Confusion reigns in Afghanistan

Published : 18 Jul 2021 09:30 PM | Updated : 19 Jul 2021 12:36 AM

It has been evident since the middle of July that the Taliban, emboldened by the US and NATO troop withdrawal has decided to press for full military victory. This has partially been encouraged through US President Joe Biden setting a target date of August 31 for the final withdrawal of US forces, minus about 650 troops to provide security for the US embassy in Kabul. The Taliban has also become buoyant after the U.S. Central Command announced that the last American troops have left Bagram Air Base, the focal point of the U.S. war effort for the last 20 years.

In the meantime, the world watching the Taliban advance, is being reminded of Biden’s observation on 8 July that the Afghan people must decide their own future and that he would not consign another generation of Americans to the two-decade-old war. The President has also implied that the war-torn country had pretty much always been a mess, so if it falls apart again it will be returning to a historic norm. Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the President has also said- "the likelihood there is going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely".

The Taliban has welcomed Biden’s statement. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar has stepped forward and commented that “Any day or hour that US and foreign troops leave will be considered as a positive step.”

The situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate and the international media has reported that the Taliban now claim that they ‘control 85pc Afghan territory’. They have apparently seized key border     and Turkmenistan- the town of Islam Qala on the Iranian frontier and the Torghundi crossing with Turkmenistan -following a sweeping offensive that has brought under their control an arc of territory from the Iranian border to the frontier with China.

Russia on 9 July has also said that the Taliban had taken control of about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border in a swift advance and Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has commented that Moscow was urging all sides in Afghanistan to "show restraint".

The Afghan government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban’s gains as having little strategic value, but the seizure of multiple border crossings along with mineral-rich areas will likely fill the armed group’s coffers with new sources of revenue. In Moscow, a visiting delegation of Taliban officials has also stated that they control about 250 of Afghanistan's 398 districts -- a claim disputed by the Afghan government.

It may be noted in this context that these changes have led to hundreds of Afghan security personnel and refugees continuing to flee across the border into neighboring Iran and Tajikistan, causing concern in Russia and nearby nations that the Taliban could infiltrate Central Asia. In response to this, Taliban official Shehabuddin Delawar has tried to reassure Russia dominated Central Asian countries through a remark that “We will take all measures so that Islamic State-ISIL, or ISIS will not operate on Afghan territory … and our territory will never be used against our neighbors”.

 It would be pertinent at this point to also refer to what Pentagon spokesman John Kirby had to say about this unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. He declined any direct comment. However in an interview with CNN he has pointed out that “claiming territory or claiming ground doesn’t mean you can sustain that or keep it over time.” He nevertheless noted that “I think it’s really time for the Afghan forces to get into the field – and they are in the field – and to defend their country, their people.” It may be mentioned however that the Afghan air force has been under severe strain from even before the Taliban's lightning offensive. This evolving situation will put further pressure on the country's limited aircraft and pilots.

In the meantime, some Afghan civilians who had helped US forces to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 are expressing their determination to help the government forces in re-taking lost territory and also being available to fill the security void created by foreign force withdrawal. One of them in particular has drawn international media attention. This is Mohammad Ismail Khan, widely known as the Lion of Heart. He is urging civilians to join the fight. The media has also reported that hundreds of armed civilians from Ghor, Badghis, Nimroz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar provinces have already met him and expressed their willingness to fight the Taliban attempting to take over Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan.  Such a dynamics, in all likelihood will only exacerbate the situation.

It would also be pertinent here to also refer to UK Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter’s interview in the BBC. He has stated that one of these three scenarios might unfold in Afghanistan. Firstly, the Afghan government could "hold the ring, as it's demonstrating through holding all the provincial capitals at the moment". "The second scenario, a very sad scenario, where the country fractures and you see the government collapse. You see the Taliban perhaps controlling part of the country, and the other nationalities and ethnicities controlling other parts of the country, like we saw in the 1990s". "A third, more hopeful scenario, could be- where you actually see a political compromise and talks occurring.”

Most interesting alternatives!

However one needs to mention here that peace talks between the government and the Taliban still have many challenges that has resulted in the talks regularly stalling and failing to progress significantly.

It would also be relevant at this moment to refer to some views expressed by analyst Saber Azam with his great experience of what has been taking place in Afghanistan. He has commented that the political and strategic outcome of nearly twenty years of US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan has been less than constructive and has resulted in debatable and contradictory conclusions. The financial cost, human loss, and psycho-social effects have also been frightening.

As it stands today, one has to remind the readers that President Biden’s frustrations with Afghanistan have existed for more than a decade. It started during his trip to Kabul in January 2009 as Vice President. He had at that time warned Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai that he could lose Washington’s support unless there was good governance and efforts aimed at reducing corruption. 

Since the US and NATO decision to withdraw their presence from Afghanistan, there has been some criticism from different sections of the Afghan population. However, it appears that President Biden and his close advisors have certainly acted in the best interest of the US. The real losers are Afghans. Despite trillions of US dollars poured into their country and extraordinary international support, their leaders could not distance themselves from their old sins.

Some geo-strategists have in this regard underlined that after taking over Afghanistan in December 2001, the new governance structure of Afghanistan did not hesitate to practice ethnic and religious discrimination, nepotism and corruption. Such inefficiency made the successive Afghan regimes controversial. This was noted not only in the USA but also by the European Union. Many influential decision-makers in the EU and the USA disagreed with what was happening in the governing Afghan tiers and alleged that it was essentially a power-sharing system among political traders.

Nevertheless, there is anxiety that if the Taliban are able to snatch power by the force of their guns-brutality will ensue. Ethnic and religious cleansing would then soon follow.

Some media analysts have also drawn attention to last ditch efforts that are being carried out in Kabul and Doha for all stakeholders to agree in constituting a transitional government with the inclusion of the Taliban. However such an exercise is desirable for Mr. Karzai and Dr. Abdullah- but appears most unlikely.  

This unraveling chess-board of Afghanistan however has another stakeholder who has been monitoring the evolving situation very carefully. It is the People’s Republic of China which has till now, for its own national interests, pursued a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. However, they appear now to be worried.

China has made it clear to Russia that they would not welcome the Taliban and other terrorist organizations to inspire the Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party, also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China. Russia, in principle, has no hesitation to be with China on the same platform in this regard. Consequently, an alliance between the Russian Federation and China cannot be excluded to counter terrorist intrusion and advance- sponsored by the Taliban.

As such, the near future in Afghanistan might have uncalculated consequences with severe violations of human dignity and rights, bloodshed, and the destruction of public and private properties. In particular, women, children, human rights activists, and journalists will then pay a high cost. This will most certainly also affect and have an osmotic effect on peace, stability, development, and economic prosperity in that region. However, the Taliban appears to have taken note about this anxiety and has recently through a Taliban spokesperson categorically assured that Afghan women will have the right to work and education within an Islamic framework, under their regime. This will indeed be a movement forward and a constructive approach.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance