Post-Taliban Blitzkrieg: What’s next for Afghanistan?

 By Anant Mishra
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The Afghan regime has finally fallen, and the Afghan National Defense & Security Forces (ANDSF) have been completely decimated by the Taliban blitzkrieg, an outcome no strategist would have foreseen since the insurgency. As the author pens his analysis, 267 districts have fallen, with news outlets estimating to almost 2/3rd of the nation under the Taliban flag, a major feat for them since the civil war.[1] Although security establishments had estimated the Taliban’s increase in territorial gains with the US withdrawal, not one foresaw mass capitulation of districts in the matters of hours, not even America’s first and finest, the Central Intelligence Agency.[2] With Taliban promising for a smooth transition of power in Kabul, a thought which withered away in the sands of time and is now the talk of the hour in every major news bulletin, the fear from civil war days has returned to haunt Afghans once again.[3]

With Afghan soldiers hiding or on a run, the sword continues to fall on the lives of ordinary Afghans. Civilian casualties continue to mount even as the Taliban sends a message of peace and tranquillity through positive propaganda. That said, videos and images of Taliban cruelty continues to tell an alternate story, casting shadows on the future of young Afghan women and children.[4] Mass executions of surrendered Afghan soldiers, beating of women accused of immodesty & inappropriate dressing in public, forceful marriages, and targeted killings of local political leaders & journalists, have gripped the masses of fear for their safety and have triggered massive internal displacement of persons.[5]

Now, the moot question is where does the Afghanistan’s future lay?

To answer the question, the author provides an analysis and tries his best to find a bearing to a reality which Washington so promised to alter 21 years ago.

Divide & Conquer

The Taliban has always retained their focus on influencing rural hinterlands.[6] They were quite difficult for erstwhile ANDSF to defend, enabling them to flank guarded cities and sweep unguarded small towns under their control. Taliban has adapted this into a grand strategy, which is evident in their target selection of cities which fell subsequently. This enabled them to severe all forms of communications with large cities, denied goods and revenue collection to the capital, and surmounted significant pressure on the government, resulting in complete isolation and subsequent fall of Kabul. Taliban now enjoys complete control of Afghanistan’s borders, which provides a direct source of income through taxes (which were earlier levied by Kabul). With Jalalabad fuming in anti-Taliban protests and some unconfirmed intermittent skirmishes occurring between remnants of erstwhile Afghan National Army troops, the road east to Pakistan from Jalalabad is being contested and as of today dangerous and unpassable.[7] The road has equal strategic vitality to civilian masses as to the Taliban. which they will try to further reinforce and strengthen its hold. They will further employ double envelopment to isolate and systematically decimate remaining resistance. They will starve resistance troops by isolating them until their guns run dry or they surrender. Facing a certain annihilation, former Vice President Amrullah Saleh will be forced to negotiate on the table. This could be a way to lower the tempo of the anti-Taliban coalition gatherings in Panjshir. If it happens it will be a major blow to the tempo of resistance mounting against the Taliban and especially to those hoping to resist.

A psychological victory

A complete Taliban takeover is only possible if they are able to achieve a psychological victory by convincing the local populous of being the only viable alternative for governance in their newly rechristened Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.[8] This is visible in their relentless efforts to spread positive propaganda, in an effort to prevent mass evacuation and subsequent alienation of local masses. If successful, they could attract influential regional leadership still warranting for a possible amnesty or seeking respite from persecution and force them to switch sides. There are certain incidents that state that this has already happened — where elite Afghan units either abandoned their posts or simply surrendered to them even after numerically outnumbering the Taliban in direct action.[9] Although, this procedure of influencing the local neutral regional leadership is not a new phenomenon. This could further ensure continuous capitulation of remaining cities and bolster their fight against the remaining resistance.

A hope through Panjshir

Some hope still remains as the resistance (under the leaders such as former Vice President Amrullah Saleh & Ahmad Massoud) have grown into an anti-Taliban coalition in the ancient city of Panjshir. The valley, almost 120km from the capital city, comprise of a large Tajik ethnic community and stood tall during the four decades of insurgency, later becoming a beacon of hope and a symbol of resistance against the Taliban during the civil war.[10] The valley resisted against the Soviets and again in the late 1990s stood tall against the Taliban. It is credited to be the only province that stood tall against repeated efforts of siege, laid by largely Pashtun dominated Taliban.

