It was only a matter of time before the US finally pulled the plug on its longest-running war. But the speed and ease with which the Taliban wrested control of Afghanistan took the world by surprise. With the Taliban trying to reassure the world that they have changed, will things truly be different this time around? And what does their return mean for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region?
It was a breathtaking 11-day blitz across Afghanistan that got the Taliban forces to Kabul. All the big cities on the way had fallen without any resistance. The Taliban soldiers triumphantly walked into the capital as the Afghan army, deployed for the defence of the city, completely disappeared. In what could be described as an ironic twist of fate, almost a full 20 years after its government was ousted, the conservative Islamist movement is back in power.
To be honest, the return of the Taliban was foretold after the US signed an exit agreement with the insurgents in Doha in February 2020. It was not a document of surrender, but neither was it a declaration of victory for the most powerful military power on earth. The Doha agreement simply paved the way for the pulling out of foreign forces, thus ending America’s longest war.
There was always a question mark over how long Afghan government forces would be able to hold out without on-ground US support. Yet, no one really expected the fall would come so swiftly. As it happened, the Afghan forces, raised and trained by the Americans, just melted away in the face of the lightning insurgent onslaught. Kabul was taken without a bullet being fired. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, along with his key ministers, fled the country as the Taliban fighters closed in.
It all happened as the last American soldiers were packing to leave Afghanistan, ending the so-called ‘forever war’. In some ways, the mayhem that followed the Taliban capture of Kabul revived the memories of US military humiliation in Vietnam, more than half a century ago.
It was the humbling of yet another superpower in the land often described as ‘the graveyard of empires’. The American exit was perhaps even more shambolic than its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, there is never an elegant way to retreat from a war that has long been lost. Yet, the shameful flight was extremely shocking. It has been a chaotic endgame that left even the Taliban themselves stunned and unprepared.
So, where do these developments leave Afghanistan, its people and, indeed, the region? And what does it portend for Pakistan, perhaps the country that will be impacted the most after Afghanistan?
But with the US now in perception control mode and the Taliban attempting to rebrand themselves for a changed world, it is essential that we take a look back, before trying to predict what may lie ahead for Afghanistan and the region.
A DESIRE FOR REVENGE
The US went into Afghanistan in 2001 out of a desire for revenge following the 9/11 attacks on American soil, with little understanding of the land. It was an unwinnable conflict from the beginning, but lies covered their failure. For almost two decades, successive American administrations deliberately misled their people over a war that had gone terribly wrong.
Even some top American military and civilian officials would later admit that they didn’t have the “foggiest notion” of what they were undertaking. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed in the war that cost close to a stunning trillion dollars.
Since 2001, over 775,000 US troops had been deployed in Afghanistan. But they could not defeat the insurgency. In an ironic twist of fate, the US negotiated its exit with the very leaders it had declared terrorists and sought to annihilate. Some of them were even former inmates of the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison.
Now the triumphant Taliban have returned, restoring their so-called Islamic Emirate. It’s the beginning of what is being described as the Taliban 2.0.
The American exit was perhaps even more shambolic than its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, there is never an elegant way to retreat from a war that has long been lost. Yet, the shameful flight was extremely shocking.
The radical Islamist movement had ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, imposing a harsh, regressive, authoritarian order. Their return has inevitably evoked the memories of that repressive era, which had pushed Afghanistan into perhaps the darkest period of its recent history.
The Taliban then had imposed harsh social policies, which included forcing women to wear burqas, banning music and television, and implementing harsh criminal punishments for petty offenses. Women were banned from working and were not allowed access to education.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan became a centre of activities for Al Qaeda and other transnational jihadi groups. It turned into a pariah state. Except for Pakistan and, for a brief period, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, no other country recognised the regime.
While the new dispensation is yet to take shape, there is growing anxiety, both in Afghanistan and outside, over the prospect of the return of a similarly authoritarian rule. There is also the question of whether the Taliban 2.0 would be any different from the past radical Islamist regime led by late Mullah Omar, the supreme leader and founder of the movement.
