Fall of Kabul

ZAHID HUSSAIN

THERE was always a doubt over how long Afghan government forces would be able to hold out without on-ground US support. Yet, no one expected the fall would come so swiftly. The Afghan forces, which were raised and trained by the Americans, just melted away in the face of the lightning insurgent onslaught. Kabul was taken without much resistance.

It all happened as the last American soldiers were packed and ready to leave Afghanistan, ending the so-called Forever War. It has been a chaotic endgame that even left the Taliban stunned and unprepared.

The radical Islamist movement had ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, imposing a harsh, regressive and authoritarian order. Its return has inevitably evoked the memories of that repressive era, which had pushed Afghanistan into the darkest period of its recent history. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban 2.0 is any different from the past radical Islamist regime led by the late Mullah Omar, the supreme leader and founder of the movement.

Although the Talibans top leadership has publicly promised to form an inclusive government with representation from all sections of Afghan society, there is no indication that it will honour its pledges once it consolidates its hold on power. Moreover, the announcement of the restoration of the Islamic Emirate contradicts the very concept of pluralism. The Taliban leaders have publicly rejected the concept of electoral democracy.

The Taliban leaders have also promised to take a moderate position on social issues, allowing women to work and have access to education. But they have also conditioned women rights under the parameters of Islamic Sharia. Their interpretation of Islamic Sharia appears to have differed from the past. While the current Talibans political leadership appears more moderate and flexible in its views, there is no evidence that the commanders leading the fight would also be amenable to change.

The transformation from an insurgent group to one in power is never easy. Governing a bitterly divided land ravaged by decades of conflict is perhaps more difficult than winning a war. Perhaps the most serious challenge for the Taliban is maintaining unity within its ranks. Many of the ideological and factional differences swept aside during the war have resurfaced with the group now in power. With no absolute authority, a power struggle is bound to ensue.

The struggle between the moderates who want to take a break from some of the harshest legacies of the previous dispensation and the hardliners who are unwilling to reform could sharpen. While the Taliban may have appeared as a monolith during the war, differences in military tactics and other policy matters kept surfacing. Yet, the disagreement did not affect the resistance. The end of the war has widened the fault lines.

Many of the commanders in the field are believed to have more hardline views. Among them are those who joined the resistance as teenagers after the fall of the Taliban government in December 2001. This new generation of Taliban commanders has replaced the old guards who have either died or been sidelined.

The political leadership that negotiated the peace deal with the Americans mostly comprised veterans who were not in the field. Many of them spent time in detention and lived abroad after being released. They have had greater exposure to the outside world and a relatively better understanding of the new reality, that is, the need to balance between extremist views and changing views to achieve international recognition. Unsurprisingly, they appear more moderate in their views, at least in their statements.

However, one must not expect a complete transformation of the conservative movement that has fought to restore the old order under the Islamic Emirate banner. The issue is how far would the Taliban leadership go in accepting pluralism and changing its regressive views on women rights for the international community to recognise the new dispensation.

There is no organised resistance to the so-called Islamic Emirate. However, the calm could be deceptive. The Taliban cannot rule the country through brute force. Afghanistan is no longer vulnerable like in the 1990s when they could enforce their harsh social order. The promise of change and the pledge to establish a pluralistic political order may not satisfy the new generation of Afghans which is better educated and more aware of its situation. The fear of a reversal drives the exodus of educated Afghans in such large numbers to the old order. The assurance given by the Taliban does not have a calming effect. The unease is tangible.

Demonstrations by womens groups are a manifestation of the brewing resistance to the attempt to curb their rights. The number of women participating in these protests may not have been large, but they nevertheless show that people are prepared to fight back. Any crackdown on the protests could fuel more discontent.

The conservative orientation could be disastrous for a country facing multiple economic, social and political challenges. It cannot deal with problems isolated from the international community. One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan, is on the brink of a human catastrophe with the large-scale internal displacement of a population fleeing the conflict and worsening economic conditions.

According to a recent UN refugee agency report, more than a quarter-million people have been forced to leave their homes since the beginning of this year. And over 90 per cent of Afghans are believed to be living below the poverty level. Further instability in the country could push more people into starvation.1

These are some of the more serious problems the Taliban admin-istration needs to focus on. The economy cannot revive under regressive rule. In order to run an effective administration, the Taliban need an educated, trained and skilled workforce. The exodus of professionals has already left a big gap. Many more Afghans are ready to leave the country to escape retribution and search for a better future for themselves and their children elsewhere. The uncertainty regarding the Taliban-led administration and the prevailing ambiguity surrounding human rights issues, particularly the right of the women to work and their access to education, are not encouraging. Afghanistan is, once again, at a crossroads.

The effects of the seismic change in Afghanistan go beyond its borders. And, indeed, the resurgence of the Taliban after their ouster from Afghanistan in 2001, also took place beyond the countrys borders. 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 is tough for Pakistan to escape the fallout from the re-emergence of a hardline Islamist regime across the border. There is a tangible sense of jubilation among right wing Pakistani Islamist groups which see the return of the Taliban as a victory for jihad, and even among those in the corridors of power in Islamabad.

Notwithstanding the euphoria, the Talibans military success across the border is ominous for Pakistans national security. The Talibans control across the Durand Line has given an immense boost to the Islamist militancy movement in Pakistan. The two decades of war in Afghanistan have had a devastating effect on Pakistan, turning the country into a new battleground for Al Qaeda-linked militants. Insurgent safe havens along Pakistans western borders have provided the Afghan Taliban strategic depth in the country, giving an impetus to Islamist militancy in Pakistans hitherto tribal regions.

Predictably, the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has emboldened Pakistani militant groups. More disturbing for Pakistan is 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 tribal districts, particularly in North Waziristan, where Pakistans control remains tenuous. There may be some differences between their objectives, but the worldview of the Afghan Taliban and TTP is, in fact, the same.

The recent border incidents are indicative of the souring of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistans Taliban-led administration. The Taliban forces have removed border fences at several places, stating that Pakistan has no authority to build barriers along the Durand Line. A video posted on social media showed a truck bulldozing the fences along the Pakistani border in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. Similar incidents have been reported in other areas. There have also been reports of the exchange of mortar fires on both sides.

Pakistan has been erecting fences along the 2,400-kilometre-long border in order to formalise it with Afghanistan and stop illegal crossings. Pakistani authorities said more than 92 per cent of the border has already been fenced. Historically, the border between the two countries has remained fluid with the free cross border movements of tribes before Pakistan decided to erect fences.

The Durand Line, drawn under British colonialist rule in 1893, has been the main source of tension between the two countries for the past seven decades. Afghanistan does not recognise the Durand Line because it was created by the British to divide ethnic Pashtuns. Islamabad, however, insists that the Durand Line is a permanent border between the two neighbours. Tribe members on both sides of the divide consider it to be a soft border. The Taliban seek to have an open border for Pashtun tribe members inhabiting the region. The Talibans disruption of Pakistans border fencing happened as the Taliban has just completed 100 days in power.

Previous Afghan governments had also objected to the border fencing, yet there had not been any incident of the use of force to stop it. Pakistani authorities have played down the incident, saying it was a localised action, but a military spokesperson said the work on fencing would continue despite provocation. The Afghan Taliban administration does not seem to be backing down on the fencing issue.

An Afghan defence ministry spokesperson said Taliban forces would not allow Pakistani military to construct what he called an illegal border fence.2Pakistani authorities are hopeful that the row will be resolved through negotiations. However, they also indicated that they would not allow the Taliban to disrupt the work. Any more action by the Taliban to prevent border fencing could intensify regional tensions.

Pakistan has been actively campaigning for international human-itarian support for Afghanistan. It has also been calling for the lifting of sanctions against the Taliban administration. Such actions by the Taliban may affect Pakistans efforts to mobilise international support for the conservative regime.

It is not just the border standoff but also the militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan that have caused strains in the relations between Islamabad and the Taliban regime. Some 5,000 militants took refuge in Afghanistan after they were driven out of the tribal regions by military operations by Pakistan.3Most of them are settled in the eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar with the support from the Afghan Taliban.

Last year, the TTP factions reunited and stepped up their cross-border attacks in North and South Waziristan. The two regions, which have now integrated into the mainland, have remained unsettled. Scores of Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the attacks over the past year. The TTPs chief, Noor Wali Mehsud, claimed the group was a branch of the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Although a Taliban spokesperson has rejected the claim, the close association between the two is obvious. Afghan Taliban leaders have pressed the Pakistan government to consider the TTPs demands seriously.

Many of the TTP leaders and fighters who were freed from jails after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August last year have now been actively involved in planning terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban have repeatedly assured Pakistan and the international community that they will not allow its countrys soil to be used for terrorist activities against any state. Yet, there is no indication that the Taliban would be willing to act against TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesperson has reportedly advised the Pakistan government to make peace with the militants. This is undoubtedly not very assuring for Pakistan. Apparently, TTP fighters were involved in breaking the border fences along with the Afghan Taliban. The nexus between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP is a cause of great concern to the Pakistani security establishment.

Meanwhile, Pakistani security agencies have launched covert operations to eliminate the TTP leaders based in Afghanistan. In early January 2022, a senior TTP leader and the groups former spokesperson, Khalid Balti, was killed in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. Although no one has claimed responsibility for his death, the news was broken by Pakistani security agencies, giving credence to suspicions about a covert operation. Earlier, two senior TTP leaders were killed in a predator strike on a militant sanctuary in Kunar province. The region has been used as a base to launch cross-border terrorist attacks. There has not been any public response from the Afghan Taliban regime on the two incidents, but such actions could further strain Pakistans relations with the Taliban regime.

Looking beyond Pakistan, the return of the Taliban has had a huge impact on regional geopolitics. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan could lead to further instability in South Asia. It is important and necessary to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the theatre of a new proxy war between India and Pakistan.

Historically, Afghanistans strategic location has 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 spillover effects of instability and conflict in Afghanistan could be disastrous.

 

Footnotes:

1. Zahid Hussain, The Taliban Challenge, Dawn, 8 September 2021. https://www.dawn.com/news/ 1645170

2. Taliban Stop Pakistani Troops from Fencing Border, Dawn, 23 December 2021. https://www.dawn.com/ news/1665245

3. 5,000 TTP Militants Present in Afghanistan: Pakistan, The Boarding News, 29 June 2021. https://news. boringnews.co/story/2021-06-29-fd-5000-ttp-militants-present-in-afghanistan-pakistan