Most of the Western media coverage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has focused on discussing the historic moment in the light of American interests and possible security, economic, and diplomatic implications for Washington and its transatlantic allies.
But the real effects of the US departure and what it represents in a broader historical sense will be most acutely felt by Afghanistan and its neighbours, particularly its immediate neighbour China and near neighbours India and Russia – powers that will shape the future of a part of the world where most of humanity lives.
It is not surprising that Western media in general and US media in particular focuses on marking the American withdrawal as a closure to the so-called war on terrorism, which began two decades ago with tall claims of eradicating the scourge of terrorism from the face of the earth. Not surprising, they no longer bother to cover the Taliban’s brutalities and are content to view the fundamentalist movement as another Afghan faction.
The closure of that war, which defined the beginning of the 21st century, however, is unceremonious and showcases Washington’s new approach to differentiate between global and local terror networks as separate categories that will now be tackled with vastly different approaches.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has proved catastrophic for Afghanistan and will have far-reaching consequences for its near and far neighbours. Just consider the way Washington negotiated its departure with the Taliban: For nearly 18 months, American diplomats negotiated a largely secret deal with the Taliban that completely bypassed its ally, the Afghan government. In the end, this proved disastrous for the Afghan state by freeing thousands of its prisoners and most significantly granting the Taliban legitimacy, which the group is now using to recreate its Islamic Emirate through military conquest.
The idea of talking with the Taliban was not new. It was championed by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai in the years after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The initial Afghan-led initiatives for talking with the Taliban were based on the assumption that the Taliban had learnt its lesson from the monumental failures of its so-called emirate in the 1990s, their relations with international terror syndicates – Al-Qaeda, in particular – and their almost complete international isolation. Pakistan, the Taliban’s main mentor, supporter, and guide, gave the impression that the Taliban lacked experience in politics, governance, and diplomacy in the 1990s and that by now it has realised its past mistakes.
Ironically, the February 2020 Doha deal between Washington and the Taliban did little to find and promote a peaceful resolution to the war in Afghanistan or even ending the war on terrorism. Instead, it became a justification for unconditional US withdrawal and has actually incentivised terrorism and violence.
The deal not only bestows the legitimacy and credibility of a peace partner on the Taliban but for all practical purposes the group’s Islamic Emirate – with all its brutal past – now takes priority over an Afghan state established on the basis of a constitution and international law. Strangely enough, the US has had no problem with the Taliban continuing to shed Afghan blood on a large scale both during the negotiations for the Doha deal and since its signing. Despite dozens of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombers in cities across Afghanistan, Washington failed to suspend talks with the Taliban. During the course of talks, the Taliban would claim multiple suicide attacks one week and the next would be sitting with their American interlocutors in Doha discussing peace.
Using the Doha deal and US pressure on the Afghan government, the Taliban was able to secure the release of 5,000 of its fighters, who were mostly arrested or captured by the Afghan forces as they planned attacks or fought along frontlines. The majority of them have returned to fight against Afghan security forces. But the Taliban were so emboldened by the agreement that they are now demanding the release of more fighters who are still in government custody. Even as their leaders engaged with diplomats and toured various capitals, the Taliban has refused to stop carrying out terrorist attacks and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the Afghan state. Most significantly, the militants are extremely reluctant to declare a cease-fire. Yet their leaders demand to be taken off terror and sanctions lists.
Evidence on the ground shows that today’s Taliban is no different from that of the 1990s. Assessing three aspects of the group’s character can help clarify their current and future role. First is the Taliban’s reliance on violence and terrorism; after a quarter-century since its emergence, the ragtag militia is still a war machine wielding violence as its main tool. It has been more or less a perpetual IRA without a Sinn Fein or political wing.
This is important to understand and explains why even after pledging to relinquish all ties with Al-Qaeda in the Doha agreement, reports by the UN and even various US government agencies have established Al-Qaeda’s presence and symbiotic relationship with the Taliban. Pakistani terrorist organisations such as the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e Taiba, and others have historic ties with the Taliban. Some of their cadres are still embedded with the group. Across Afghanistan, hundreds or perhaps thousands of Pakistani, Arab, and Central Asian fighters are part of Taliban units.
