Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan
While the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is in progress, the wind of change seems to be blowing and the Taliban leadership has made its intentions known with abundant clarity as to their future strategy to deal with the post-withdrawal situation.
With around 40pc Afghan territory already in their control, the Taliban sound pretty confident to take over rest of the country without much difficulty. As the rapidly changing security situation in Afghanistan is gradually unfolding in a dramatic manner, the Taliban are reported to intensify their struggle to consolidate their position as a preparatory measure for a possible takeover even before the US withdrawal is consummated. The latest reports indicate that as violence continues to surge across Afghanistan, nearly 40% troops withdrawal process has been completed ahead of the US self-imposed completion deadline of 11th September, handing over some equipment to Afghan National Defence and Security Forces while destroying some other which the US thinks is necessary for security reasons.
The focus has now shifted to the post-withdrawal consequences. Most political analysts believe that the Taliban may ultimately gain ground and perhaps return to power. Since the US is exclusively focusing on its troops withdrawal forgetting everything else, the Taliban high command seems determined to control Afghanistan and establish their brand of an Islamic regime. They are not prepared even for a power-sharing with Afghan government thinking that it would amount to a perfidy to the cause they have been fighting making sacrifices for almost twenty years.
The Taliban see themselves as a government in waiting. They refer to themselves as the potential rulers of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” the name they used when they took over Afghanistan in 1996 until they were overthrown in September 2001 after 9/11 attacks. There are reports emanating from Taliban circles and making the rounds in the media that Taliban leadership has finalized the strategy to show Ashraf Ghani’s government the door. They consider it as their legitimate and bona fide right to rule Afghanistan after the Afghan soil is liberated from foreign occupation as a result of long slog. They seem to be in no mood to come to a negotiating table with Afghan government to iron out mutual differences.
Unfortunately, both the Taliban and Afghan government fail to realize that any further infighting between them would do no good to them except weakening the sinews of national unity of the already war-torn Afghanistan, thereby leading to eventual Balkanization of the country. This is much likely because the Afghans are distinguished by ethnicities, language and tribal loyalties. This will certainly be a perilous slide. What the US couldn’t do to Afghans in two decades with full might backed by her allies would be done by the Afghans themselves in months if stubbornness continues with both sides and sanity takes a back seat. The Taliban need to understand that their dream to establish an Islamic Emirate can come true only if the unity of the country remains intact. Moreover, Taliban must understand that in order to establish a type of Islamic regimesuiting their ideology and having a puritan streak other than the existing Islamic Republic functioning under Ashraf Ghani’s governmentwhere they could put their version of Islam into practice, they would need to mentally prepare the people of Afghanistan to accept it and this can happen only once they succeed in earning people’s confidence through their demonstrated actions which unfortunately, seems to be no where in sight. Here it’s pertinent to mention that the Taliban’s ultra-conservative values of Islam clash less with those in rural areas, but more with those living in urban cities. Many fear that in the urban cities the Taliban would resort to establish the Islamic Emirate of 1990s which seems quite hard for a common Afghan to digest.
There exists a wide chasm between Taliban’s approach to Islam and that of a common Afghan thus making it difficult for the people to welcome it. We have had a bitter experience of this type of approach in Pakistan demonstrated by Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Malakand region, KP where they tried to impose their brand of Islam. Who can forget the spine-chilling corpse-hanging at Khooni Chowk (Bloody Square) Swat during the Taliban occupation of Swat District? It became notorious as the place where corpses of the people summarily executed by the group were displayed each morning to strike terror into the hearts of the public. The square thus earned the terrific name “Khooni Chowk” (Bloody Square). Hats off to Pakistan army that saved the innocent people from savage brutality.
When parties refuse to sit together, they would be doing so as part of a risky gamble to boost their own interest there by leaving a vacuum to be filled by a third force. Given the tough and rigid stance demonstrated by both sides, any attempt to strike a patch-up between them seems unlikely. Although, the recent statement issued by the Supreme leader of the Taliban Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhunzada who was appointed as the Taliban Supreme Leader (Amirul Momineen) in 2016 replacing Mullah Akhtar Mansur who was killed in a US drone attack, carries a reconciliatory tone in which he is reported to have appealed to Afghan people to join hands to rebuild a new Afghanistan laying aside mutual differences and exhibiting spirit of tolerance and accommodation towards each other, but given the Taliban’s embedded rigidity of stance and frigidity of mental makeup, the likelihood of that type of accommodative spirit seems a remote possibility. As for Afghan government, the worst that could be said about is that it finds itself on a slippery slope as it couldn’t consolidate itself even after a lapse of two decades and with full US backing.
The unbending stance of Taliban leadership on fundamental issues notwithstanding, which is keeping them away from any kind of reconciliation, serious attempts are underway to bring them to a negotiating table to reach a kind of solution which could be acceptable to both the Taliban and Afghan government for a lasting peace in Afghanistan. In this regard the US has all the intentions to jump-start the moribund intra-Afghan peace talks with behind-the-scenes aggressive diplomatic efforts made by a few countries duly backed by the US. Pakistan has been approached to play a positive role to cajole the Taliban leadership to soften its rigid stance, sit with the Afghan government and agree to some sort of a quid pro quo. The recent visit of Pakistan army chief to Kabul accompanied by the ISI chief is a major development in this direction. The US is conscious of Pakistan’s crucial role in this regard.
Although the US withdrawal marks an end to America’s longest pointless war, the implications are immense and there is a growing fear of a civil war after the US withdrawal is completed. The troops withdrawal brings with it an increasingly uncertain security environment. The new US withdrawal policy that explicitly removes the conditions which were previously attached with the troops withdrawal policy of Donald Trump, has vitiated the chances of intra-Afghan peace agreement thus giving the Taliban a significant leverage to dictate their own terms.The unconditional troops withdrawal also creates a risk that both the Taliban and the Afghan government would want to test their military muscle in the absence of US and NATO troops thus leading to a prolonged civil war. With the completion of US withdrawal from Kandahar Airbase in Southern Afghanistan, the second largest military base in Afghanistan for US forces, the Afghan forces are left badly exposed to Taliban’s attacks as it has now become very difficult for Afghan army to conduct operations against Taliban without US air support as all the major airstrikes against Taliban were conducted from this base. Kandahar province has been the birthplace of the Taliban and has in recent months seen intense clashes between the resurgent militants and Afghan forces.
However, it’s hard to predict which way the wind would blow. Whether or not the stalled Istanbul peace conference with the US unconditional withdrawal policy resulting in an unbridled freedom to Taliban will get ashore, remains to be seen. According to Taliban spokesperson, “Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate ( as the Taliban refer to it) will not participate in any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan.” Hence, in the absence of any peace deal, the Taliban would be at a complete liberty to proceed with their already planned strategy to establish an Islamic Emirate to achieve their long-cherished goal they have been fighting for since 2001.
Having said all that, it may not be an easy walkover for the Taliban to take over Kabul. They will face fierce resistance from Afghan government having a standing army of three lac and fifty thousand soldiers duly backed by a vibrant militia force and a formidable air power if Taliban make an attempt to take over Afghanistan by force. Besides, regional neighbours also don’t want a return to full Taliban rule and refugee flows that would emanate from a ramped-up civil war. Therefore, active mediation by the United Nations and pressure from regional neighbouring countries is more likely to bring both the parties to a negotiating table in order to reach a peace agreement and power-sharing. In case it doesn’t happen, the security situation may take an ugly turn thus adversely impinging upon the entire region, particularly Pakistan as the infighting between the Taliban the Afghan government leading to civil war will give cause a spillover of terrorist activities as well as the influx of fresh refugees into Pakistan thereby destabilizing the country. In order to forestall this kind of situation, Pakistan needs to be on its toes all the time and get prepared to deal with such an eventuality.