That said if history intends to repeat itself again and the resistance at Panjshir denies any further access to the valley, some form of resistance may arise in some of the biggest cities especially those with strategic vitality (access to roads connecting major cities/strategic outposts & borders), which may provide them with some confidence to fight without western allies and opening a limited window of opportunity to recover lost territories. This could, however, take a form of a war of attrition, with the possibility of opening some form of a dialogue between stakeholders.

However, the burden from the outcomes of the aforementioned scenarios will be way too much to bear for the Afghan masses and will possibly result in a mass exodus to neighbouring sympathetic nations, with few possibly evacuating to the West with the assistance of the US and their allies. It is still unlikely as to whether the resistance will hold. If it does somehow manage to hold against the Taliban blitzkrieg, the fighters will be in need of constant logistical support and may soon run out of fresh troops. With time they may wither and may opt for a possible political settlement through some form of negotiation for a temporary ceasefire, till a permanent solution takes form.

Exploring options for the West

Taliban’s growing momentum cannot be slowed down that easily. That said, no stakeholder would want to see the Taliban in control or reap benefits from the fall of Kabul. With the Taliban growing its grip across the nation, the West has limited yet potent cards still left to play:

Tactical Plan

There are still skirmishes between the Taliban & remnants of the erstwhile ANDSF, anti-Taliban factions all across the country. An eye in the sky will definitely provide support to these factions. However, that may not be all too easy. With the Taliban providing outer perimeter security to the US troops securing the airport in Kabul, offensive action against this limited ‘partnership’ will prove costly. The US did carry out an airstrike in retaliation to the loss of 13 service members in a recent suicide attack.[11] Taliban spokesperson warned against further attacks without consulting with them and reminded of the expiry of their limited partnership on August 31, a date set by President Biden to evacuate essential/non-essential personnel from Afghanistan.[12] Post-evacuation, the strikes may continue but it is highly unlikely as President Biden will be forced to extend the deadline by another two weeks. Taliban which is in control of roughly all checkpoints will try to re-assert pressure on the remaining resistances, in an effort to initiate fresh momentum among their ranks. In the meantime, the constant presence of troops at the airport provides some moral support to the Afghan resistance.

Human Rights violations & Atrocities

Taliban since its control of territories have re-introduced severe punishment for violation of rules in accordance with sharia law. Videos of women being accused of inappropriate dressings in public are being beaten to death, along with executions of surrendered Afghan troops (which continue to surface on social media), are significant evidence of atrocities. Washington must send a stern warning to the Taliban. The US Embassy staff were tasked to prepare a dossier on atrocities committed by the Taliban; however, no concrete policy has been prepared by Washington as of date.[13] It must submit a formal request to the UNHCR which has the mandate to initiate a fact-finding mission while threatening to reintroduce sanctions if the said violations do not stop under the Taliban leadership.

Making a case at the UNSC

In a recent Security Council meeting on the current scenario in Afghanistan, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Afghanistan stated that the current scenario in Afghanistan has become a threat to regional stability & threatens global peace and must be at the top priority for the UN Security Council. The P5 has unanimously stated that the Taliban, if successfully forms a government, will be considered illegitimate and the political solution must be made through an intra-regional dialogue involving all stakeholders (political parties). The Security Council must provide its full support to the proposed dialogue while deploying a UN nominated negotiator to provide neutrality in this intra-Afghan dialogue.

Rallying support from regional strategic allies

For the West, initiating a dialogue with strategic stakeholders in Afghanistan is the need of the hour. From an uncertain crossroads, the neighbouring countries have too much at stake from the Taliban’s complete takeover of the country. This would mean a complete disruption of trade, followed by a massive influx of refugees and the possible initiation of an endless saga of proxy wars. The regional stakeholders have, on numerous occasions, described peaceful negotiations as the only viable practical option. It now falls on these regional stakeholders to play the right cards and bring Afghan parties to the table.

Deny ‘legitimacy’ to the Taliban

The Taliban is trying its best to reflect a positive image on the international community especially by designating interlocutors with a task to establish a dialogue with diplomats, a crafted move with an objective to initiate a political settlement for Afghanistan. That said, their aggressive action against the resistance forces says otherwise. The West must enforce air travel restrictions for all Taliban leadership. This restriction must be lifted only on the eve of the commencement of inter-Afghan stakeholder’s dialogue.

And the World watches

With Taliban fighters moving in on capitulated cities, the role of the international community is of the prime. To prevent a possible eruption of a civil war, it is time for the UN to intervene. A peace agreement must be signed between the UN (preferably P5 as signatory members), the anti-Taliban coalition, regional stakeholders and Taliban leadership, along the lines of the Belfast Agreement with an objective to immediately suspend all military actions while opening the doors for an acceptable political settlement.[14]

Furthermore, it will not be incorrect to say that Panjshir has more role to play than analysts perceive. It plays a significant role not only for anti-Taliban coalitions but also for the security & stability of Afghanistan, the regional security as a whole and somewhat for the West. If the Taliban manages to occupy this last remaining stronghold, it will rewrite history on the lines of the pre-2001 civil war, and the local masses will be forced to revisit the horrors of war.

If Panjshir falls, it will become a remainder as the last resistance against the radical fundamentalist group that stood tall, while the West watched. The last resistance against a well-trained, battle-hardened Taliban, and in the eyes of the Afghans, a pandora’s box which the West opened, contained and fled.

Endnotes:

[1] Visual Journalism Team. (2021). Mapping the advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57933979

[2] Salama, V., & Strobel, W. P. (2021). Intelligence Reports From Afghanistan Missed One Key Element: Speed. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/intelligence-reports-from-afghanistan-missed-one-key-element-speed-11629056759

[3] SEIR, A., FAIEZ, R., AKHGAR, T., & GAMBRELL, J. (2021). Taliban sweep into Afghan capital after the government collapses. Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-taliban-kabul-bagram-e1ed33fe0c665ee67ba132c51b8e32a5

[4] Amnesty International. (n.d.). Afghanistan: Taliban responsible for brutal massacre of Hazara men – new investigation. 2021. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/08/afghanistan-taliban-responsible-for-brutal-massacre-of-hazara-men-new-investigation/

[5] Zucchino, D. (n.d.). Desperation as Afghans Seek to Flee a Country Retaken by the Taliban. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/21/world/asia/afghanistan-kabul-fear-taliban.html

[6] Ghufran, N. (2001). THE TALIBAN AND THE CIVIL WAR ENTANGLEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN. Asian Survey, 41(3), 462–487. https://doi.org/10.1525/as.2001.41.3.462

[7] News Wires. (2021). Taliban take Jalalabad, leaving Kabul as only major city in government control. MSN News. https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/taliban-take-jalalabad-leaving-kabul-as-only-major-city-in-government-control/ar-AANktlW?MSCC=1604916543

[8] Bhattacherjee, K. (2021). Reject Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, says Muslim group. The Hindu.

[9] George, S. (2021). Afghanistan’s military collapse: Illicit deals and mass desertions. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/15/afghanistan-military-collapse-taliban/

[10] Kerley, P., & Blasco, L. (2021). Afghanistan: The “undefeated” Panjshir Valley – an hour from Kabul. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58329527

[11] Smith-Spark, L., Starr, B., Walsh, N. P., & Sidhu, S. (2021). US carries out Afghanistan drone strike as Kabul evacuation effort enters final stretch. CNN Online. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/28/asia/afghanistan-us-airstrike-evacuation-mission-intl/index.html

[12] Ghosh, P. (2021). “Attack on Afghan territory”: Taliban on US airstrike that killed 2 ISIS-K men. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/attack-on-afghan-territory-taliban-on-us-airstrike-that-killed-2-isis-k-men-101630169771641.html

[13] In-person interaction with a State Department official

[14] Hancock, L. E. (2008). The Northern Irish Peace Process: From Top to Bottom. International Studies Review, 10(2), 203–238. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25481958