Secondly, the Taliban’s culture of governance has not evolved. The militants still abhor the modern state system and democracy. They don’t hide their intention to restore their brutal totalitarian system, which would require the dismantling of the current Afghan state to recreate a state based on their own narrow interpretation of Shari’a. They have stepped up the process of Talibanisation by closing girls’ schools and severely restricting the freedom of movement for women. They are obsessed with reversing the growing urbanisation, expanding education, and the emergence of civil society during the past two decades.
Thus, instead of developing its ideology and organisation to bring them in consonance with the changed social conditions, the Taliban has resorted to reversing these conditions by targeted killings of intellectuals, professionals, journalists, and teachers. They are also targeting roads, bridges, communication installations, and dams to reverse the gains of the past two decades and push Afghanistan back into the stone age.
The third and most important aspect of the Taliban is its enduring relationship with Pakistan. While the Taliban rank and file are mainly Afghan graduates from thousands of Pakistani religious seminaries, their Pakistani teachers are their ideological mentors. Ironically, their mentors in Pakistan, mostly Islamist clerics, champion democracy in Pakistan but are against the same in Afghanistan. Historically, most Taliban fighters were trained by the Pakistani security forces who regard the Taliban as their instrument for achieving strategic depth in Afghanistan and decimating Pashtun nationalism inside Pakistan.
Their relationship is so close that for all practical purposes, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate has spent the past two decades based in Pakistan. Even now, when the Taliban claims to control wide swaths of territory in Afghanistan, their political and military leadership shelters in Pakistan. Islamabad enjoys much greater control over the Taliban than, for example, Tehran has over Hezbollah. This is because of the geographical proximity and the fact that the Taliban leadership and cadre depend on Pakistani sanctuaries. Pakistan’s security agencies have punished Taliban leaders and commanders who defy them. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top Taliban negotiator, was imprisoned in Pakistan for many years while Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s successor, was killed in Pakistani. Pakistani officials take great pleasure in manipulating the Taliban. Senior officials take credit for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table but express frustration over the militants’ “defiance” and insist they are capable of making independent decisions.
Understanding these dynamics of the Taliban is key for Afghanistan’s future. It also weighs heavily on the future of China, India, Russia, and regional powers. Beijing is already contemplating sending peacekeepers to Afghanistan to fend off a possible volcano of Islamist terrorist groups whose presence will channel the Uyghur discontent into a security nightmare for Beijing. If China’s cold war with the West intensifies, Afghanistan might turn into a quagmire for Xi Jinping. A resurgent pan-Turkism will also likely join forces with a new jihad against China, which is now among the largest investors in all the countries bordering Afghanistan.
Russia has foolishly joined the bandwagon of trying to reimpose some kind of Taliban rule on Afghanistan. But unlike Syria, the Kremlin has no real influence in Afghanistan. No one in Afghanistan will accept a return of the Russian military, and Moscow lacks domestic political support and the economic wherewithal to nurture armed proxies in Afghanistan.
India, on the other hand, has so far been the most reluctant to join the rush to embrace the Taliban. Its domestic difficulties and regional rivalries amid the coronavirus pandemic have prevented it from forcefully confronting the possibility of a Taliban return to power. But it won’t be able to remain indifferent to another state collapse in Afghanistan.
Beijing, New Delhi, and Moscow need to embrace a key lesson from over four decades of war in Afghanistan. They must step up to support a sovereign Afghan state that can police itself and protect Afghanistan from invasions in the form of proxy wars. Such a state can best guarantee the security interests of its neighbours and protect the region from the devastating impact of a precipitous US withdrawal rooted in the fallacious notion that, unlike Al-Qaeda’s global terror network, local groups such as the Taliban are not a threat to Washington and the international order.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistani Senator, headed the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country’s leading rights watchdog. He has endured exile and imprisonment during his career spanning more than five decades in politics, human rights advocacy, law and media.