by the international community, the neighbours of Afghanistan and Afghanistan itself.
During all this uncertainty, there exist some sinister desires to manipulate, undermine and sabotage the peace process. “Spoiler” elements have always existed in and around Afghanistan. However, these forces of evil have taken on an almost invigorated new life as the peace process evolves. The current biggest threats to Afghanistan’s peace process are twofold: One in the form of a regional country and the other in the form of a Vice President.
India’s involvement in Afghanistan, as well as its importance, have taken a backseat ever since the peace process has started. This invariably hasn’t sat too well with New Delhi. Being shunned into a dark corner has never been India’s MO, especially in Afghanistan. Add to that the fact that they have been virtually useless in the peace process and have been overshadowed by Pakistan, whose role and importance has exponentially skyrocketed since the start of the Intra-Afghan talks. Similarly, Amrullah Saleh hasn’t been too happy with Pakistan cosying up to the Afghan political elite, either. From Abdullah Abdullah’s visit in October 2020 to the frequent correspondence of Zalmay Khalilzad with Islamabad to the Taliban’s recent visit of Pakistan, and even after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Kabul, his voice of critique and dissent has been the loudest amongst all the “haters” in the game. His anti-Pakistan sentiment that has echoed so loudly in recent years has reached an all-time high as positive political relations start to form between the two nations. It is a dilemma that a sensitive position such as the office of first VP of Afghanistan is in the hands of a person who clearly has some personal vendetta against Pakistan and the ongoing efforts of the peace process. Afghans must see through the sinister plans of an individual, who is ready to burn down Afghanistan on behalf of another country.
However, the fact of the matter is simple, for Pakistan the survival in a post-COVID depression economically, financially and security-wise, a stable Afghanistan carries more benefits than an unstable one. For years Pakistan has wanted nothing more than an independent, democratic government in Afghanistan, which can have a positive relationship with Pakistan, one that can contribute to the region’s development and prosperity. Moreover, this is not just the view of Pakistan; rather it is the view of all other countries in the region, except perhaps one. A stable and economically progressive Afghanistan brings forth a myriad of opportunities like the establishment of trilateral trade agreements between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran or Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. Apart from these it also provides a chance for countries to strengthen the tourism industry in the region. Ideals like visa-free entry systems and road linkages can be established between the regions as well.
Most importantly, a stable Afghanistan means the end to the suffering and plight of the Afghan diaspora spread throughout the world. A chance to return to their own country and contribute (finally) to its development and progress. A chance to focus on itself, rather than be the world’s proxy battlefield. A progressive Afghanistan can reach for the stars, if only it was given the chance to aim that high.