The Taliban Sweep

The Taliban have taken Kabul in a time frame that has paralleled Blitzkrieg and the capitulation of France in WWII. Province after province has fallen but without bloodshed. Besides a few sporadic clashes, the Afghan National Army has surrendered throughout the country. President Ashraf Ghani made a stealthy escape while the Taliban announced amnesty for all who do not challenge the change. The famed Warlords Dostum and Atta Nur have taken refuge in Uzbekistan after a chaotic run across the Amu Darya at Hairatan. Ismail Khan of Herat is in the custody of the Taliban. And, the Panjshiri leaders Ahmed Masoud and Amrullah Saleh have gone underground in the Panjshir valley.

Much akin to Dunkirk, or Saigon for the U.S., the exit of the remaining Allied forces in Afghanistan has been less than elegant. Troops were flown back in to the capital to rescue embassy personnel, contractors and affiliated personnel. Social media has been rampant with desperate heart rending scenes of ‘abandoned’ Afghans trying to clamber on to commercial and cargo planes at Kabul airport. Stressful scenes depict hordes of men and women fearing for their lives looking for a way out to safety. Some have reportedly clung on to the tyres and have fallen hundreds of feet from the sky as the planes soared up.

Relief organisations are desperately trying to ferry students, especially girls out of Kabul for fear of reprisals. Fear, uncertainty and dismay describe in tiny detail what most Kabulis are feeling right now, but most of all they are feeling let down. They feel manipulated and cheated by a series of US administrations that they believed would transform their Afghanistan. Scores of young men and women are in hiding from the Taliban as they fear their association with the US and the Allied forces, or that of their family members will end their lives in summary executions.

Non Suffit Orbis might have been an apt description of what the invasion forces thought of their capabilities when they came to Afghanistan. Speed being insufficient best describes their exit. Political pundits are on a roll with accusations of false estimations of capabilities, incorrect assessments of the Taliban popularity and holding back on reporting of the lack of governance in the country by the military and intelligence establishments both in-country, and at home in their respective capitals. This was all known a while ago but little attention was paid to it. Has a confrontational inter-agency process been responsible for a lack of clarity on how to win the war in Afghanistan or dithering political decision making, more likely a combination of the two. Afghanistan was never Iraq and it has never been governed by any but the Afghans. Some glaring history lessons were missed out in the manifestation of a grand invasion and democratisation plan envisaged by the US and its allies.

America went into Afghanistan to get Osama Bin Laden and his terror network in 2001. After which the mission expanded to include dealing with the incumbent regime that hosted bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Taliban. A conglomerate of Warlords led by Rashid Dostum and a slew of Tajiks, including Atta Noor and Ismail Khan of Herat that called itself The Northern Alliance was the proxy of choice. Superior technology, money and clear direction of purpose defeated the Taliban in quick order but bin Laden slipped away; later killed in Pakistan in 2011.

A governing council took a proposal for the future dispensation of the country to the Bonn Conference in 2002, which resulted in an interim government led by Hamid Karzai that had the consent and sign off of the defeated Taliban. Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun like the majority of the Taliban of yore and so did optically represent the largest ethnic group in the country, but was supported by Tajiks and the Pashtun Warlords that the Taliban had ousted for their excesses and cruelty.

Revenge is never far from any Afghan’s heart and what followed was a campaign of score settling with the Taliban that resulted in them having to cross the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan and begin to regroup. That is when the unravelling began. The Taliban campaign took some three years to start and in 2006 the situation in Afghanistan demanded the return of U.S. forces in large numbers and the Jihad began in earnest.

The numbers of NATO/ISAF personnel grew and so did the casualties on both sides. Every modern weapon of war was visited upon the Taliban with deadly intent, many thousands of drone strikes made a generation of children fearful of the skies and a humming noise, to no avail. The Taliban – without any air support, zero attack helicopters, no surface to air missiles, nor any artillery and no medical evacuation, driving Toyota pickups and motorcycles – defeated the greatest coalition of military forces in recent history.

Such a defeat would not have been possible without local support, and it is something to be given serious consideration to when the beltway pundits dissect the litany of what went wrong. A series of unpopular governments riven by corruption and inefficiency gave popularity and acceptance to the Taliban. Cultural insensitivity by the occupational powers did not cater for local traditions and ethnic differences. The  reams of counter insurgency manuals did nothing to correct the excesses of local police and law enforcement forces, established to help NATO/ISAF special forces carry out counter insurgency tasks. Local governance was actually only seen to be enforced by the shadow Taliban governors throughout the rugged terrain / country, to the extent that land sales verified by the Taliban held value many times over the ones ratified by the government.

