America’s mad dash for the exit in Afghanistan has sent both its friends and foes into a tizzy and threatens to plunge that hapless country into a civil war or worse – a Taliban takeover.
With under a month left for the US forces withdrawal to be complete officially, both the battlefield and diplomatic scenarios are changing by the hour. President Joe Biden’s decision to go through what he called an end to the US military involvement in Afghanistan, has essentially removed all but a few hundred of the 3,500 American troops, some 7,000 NATO servicemen, and nearly 18000 contractors from Afghanistan by the end of August.
While the US departure has been two years in the works, the domestic, regional, and international players have all been stunned by the speed and chaos of the withdrawal and appear to be scrambling to recalibrate their course and options for the choppy waters ahead.
The Taliban, buoyed by the US departure, have predictably chosen to surge ahead with their war against both the Afghan state and society. The jihadist movement has made rapid gains and reportedly holds sway over half the country’s 421 districts, predominantly in the sparsely-populated rural areas.
While the ground situation remains extremely fluid and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) continue to recapture several fallen districts, the Taliban also threatens nearly half the provincial capitals and several city centres. The Taliban military strategy appears to be a mix of new operational and tactical approaches with others from its 1994 foray.
A key similarity is the militant group’s mid-July capture of Spin Boldak, which is the second-busiest border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October 1994, the nascent Taliban, helped by Pakistan’s army, had captured Spin Boldak – under control of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s men at the time – before taking control of Kandahar city a couple of weeks later.
That victory, like the present one, was not only a morale-booster for the jihadist group but also allowed it to collect taxes from the trade convoys, just like it has started extorting now, and have unhindered manpower pouring in from the religious seminaries in Pakistan.
A departure from their past trajectory towards Kabul, when the Taliban had spent nearly two years consolidating their control over the south and eastern Afghanistan, before ransacking and seizing the capital in September 1996, is the present ingress into the pre-dominantly non-Pashtun central and northern provinces. This tactic, especially seizure of border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan has not only given the Taliban a huge propaganda coup and loads of revenue, but also appears to have taken the Afghan government off-guard.
Some of these areas in the far north such as Badakhshan that are under threat now were considered to be a symbol of resistance to the Taliban’s medieval emirate in the 1990s and it never could subdue them. But what has not changed is the Taliban’s brutality.
Despite its proclamations to the contrary, the jihadist terror conglomerate is back to its old ruthless ways in the territories coming under its sway. It is banning girls’ education, prohibiting women from going outside without a male chaperone, forcing men to grow beards, proscribing music, and meting out brutal punishments. The brutalities seem to be getting incrementally worse as the Taliban are capturing more territory. They have looted and burnt houses and businesses, forced civilians to flee their homesteads, demanded to be fed by their victims.
As in the 1990s, the Taliban are reported to have demanded unmarried girls and widows from the vanquished families to be married off to their fighters. Elsewhere, women fearing being turned into sex slaves are said to be fleeing before the Taliban hordes descend. Reprisal killings such the execution of 22 ANDSF commandos after having them surrender in Faryab, public humiliation and murder of a comedian Nazar Muhammad aka Khasha Zwan who used to satirise the jihadist leaders in his act but also worked for the local security agencies, the pillage of the previously-slain anti-Taliban General Abdul Raziq’s house in Kandahar, clearly show that the Taliban terrorists are not shy of committing war crimes to instil fear among the Afghan people. But they haven’t stopped at killing just the Afghans.
The execution of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, by the Taliban, reportedly after capturing him and mutilation of his body, was particularly heinous. Danish was embedded with the Afghan troops and got injured while covering the battles in the Spin Boldak area, for Reuters.
While the Taliban atrocities committed in the name of delivering their medieval justice, like the murder of the Kandhari comic have drawn widespread condemnation by Afghans and rebuke from international rights groups, that and the rise in civilian casualties, are forcing the general population to flee their regions and the country. The numbers of internally displaced Afghans and those crossing over into Turkey, Tajikistan, Iran, and Pakistan are rising exponentially.
The exodus of the emergent middle class, a fearful civil society, and a battered rural Afghanistan is exactly what the Taliban seek for the revival of its dreary emirate at home. Taliban are not interested in winning over people but conquering the land. They have never even tried to become a political – electoral or even agitational – force inside Afghanistan. But as the Taliban leaders travel the regional capitals, they and their enablers insist that the jihadist monsters have become cuddly teddy bears.
