The challenge has returned, to where it began. The quest for the establishment of a broad based, gender sensitive, multi ethnic and a 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 organizations. Afghanistan’s reputation as a 'graveyard of empires' stands fully validated, where both super powers made forays, to a place where even 'angels fear to tread' and achieved results of no significance. Traditionally too, it has never been a stable country with consistent administration under a single authority,
Afghanistan has once again fallen under the sway of a resurgent Taliban, after two decades, in the wake of 9/11 attacks on the US soil by Al Qaeda. It threatens to create a Greater Pakistan, with an adjunct Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the patronage of Jallaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other radicalised elements like Al Qaeda, LeT and Hezb-e-Islamic Group. Afghanistan has ceased to be the geographical buffer between the Iranian plateau, Central Asian Republics, coveted both by Russia and British India, in the past. It now provides the much needed ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan.
Operation Enduring Freedom launched by the US led coalition forces, the location and elimination of Osama Bin Laden, and the withdrawal of the coalition forces, commencing in July 2021, are now history. To be fair, the US has placed its national interests foremost, to exit in favor of a legitimate Afghan government. What needs to be appreciated is the manner in which the challenges have been met during this period. The raising of Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF), 650,000 strong and fully equipped, the police and civil administration totally revamped, and rebuilding Afghanistan fully underway. Yet the Taliban succeeded in toppling the government of Ashraf Ghani.
This was not a war between nations; it is a war among the Afghans and is yet to culminate to its logical end. You had the insurgents, the indigenous Taliban, who after 2001 had melted into the countryside after their regime was toppled. The other, ANDSF raised specifically to deter Taliban from insurgency by isolating them from habitation areas and prevent them from gaining control in the provinces history of successful counter insurgency operations around the world, have shown that the victors would be those who maintained cohesion and prevented themselves from being isolated.
In this case, Taliban deserves full marks for establishing bases and gaining control in the rural areas, whereas the ANDSF has either deserted or fled from their posts or surrendered The trump card had been played with finesse by Pakistan, by its support to US and the Taliban at the same time, yielding favourable results.
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 northeast 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 (Tajik) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Pashtun). All five Pashtun factions had strong militias but chose to avoid combat with Taliban, possibly on some inducement/promise of uninterrupted opium production later.
After the Northern Alliance ceased to exist, the North especially the famous Panjshir 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 and Karzai’s waning influence due rivalry with Abdullah.
Areas Mazar-i-Sharif has a militia bordering Uzbekistan 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 antagonizing Taliban.
Area Bamiyan province bordering Iran, has its warlord Mohammad Karim Khalili, leader of the Shiite Hazara party coalition, controlling a large swath 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 Taliban, leading to surrender in its three provinces.
These four main tribal power centers in Afghanistan each with suspect loyalties, are faction riven and influenced by the countries in their neighborhood. Tribal rivalries have made the country difficult to govern. 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 neighbors to play out their own rivalries. This becomes a heady mix. If the President is a Tajik and his government Tajik dominated, it may become a source of alienation to the Pashtuns. Both Karzai and Ashraf Ghani had even alienated their own tribes and made little effort to extend the writ and security of their governments, beyond Kabul.
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.
Poor farmers eked out a living growing opium were contributing to the wealth of the war lords, who with drug traffickers funded the insurgency for Taliban, with large stocks of weapons captured from warlords’ warehouses. The areas between Jalalabad and Kandahar, inhabited by Pashtuns is the rich agricultural belt which also produces the bulk of opium. The power vacuum created by the warlords and the drug traffickers enabled Taliban and Al Qaeda to make fresh inroads in places, which once were liberated by the coalition forces. Taliban
In both the Tajik North and Pashtun South there is a realignment of power centers after the Taliban’s resurgence. Their militias have dispersed and they could lose their control in their respective areas of influence, if they remain in hiding for too long. They would want to re assert their hold, in case Taliban is unable to consolidate its hold in Kabul. Simultaneously, they would like to continue in their ‘narcotics for weapons’ trade, if not disturbed by the new regime.
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 intelligence and planning could have taken into account the safety for all those who sacrificed so much in helping them achieve their aim. Be that as it may, US is now more preoccupied with the evacuation of its embassy in Kabul after the exit of all the forces.
Additional troops to evacuate stranded US diplomats and citizens. have arrived. A core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul were being moved to a diplomatic facility at the international airport. The US warnings to Taliban to allow uninterrupted evacuation appear to have been well received. US has warned the new regime of its obligations to the UN charter and the human rights including women.
The Taliban blitzkrieg has evidently thrown all things out of gear as evacuation plans appear to have been hastily contrived. Even the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has acknowledged that the offensive had moved faster than U.S. 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 any indication, the declarations/assurances by the top Taliban leaders of 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.
Pakistan’s contiguous borders with Afghanistan based on the 19 th Century British colonial administrators, stands disclaimed by the opposite parties and to this day are disputed. What Pakistan fears most is the unified Pashtun tribal belt, across the disputed Durand Line, would be detrimental to its own sovereignty. In its quest for a deep state in Afghanistan, Pakistan PM had a pre-condition for Ghani to quit, which has been done now.
