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Enter the Taliban 2.0: Implications for Afghanistan and neighbourhood

Taliban

Since the ‘Fall of Kabul’ on 15th August 2021, an array of events unfolding in Afghanistan bringing back the shadow of the dark days of previous Taliban rule. The unfolding events there are expected to disrupt the peace and stability of not only the Indian subcontinent but the whole world. What could be the impact of the new Taliban regime on Afghanistan and the neighbourhood?

The storming into power by the Taliban in Afghanistan much before than predicted has startled the community of nations and the comity of civilised societies as we know it. A country with rugged terrain and a ragged experience of endless turmoil has suddenly set the academic and political circles picking their minds on the how and why of the turn of events for the last couple of days. Yet a look at the history of the land would speak of the decades of disorder, infighting and instability that challenged the prospect of a stable peaceful order within the country.

This discussion will not travel back deep into history at great lengths but even the earliest of the great conquerors like Alexander had acknowledged the fighting spirit of the people of Afghanistan “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the revenge of the Afghans.”

Geography has an undeniable role in determining the political future of a country and Afghanistan is an excellent example of that.

Geography has an undeniable role in determining the political future of a country and Afghanistan is an excellent example of that. The country’s unenviable location pushed it into Great Game, what is happening now is also ruled by the dynamics of geopolitics; it is a product of the complex interplay between the factors (and players) within the country and stakeholders beyond the borders. Perhaps that has been the case since the Cold War as lessons of history would reveal, but what has been unique to the contemporary sequence of events is that it will have serious implications both spatially and temporally.

Taliban were never interested in reaching out to far-flung corners of the world.

Plenty of cerebral work has gone into the academic exposition on ‘Who are the Taliban?”. This hardcore community of scholars’ was seen as a helpful lot amidst the civil conflict in the immediate post-Soviet period. The now-declassified documents of the US intelligence took note of them as well-armed students who were not a part of the Soviet period jihad. The common Afghans saw them as relief providers to the endless chaos at that point in time. Experts focusing on the Taliban have found them as a local movement. True, that the Taliban were never interested in reaching out to far-flung corners of the world.

A substantial section of the Taliban were local Afghans who indoctrinated in the Islamic ideology saw (and still see) themselves as delivering justice, as Mujahids they were only interested in implementing the Sharia as a way of life and politics in Afghanistan so to keep the country free from any instability. Taliban has survived as a force of insurgency with a staunch religious belief.  In the present context, they have made the best of the situation created by domestic factors within Afghanistan, namely the corruption, the inefficiency of the elected governments of Afghanistan and the inability of the International Coalition (IC) in containing their age-old adversary.

There was a failure on the part of the western world to assume that the Taliban were backward, medieval and reactionary and that they wouldn’t learn from their past experiences and mistakes that ousted them from power in 2001. In terms of strategy the efforts by the US forces (reinforcements) to contain the Taliban in the south and eastern parts of Afghanistan, led to the increasing control of the North.

The inability of the IC to break the nexus between the Taliban and Pakistan itself speaks of an inept US strategy both politically and strategically.

The inability of the IC to break the nexus between the Taliban and Pakistan itself speaks of an inept US strategy both politically and strategically. The border between Afghanistan and the Taliban has remained open. The Afghan Taliban gained greater access to Pakistan because of the Pakistani Taliban. They have access to the Swat Valley, (mostly Waziristan), FATA region and NWFP (especially Buner and Malakand districts) virtually bringing them under Sharia law.

Until the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in Abottabad, American experts thought he was hiding in such remotely accessible places. Taliban also found access to the Baluchistan region; the Pakistani government hoped that the Taliban would quell the threat of the Balochi nationalists. Taliban have efficiently dealt with other two issues in Pakistan – the Shi’a community and the tribal leaders. With the Pakistani army not making any genuine attempts to hit the Taliban nestling in these border areas and the IC not targeting them either, the Taliban was enjoying strategic depth in Pakistan.

Now with the strong possibility of a Taliban led government in Afghanistan, Pakistan wants to fix the relationship with the Islamic Emirate expressing the need to deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP).

Now with the strong possibility of a Taliban led government in Afghanistan, Pakistan wants to fix the relationship with the Islamic Emirate expressing the need to deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP). Pakistani interior minister claimed that there has been mutual assurance to not use each other’s territory to promote terrorist activities and that border fencing will prevent infiltration of any sort; whatever that implies will have an impact on the long trail of free passage to the Taliban across the borders.

Moreover, will there be now a difference in the way the Pakistani government would look at the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban especially the TTP?

Haqqani Network within the Taliban has been the blue-eyed boy of the Pakistani security establishment.

More important and relevant is the fact that the Haqqani Network within the Taliban has been the blue-eyed boy of the Pakistani security establishment. They are primarily based in Waziristan and the Southeastern borders of Afghanistan (Loya-Paktia region). It is because of the twin leverages Haqqanis have been providing to Pakistan in protecting its interests in Afghanistan and promoting terror attacks against India that the Pakistani army has chosen to look away from their den in Pakistan.

The popular perception is that the Taliban are the harbingers of terror sheltering terrorist groups most famously Al Qaeda.

The popular perception is that the Taliban are the harbingers of terror sheltering terrorist groups most famously Al Qaeda. Perhaps the world community would not have learnt much about the Taliban-Al Qaeda relationship but for the 9/11 attack. US experts have agreed that the Al Qaeda network predated the Taliban. Afghanistan, from its mujahidin days, housed various terrorist outfits including Al Qaeda. Thus Taliban inherited the Al Qaeda. Once in power, Al Qaeda connected with the Taliban through old friendship and marital ties.

The Taliban leaders also encouraged the Arab newcomers to wed Afghan women and join the Taliban. The friendship ties between Mullah Omar and bin Laden dates back to the anti-Soviet phase of 1978-1979, and it is believed that bin Laden had partially financed the Taliban takeover. It is also said that Omar married Bin Laden’s eldest daughter and while Bin Laden took one of Omar’s daughters as his fourth wife. However, the authenticity of this news is hard to come but the truth is that the blood-ethnic relationship between the Taliban members allowed for the entanglement between the Taliban movement and the extremist ideology of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

Contrary to the view that most of the Taliban are paid fighters and money is a huge factor behind the recruitment, many have joined the movement because they believe in a cause and an Islamic ideology however medieval it may be. The Taliban found opportunities in the helplessness of the Afghan people from the lack of good governance marred by corruption and exploited the age-old narrative of the struggle against the infidels (from the Russians to the Americans).

With the US and subsequently the multinational coalition housed in their land for two decades, people’s perceptions about them have shifted from what Dorronsoro would describe as ‘mehman to dushman’.

With the US and subsequently the multinational coalition housed in their land for two decades, people’s perceptions about them have shifted from what Dorronsoro would describe as ‘mehman to dushman’. He has identified three basic reasons for the disillusionment with the foreigners – first, the isolation cum alienation of the Westerners especially civilian westerners, second, the extent of the violence often arbitrary with substantial collateral damage and the third dissatisfaction with the distribution of international aid.

The lack of rural administration and lack of order has allowed the insurgency to fill the vacuum.

The Taliban have used growing disaffection for propaganda. The lack of rural administration and lack of order has allowed the insurgency to fill the vacuum. Notwithstanding the existing divide between the Pashtu and non-Pashtu groups, the Taliban have tried hard to bridge the difference by stressing the ideology. Even western experts note that in order to grasp entire Afghanistan, the Taliban have tried to be more accommodative of other ethnic communities.

At present, the only province that is challenging them is Panjshir where the Northern Alliance reflects the non- Pashtun resistance of the country. The Washington Post published a report recent titled ‘Mujahideen Resistance to the Taliban’. The trail of Islamic resistance in Afghanistan has thus split down the ages wherein the mujahedeen confront the Taliban.

The activities of the Islamic State of Khorasan or the ISIS-K indicate that power configurations will not be in simple binaries between the Taliban and anti-Taliban nationalist elements in the country.

However, a more grave challenge awaits the Taliban in the world of Islamic fundamentalism. The activities of the Islamic State of Khorasan or the ISIS-K indicate that power configurations will not be in simple binaries between the Taliban and anti-Taliban nationalist elements in the country. The group with a present strength of 1500-2000 fighters was formed with the breakup of Taliban (from both the TTP and Haqqani network) and from other terrorist groups in the region including the Al Qaeda in the Subcontinent (AQIS) and Lashkar–e–Taiba (LeT), Jamaat–ud–Dawa (JuD) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

ISIS-K has strong links with Pakistan because it has recruited a number of fighters from the madrasas and mosques there.

UN reports claim that since the withdrawal of the US troops some good numbers of Islamic fighters from the neighbouring regions of Central Asia, Russia’s North Caucasus, China’s Xinjiang have reached Afghanistan leading to a swell in the recruitment of the ISIS-K. Besides the ISIS-K has strong links with Pakistan because it has recruited a number of fighters from the madrasas and mosques there. Moreover, the present leader Shihab-ul-Mujahir has had links with the Haqqanis.

In the porous, rugged areas of the Af-Pak border, the distinction between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban AQIS and ISIS-K are almost indistinguishable. All that can be predicted is that the region will become the springboard of terrorism for the larger neighbourhood and not so in the distant future for the world.  

By negotiating peace deals with the Taliban, the US recognised the Taliban as the legitimate stakeholder to power in Afghanistan.

The return of the Taliban to Afghanistan is a reality that one has to reconcile with albeit with a lot of apprehensions. The truth is that by negotiating peace deals with the Taliban, the US recognised the Taliban as the legitimate stakeholder to power in Afghanistan. The years 1996-2001 witnessed a ruthless Taliban period that remorselessly violated human rights and dignity. Women and children were the worst sufferers. And the regime promoted global terrorism like no other.