The Taliban delegations revel in the diplomatic protocol they receive and while changing zilch in their barbaric behaviour in Afghanistan, tell their international interlocutors what the latter want to hear. Visiting Tianjin, Mullah Ghani Baradar nodded in affirmative, when the Chinese recently called for the Taliban to all ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an al-Qaeda and Taliban cohort, which Beijing blames for terror attacks in its Xinjiang region.
In Moscow, the Taliban assured their hosts at the foreign ministry that the jihadist military gains won’t threaten Russia or its Central Asian soft underbelly. Similarly, the Taliban leaders have not only had sanctuary in their erstwhile foe Iran but of late have been frequent visitors to Tehran with a similar message. But none of these neighbours of Afghanistan actually believes what the Taliban are saying, as the ground realities tell a very different story.
That China asked the Taliban to sever its ties with the ETIM, by itself is an admission that the People’s Republic knows full well that the two jihadist outfits continue to consort with each other whether directly or through the agency of al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Al-Qaeda and TTP have both pledged their allegiance to the Afghan Taliban’s emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada.
An attack on the Chinese ambassador in Pakistan earlier this year was claimed by the TTP and while the more recent attack killing Chinese nationals was not claimed by anyone, the Chinese suspect collaboration between ETIM and the TTP. Livid at the Pakistani authorities, the Chinese officials remained rather tight-lipped about their response but the Chinese Communist Party’s junior organ the Global Times’s editor tweeted that “if Pakistan’s capability is not enough, with its consent, China’s missiles and special forces can be put into action.”
The Taliban may claim that it does not allow foreign fighters to operate from the territory it controls, but the fact that hundreds of Tajikistani militants (as distinct from the ethnic Tajiks of Afghanistan) have joined the Taliban, shows that the group remains as deceitful and treacherous as ever.
In fact, after capturing the border crossing between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the Taliban honoured the leader of the Tajikistani terrorist group Jama’t Ansarullah (Party of the God’s Helpers), Muhammad Sharifov aka Mahdi Arsalon, by having him hoist the Taliban flag after removing the Afghan national banner. Taliban subsequently posted scores of their Tajikistani cohorts to guard the crossing alongside its Afghan cadres. Tajikistan responded by holding its largest-ever military exercise along its border with Afghanistan.
And the same Russia, which has been regularly feting the Taliban in Moscow, has mobilised its military to bolster Tajikistan’s armed forces. Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan’s militaries will shortly hold joint exercises – on the Tajik border with Afghanistan!
Tehran for its part is not oblivious to the fact that the Taliban remain an ultra-orthodox Sunni outfit that deems the Shia as heretics liable to murder, whether they are from the Hazara ethnic minority in Afghanistan or the majority population of Iran. And the Taliban have a track record of massacring both. After capturing the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998, the Taliban emirate had unleashed a reign of genocidal terror, killing over 2000 Hazara Shias.
A month later, the Taliban assassinated nine Iranian diplomats in the same city, and nearly triggered a war with Iran. Taliban had claimed that the diplomats were killed by their renegade cadres acting without orders. The veneer of cordiality on both sides notwithstanding, the bad blood persists. For example, just weeks prior to his recent assassination, leader of a Taliban splinter faction, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi had told the PBS that he would “kill thousands of Hazara people as a “lesson” to future generations.”
Niazi’s chilling warning was prefaced by his allegations that Iran is sending in its Afghan proxies into Afghanistan to undermine the return of the Taliban emirate. He was referring to the Fatemiyoun Division or Brigade, which is one the militias raised by Iran to fight against ISIS and others in Syria, especially to protect the Shia holy sites. Its cadres are drawn from the Shia Afghan refugees in Iran and are possibly being redeployed to activated in Afghanistan as the Taliban and ISIK threat rises.
The dead Mullah’s word and actions were vile but his charge, not without substance, raises the question: why are these countries, each one which has been burnt before at the hands of the Taliban or its cohorts, bent on dance with the devil incarnate?
The answer is manifold. Most of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, barring Pakistan and China, had actually supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s and had a restrained interaction with the Taliban post-9/11. The US direct talks and the so-called peace deal with the Taliban essentially gave the jihadist group legitimacy and the other countries a carte blanche to engage with it.
With the sloppy and precipitous US exit that has imperilled the Kabul government, Afghanistan’s assorted neighbours hurriedly decided to hedge their bets. They chose to engage with an ascendant Taliban more robustly than they had previously. These countries, except Pakistan and China, seem to have gone for the short-term, narrow objective of keeping the Taliban on their good side, and in return seek assurances that if the jihadist outfit comes to power, it would deny sanctuary to transnational jihadists who aim to violently upend the political order in those lands.
But this pragmatism came along with each nation’s Plan B for the worst-case scenario, as cited above. They clearly are jittery about the Taliban keeping their word. And they should be.
Notwithstanding its assurances to the US and others, the Taliban has never renounced its links with al-Qaeda. A UN Security Council report noted last month that the al-Qaeda leadership and cadres remain in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and “the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
The report noted that the Taliban’s deadly wing, the Haqqani Network (HQN) is the group’s principal, but not the only, liaison with al-Qaeda. The head of the HQN, Sirajuddin Haqqani is not only a deputy emir of the Taliban but also a member of al-Qaeda’s wider leadership. The report cites al-Qaeda’s primary source materials that proclaim its presence in Afghanistan. It also notes that the “killings of several Al-Qaida commanders in Taliban-controlled territory underscores the closeness of the two groups”, which has now transcended two generations and consolidated by intermarriages.
The report also mentions the sanctuary that the ETIM and the TTP enjoy in the territories controlled by the Taliban. While the TTP has some restrictions placed on its operations, it does fight alongside the Taliban, mostly in eastern Afghanistan.
More important than providing manpower to the Taliban, al-Qaeda provided its jihadist sibling ideological, strategic, tactical, and operational advice, as well as political mentoring, including for the negotiations with the US. It has also served as a critical bridge between the Taliban and the non-Afghan foreign fighters, and especially helped with the operational surge in the north.
While al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain joined at the hip, it is Pakistan, or more specifically its army that sired, saved, retracted, reorganised, and unleashed the Taliban on Afghanistan. Pakistan has harboured Afghan jihadist proxies since at least 1973 to counter Afghanistan’s irredentist claims over the Pashtun areas to the east of the Durand Line and its support for the secular Pashtun and Baloch movements that ranged from nationalist to secessionist and to achieve the so-called strategic depth against its arch-rival India.
A colonial construct itself, the Pakistan army has essentially wanted to replicate the 19th-century arrangement where the British empire controlled Afghanistan’s foreign policy. While the Afghan Mujahedeen, backed by the Pak-US-Saudi combine, served that purpose for years, their internecine fighting and maverick behaviour triggered Pakistan to raise the Taliban as their replacement in 1994.
The Taliban have since remained deeply loyal to their Pakistan army patrons, almost never bucking their diktat. Pakistan, for its part, has provided the Taliban sanctuary and support, even at the risk of international isolation and in the face of domestic jihadist blowback when the TTP trained its guns on Pakistani citizens and army. But from the Pakistan army’s perspective, its Taliban project and the jihadist ecosystem created to support it, has been a thumping success.
A former Pakistan army spymaster had even asked for a pat on the back for their vile venture, saying on a television show, “The least that I expect from an audience like this…is to give the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan a big applause.” He had called the death and destruction inflicted on common Pakistanis merely collateral damage. This was not a one-off remark but a reflection of the Pakistan army’s institutional thinking about its Taliban project, which has remained consistent whether it ruled directly through martial law or from behind the curtains as it did in 1994 and is doing now.
The TTP leader Noor Wali Mehsud’s recent interview with CNN and the spate of terror attacks inside Pakistan give a glimpse of what lies ahead, but in the Pakistan army’s calculus, it is the cost of doing business. The Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s proclamations for the Afghan peace process notwithstanding, his outfit’s support for the Taliban remains unwavering. Even the otherwise coy European officials concede that the Taliban leadership remains in Pakistan, which is simply impossible without General Bajwa himself approving it.
The in-camera briefing the army chief and his spymaster recently gave to select Pakistani parliamentarians was not about any course-correction or policy shift but to prepare the ground to make the powerless civilians take the blame when a new round of bloody collateral damage hits Pakistan, as the Taliban ascendency emboldens their local cohorts. Pakistan army – usually good at tactical gains but a master of strategic disaster– will continue to push for the Taliban’s military victory in Kabul, and as the new surge in violence shows, its loyal client is clearly ready to oblige.
Be that as it may, neither were the Pakistan-Taliban duo’s designs hidden nor their tactics unknown. While the Afghan government’s resolve is unwavering, its response to what had been coming its way leaves much to be desired. For starters, the political bickering and disjointed messaging that ensues is something a country fighting an existential battle can ill afford, and yet that has been the din coming out of Kabul during both the present and previous government.
To be clear, this 20-year-old Afghan state rose from the ashes of the previous state burnt to the ground by the Taliban emirate and the civil war preceding it. This revival in the wake of the US arrival in Afghanistan, by nature, had tied the two together, and many US decisions like its 2001 reliance on the warlords had left the US-backed government holding that bag.
