IT doesn't look as if the NATO operation against Afghan Taliban has on the whole been a big success, although the Taliban are on the run and there isn't much news of the Al Qaida. Nor is Zawahiri popping up in the footages with Jihadi exhortations as frequently as before. And Mullah Omar is alive but his outfit is much weakened and dissipated after nearly a decade of precision strikes by state of the art armaments.
On the other hand we can see the rebuilding of Afghanistan by the Karzai government. Despite allegations of corruptions, there are some visible reconstructions in Afghanistan including political institutions. The solidity or fragility of those is yet to be tested.
Karzai has some power and support base of his own in the south of the country, where he comes from. The loose Northern Alliance allies is still holding out, perhaps due to the western aid, and it is rendering the Afghan central government some steam on the eve of NATO departure that would leave behind a token 15000 strong force to assist the 35000 strong ANSF.
The Taliban showed some tenacity in the war of attrition, but that's expected from the most intensely indoctrinated orthodox group in the world. Again, their refusal to accept the olive branch from the US or from Karzai, to be a part of the democratic process, signals that they might still be unreformed about their view of the world.
The ultimate outcome of post NATO clashes between Karzai government and the remnant Taliban is unpredictable. Whether Karzai forces have the motivation to fight will be tested after NATO departs.
Counting too much on NATO After 2014 may not be helpful, the alliance having spent a huge amount and suffered a large number, as many as 3000, of deaths. And American friendship isn't something eternal.
There are also questions about actual control of the land. Despite some sporadic attacks by Taliban, Kabul and the north are relatively safe as of now and Herat in the west is probably the same. In the Pashtun dominated south, it appears that the major urban/ semi-urban population centers have the presence of the Afghan government's administration. The rural south is mixed. The big question is who would prevail in the new dispensation?
Afghanistan's neighbours have been exercising influence in its affairs in recent times. Pakistan wants Pashtun domination in Afghanistan. Iran is concerned with the safety of the Persian Dari speaking Hazara Shi'ites in the central Hindu Kush area. The Central Asian countries and the West want proper representation of northern minorities like the Tajiks and Uzbeks in the new political arrangement. And there is the issue of refugees hosted by Iran and Pakistan. And India, China and the Central Asian countries are concerned with any spillover effect.
There are also other big issues in Afghanistan. State and nation building is a daunting task, and there are multiple cleavages in the society. The most obvious is the ethnic cleavage. Barring the newly formed central authority and the ANSF, most of the warring parties belong to different ethic groups dominating different areas of the country. There is also a Shi'ite- Sunni split. The Hazaras in the central provinces are Shi'ite minorities and the majority rest are Sunnis. But the south appears more orthodox than the north.
The ideological cleavage runs along the progressive moderate Islam vs. radical orthodox line. In Afghanistan, secularists in the western sense are almost nonexistent. Islamic values are so ingrained in the society that none can challenge it. Although they differ in the rendition and degree of implementation of Islam, radicals like Taliban advocate a puritanical interpretation of Islam in all walks of life.
This unreformed near-primitive society throws a great challenge to developmental endeavors alongside security concerns.
For the South Asian countries, the implications for the kind of Afghanistan beyond 2014 would be immense. Getting the Taliban into some kind of a political arrangement could seal peace for now. Their exclusion would mean continued conflict. A peaceful Afghanistan would eradicate a major source of worry for the South Asian countries.
Afghanistan is a natural hub for trans-regional connectivity. South Asia, Central Asia, Western China and the Middle East can connect with each other through Afghanistan, which itself can get access to the sea in the event of increased cooperation.
Energy hungry South Asian nations may also expect to get connected to Central Asian oil and gas pipeline and even to the energy rich Russia, one of the leading energy extractor in the world. Although on a lesser scale, Bangladesh is also a development partner of Afghanistan. Some reputed Bangladesh based NGOs with international status, are operating in Afghanistan in spite of the security risk.
A troubled Afghanistan has security ramifications for South Asia and beyond as was the case on 9/11 and before. The vigorously indoctrinated radical emissaries and their local comrades in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh may continue or even increase their activities. 'Haqqani Network' in Pakistan is an example of one such cross border ally of the Taliban. There are many Afghan war veterans in Bangladesh. Many Quaomi Madrasas and splinter Islamist groups take inspiration from Taliban doctrine.
An internationally active Taliban and Al Qaida alliance like before could pose substantial security threat to countries of South Asia. That would ultimately tie down the South Asian countries like Pakistan, India and even Bangladesh and the trans-regional ones like Iran, China, Central Asian countries, to the Afghan conundrum for a protracted period, and their mutual competition for influence would, in such case, worsen the regional security situation.
The world powers like the US and Russia, being unable to ignore the country for its terrorist nuisance value, may again engage in old-styled proxy war to put their respective allies in an advantageous position of power and influence. And the worst sufferer would again be the Afghan people.
The writer is an Associate Research Fellow in BIPSS which is organising an International Conference on “Afghanistan Beyond 2014: Implications for South Asia” on 9th September 2013 in Dhaka.