Regional Meeting - 2021
NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the region nervous

NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the region nervous
NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the region nervous © FNF South Asia

The imminent withdrawal of American-led Western forces from Afghanistan and the future of the peace process in that country is fraught with uncertainty and threatens advances in the quality of life achieved in the past 20 years, a panel of experts discussing the issue found.

US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of troops by September 2021, earlier this year.

Organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) South Asia, the webinar on “Peace for Afghanistan?’ on May 27, explored the possibility of creating a roadmap for development in that country, as the peace process stutters forward.

For Germany, the Afghan commitment which followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US has been its biggest foray into a foreign conflict since World War Two. At its highest the German contingent of Armed Forces and Police numbered over 5,000 and currently stands at 1,500, the second largest after the US.

But come September this year the Germans, along with the Americans and other allies that includes the United Kingdom will withdraw leaving behind a nervous Afghanistan that is uncertain of its future, as well as a region which has been deeply affected for decades because of the instability of this strategically important country.

Dr Markus Faber, of the Free Democratic Party, a Member of the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag) pointed out at the discussion that his country’s commitment to Afghanistan had resulted in the loss of lives, and considerable expenditure in development aid. Dozens of German troops and Police officers have been killed despite being stationed in the relatively violence-free Mazar-e-Sharif area. However, “the German public will judge our engagement on what aims we had for Afghanistan and what those achievements were” Dr Faber told the discussion.

Joining Dr Faber in the discussion were Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director, Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan, Mohammed Khalid Ramizy, Executive Director of the Afghanistan  Economic and Legal Studies  Organisation and Abdullah Khenjani, Deputy Minister, State Ministry of Peace, Afghanistan. The discussion was moderated by Waqar Rizvi of Indus News.

The 20-year engagement by the West has resulted in many laudable advances. School enrolment has gone from a million to nine million and literacy has risen from 28 percent to 43. Dr Faber pointed out that health facilities had gone up from 500 institutions to 3,000 and a stable electricity grid has been established for a significant portion of the country. Germany has contributed 438 million Euros per year towards development in Afghanistan and will continue economic assistance after the troops leave.

But Dr Faber says voters in Germany will have other questions. He says they will ask whether the Human Rights of Afghans are being protected. “They will ask what about women’s rights and the rule of law,” he said. Civil Society leader and Human Rights Activist Mohammed Khalid Ramizy believes the building blocks for a country that respects these values stressed by Dr Faber are in place.

Afghanistan for the first time has a written Constitution that guarantees Human Rights. He also pointed out that there are around “eight thousand civil society organisations dedicated to fostering Human Rights and freedom of expression.”  Media has grown exponentially, and a free-market economy is taking hold.

But peace is the key. Ramizy warns that conflict will derail this progress. “All the achievements we have had since the collapse of the Taliban regime twenty years ago will disappear,” he told the discussion. “If the peace process fails, we will lose the Constitution and the democracy that comes with it. We will return to a closed society and an insecure country. There will be human rights violations, investment capital is unlikely to come in and emigration of youth will increase. Also, Afghanistan can become a danger not only to the region but the whole world.”

And the countries in the region are concerned said another panellist, Imtiaz Gul. He told the discussion that there is a “grand international consensus on pushing the intra-Afghan dialogue. The US, Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey as well as almost all the Central Asian republics are unanimously urging the Kabul government as well as the Taliban to find a mutually agreeable way out of the conflict.”

Gul warns that geopolitics can get in the way. He points to the current intensity of the US’s China watch and open hostility. He pointed out that the Director of US National Intelligence Avril Haines has called China an unparalleled priority for the Intelligence Community. FBI Director Christopher Ray, he says, noted that his agency opens a new investigation that leads to back to the Chinese government every ten hours.

“Look at the intensity of this China-watch,” Gul said. He added that the same day they said Russia is pushing back against Washington everywhere it can. US officials, Gul said have described “Iran as a regional menace.” Gul points out that Iran “is the second most important country in the strategic neighbourhood beside Pakistan. These officials also said that Pakistan would remain under scrutiny and its strategic partnership with China will be the focus of the United States.”

The peace process is stalled, and violence is increasing. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) this year there were 245 attacks in the first 95 days of the year. Last year 424 attacks were recorded in 235 days. Gul points out that the peace process is stuck for several reasons. The Taliban has demanded that its cadres who are in prisons be released, and their leaders be taken off the United Nations list of terrorists. Both demands are yet to be met, he says. A “cocktail of conflicting and competing interests” are likely to impact the process with both the Taliban’s quest to regain power and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his associates plans to hold on to power.

“With the US declaring China as the biggest threat, the unfolding of a new Cold War and the withdrawal of the US may see China stepping in to fill the vacuum. It was against this background that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered peace mediation support for Afghanistan’s competing factions” he opined.

Abdullah Khenjani, a deputy minister in President Ghani’s government, too sees “tremendous risk” in the NATO withdrawal but also opportunity.  “The US drawdown has given the Afghan people the opportunity to redefine its relationship with the Americans. The second opportunity has been to re-engage with our neighbouring countries, an opportunity that has been missing for the last 20 years. Thirdly we can exercise independent governance.  Is it so easy? I do not think so. It’s complicated and tough, but it is not impossible.”

Some things, however, must happen before a seemingly intractable peace process can get moving. Gul points out that the vilification of the Taliban by the West must end, and Pakistan should persuade the Taliban to accept the changes that have taken place in Afghanistan. These include Constitutional rule, he added.

Ramizy, the Rights activist says the Taliban needs to understand what he calls is “the real Islam, which is about tolerance, about peace, and about love.” He feels that the Taliban’s interpretation of the religion is extreme and “they are doing the things that do not belong to Islam.” He would also like to see a “discussion among the Liberals in the regional countries to promote values, cooperation and understanding among the countries.”