Over the last few days, the Taliban have swept across Afghanistan and taken control of Kabul, the capital, and the second and third-largest cities in the country, Kandahar and Herat. The rapid advance of the Taliban has taken the international community by surprise and proved that the latter is helpless to stop the Taliban, in the absence of an agreed-upon political agreement on power-sharing with the Afghan government.
On 14 August, Mazar-e-Sharif, the stronghold of the former Northern Alliance with which the CIA liaised in preparations for its Operation Anaconda in 2001, fell to Taliban insurgents.
Taliban conquered Kabul for the second time in the last three decades.
On 13 August, after an international meeting on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar released a chairman’s statement condemning the violence in Afghanistan, urging a ceasefire, and calling for the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan to “participate in negotiations for peace”. The statement said that the participants at the meeting had taken note of “converging” statements made by the Afghan government and the Taliban on certain guiding principles for a political solution that included inclusive governance, the respect for human rights, including the rights of women and minorities, a mechanism to deliver a representative government, a commitment not to allow the use of Afghan soil by any individuals or groups threatening the security of other countries, and the respect for international law and international humanitarian law.
Even assuming that the Afghan warring parties will sign a power-sharing agreement, it is difficult to imagine that the Taliban will genuinely respect women’s rights and the rights of minorities, however, particularly the followers of the Shia sect. In the meantime, the US and UK deployed troops to secure the evacuation of their nationals as well as most of their diplomatic personnel from Kabul. The Pentagon said that these troops have no combat orders.
US President Joe Biden spoke of his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan on 10 August, saying that he did not regret his decision and that the Afghans “have got to fight for themselves” and “to fight for their nation”. He added that the only way to deliver security and peace was “to work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban” and insisted that an Islamist takeover was not “inevitable”.
It would be difficult to expect the Taliban to accept a back seat in any future government in Afghanistan in the case of a political solution. With the Afghan military demoralised and incapable of defeating the Taliban on the battlefield. In fact, one Taliban leader said last week that his movement was advancing towards the Afghan capital like an “anaconda”.
This reference is not coincidental. Back in 2001, the US war plan in Afghanistan in its initial phase was codenamed “Operation Anaconda”. Former US president George W. Bush wrote in his memoir Decision Points that “Operation Anaconda marked the end of the opening phase of the battle… In six months, we removed the Taliban from power, destroyed Al-Qaeda training camps, liberated more than twenty-six million people from unspeakable brutality, allowed Afghan girls to return to school, and laid the foundation for a democratic society to emerge” in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are now taking their revenge 20 years later. For the record, the US war plan in Afghanistan was code-named “Enduring Freedom”.
The international community has warned the Taliban that seizing power by force in Afghanistan will turn the country into a “pariah state” and deprive it of international legitimacy. The Taliban know better. Regional powers, in addition to Russia and China, have been involved in talks with the Islamist movement over the last couple of weeks. These powers want assurances from the Taliban that they will not allow any terrorist groups to stage attacks against them from Afghan territory.
As things stand, the Taliban have promised the Chinese government that they have no intention of targeting the southeastern Chinese provinces where the majority of China’s Muslims live, for example. Nor will they encourage any local Chinese terror group to operate from Afghan territory. It goes without saying that China will also want to work with the Taliban in the future if they are in power in the context of its Road and Belt Initiative.
Russia is observing a wait-and-see attitude towards the recent developments in Afghanistan for the time being, and some Russian diplomats have gone as far as to claim that the Taliban do not pose a security threat to Russia in the medium term. India, which historically has viewed the Taliban with suspicion, has entered into exploratory talks with them, with the aim of making sure that the Taliban will not lend support in the future to terrorist groups that have targeted India in the past, especially in Kashmir.
The latest turn of events in Afghanistan has benefited Pakistan. Over the past 20 years, Islamabad has been wary of Indian-Afghan relations and feared the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. With the Taliban conquer and on the verge of assuming power in Kabul, the Pakistanis will have fewer security worries in this context. However, there will be another concern related to future relations between the Taliban in Kabul and the Pakistani Taliban.
As Taliban seizes absolute power in Kabul, the international community will depend on Pakistan to a certain extent in dealing with the Taliban. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency enjoyed close relations with the Taliban prior to 1996 before they became the sole rulers of Afghanistan and during their years in power from 1996 until 2001. I suspect that relations between the ISI and the Taliban did not end with Operation Enduring Freedom.
Pakistan was among the three countries that recognised the Taliban government after 1996. The other two were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. How many governments will recognise a Taliban government in Afghanistan today is anybody’s guess. To believe that the Taliban have changed could prove to be wishful thinking. The internal cohesion of the movement would be threatened if some leaders within it really want to guarantee women’s rights and those of the minorities.
On 12 August, both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, reaffirming the US commitment to maintaining robust diplomatic and security relations with the Afghan government. Blinken also stressed that the US would continue working for a “political solution” to the “conflict”. Two days later, he called the Afghan president once again with the same message of support. On the same day, the Afghan president addressed his countrymen, assuring them that his government would defend Kabul and fight the Taliban.
However, less than twenty four hours later, Afghan President Ghani fled Kabul and negotiations were underway with the Taliban for a “peaceful surrender of power”, in Afghanistan. Many Afghan observers predict the descent of Afghanistan into civil war.
“Afghan lives ruined or lost will be part of Biden’s legacy” was the title of an op-ed article run by the Washington Post on 12 August. Operation “Enduring Freedom” launched by former US president George W. Bush in 2001 has failed to deliver long-lasting freedom and a thriving free society in Afghanistan.
A new chapter is opening in the turbulent history of Afghanistan and South Asia. In the meantime, history has proved once again that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly