The fate of Afghanistan: Thorns in the Taliban’s flesh

Haitham Nouri , Monday 13 Sep 2021

Domestic policies and international relations will determine the fate of the government in Afghanistan

Thorns in the Taliban’s flesh
Taliban fighters patrol on vehicles along a street in Kabul(photo: AFP)

Leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan Ahmed Massoud wrote on Facebook on Sunday that he welcomed a proposal by religious scholars to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban to end the fighting in the provincial capital of Panjshir.

The Taliban claimed on Monday to have secured control over the rugged Valley that was a symbol of resistance against Soviet forces in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 and then under the first rule of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001.

It was the only region the extremist group could not control. However, Al-Qaeda assassinated Shah Massoud, father of Ahmed Massoud, in 2001 before the US invasion of Afghanistan. This year’s Taliban takeover of Afghanistan severed communications between Panjshir and the north, which had provided supplies to the fortified Valley.

The Taliban managed to “buy off” opponents as it took over the country, head of Britain’s Armed Forces General Sir Nick Carter told the BBC.

“I don’t think we realised quite what the Taliban were up to,” he stated, adding that the Taliban were not fighting to take over cities, but were paying them off and buying off other fighters.

Tribal loyalties could have further weakened the Afghan army, which was trained and armed by the US during its nearly 20-year occupation of the country. Ethnic Pashtun fighters sided with the Taliban, while soldiers from other ethnicities fled when they realised there was no point in fighting the extremist movement.

The fragility of the resistance in the Panjshir Valley may be evidence of the strong hold of the Taliban over the country. However, this may not last for long.

Afghanistan is a country of diverse ethnicities divided between the Pashtuns, who comprise about 40 per cent of the population, the Tajiks who represent about 20 per cent, and the Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras, each making up nine per cent of the population.

The Taliban’s oppression will provoke the Tajiks, who represent a large part of the Afghan political, economic and cultural elite. The extremism practised by the Taliban also harms the Shia Hazaras. Together, the Tajiks and Shias represent more than one-third of the population, which will make it difficult for the Taliban to rule the country without their support.

Another difficulty facing Taliban rule in Afghanistan is the attitude of neighbouring countries, with India unlikely to accept a regime in Afghanistan controlled by Pakistan, which contributed to the establishment of the Taliban.

The majority of the extremist group’s leaders were educated in religious schools in Pakistan, and India may support Afghanistan’s opposition even though it does not share borders with Afghanistan to deliver military aid.

Iran is another thorn in the side of the Taliban, who have been implicated in suppressing and persecuting Shia Hazaras. Tehran may thus oppose the Taliban for religious reasons, particularly as this may increase the popularity of hardliners in the Iranian regime led by the newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi.

Despite US media reports that Beijing wants to invest in Afghanistan through its Belt and Road Initiative or in the promising Afghan mining sector, China has long been worried about Islamist and Buddhist movements in the region.

The Western media has accused Beijing of detaining a million adults and 3,000 minors from the Muslim Uighur ethnicity, though the Chinese authorities claim they are being held in vocational and cultural rehabilitation centres established to counter extremism and separatism.

Beijing fears that Afghanistan may turn into a safe haven for terrorists and that thousands of Uighurs may take advantage of their presence in Afghanistan to establish a launching pad to fight the Chinese authorities.

Should this happen, relations between Beijing and Kabul will be destroyed beyond repair.

The same applies in the case of Russia, which has been engaged in wars against extremist Islamist movements in Chechnya and Syria. Russia will do its best to prevent terrorists moving from Syria and Turkey to Afghanistan, from where they could wage a war against it.

Turkey wants to get rid of thousands of terrorists who fought in Syria under its supervision without tangible results. It may seize the opportunity to move them to Afghanistan, just as it did in Libya when it transported hundreds, if not thousands, of guerrilla fighters to the latter country to support the former Government of National Accord headquartered in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Pakistan is trying to “market” the Taliban as an Islamist movement that has learned from its past mistakes and that will not persecute women and minorities like it did during its first period of rule.

Pakistan needs to play this role to market itself to the West as a moderate state that can contribute to “converting extremists to moderates” and hence remove the US embargo enforced since the time of former US president Donald Trump.

The West has accused Pakistan of creating Taliban rule in Afghanistan to counter India. Many observers believe that if Pakistan loses its presence in Afghanistan, it will vanish from the international stage since it does not otherwise have a role to play in neighbouring countries.

Islamabad also hopes that the Chinese Road and Belt Initiative passing through Afghanistan will improve its own economic conditions.

It fears that were it to lose its influence over the Taliban, the latter could demand the union of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan or that Pakistan’s Pashtuns could draw closer to Afghanistan.

For all such reasons, the fate of the Taliban, as the sole ruler of Afghanistan or as a party in a civil war, depends on both its domestic policies and on the complicated state of international relations in the region and beyond.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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