Afghans at an Afghanistan police checkpost in times of COVID 19 pandemic

THE AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT: COVID-19 A New Variable – [EDITORIAL]

by Saarthak Singhal

Introduction

The already fragile ceasefire in Afghanistan which was announced to coincide with the festival of Eid has now been unofficially extended, courtesy the COVID-19. The Taliban has confirmed that their Supreme Leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, has been infected with COVID 19. An Afghan official who was a part of recently concluded, negotiations which took place in Doha, Qatar has confirmed that the top echelons of the Taliban in Qatar have been infected. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who had taken the place of Akhunzada at the top too has contracted the virus. The future of Afghanistan sans Akhundza and Sirajuddin become an important topic for analysis as media reports of Akhundaza’s deteriorating health pile up.

The Taliban leadership is now in the hands of the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob. Mullah Omar was the founder of the Taliban, a radical Islamic movement which swept the nation after the collapse of Communists in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan was already fragile, with the United States of America, looking to pull back its troops and the Afghan National Government at Kabul and the Taliban set to sign a peace treaty aimed at bringing peace to a nation in turmoil since 1979.

The Peace no one wanted

The peace process began when the “Agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” was signed by the United States and the Taliban possibly concluding the longest war the United States has ever been in. The treaty was criticised from all corners. The West decried it as it shifted the legitimacy from the somewhat democratic Afghan government to the Taliban ruining the 19-year long democratisation efforts in the nation while accepting the Taliban as de jure heads of state. Furthermore, the Americans certainly felt that they got way less for the human sacrifices they have made in the region, not to mention the expenditure of at least USD 975 billion.

The Taliban supporters decried the treaty as it felt their position was too strong to have made concessions to an enemy which is raring to get out of their territory anyway. The National Government felt that it was completely side-lined, which it was, so as to take all semblance of respect and legitimacy away from the government portraying them as just stooges of the Americans. This is a reputation the National government has been trying to shake off for decades and the deal just proves it to be true.

Afghanistan and Mullah Yaqoob

The arrival of COVID 19 in this form could be a blessing for the Taliban too. Mullah Omar is venerated by any person who has even a hint of sympathy towards the Taliban. His son, Mullah Yaqoob coming from such a storied legacy can rally support from places no one thought possible and present a consolidated front. He is no novice though and can end up being the person who finally brings peace to the nation.

When Mullah Akhundaza was chosen as the head, he was a neutral candidate and a religious scholar amidst, the more powerful Mullah Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani. With his competitor out of the picture atleast temporarily, Mulla Yaqoob would definitely look to press his advantage. The fact that he is ambitious became evident to all when he left in a huff when Mullah Mansour was chosen to head the group in 2015. He is supported by the Saudis who want to end the Afghan muddle once and for all and get down to business and have thus been providing financial support. Yaqoob also has connections in Kabul which can ensure that once peace arrives it is not short-lived. He currently has the support of most of the military commanders under the Taliban too, which could ensure that when peace becomes a reality, dissensions are to a minimum.

COVID 19 and a Civil War in Afghanistan

The above stated reality, however, is very remote and the threat of internal conflict too real. Afghanistan, like any other place in West or South Asia, is a place ruled by tribal loyalty. The Northern Alliance, a coalition formed to defeat the Taliban, with India being a key supporter, was fractured just at the finish line too, at the siege of Kabul, where Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud struck out in a scramble for the city. The Taliban could go the same way too if the Haqqanis and the rest are not accommodated according to their demands. The internal rife between the Haqqanis and Mullah Yaqoob could get very ugly very soon too.

The Haqqanis, more popularly known as the dreaded Haqqani Network, have always acted with a separate command structure and it would be easy for them to leave the Taliban and strike out on their own. The Haqqanis are closer to the Pakistani establishment too which may prompt the Pakistanis to push the Haqqanis to get after the leadership role and actively support them in a contest. It would not be the first time that the Pakistani deep state used the Haqqanis to their benefit. They have used the Haqqanis to attack Indian infrastructure and diplomats in Afghanistan and the Indian mainland. The close relationship that the Haqqanis maintain with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups may act as another pressure group, which would want to avoid a treaty with the USA and hence push for violence.

One Last Push

If the Taliban goes into a civil war with Mullah Yaqoob struggling to maintain his positions against the Haqqanis and the rest, the National Government, which has been on the defensive since the days of the Northern Alliance, may see an opening to counter-attack. In this effort, the USA may double up its efforts leaving behind the delicately negotiated peace treaty. That the US may double down may not be new, as every new President has done the same after George W Bush started the War on Terror. With this being the US election year, the winner may have enough political capital to go for one last try to salvage some American pride at last and conclusively bring an end to the Taliban. Any American president who can end the Taliban would gain immense political capital from the demolition of the Taliban.

The incentive for the same has increased as according to a UN report, the Taliban support to Al Qaeda continues. That Taliban cut off ties with Al Qaeda was the central pillar of the peace deal, and it would be tough to push the deal through the American system if the Taliban does not hold its end of the bargain. Putting aside the treaty is not a big deal for this American administration, for they have done it with multilateral institutions they helped create. The Americans did not even recognise the Taliban in the deal. They would definitely put aside the treaty if it favours them.

Who benefits from COVID 19 in Afghanistan

One word, Pakistan. Or the Pakistani deep state (Inter-Services Intelligence) for propriety, is the clear winner when it comes to COVID 19 pandemic in Afghanistan. The pandemic gives the state a chance to shore up its level of influence in the Taliban camp now that the Taliban are in a much stronger position. Pakistan has been trying to diminish the power of the Quetta Shura, the leadership of the Taliban for years now. The Shura comprises of elders who have seen the Soviet invasion and have a sense of Afghan pride which may turn counterproductive for ISI.

Furthermore, Afghanistan can become the perfect place for ISI to train insurgents to attack its foe India from. Pakistan has had its image burnished internationally many times for allowing its territory to be used by Indian insurgents. Afghanistan can return to a situation of late 1990s when the country was being used by Islamic radicals as a home base to launch attacks all over the world. India was one of the most affected nations, with the hijacking of Indian Airlines 814 being imprinted in the minds of people across India. It was Jalauddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani Network, under whom Ziakur Rahman Lakhvi trained and then went on to become one of the top leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba and was instrumental in 2008 Mumbai attack.

The situation could further turn into a powder keg, as Afghanistan like any other South Asian nation has a host of ethnic and cultural differences. Afghanistan hosts people from ethnic backgrounds of all its neighbors, Tajik, Pashtun, Baloch, Uzbeks, Krygyz among others. These communities getting radicalised can lead to neighbours of Afghanistan seeing a spike in violence and insurgencies. The COVID 19 pandemic can bring the nation in a deeper quagmire or end up being the source of peace to a nation at war for more than 40 years.

Conclusion

There is a high probability that the peace deal will not last long. There are already attacks being launched by the Taliban or their affiliates. The National Government in conjunction with the Americans would be wise to counterattack while they still can. With numerous players now entering the Afghan theatre through proxies and ISIS attempting to creating a Khorasan province, resolutions towards peace become ever more necessary.

The National Government is currently embroiled in tackling the current pandemic, yet it holds an advantage in its disadvantage. The National Government at Kabul controls the more urban areas and can contain the virus especially with the help of NATO allies. The Taliban on the other hand, would have serious difficulties in not only avoiding the spread in their territory but also in their ranks, with many seniors already affected. If the National Government cannot use the COVID 19 opportunity, Afghanistan may become a new Syria, where the battle rages via proxies destroying the very fabric of the nation.

Views are personal.

Image credits: VOX Media

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saarthak Singhal is currently pursuing law from National Law University Jodhpur and is a Founding Editor at ELS Review.

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