Still, the Afghan state and society made great strides in education, women and civil rights, media freedoms, health, and towards democratic representation. But the problems with national discord and political grievances, governance, corruption, and especially the war management are for the Afghan government to own and did cost it a loss of influence with the US.
While improvement in each one of these factors would mitigate resentment in the general population, it could nothing to placate a terrorist insurgency, which is not about rights, freedoms, development, and governance at all. The Taliban, commanded and controlled by Pakistan, have not been fighting to improve the Afghan people’s lot but to worsen it to the extreme.
They remain as barbaric as they were when they hosted, protected, and allowed Osama bin Laden to plan and order the 9/11 attacks. The US started the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in partnership with Afghans but along the way convinced itself that the Taliban have no designs outside Afghanistan and al-Qaeda has been sufficiently degraded. Well, the Taliban did not have any designs beyond Afghanistan even in 2001; there was no Talib among the al-Qaeda hijackers.
It was the Taliban’s ability to destroy the last vestiges of the Afghan state and turn the country into a transnational jihadist training ground, which enabled al-Qaeda to launch terror attacks on four continents. In February 2021, the US Congress-commissioned Afghan Study Group had reported, “Al-Qaeda has never given up on Afghanistan despite enormous US pressure and ample opportunity to focus on other theatres.” Based on testimony from the experts, the report had warned that “a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the US homeland within eighteen months to three years.”
And unfortunately, the US withdrawal hasn’t just been precipitous but reckless, both militarily and geopolitically.
President Biden had the opportunity to review the so-called peace deal the US had signed with the Taliban under the Donald Trump administration and add a conditions-based withdrawal rider, and demanding ceasefire and negotiations with the Afghan government to conclude.
But he opted not to and pushed through with his disastrous plan, against better. Not only did the Biden administration give up all US bases in Afghanistan, but it also deprived the ANDSF of the crucial support from the tens of thousands of American and foreign contractors. The small but effective Afghan Air Force uses these contractors for maintenance of its aircraft and risks getting grounded. The ANDSF ground forces, have been trained in the US mode, and rely on the AAF for movement, firepower, and medevac.
On the planning side, some of the recent tactical gains made by the Taliban ought to have been anticipated and preempted had the US command not been occupied with an expedited withdrawal and the Afghan command with its aftermath. It was perplexing to see that a landlocked country that is essentially dependent on border crossings with neighbouring countries, did not have any of those buttressed militarily.
To mitigate some of those disastrous lapses, the Biden administration heeded advice from civil and military experts and has authorised over-the-horizon airstrikes against the Taliban. But as the past two decades of this war have shown, with the Taliban leadership safe inside Pakistan, eliminating the cadres is like whack-a-mole.
The fundamental US failure that prevented it from prevailing against the Taliban is its Pakistan conundrum, which six administrations and their policy planners have failed to resolve. The prescriptions floated and tried have ranged from engagement and appeasement to curtailing military aid and threats of sanctions. But Pakistan has continued its patronage of the Taliban, its Haqqani Network component, and assorted India-oriented jihadists.
Without any good options up the US’s sleeve to induce a behaviour change in Pakistan’s army, it is more likely than not that the region will descend into jihadist chaos. Afghanistan’s neighbours cozying up to the Taliban now would most likely find themselves falling back on their Plan B to contain the jihadists but none, including China, has the capacity to replace the US presence.
With new and even more deadly jihadists like the ISIS in Khurasan also in the fray and the Taliban and al-Qaeda surging, Afghanistan could literally become the powder keg of the world, again, should these groups take hold. The Biden administration and the US Congress’ pledge to keep economic and military support going for the Afghan government is a welcome step but not enough without continued engagement. What the President calls forever wars are just that, wars that go on forever, not because one belligerent decides to pack up and leave. But because the other, buoyed and elated with success, persists.
In April 2001, Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan guerilla leader who had fought the Soviets and was fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the time, flew to France.
His friend, the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy had arranged for Massoud to meet President Jacques Chirac. But the president bailed at the last moment and Lévy arranged for Massoud to address the European Parliament, in which he warned that the extremist groups backed by Pakistan are running over Afghanistan but Afghanistan isn’t their only target; it is their first target and then is the outside world.
On September 9, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud was attacked in his native Panjshir Valley, by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers; he was wounded critically. Two days later, al-Qaeda attacked the mainland USA.
Lévy, whose 2002 report on Afghanistan has just been translated into English and aptly titled Past as Prologue, was to write later: Massoud had come to alert the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, of an imminent threat to the West. He loved France, and he spoke to us in French.
But was he heard?