Fast forward and we now have a Taliban force in residence that has shown remarkable restraint and control, seemingly well planned political and military strategies and an engagement with foreign powers. So what is happening in Afghanistan?

For a start, the Taliban have re-written the workbook of successful negotiating and see their victory omnino. The culmination of Jihad against a foreign invader is a cause for magnanimity and forgiveness, verified in Islamic history to which the Taliban want to be connected to. The current leadership of the Taliban have  sensed the advantages of modernisation of their part of the World and are unlikely to deny their people that.  Time will tell as to how much modernity is tolerable. Sharia will prevail but it is possible that there will be leniency, given that much of the Muslim world including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has seen inclusiveness and greater independence for women as being essential.

There appears to be some sort of understanding on this and other issues with the US, through a secret deal perhaps. Reports of important ministries remaining under US control, of the three special forces brigades of the Afghan National Army continuing to function under US military control, of an orderly hand-over of inventory in the defence ministry and the State Bank of Afghanistan suggest that despite the US administration’s hand wringing on the Taliban sweep there is more to it than meets the eye. Interestingly there are now close to 5000 US troops in the country not counting contractors which must be with Taliban approval. How long they will stay and what their mandate is time will tell.

Regional powers such as China and Russia and neighbours Iran and Pakistan are likely to have a strong influence on the future dispensation of Afghanistan. If, as the Taliban have stated, there is to be a cessation of the drug trade and an eradication of all things related, then trade will have primacy. OBOR (One Belt One Road) and in particular CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) will have greater importance for the new government in that respect. Afghanistan has an estimated $ 3 trillion worth of mineral resources that China will happily help develop which will become a priority with the new government.

Similarly, if the Taliban fulfil their promise of not letting any non state actors operate out of their country then foreign investment is likely to flow in as the security situation improves. Iran has emerged as a significant player whereby no Shia has been targeted by the Taliban, possibly due to the benefit of resources in return. Iran has also created leverage, through the hardened Fatimiyun brigade veterans, now back in Afghanistan after combating Daesh in Syria. Aside from securing its regional interest thus, Iran may benefit by being in the front line of the Chinese expansion in the region, which could have unintended but positive nuances.

It will be imperative for regional powers to engage with the new government as soon as possible, and signs of it are already evident whereby none of the  Russian, Chinese or Pakistani Embassy staff are scrambling to evacuate. A collaborated effort by countries in the region to help Afghanistan heal is vital for stability. The Taliban recognise this and realise that regional power brokers have a long term stake in their well being hence cooperation is mutually beneficial.

Terrorism and its sanctuaries remain a huge concern for all.  How the Taliban will deal with Daesh, TTP, ETIM, EMU and Baloch sub nationalist groups in Afghanistan will have the most impact on neighbourly relations. This must be a united effort with a zero tolerance policy. There is a fear that groups based in Afghanistan will try to move across borders in this time of crisis and melt away into the heartlands of their target countries.

For Pakistan, the greatest concern is the re-emergence of TTP and that members of the organisation may infiltrate into Lahore and Karachi, as the flow of resources and intelligence to it in Afghanistan dry up; then morph into organised crime using the TTP brand. Another possibility is that in keeping with the oath taken by the TTP whereby it has recently sworn allegiance to the Taliban, it’s members become a part of the Taliban and cease their cross border terror activity. Financially the impact of the Taliban sweep has had a negative effect on Pakistan where its already stressed dollar bonds have taken a hit. There are international and internal concerns about the future law and order situation in Pakistan. There are also concerns of an exodus from Afghanistan that could create another refugee crisis in Pakistan that is adding to the current financial stress.  These concerns will persist till the situation stabilises in Afghanistan and the Taliban intent on dealing with non state actors is acted upon.

An Islamist government in Kabul is not in Pakistan’s best interests, particularly if the interpretation of Islamic Sharia is in the tradition of the last Taliban government. Despite a hardening of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with a physical fence 2600 KM long and enhanced border controls there is a likelihood of human and influential leaks across the erstwhile Durand line. Given that there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan the projections are grim. Pakistan’s best strategy is to ensure that there is peace in its neighbourhood that encourages trade and through that interdependencies that will bolster stability and engagement.

Pakistan and the world are watching to see which way the dire situation in Afghanistan settles. +92-51-8732000 | +92-51-8730820 18-A, Street 2, Sector E-11/1 Islamabad,Pakistan, 44000