The new Taliban regime now termed by many as Taliban 2.0 faces the challenge of gaining recognition from the international community. In this direction, press conferences by the Taliban tried to impress upon the international community that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is aware of its responsibilities to work towards an inclusive government and especially women would enjoy their rights albeit within the sharia framework. However, that has not convinced the people of Afghanistan who have either taken to the roads protesting or have started fleeing the country challenging the Taliban leadership either way.

The tottering leadership of the US-supported government of Afghanistan and the subsequent fleeing of President Ghani to the UAE has shaken the confidence of the people.

The tottering leadership of the US-supported government of Afghanistan and the subsequent fleeing of President Ghani to the UAE has shaken the confidence of the people. Afghans have more respect for Vice-President Amrullah Saleh who has stayed back joining the resistance at Panjshir. Most important, irrespective of the Taliban’s assurance that Afghanistan will not entertain terrorists, trends speak otherwise.

For the neighbouring region and particularly for India, the emergence of the Taliban is a challenge but the response cannot be immediate or hackneyed.

For the neighbouring region and particularly for India, the emergence of the Taliban is a challenge but the response cannot be immediate or hackneyed. India does not share borders with Afghanistan but the challenges of an unstable Afghanistan with the Taliban at the helm of affairs will affect India adversely, uncertainty revolves around Kashmir and domestic security at large.

Pakistan enthused by the return of the Taliban, is seeking strategic leverage and depth that will help them to engage the professional fighters (even mercenaries) in terror activities.

In the context of the fact that the Haqqani Network has been supportive of the terrorist activities in India, the recent visit by JeM chief Masood Azhar to Kandahar reifies the apprehension that anti-India terrorist groups will find support and encouragement with renewed vigour. Pakistan enthused by the return of the Taliban, is seeking strategic leverage and depth that will help them to engage the professional fighters (even mercenaries) in terror activities.

The Daesh have their eyes on India because the new leadership is focusing on South and Southeast Asia.

One can take note of the recent spurt of drone led terrorist attacks in India particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, this coincides with the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. If this is an indication of the nature of terrorist activism in the future vis-a-vis India, then India needs to gear up for high-tech terror challenges. Over and above the Daesh have their eyes on India because the new leadership is focusing on South and Southeast Asia.

It will be too early to make conclusive predictions about Afghanistan with a sense of authority. Things are extremely fluid, too many factors and players are at interplay and it will take some good time to make sense of the shape of things within the war-tattered land. However, the regional (even perhaps global) geopolitics has started unfolding on the issue of recognising Taliban led Afghanistan. Very predictably China and Pakistan are eager to recognise and even Russia is not opposed.

Some form of anti-US rationale works in supporting the Taliban but in any case, the departure of the US and the IC has been a triumph for the anti-western forces; the Taliban are triumphant too.

Some form of anti-US rationale works in supporting the Taliban but in any case, the departure of the US and the IC has been a triumph for the anti-western forces; the Taliban are triumphant too. There is hardly now a way to undo that and there is no plausible alternative to the Taliban led government. One has to just believe that Taliban 2.0, now in control of things, will be more inclusive in their administration and work across the various ethnic groups and address the gender divide. The world can hope for the best and UNSC can only produce concerning resolutions but the real threat comes from the growing axis between Pakistan and the terror groups.

China-Pakistan axis when combined with the Haqqanis and the Masood Azars, will translate into a spurt of terror in the subcontinent.

China has very specific, well-defined national interests that relate to the safety and promotion of BRI projects and the assurance from the Taliban of no support to the insurgency in Xinjiang; recognition will be quid pro quo. On the one hand, the China-Pakistan axis when combined with the Haqqanis and the Masood Azars, will translate into a spurt of terror in the subcontinent.

The subcontinent is heading for the threshold of further violence and loss of life either way.

On the other hand, if Daesh expands exponentially, it will be a challenge for all the governments of the region including Afghanistan and Pakistan. All this indicates that the subcontinent is heading for the threshold of further violence and loss of life either way.

In this context, India is waiting for the next sequence of events to unfold. Some experts have suggested informal engagement with the Taliban to test waters; there are fears that India may fall behind in the game of geopolitics emerging in this region. She is neither trying to rule out relations with the incumbent Taliban led government in Afghanistan nor unaware of the impending threats that she may face.

Waiting and watching seem practical but India needs to also dialogue with the other states of the region and members of the Islamic world to make sure her strategic interests are addressed.

India is aware that she had made several billion dollars investments in Afghanistan in the last couple of years during the period of the earlier democratic governments, one has to wait and see how the Taliban government deal with them; it could be a litmus test for the state of future relations between India and Afghanistan. Waiting and watching seem practical but India needs to also dialogue with the other states of the region and members of the Islamic world to make sure her strategic interests are addressed. India’s interest lies in a stable and peaceful transition in Afghanistan but with so much unpredictability and uncertainty in the immediate future, peace is the most difficult thing to come by.

Also Read: Afghanistan crisis: Why Taliban 2.0 is even more vile

(Ishani Naskar is Professor, Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

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