The political problem with Washington’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan is that it’s leaving the Taliban with a sense of victory, emboldening it to undertake military manoeuvres to capture the country by force. While the prize targets are, of course, Kandahar and Kabul, the Taliban’s ground tactics also betray professional military assistance, ostensibly from Pakistan, which point to a hostile takeover, not a fair settlement.
This, by itself, should prompt a course correction because the impact of such a takeover will be felt far and wide. From a heightened security environment in Central Asia to the prospects of a bludgeoning refugee crisis that will most certainly touch the shores of Europe, the consequences of a Taliban military victory will be beyond just the emergence of a terror sanctuary. And even as Antony Blinken reaches Delhi to discuss the fallout of a Taliban resurgence, the situation is already changing rapidly at different levels.
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To begin with, the ground situation. There are two distinct shifts in Taliban’s military strategy from the mid-1990s. First, they are not moving province by province from their southern strongholds like Kandahar and Herat towards the north. Instead, they are capturing districts in northern provinces like Badakhshan and Kunduz.
Second, they are capturing key border towns and passes along the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan border. The capture of Imam Sahib in Kunduz gave them control over a key trading route on the Uzbek border.
They are trying similar tactics on the Iran border and already control the Pakistan border, all indicating a professional military-like campaign at play. Afghan intelligence has indicated that Pakistani regulars are acting as military advisers.
Clearly, the larger effort is to take control of the borders and prevent the possibility of a Northern Alliance-like force emerging on the ground. The Taliban would back itself to contain any rebel grouping between ethnic groups as long as cross-border assistance from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is rendered unfeasible.
The Afghan government and its security forces, on the other hand, have realised there is no honourable settlement for them on the ground. The brutal killing of 22 Afghan soldiers trying to surrender, and the beheading of an Afghan interpreter who worked with Nato forces, were enough to revive memories of the brutality with which Taliban treats its vanquished and alleged ‘western collaborators’.
This explains the recent pushback by Afghan forces, which follows Ashraf Ghani’s decision to change his defence minister and bring the experienced Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a respected ex-Afghan army chief, who has fought against the Taliban alongside Ahmad Shah Masoud. He also changed the army chief. In short, there’s now a regrouping, a will to fight.
This brings us to the next level: the US. Joe Biden went ahead with Donald Trump’s pull-back deal, brokered by interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad, because he did not want to be the president who sent troops back into Afghanistan. But will he want to be the president who let the Taliban back in? The one who watched silently as scores of Afghan interpreters, who worked with the US Army, got mercilessly slayed? Or be the one responsible for millions of Afghan refugees joining the ranks of Syrians to knock on the doors of allies in Europe?
These appeared distant questions not so long ago. Not any longer. It will eventually boil down to one decision: will the Biden administration trust the Taliban’s word that none of this will happen? Given that the US has approved $3.3 billion to Afghan Security Forces (ASF), one can only discern that the US does not want Taliban to get a free pass to Kabul.
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So, a course correction — one which India must pursue with the US — cannot be ruled out. But it will make an impact only when Washington decisively throws its weight behind the ASF. That would mean reviving proper air support to ground troops, which the Afghan Air Force cannot manage on its own now.
The third level is the immediate neighbourhood — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. The two central Asian countries, though under Russian sway, are deeply threatened by radical Islamic parties and movements within their country, which could turn empathetic to the Taliban cause. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has already mobilised his border troops as fleeing Afghan soldiers reach his borders.
Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi is a conservative, who is unlikely to turn a blind eye to the Shia Hazaras of Afghanistan. At the same time, it’s quite possible Iran may not stand in the way of fleeing refugees seeking a route into Europe via the Mediterranean as long as they don’t camp on Iranian territory. How can Europe avert such a situation? The answer, as Biden is beginning to discover, is keeping the ASF in control of Afghanistan. This means opposing occupation by force. But here we come to a head with the basic principle holding all the deal-making with the Taliban — that it will guarantee against Afghan territory being used by radical or terrorist groups. Russia and China feel it will keep out groups inimical to its interests. The US and Europeans think they will keep the Islamic State (IS) out, and so on.
This myth of a Pakistan-floated idea of a ‘good, reasonable Taliban’ has crash-landed. Afghan soldiers, and scores of interpreters, already bear testimony to it. More are likely to follow, accompanied by a full-blown refugee crisis. It’s important, therefore, for India and the US to treat the Taliban for what it is, and reach an understanding, for starters, on wholeheartedly backing those who are standing up to them.