The challenge has returned, to where it began. The quest for the establishment of a broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative, independent Afghanistan has eluded the world powers once again. Afghanistan is back to square one, to its pre-war status as a possible base for jihadist non-state organisations.
After almost two decades of ‘Western Experiment’, Afghanistan has once again fallen under the sway of a resurgent Taliban. It now provides the much needed strategic depth to Pakistan with an adjunct Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the patronage of Sirajuddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other radicalised elements like Al- Qaeda, LeT and Hezb- e Islami Party.
Understanding the New Internal Dynamics
The broad division of Afghanistan on ethnic and sectarian lines and their role against the Taliban resurgence is as follows:-
- Areas around Kabul to its NE the Badakhshan Province and parts of the South are loyal to Hamid Karzai (Pashtun) the ousted former Afghan President, who is heading the High Council for National Reconciliation, along with Abdullah Abdullah (Tajik) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Pashtun). All five Pashtun factions have strong militias but chose to avoid combat with the Taliban, possibly because of some future plans of uninterrupted opium production later.
- After the Northern Alliance ceased to exist, the North especially the famous Panshir Valley, was the most peaceful region of Afghanistan. Tajiks are loyal to Hamid Karzai but totally opposed to Uzbeks. They did not assist the ANDSF and for the time being, have dispersed. Taliban’s success here is due to the unpopularity of the Ghani regime. Karzai’s old rivalry with Abdullah Abdullah, in the presidential polls of 2009 is not easy to forget, especially after the second vote was recommended by UN monitors. Abdullah Abdullah did not accept his defeat gracefully.
- The Mazar I Sharif area comprises of tribals who are loyal to the former Vice President, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a pro-Communist controversial figure who controlled five provinces. He chose to remain abroad and returned to avoid combat in Mazar I Sharif. His Uzbek militia did not assist ANDSF for fear of antagonising the Taliban.
- The Bamiyan Province area bordering Iran, has its warlord Mohammad Karim Khalili, leader of the Shiite Hazara party coalition, who controls a large swathe of the Afghan interior and a sizeable pro-Iran Shia militia, opposed to both Uzbeks and Tajiks. Iran has denied support to them and the militia appears to have offered little resistance to the Taliban, leading to surrender in its three provinces.
These four main tribal power centres in Afghanistan are influenced by the countries in their neighbourhood. Tribal rivalries have made the country difficult to govern as each group maintains its armed militia ready to quarrel with its rivals and unwilling to submit to any central government. In addition, Afghanistan is an arena for its neighbours to play out their own rivalries.
Going by past history, agricultural and dairy produce was just enough to sustain the population in good times but now the situation has changed. Most of the food items are imported. When the warlords were left to govern their respective areas controlled by them, they found it more lucrative to cultivate poppy instead of cereals. The income from the opium trade was used to fund the movement of the Taliban, with large stocks of weapons captured from warlord’s warehouses. The power vacuum created by the warlords and the drug traffickers enabled the Taliban and the Al- Qaeda to make fresh inroads in places, which once were liberated by the coalition forces.
Taliban. The Taliban blitzkrieg has evidently thrown all things out of gear as evacuation plans appear to have been hastily contrived. Even the US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken has acknowledged that the offensive had moved faster than US officials had expected. He admitted despite two decades of war with American-led forces, the Taliban have survived and thrived, without giving up their vision of ‘creating a state governed by a stringent Islamic code. If past records are to be analysed, the declarations/assurances given by top Taliban leaders about the safety of minorities and women’s rights and other issues, have no meaning. Taliban would return to its repressive measures, impose Sharia laws, deny citizen’s rights, control the press and media, including the internet/broadcasts. etc.
- The US has a right to bring the war to a close like the Soviets did, but not in the manner that it turned out to be. The US at present is more preoccupied with the evacuation of its embassy in Kabul after the exit of all the forces. The US warnings to the Taliban to allow uninterrupted evacuation up to 31 Aug 21 appear to have been well received.
Pakistan. Barring the disputed border with Afghanistan, what Pakistan fears most is the unified Pashtun tribal belt, across the disputed Durand Line, which is detrimental to its own sovereignty. As of recently, an Afghan delegation has arrived in Islamabad for talks on the Afghan peace process. , It now remains to be seen how Pakistan moves forward to bring the “Loya Jirga” in the peaceful transition to a Taliban led government. Pakistan would not want Karzai’s presence at the National Council for Reconciliation, as Karzai is perceived to be an Indian supporter.
