A last-ditch effort to broker peace in Afghanistan will be made in the Qatari capital of Doha this weekend. A senior Afghan government delegation which includes Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, and former national president Hamid Karzai will engage in talks with the Taleban. Afghanistan’s unending 42-year civil war has predictably intensified with the imminent departure of western armed forces led by the United States.
This week a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist with Reuters, Danish Siddiqui, was killed near the Spin Boldak border crossing between Afghanistan’s Kandahar province and the Pakistani region of Balochistan – he was apparently a victim of indiscriminate Taleban firing.
The Taleban captured power in the country a quarter of a century ago, before being ousted by the US after 9/11. Crucially, the American President George Bush who ordered the military invasion, did not finish the job – obsessed as he was with regime change and removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As such, the Taleban were not crushed as they could have been. Also to blame was neighbouring Pakistan, which having consented to fully cooperate with the US in the ‘war against terror’, allowed Taleban members to regroup and receive sanctuary across the border.
Two decades later – encouraged by the Pakistani establishment – the Taleban again pose a serious threat to the incumbent Afghan administration of President Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist. The clock has painfully turned back 25 years.
The West in general and the US in particular were partly responsible for the emergence of Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. As millions of refugees fled to Pakistan after Soviet Union troops intervened to prop up a left-wing government in December 1979, American intelligence members injected the poison of religious fervour into the refugees.
Moscow retreated in the spring of 1989, leaving the Afghans to bitterly fight a war between liberalism – men without beards and women in western attire – and Islamic revivalism. Since then, Afghanistan has become conservative at best, maniacally bigoted at worst.
There’s triumphalism in Pakistan as it prepares for the Taleban, nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence army espionage wing, to take over Afghanistan again. Islamabad visualises its victory over India, a country which is currently widely popular in Afghanistan after investing billions of dollars in developmental aid there over the past 20 years. Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have unabashedly been pro-India and anti-Pakistan.
Pakistan has historically regarded Afghanistan as the perfect terrain for ‘strategic depth’ in the event of an imaginary Indian invasion, which is why it welcomes the idea of a Taleban takeover. But it is also worried about American blow-back if it overtly engineers an overthrow, as it did in 1996 when the Taleban came to power. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s media adviser Raouf Hasan recently wrote in Pakistan Today that ‘the Kabul government cannot hang on to power indefinitely and the Taleban must realise the futility of a take-over through exercising brutal power.’
But the Afghan administration has repeatedly accused the Pakistani establishment of masterminding Taleban inroads into dozens of its districts, and even providing air cover for Taleban forces. One of Afghanistan’s vice-presidents, Amrullah Saleh, has accused Pakistan of warning the Afghan armed forces that if they pushed back the Taleban from Spin Boldak, Afghan troops would be ‘repelled’ by the Pakistan Air Force. Pakistan has denied the allegation and claimed it was responding to a threat to its air space.
In some of the areas the Taleban have taken charge, they have re-imposed medieval practices. The insurrectionists have ordered men to go to mosque and women to stay at home. This is a re-enactment of 1996.
How long can the Afghan National Army hold out? It is believed to enjoy numerical superiority of 350,000 to 200,000 over the Taleban, possess more potent weaponry and has the support of a limited air force to resist the religious diehards. When the Soviet military withdrew in March 1989, conventional wisdom anticipated an immediate collapse of the residual Mohammad Najibullah regime. But this did not occur until 1992.
The post-2001 generation of Afghans have happily tasted a modicum of modernity. You would hope, therefore, that the public is strenuously opposed to a return to an intolerant caliphate. Besides, the major powers may still intervene to prevent a Taleban takeover. Even China, which has dealt with Muslim Uighurs with a heavy hand and has considerable influence over Pakistan, could oppose Afghanistan’s degeneration and the destabilising effect this would have on the region.
And while the US may be reluctant to put boots on the ground, intermittent aerial intercessions by the US from its bases in the Gulf cannot be ruled out. President Joe Biden has honoured his predecessor Donald Trump’s commitment to pull troops out of Afghanistan. At the same time the Taleban’s wanton disregard of promises it made during the September 2020 Doha deal is unlikely to go unpunished.