August 31, 2021, will conclude the US Forces Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission to Afghanistan. The oscillating dates pertaining to withdrawal matter little to the Taliban. They got one part of what they wanted: the exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and it can be predicted that the Taliban will be able to get their other demands fulfilled too. Time is with them and so is the momentum. A lot of comments have been made on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and heated debates and analyses of the Afghan victory will continue to be in the limelight in the future. The easiest way to explain one’s failures is to blame it on outside forces, and the US is doing the same. One may look at the US and NATO operations from any angle possible, but the gut-wrenching truth is stark and bitter to swallow. Doha was a showpiece affair and managed to temporarily camouflage the mortification. The real soul-searching reasons for failure will begin in earnest once all boots return to their barracks, Kasernes, and forts. The standout lesson is:
Keep away from Afghanistan, and don’t mistake it for an Arab country, ever!
What worries the region is the rupture and the torment left behind by the departing Americans. Afghanistan is in the throes of another cardiac failure. It is hemorrhaging and there is a faint hope of any peace returning to bring it some calmness. The US strategy for the region does not end with the withdrawal of its troops.
To arrive at some consensus one must look at first what remains on the ground. The picture is dismal for both Kabul and New Delhi. The Taliban began their sweep from the Northern provinces first, taking all by surprise. The ease at which the districts fell has become questionable at a deeper look. Did the US just give a nod to the Taliban to take Northern Afghanistan, to weaken or disrupt the forces of Uzbeks under Dostum, Tajiks under Ustad Atta, and the Tajiks of Badakhshan? Why would the US allow the Taliban to close the Afghan-China Border?
In the following weeks, the Taliban kept their part of the bargain by not attacking any US or NATO Forces while the US and the Kabul Government reneged on theirs by not releasing nearly 6000 Taliban prisoners held in government jails and detention centers. The reasons for the initial Taliban successes are becoming apparent: successfully using tribal elders to negotiate surrenders of most posts and districts, no vengeance recorded on the surrendering troops with most allowed to return home and even given an allowance to cover their journey, the surrendering troops were not locals and had no stomach to fight, fully aware that support from Kabul was not forthcoming.
There were two reasons that the Taliban took into account for beginning from the North. The first was reinforced by the assurances of non-Kandahari Taliban of the North that they were equally prepared to take on major operations on their own without Kandahar’s military support. The US and Kabul were deeply alarmed at the level and spread of the Taliban presence in all Northern provinces. This has shaken Dostum and other Northern Commanders and with it Turkey and Iran. The Taliban reportedly conveyed to Ankara that the Turks had to decide between their support to Dostum or maintaining relations with the Taliban. Iran has prepared their Fatimiyoun brigade in defense of Muhaqqiq’s Hazaras.
The other reason appears to be that if the Taliban undertook their operations through their traditional Pakhtun belt, they would be pitched in an early time frame against the strong presence of TTP/Daesh/ISIK in the provinces of Paktika, Paktia, Nangarhar, and Nooristan. They correctly appreciated that it would retard their momentum considerably which would impede their advance on to more important strategic locations in the North and elsewhere. Taliban are smart. They have a strong understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. The twenty-something years spent in Afghanistan did not go to waste. They learned from their experiences which are now critically analyzed before they take an important decision.
Kabul is in turmoil. The fear of encirclement is real. The US embassy has reportedly told all foreign embassy staff, foreigners working for NGOs, and others to gather together at the compound of the Kabul Marriot Hotel. In case of an emergency evacuation, this location would be considered the point for all foreigners to be taken to the Kabul Airport. Ashraf Ghani still remains adamant to stay on.
The Intra-Afghan Peace talks are stillborn. They were never meant to be taken seriously by the US or the Taliban. The Taliban’s unbending conditions for talks can only be accepted when Ashraf Ghani and his government resigns. Kabul government’s resignation could be the result of these talks. Taliban have made it clear that they will not talk to Ashraf Ghani, Amrulleh Saleh, Karzai, Sayyaf, or Dostum. They will be willing to talk to whoever represents the government after that.
Taliban have hinted that any Afghan who has committed or trespassed the rights of fellow Muslims with impunity will be held answerable. This edict covers nearly all those listed above. Such lists are reportedly down at the district level. One can conceive the tremendous dread and anxiety spreading through the rank and file of the opposing force. For any intra-Afghan Dialogue to succeed it has to be a regional effort of Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia. No country wants an inclusive Taliban rule again. Hopefully, the Taliban understand the dynamics of people’s consensus and nation-building. The fear is that the Taliban would not change and steam full ahead as they did in 1996/7. This will again be their downfall.
The Taliban were quick to expand their contacts with significant neighbors. Mullah Berader’s recent visit to China was a breakthrough. They were received like any visiting government delegations by the Chinese Foreign Minister. The Chinese emphasized the importance to the Taliban of denying any platform or space to the ETIM and TTP Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The essence of CPEC was explained as well as the benefits that they would accrue from its connectivity and their participation. China had massive plans for reconstruction for Afghanistan; they only had to cease it. Any effort by ETIM or TTP to disrupt the CPEC from Afghan soil would be considered as an act of aggression by Beijing. The Taliban were understood to have agreed.
While the Taliban are visiting and meeting all relevant neighbors like the Iranians, Russians, Chinese, and the Pakistanis, they have completely ignored India both diplomatically and politically. A Taliban delegation visiting India is not foreseen soon. They have not forgotten the one hundred or so Taliban prisoners airlifted from Kunduz to India, with help of Younis Qanuni, the then Afghan Interior Minister under Karzai. They have registered the use of Indian-supplied aircrafts that bombed Taliban locations in the last week of July 2021 in Helmand, killing unarmed Afghans. Did Indian pilots fly these planes to target the Taliban? Clearly, Khalilzad’s effort to dovetail India into a leading role in post-US Afghanistan is sputtering before the race is truly joined. A very delightful news for Islamabad but may prove short-lived.
While all this may appear relevant, the US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to be understood. Commentaries by some leading and not so leading writers and think tanks are creating a narrative that suggests that the Taliban and Pakistan will eventually end their honeymoon and that the Taliban will allow TTP/Daesh/ISIK/Baluchi Dissidents and some banned Pakistani groups to merge into the Taliban ranks with the aim of bringing the war to Pakistan. In other words, create a similar environment in Pakistan as is in Afghanistan. The main aim would be to force Pakistan to abandon the CPEC. It also means that the Pakistan Army would, in the long term, be engaged in warfare against its own tribesmen and people. Obtaining environment does not suggest such a scenario as yet. It would be prudent to keep a watchful eye on all leading Taliban players.
The US may not have all the winning cards; it certainly has an uncanny sense to disrupt the game. The definition of peace has such a broad canvas; the Taliban, the US, Kabul, Northern Alliance, all view peace differently from their shores. The acceptable notion of peace as understood by the rest of the world is not visible along Pakistan’s western borders. Pakistan, therefore, has to be firm in its border control, swiftly dealing with mischief in its border provinces, and on any disruption of completion of CPEC. The Taliban are essentially not anti-Pakistan or anti-Pakistan Army. But TTP/Daesh/sponsored Baluchi dissidents are. Unfortunately, what remains after August 31, 2021, will not be a pretty sight.