September 11, 2001 was, for Americans, the day that started the “forever war” in Afghanistan. September 11, 2021 is the deadline their president, Joe Biden, has now set for an unconditional withdrawal from Afghan soil.
For Americans, the date is rife with symbolism – 9/11 can become a day of both catharsis as well as tragedy. For most Afghans, who fear a coming vacuum soon to be filled by an even more violent and complex war, it will be an insult. The insinuation will be that 9/11 was the day Afghanistan brought war to the US, and so it must also be the day the US consigned Afghanistan to another spiral of bloodshed.
Afghans have seen their country scarred by conflict for 40 years. They are likely to see more of that in the years to come. “Forever” is so much longer for them.
Washington will seek to compensate for this bleak future by intensifying peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But the damage is done. Withdrawing without conditions will allow the Taliban to wait things out. The militant group is winning the war. If it rejects peace between now and in September, it could feasibly attempt a takeover of Afghanistan afterwards. Its chances of success will be even higher.
This approach would still bear a cost. Looking self-interested and cynical could lose the Taliban what little respect it has gained as a legitimate voice in future Afghan politics. It could lose its political office in Doha.
And, although the group remains dangerous, strategically it is fractured. This week, it announced, to the surprise of many, that it may not even attend a peace summit hosted by Turkey later this month, because internal discussions are still incomplete. Hours after the US decision, a Qatar-based Taliban spokesman said the group will not turn up for talks until the withdrawal is complete.
The US paints the war as one between the government and the Taliban, but it is increasingly multidimensional. In parts of the country, the Taliban now vies with ISIS, and its links with Al Qaeda remain. And these terrorist groups are only the start.
The Turkey peace conference, should it take place, will include world powers as well as Afghanistan’s neighbours. Some of these countries have invested, financially or militarily (or both), in the Afghan war and, unlike the US, they are in no hurry to leave. And that will shape the battle to come.
One neighbour, Iran, has a record of funding competing sides across the border. Some Taliban factions openly claim ties with Tehran, being supplied with weapons and money for operations against America. Meanwhile, Iran has long supported majority-Shia political parties, despite the fact that they are in the Taliban’s crosshairs after Americans.
In December, Mohamed Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, alarmed Kabul when he boasted in an interview with an Afghan journalist that his country’s military supports a brigade of thousands of Afghan citizens who have been fighting, essentially as mercenaries, in the Syrian civil war. Far beyond mere “support” from Tehran, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, as the force is known, is suspected of operating directly under the command of the Iranian military. Many of its members were recruited forcibly from Iran’s Afghan refugee camps. When Mr Zarif, in the interview, offered their services to the Afghan government to fight ISIS (but, notably, not the Taliban), it was interpreted in Afghanistan as a veiled threat regarding the kind of force Iran could project in the Afghan war if it wanted to.
This Janus-faced approach is a staple policy for Afghanistan’s other large neighbour, Pakistan. It has supported the Taliban financially and militarily since the militant group’s infancy in the 1990s, all the while participating as an ostensible ally in the US war on terror and claiming to be a security partner of the Afghan government.
The duplicity extends even further, all the way to the would-be host of the peace conference, Turkey. Ankara was chosen as the venue because Turkey is seen to command respect from most of Afghanistan’s political class. The country has strong cultural links to Afghanistan, is a Muslim Nato member and is geographically distant enough that it has no political or territorial disputes with Kabul. But even it has Afghan blood on its hands. Since the 1990s, Turkey has been a primary financial sponsor of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious Afghan militia leader-turned-Field Marshal who commands significant support in Afghanistan’s Turkic northern areas. He has been investigated for multiple instances of murder and rape, in addition to being suspected of war crimes. In 2016, while serving as Afghanistan’s vice president, he was accused of ordering the kidnapping of a provincial governor, and of building a private militia to challenge the central government. When the government opened a criminal inquiry, Dostum fled, as he has done many times in the past, to Turkey, where he remained in exile for two years.
Last week, Dostum reportedly gave a speech to lawmakers and students while he was in Turkey on a visit, in which he stated he was ready to fight once again in the event that peace talks fail.
Like Afghanistan’s neighbours, Dostum uses the language of anti-terrorism, citing the dangers of Al Qaeda and ISIS, to threaten the Afghan government with more chaos and disunity. Meanwhile, across Afghanistan, other militia groups have arisen independently to fight those enemies, as well as the Taliban, in earnest, particularly in places where the national army has been unable to do so. But now they are becoming unwieldy, and also threaten Afghanistan’s broader national security. Last month, one of them, a vigilante militia force in Wardak province led by Abdul Ghani Alipour, a former lorry driver, shot down a government helicopter. A standoff between Kabul and Alipour’s men has only escalated since then.
Peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government is a necessary step to prevent a total breakdown of the situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US’s impending withdrawal. But it is not the only step towards which diplomats must target their efforts. A kaleidoscope of deadly forces is already positioning itself for a renewed conflict. That war could explode on September 11. If it does, for Afghans, “forever” continues.
Sulaiman Hakemy is opinion editor at The National