Afghanistan in the eye of the storm again

Afrasiab Khattak

After capturing most of the provinces of Afghanistan during the last few days in a series of swift military advances the Taliban militia, the most allied ally of the Pakistan Army, arrived at the gates of Kabul, the capital of the country, on 15 August. The besieged president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and his team, after showing defiance and expressing resolve to resist, resigned from their positions and some of them left the country.

These developments were followed by a reign of fear in Kabul where thousands of people stormed the airport in a desperate effort to leave the country. Heart wrenching photos and video clips went viral on social media as the US forces, controlling the airport opened fire on the mob stopping the airplanes in an effort to board the planes. At least three persons died after falling from the airplane that took off while these ill-fated persons were clinging to its tires. Taliban’s Military domination has weakened the prospects of a broad based government for diluting the extremist totalitarian rule which the Taliban want to model after their previous stint in power during 1990's.

Focused on the dramatic advances of Taliban and the collapse of the government based on the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the media isn’t making clear reference to their foreign sanctuaries and support. It’s becoming quite evident that the violent endgame in Afghanistan epitomises the opening shots of the new Cold War. It’s not being suggested here that there weren’t internal problems. Like other third world countries, Afghan state and society have been faced with serious challenges like the endemic corruption, multiple shortcomings in governance, and fragility and limitations of democratic system. But the Taliban militia’s current brutal war and their strategy of destroying national infrastructure and target killing of national intelligentsia has nothing to do with the aforementioned problems.

Although so far the important players of the so-called new great game are hedging their bets but there are indications of a new alignment both on regional and international level

Their current military campaign is determined by the changes in the strategic policy of the western powers in regard to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative ( BRI ). The US-led western powers are mobilising all their resources for obstructing the BRI right at the Chinese borders rather than waiting for it to reach Europe on Eurasian land bridge. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor ( CPEC ) is also the target of the said strategy. Taliban are acting as a demolition squad in preparing ground for state collapse in Afghanistan. They have already banned the national flag, national anthem and other national/state symbols. Deconstruction of Afghan/Pashtun national identity seems to be their main thrust.

State collapse in Afghanistan can create conflict zones around China, not dissimilar to games played around the erstwhile Soviet Union. But unlike the past, this time around it is not about containment of communism. It is about competition over the Eurasian heartland. For Pakistani generals it is a dream come true as they have consistently pursued a strategic depth in Afghanistan since the 1980's by turning it into an appendage. They also regard it a solution of the ‘Pashtun Question’.

The US-Taliban Doha agreement signed on 29 February 2020 is the main factor shaping the current conflict. The US excluded the Afghan state/government from this agreement. Not only that. The US legitimised Taliban by not asking questions about their brutal/terrorist past and by introducing them to the world as an organisation interested in peace and reconciliation. Taliban’s Doha Office, a US initiative tremendously helped Taliban to bolster their image.

A member of Taliban (C) stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, 16 August

Doha deal gave Taliban all they wanted; withdrawal of the US forces, release of the bulk of their prisoners, legitimacy and a waiver from restrictions on their movement. Interestingly they got all this without giving anything, not even renouncing violence or direct negotiations with the Afghan government. But Taliban don’t have internal popularity or political capital. Violence is their main instrument. However, Afghanistan has socioeconomically and culturally changed a lot with important strides in urbanisation and emergence of civil society. The majority of the population of new Afghanistan isn’t expected to put up with Taliban’s brutal medieval rule leading to political resistance.

Although so far the important players of the so-called new great game are hedging their bets but there are indications of a new alignment both on regional and international level. China and Russia and Iran, happy over the departure of US troops from Afghanistan are expected to play their cards quite cautiously. China will take Taliban by their word for not supporting violent anti-Chinese Uyghurs from Xinjiang. Russia in view of its previous involvement in Afghanistan and fighting against Afghan mujahideen has been carefully cultivating Taliban in recent years.

Iran has also developed relationship with Taliban in an effort to gain from their fight against the US. China and Russia are expected to be among the countries to recognise Taliban’s government before the western countries. India with huge economic investment in Afghanistan is anxiously watching the rise of pro Pakistani force in Afghanistan and is actively considering its strategic options. Turkey is also a more active player in Afghan conflict with its enthusiasm about Pan Turkism. Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord is a frequent visitor to Turkey.

But it is more complicated than it looks. According to UN reports, almost all the elements of the international terrorist syndicate are accompanying Taliban forces. They include Al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM ), Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and others. The activities of these terrorist organisations can quickly change the attitude of neighboring countries towards the Taliban regime.

* Afrasiab Khattak is a former Senator of Pakistan and analyst of regional affairs.