The impact of the seismic change in Afghanistan goes beyond its borders. And, indeed, the resurgence of the Taliban, after their ouster from Afghanistan in 2001, also took place beyond the country’s borders.
Once the US air bombardment began in early October 2001, the Taliban were ousted in quick succession from most of Afghanistan’s cities. They pulled out from Kabul within hours of the American-backed Northern Alliance forces entering the city and put up no resistance.
Taliban fighters melted into the population or took sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. Most of the leadership survived the offensive and moved to Pakistan — with the prominent exception of Mullah Omar, who stayed back in Afghanistan. In that initial displacement period, senior leaders were fragmented and disunited over what they should do next. The shock and trauma of the fall of their regime had paralysed the leadership. The organisation had crumbled.
There was no structure with which to regroup and revive. While some were determined to fight, others were more inclined to explore negotiated political options. The Taliban’s isolation increased, as their support among the Afghan people declined.
In the first 18 months after being ousted from power, the movement faced the danger of fracturing. Some elements even broke away to form their own factions. Occasional statements and threats from senior leaders condemning the occupation found little traction among the Afghans.
It took more than two years for the Taliban to recover and rebuild their structure. But the rebirth had more to do with the failures of their opponents. The absence of governance by the new US-installed dispensation had led to a complete breakdown of law and order in eastern Afghanistan. It had brought back the rule of rogue warlords. The Taliban and their family members, who had laid down arms and moved back to their villages, and tribal elders, were targeted by the newly installed administration.
It was déjà vu, a return to the early 1990s situation that had originally led to the rise of the Taliban militia. The victims, of the new source of abuse, began contacting the Taliban leadership that had begun regrouping in Quetta.
From early 2002, Taliban propaganda began to reappear in Afghanistan in the form of leaflets and letters left or dropped at homes and at school buildings. Civilian deaths caused by US air raids added to the support for the Taliban. The growing perception of foreign occupation fuelled public anger.
In June 2003, a 10-member Taliban leadership shura (council) was formed and given responsibility to formulate a political and military strategy for the resistance. Led by Mullah Omar, the council, later known as the Quetta Shura, mostly comprised the old guard that had formed the core of the former Taliban regime.
The Quetta Shura won implicit support from the Pakistani security establishment, which was deeply concerned by the unfriendly government in Kabul. Later, as the insurgency picked up, the number of shura members was increased to 33.
In that early period of revival, however, the Taliban leadership had not yet fully developed a clear political or military strategy and merely reacted to circumstances. The period from 2003 to 2005 was a turning point, as the Taliban consolidated their organisational structure and expanded their activities.
Scores of madressahs in Balochistan, close to the borders, became the main recruitment centres for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The Taliban also began an organised recruitment effort in the madressahs of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi. The same seminaries, from where Taliban forces had initially been raised, once again became the centre for producing a new generation of jihadi warriors. Not only were the madressahs harbouring and aiding existing Afghan warriors, they were also creating new ones.
Afghan refugee camps, set up during the Afghan resistance war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and spread across Balochistan and in northern Pakistan too, became the centre of Taliban recruitment. They provided shelter to the fighters and, in some areas, also served as training camps.
It was, however, in Karachi where some senior Taliban leaders chose to establish their residence. Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal neighbourhood was where at least three top leaders had chosen to stay. This included Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the former aviation minister in the Taliban administration, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban and deputy to Mullah Omar, and Agha Jan Motasim, a former Taliban finance minister. All of them were members of the Quetta Shura. The group owned several properties in the city.
While in hiding in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar was cut off from the rest of the insurgency. His deputy, Mullah Baradar, conducted the day-to-day matters of the organisation. Baradar’s background as a frontline commander and his political acumen allowed him to bridge the Taliban’s traditional divide between its military and political leadership. In the process, he became a major binding factor in the insurgency.
In the beginning, the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan, populated largely by the Pashtuns, became the main centres of the insurgency. These regions were always the bastions of the ousted Taliban regime. But the insurgents later began to get a foothold in the north as well, exploiting the divisions among various power groups within the new Afghan government.
Indiscriminate killings and arrests of innocent people by the government added to the alienation and anger felt by local communities. Police brutality turned even those who had initially supported the new Afghan administration towards the Taliban.