Their support for“good Islamic militants” in Afghanistan, such as the Afghan Taliban the Haqqani Network and the Lashkar e Taiba is nothing new. An Afghan delegation has arrived in Islamabad for 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.
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 provide arms and safe sanctuaries to the anti Taliban factions in the adjacent border. provinces. It appears an understanding has been reached with Taliban that anti Shia operations would not take place in future. They have established relief camps on its borders, for screening Afghan refugees entering Iran
Russia & Central Asian Republics
Geography confers this region limitless options. It remains a potential tinder box, its vast natural resources have given some of the state’s significant bargaining power with all those who have stakes in the region. The Central Asian republics of 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 US cannot remain under Russian sphere of influence for long. US may have to request the Russians for assistance in the evacuation process and the use of bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in future as well. Russia had provided ground and airbases in support of the US and NATO forces fully realizing that geography simply precludes 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.
The Wakhan Corridor has its geostrategic importance for both China and Pakistan in their trade with Central Asia. It also provides a route for Uyghurs rebels into their safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Taliban claims control of the vital passage from China, inhabited predominantly by the Tajiks, who support East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) from its very inception.
The rebel Uyghurs total 8 million are 1% of Chinese population but 45 % of Xinjiang. China badly needs to plug their escape routes to safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan and is prepared to seek an understanding with Taliban very soon.
China interests in Afghanistan also lie in its Belt & Road Initiative. With 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 enhances the trade and its rare earths mining prospects in North Afghanistan.
Pakistan has checkmated India to some extent, though Taliban has recognized India’s role in the reconstruction projects and Salma Dam. It is well known that groups like the JeM LeT and IS are an adjunct to the Taliban and would definitely expand their training facilities and camps in Afghanistan for expansion towards 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, status of development projects/activities and the exodus of refugees. Some contingency planning must already have taken place.
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 this time around. They would not waste time in assuming responsibility and announcing key portfolios.
Their recognition from China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan indicates 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/recognition.
Their clean break with Al Qaeda does not imply that it would abandon them. Al-Qaeda, IS and other radicals would easily embed its cells unseen within in the outlying areas in the present chaotic situation and re emerge on as required basis. 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 could exist only on paper.
Pakistan too has learnt some lessons. Pakistan appears to have negotiated a quid-pros-quo with Taliban to reject new US bases in Pakistan in exchange for the Taliban’s assistance in tackling the Tehrik-i-Taliban. Pakistan would avoid any mention of the Durand Line, which may resurrect old differences.
Its deep state has been achieved and the turn of events have proved that the de coupling of Pakistan from Taliban is not going to be easy. World powers may now seek Pakistan’s assurance to keep their ally, the Taliban under control. The fear of economic sanctions such as FATF, more barriers in trade and financial inflows, and declaration of Pakistan as a terror state, would keep the Damocles sword hanging on Pakistan. Logically, the dissolution of Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura should follow next.
Afghanistan has always been a simmering pot of tribal violence. The militias of the various tribal factions did not come to the rescue of ANDSF primarily because the regime was also the most corrupt, inefficient, and unable to govern. Tribal affinities, loyalties and habits die hard. Tribals especially in the North/NW and South love possession of weapons, are forever looking for ways and means to procure and use them on every available opportunity.
If the successor Taliban administration is unable to build its credibility, provide effective governance, bring in reforms and control narco-terrorism, it would just need a spark to ignite passions in tribal regions for a Greater Tajikistan and Pashtunistan, leading to the de facto partition of the country Here again, the role of neighbours like Russia & Central Asian republics, China and Iran could play a decisive role.
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 in fructuous UNSC meetings and issue resolutions/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, a UN sponsored multinational 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. Afghanistan remained neutral during both world wars, what stops it now from becoming one, guaranteed by the five powers?
Who knows when the world powers would sink their differences against the common enemy (terrorism) and deny the establishment of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? Who knows if US can resolve its mutual differences with Iran and work for peace efforts in the Middle East? Who knows when US settles all issues with Russia, and may conceivably partner with Russia in a strategic alliance to force China to abandon its South China Sea claims? Sounds a bit utopian, but within realms of possibility in the present era of alliances.
About the Author
Brig. Dinesh Mathur (Retired) BA, MSc, M Phil, PSC is an alumnus of NDA Khadakvasla was commissioned into Regiment of Artillery in June 63. Has completed Senior Cambridge before joining NDA, BA from NEHU Shillong, while serving as a Brigade Major in the North East in 1978 and MSc from Madras University during DSSC tenure in 1986 and M Phil from DAVV Indore during War College tenure in 1996.
Served in 17 and 9 Parachute Field Regiments and has held prestigious command and staff /instructional appointments. Was Directing Staff in Defence Services Staff College Wellington and War College Mhow and Instructor at School of Artillery. Commanded Artillery & Infantry Brigades in Northern & Western Sectors. Retired in Dec 2000 completing 37 ½ year’s service. A prolific writer, he has authored numerous publications on strategy and national security.