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Avoiding a final stand in Kabul

An urgent power-sharing agreement between Ghani’s government and the Taliban is one way of avoiding bloody confrontation in the capital.

The Taliban are less than 70 kilometres away from Kabul with the second and third largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, under its control. These advances have happened at a speed no one saw coming. As per UNHCR, more than 120,000 Afghans have fled the fighting in rural areas to seek refuge in Kabul. This makes the total number of the internally displaced in Afghanistan close to 3.4 million.

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The Taliban, despite having stated otherwise, appears to be planning its march into Kabul. It is high time that the Afghan government, its elites and the international community present the Taliban with an alternative to the military option for seizing control.

Knowing when to fold

The Afghan government justified its lack of resistance in the districts by aiming to consolidate its forces in the cities. Such a move not only fed into the momentum of the Taliban but also stripped the Afghan government of any possible buffers that could protect the provincial capitals.

Consequently, the Afghan government has now lost up to 15 of its provinces and capitals to the Taliban. This rapid loss of territory and large-scale disintegration of the Afghan forces within those regions has led US intelligence agencies to revise its timeline of the collapse of the current Afghan regime to 90 days.

President Ashraf Ghani and his team have mismanaged this war into decisively shifting in favour of the Taliban. The sooner President Ghani and his team realise this, the more bloodshed can be avoided.

The Taliban had previously conditioned its end of the war on President Ghani’s resignation. While the United States had proposed an interim government to take control until the political future is decided, the Afghan president labelled the constitutional transfer of power through elections an ‘uncompromisable principle’.

However, the current battle assessment should push President Ghani to consider stepping down and agreeing to a power-sharing agreement. Out of 31 conflicts fought since 1989, 16 were settled through power-sharing agreements. Such agreements might not have always been perfect but Afghanistan currently has no better options.

The case for international legitimacy

The important question to ask is, why would the Taliban accept a political settlement or a transitional government if it is so close to a total victory? It is logical to expect the fighters of the movement to see little sense in settling at such a time but the political leadership of the movement have been showcasing a certain level of far-sightedness recently. This can be seen in its handling of Ismail Khan, the surrendered warlord from Herat. The movement not only accepted his surrender but safely escorted him to his residence. The Taliban had not acted this way towards its enemies in the past.

The Taliban leadership has also, at least verbally, promised compliance with international human rights and letting women go to work and get educated — even if it’s not being exercised on the ground.

The United States and other nations have warned the Taliban against seeking a military victory, stating that they would become a pariah state in such a case. Though the younger fighters of the Taliban movement might not realise what being internationally isolated incurs, the elder members of the movement would not have pleasant memories of the last time it happened during its rule.

The Taliban understood the utility of international recognition the first time it came to power in the 1990s. Four months after taking over Kabul, it sent a delegation to the UN expecting it to recognise its regime. This was followed, three years later, by attempts to negotiate with the US by sending a special envoy to discuss Osama bin Laden and the drug trade. Unfortunately, the Taliban’s lack of desire or inability to internalise international expectations of it, led them to be recognised by only three countries in the world.

The international community can use international recognition, sanctions relief and future aid as leverage to elicit an agreement from the Taliban to the interim government setup.

The resignation of President Ashraf Ghani should provide the Taliban with enough room to shape a narrative of victory for its fighters. A power-sharing agreement, though majorly dominated by the Taliban per its military standing, would guarantee partial inclusiveness. Marginal inclusiveness is preferable to a government monopolised by the Taliban in case of a Taliban military victory.

The battle for Kabul

If either the Afghan government or the Taliban refuses to see the necessity of a peaceful transition of power, the world will see one of its bloodiest battles in recent history. The last civil war in Kabul in the 1990s saw close to half a million fleeing the city and thousands losing their lives.

This time around, most of Afghanistan’s population fleeing the war is located in and around Kabul. The population density paired with the number of casualties urban warfare entails are reasons why both sides must explore alternatives to their current fighting.

If there was any time for both sides of the conflict to show compassion for the suffering nation, it is now.

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