After regrouping in Pakistan and strengthening its support base at home in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership set out to establish a shadow government, appointing district chiefs and provincial governors. They also revived their legal system in the areas under their influence. By 2003, the Afghan Taliban had already established roaming courts, expanding their outreach to areas under the militia’s control.
Washington engaged in talks on and off with the Taliban for years before the Trump administration began structured peace talks in Doha in July 2018.
The operations carried out by the Taliban up to 2003 comprised only relatively small and targeted attacks. There were very few instances of any large-scale attacks on coalition forces during this period. But, by the summer of 2006, the Taliban had developed its military and political strategy with an ambition to establish territorial control, particularly in southern Afghanistan. The growing insurgency in the south and south-east reinforced the Taliban propaganda that Western forces and the Afghan administration were unable to provide security for the local population.
Despite the surge in US forces in 2009, the security situation deteriorated all over the country. Insurgent attacks hit an all-time high, particularly in the south and in the south-east. As did the number of casualties among the Afghan government and Western soldiers. The north also saw a significant rise of Taliban influence during that period.
The increasing influence of the Taliban in the north was, in fact, the most significant development. The insurgents made important gains in the northern provinces — in particular in Kunduz, Baghlan, Badghis and Faryab — where active Taliban or associated groups operated.
Turning their focus on the north helped the Taliban demonstrate that the movement was not confined only to the Pashtun regions in eastern and southern Afghanistan. By 2010, the skirmishes had turned into a full-blown insurgency, with Taliban presence in more than 50 percent of the country.
Soon enough, despite their initial hubris, American officials were exploring a negotiated political settlement in secret talks with the Taliban. In 2013, the Taliban established their political office in Doha. It was the first sign of America legitimising the insurgent group.
Washington engaged in talks on and off with the Taliban for years before the Trump administration began structured peace talks in Doha in July 2018. After 18 months of tough negotiations, the two sides signed a historic peace deal in 2020 that finally paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
THE TALIBAN 2.0
The question on everyone’s lips is simple. Will the Taliban 2.0 be different from its obscurantist authoritarian avatar of the past?
Although the Taliban top leadership have been at pains to say in public statements that they are looking to form an inclusive government, with representation from all sections of Afghan society, it is far from clear whether they will honour their pledges once they consolidate their hold on power. The announcement of the restoration of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ contradicts the very concept of pluralism.
In fact, while engaging in negotiations with Afghan leaders representing various political factions, the Taliban have already started to tighten their control at all levels. Some Taliban leaders have even publicly rejected the concept of electoral democracy. It seems that it will be an ‘Islamic Emirate’ after all, with the co-option of members from other Afghan groups.
Taliban leaders have also promised to take a moderate position on social issues, allowing women to work and access to education. But they also condition women rights under the parameters of ‘Islamic Sharia’. A major question is, how will their interpretation of Islamic Sharia be different from the past?
The Taliban’s recent statements do not alleviate domestic and international concerns. While the Taliban’s political leadership appears more moderate and flexible in their views, there is no evidence that the commanders leading the fighting would also be amenable to change.
Taliban leaders have also announced a general amnesty, and asked all men and women to return to their duties. Yet, the fear of retribution remains a major concern. Reports of some incidents of revenge killings do not inspire confidence either. Meanwhile, the images of thousands of people desperate to leave the country rushing to the Kabul airport show the lack of trust, within at least some sections of the urban public, in the new Taliban administration.
ACROSS THE BORDER
Inevitably, the return of the Taliban and the restoration of the so-called Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan will have a huge impact on regional geopolitics. It will be particularly hard for Pakistan to escape the fallout of the re-emergence of a hardline Islamist regime across the border.
There is a tangible sense of jubilation not only among right-wing Pakistani Islamist groups — who see the return of the Taliban as victory for jihad — but even among those in the corridors of power in Islamabad. Notwithstanding the euphoria, the Taliban’s military success across the border is ominous for Pakistan’s national security.