Iran. The pro-Iran Hazara Shias fear the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban takeover and have the full support of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Iran’s active involvement has been subdued by the present US sanctions. They did not want to antagonize the Taliban by providing arms and safe sanctuaries to anti- Taliban factions in the adjacent border provinces. Uncertainty continues to cloud claims describing backchannel exchanges between Iran and the Taliban. Iran wants to establish trade relations with Central Asian Republics, in which Afghanistan, could provide the fulcrum. Iran has established relief camps on its borders, for screening Afghan refugees entering Iran.
Russia and Central Asian Republics. Geography confers this region with limitless options. It remains a potential tinder box, its vast natural resources have given some of the states significant bargaining power with all those who have stakes in the region. The Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union have a treaty with Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and hold their own views (read Russia’s) on the border situation with the Taliban resurgence. Central Asia is an area where the US cannot remain under the Russian sphere of influence for long. Russia had provided ground and airbases in support of the US and NATO forces fully realizing that geography simply precludes the US from becoming a dominant force in the region. Russia’s hand in Central Asia has weakened with the entry of China and the desire of the nations to do more business with Japan, South Korea and India.
China. The Wakhan Corridor is of geostrategic importance to both China and Pakistan due to their trade with Central Asia. It also provides a safe passage for Uyghur rebels into their sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Taliban claims control of the vital passage from China, inhabited predominantly by the Tajiks, who support the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) from its very inception. Since China’s Xinjiang region is dominated by rebel Uyghurs, therefore, it is important for China to maintain communication with the Taliban, to plug such escape routes.
China’s interest in Afghanistan also lies in its Belt & Road Initiative. With the Taliban coming to power, a road through the slender Wakhan Corridor from Xinjiang through the entire length of the Corridor to Kabul and then on to Peshawar complements the existing corridor to Gwadar and enhances the trade prospects and mining in North Afghanistan.
India. Pakistan has checkmated India to some extent, though the Taliban has recognised India’s role in the reconstruction projects and Salma Dam. It is well known that groups like the JeM LeT and IS are adjuncts to the Taliban and would definitely expand their training facilities and camps in Afghanistan for expansion towards the South. The obvious target would be India through the J&K. In the present scenario, wait and watch would be the best policy for the recognition of the regime.
Crystal Gazing – Future Geostrategic Challenges
Taliban has learnt a few lessons from its earlier stint in power. They were extremely surprised to achieve their goals without much resistance. In its recent avatar, they will not want to be seen as international pariahs or would not waste time in assuming responsibility and announcing key portfolios. The recognition of the Taliban regime from China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan would indicate a new realignment vis a vis the US, India and the West, which may run counter to India’s interests. They may now opt for a clean break with Al-Qaeda in order to secure international acceptance. Their clean break with Al- Qaeda does not imply that it would abandon them. Al-Qaeda, IS and other radicals would easily embed their cells unseen within in the outlying areas in the present chaotic situation and re-emerge soon. Generally, the Taliban can be expected to build its credibility with the world and its own citizens, deliver services and administer justice effectively, in accordance with the constitution. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would, therefore, exist only on paper.
Afghanistan has always been a simmering pot of tribal violence. Tribal affinities, loyalties and old habits die hard. If the successor Taliban administration is unable to build its credibility, provide effective governance, bring in reforms and control narco-terrorism, it would lead to the demands of tribal regions for a Greater Tajikistan and Pashtunistan, leading to the de facto partition of the country.
The free world appeared to be in deep slumber at the time when Doha talks were deadlocked, the vacuum created by the sudden exit of coalition forces and the Taliban onslaught which followed. Rather than issue calls for more infructuous UNSC meetings and issue communiqués on its future status, it is now time to lay off Afghanistan and allow the Afghans to settle their issues themselves, once and for all.
As and when the stability is restored, subject to the successor regime’s requirements, an UN-sponsored multi-national development assistance plan for massive reconstruction, civic actions to restore democratic institutions and confidence in the present regime could commence. The restoration of law and order, good governance in both urban and rural areas, capacity building and destruction of poppy cultivation could then follow. At present, the situation in Afghanistan is quite dynamic and the hope of a peaceful Afghanistan is far fetched.