Taliban control across the Durand Line would give an immense boost to the Islamist militancy movement in Pakistan. The two decades of war in Afghanistan have had devastating effects on Pakistan, turning the country into a new battleground for Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Insurgent safe-havens along Pakistan’s western borders had provided the Taliban strategic depth in the country the first time round. But they had also given an impetus to Islamist militancy in Pakistan’s former tribal regions.
Most worrisome are reports suggesting that a significant part of the Al Qaeda leadership resides in regions along the border with Pakistan, which have become the main centres of militant activities. There are some concerns — despite Taliban assurances — that the Taliban takeover would allow various transnational militant groups greater space once again to operate in Afghanistan.
Pakistan needs to tread a very cautious path with the threat of instability across the border extending to its own territory.
More than two dozen militant groups are reported to be active in the region.
More disturbing for Pakistan are the reports of splinter Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) groups, based across the border in Afghanistan, being reunited, backed by some transnational militant groups such as Daesh. The development has led to an increase in cross-border attacks in the former tribal districts, particularly in North Waziristan, where Pakistan’s control remains tenuous.
Such attacks have become increasingly frequent in other north-western border regions as well. The Afghan Taliban taking control across the border may give a boost to their supporters among right-wing groups in Pakistan. There may be some difference between the objectives, but the worldview of the Afghan Taliban and TTP is, in fact, the same.
Unsurprisingly, TTP leaders are jubilant about the Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan. It’s not clear whether the Afghan Taliban administration would act against TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban have made a firm commitment with the international community that they would not allow any militant group to use Afghan soil for attacks on any country. But, once again, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban 2.0 will abide by its pledge.
Pakistan needs to tread a very cautious path with the threat of instability across the border extending to its own territory. It could have more serious repercussions for our national security than in the past. The horror of the past four decades of conflict in Afghanistan continues to haunt the entire region.
OTHER STAKEHOLDER NATIONS
Looking beyond Pakistan, the return of the Taliban is seen as a geopolitical setback for India, which had allied itself with the US-backed dispensation in Afghanistan.
India’s involvement in Afghanistan has been extremely sensitive because of its delicate — and often deadly — power game in South Asia. For a long time, Pakistan has accused India of using Afghanistan’s border cities for espionage and to stir up a separatist insurgency in Balochistan.
The return of the Taliban could escalate the struggle for influence in the region. Measures are also needed to prevent Afghanistan becoming the centre of a new proxy war between India and Pakistan.
Russia is another country with a complex relationship with Afghanistan, but which looks open to softening its stance regarding the Taliban. It fears for the situation in Central Asia and wants to protect its Central Asian allies. The expanding footprint of Daesh in the region is also a reason for Moscow’s growing concerns.
Iran too has its relevance as a major regional player in Afghanistan. The country shares a 560-mile-long border with western Afghanistan. Although Tehran has maintained contacts with the Taliban for years, it has become more active in Afghan affairs since the signing of the peace deal between the US and the Taliban. The Iranian government has also separately engaged with Taliban representatives as part of Iranian-sponsored peace talks.
China’s national security concerns make it another important stakeholder in Afghanistan. For China, a chaotic situation in Afghanistan could have serious implications for regional security. Basically, China would like to see the security threat contained.
China does not support a return of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ in Afghanistan, as it could pose a direct challenge to China’s control of its own Muslim population. But it does accept that the Taliban’s political ideology has shown signs of moderation.
TOWARDS A NEW NORMAL
It may have been surprisingly easy for the Taliban to take political control of the state of Afghanistan, but it will be extremely difficult to rule a divided country torn by decades of war. Moreover, the social and political landscape in Afghanistan has hugely changed over the years since the previous Taliban rule.
The fast-changing regional geopolitics too demand a change in the Taliban’s outlook. The restoration of a harsh and obscurantist, authoritarian rule cannot bring stability to the strife-torn country. This will also not be acceptable to the international community.
Indeed, the present Taliban leadership, with its greater international exposure, appears more pragmatic. Over the years, the group has earned international legitimacy. Yet, the new dispensation would be required to alleviate concerns over human rights issues, particularly equal rights for women to work and access education, in order to get recognition by the outside world.
Moreover, the Taliban will be dealing with a new generation of Afghan men and women who are better educated and aware of what’s happening around the world. It will be hard for the conservative movement to reverse the course of social change.
Afghanistan’s strategic location has historically made it vulnerable to the involvement of outside powers and proxy battles. Continued instability could also lead to regional countries backing different factions and getting deeply involved in the conflict. The spill-over effects of instability and conflict in Afghanistan could be disastrous.
The Taliban cannot rule Afghanistan in global isolation. Being one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan needs international support to survive. But in order to earn international legitimacy, the Taliban will have to fulfil international obligations. In effect, the Taliban 2.0 needs to break from the past in order to be accepted by the world today.
Header: Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country | AP
The writer is a journalist and the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow. He tweets @hidhussain
THE LEADERSHIP AFTER MULLAH OMAR
Over the years, the Taliban have been seen as a predominantly Pashtun group. But it now has a significant number of Tajik and Uzbek commanders in its ranks. The changing ethnic profile of the group is borne out by the fact that non-Pashtuns now constitute one-quarter of the Taliban leadership council and its various commissions.
While Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Afghan Taliban, may arguably be the most powerful person in the group today, a collective decision-making process by the leadership will likely set the Taliban’s future policy direction.
Here’s how the Taliban’s leadership has shifted in the recent past.
• After the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leadership council in 2015 named Mullah Akhtar Mansour the group’s new emir. A long-time deputy to the late Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour had already been effectively in charge and was seen as a logical choice for the leadership, particularly since Mullah Baradar, had been under detention in Pakistan.
Mullah Mansour was killed in a CIA drone strike on May 21, 2016, in Balochistan, near the border with Iran.
• Haibatullah Akhundzada was chosen as the group’s emir in 2016, after Mullah Mansour’s killing. A veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he is reputed to be more of a religious leader than a military commander. He had been a senior figure in the Taliban courts for years. He belonged to the Noorzai tribe that is settled in the Panjwai district in Kandahar. He also ran a madressah in the Kuchlak district near Quetta.
• Although Akhundzada is the supreme leader, it is his deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is the main face of the movement. He is the one who led the Taliban talks with the Americans in Doha.
Mullah Baradar is also credited with rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Besides heading the Taliban’s military operations, he also ran the group’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, before his arrest in 2010 in a joint US-Pakistan operation.
The Obama administration had declared his arrest a “significant win” and a “turning point” in its war in Afghanistan. At one point, President Obama personally sent a message to Pakistani leaders that Mullah Baradar should not be released.
He remained in Pakistan’s detention for almost nine years, during which the Taliban insurgency swept across Afghanistan. His release came in 2019, when the US seriously pursued peace negotiations with the Taliban.
• Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the famous mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, is arguably the second most powerful Taliban leader after Mullah Baradar. He has made his mark as the most feared insurgent commander. He represents a new generation of Taliban commanders who are more aggressive and ruthless than those before them.
Sirajuddin headed the Miranshah Shura and had a seat in the leadership council in Quetta. The Haqqani network, which operated from Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, emerged as the most lethal insurgent group fighting the coalition forces in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. The network, which is still on the US terrorist list, wielded significant influence and power among Afghan and Pakistani militant groups. America has put a $10 million bounty on Sirajuddin’s capture.
• Anas Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s younger brother, has also risen through the Taliban ranks. He spent many years in a death cell in Kabul before he was released in 2019. He was also a member of the Taliban delegation in intra-Afghan talks in Doha.
• Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, is another powerful figure in the movement. He emerged on Afghanistan’s insurgent landscape after it was confirmed that his father had died in 2013. The disclosure led to a fierce succession battle within the group and some powerful Taliban commanders backed Yaqoob to succeed his father. The bid failed. But two years later, he was appointed deputy leader of the group, as well as head of the military commission.
• Within the leadership council are also five former inmates of Guantanamo Bay, who were part of the Taliban delegation engaged in peace talks in Doha. The men were released in 2014 in exchange for a US soldier being held by the Taliban. Since their release, they had been living in Doha. All of them had been close with Mullah Omar and held senior positions in the former Taliban government. They are Mullah Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, Mullah Noorullah Noori and Muhammad Nabi Omari.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 29th, 2021