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In-Depth | Taliban blitzkrieg, palpable fear and India’s gambit: What’s happening in Afghanistan

In-Depth | Taliban blitzkrieg, palpable fear and India’s gambit: What’s happening in Afghanistan

While hectic parleys are underway to find a peaceful solution to the crisis brewing in Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly capturing more territory in recent weeks has left a nation anxious and worried

Six months. That’s how quickly the Afghanistan government could collapse after the United States military withdraws from the war-ravaged country by August 31, 2021.

This is the assessment of the US’ intelligence community, the Wall Street Journal reported in June, citing unnamed officials aware of the matter.

Earlier, American intelligence units believed that the Afghan armed forces and Afghanistan’s government led by President Ashraf Ghani could hold on for two years after the US completes its withdrawal.

The change in assessment came amid the Taliban sweeping massive swathes of territory in recent weeks, wresting control of the countryside and border crossings with neighbouring Pakistan, Tajikistan and Iran.

On July 9, Taliban officials claimed that they had taken control of 85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. Their ability to achieve this so quickly was bolstered by some Afghan soldiers retreating.

Taliban’s roots can be traced back to the early 1990s. It largely consisted of Talibs (students) from Afghanistan's Pashtun areas who had studied in traditional Islamic schools and fought during the Soviet–Afghan War of the 1980s – the period in which the US spent billions of dollars to train and arm Afghan resistance groups. By 1994, the group, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, had emerged as one of the key factions in the Afghan Civil War.

Taliban fighters fire a Soviet-made cannon, 25 kilometres north of the Afghan capital on November 2, 1995. This image was clicked one of the sporadic exchanges of artillery and rocket fire between the Taliban and the former government forces in a range of hills across the Shamali valley (Image: Reuters/Patrick De Noirmont) Taliban fighters fire a Soviet-made cannon, 25 kilometres north of the Afghan capital on November 2, 1995. This image was clicked one of the sporadic exchanges of artillery and rocket fire between the Taliban and the former government forces in a range of hills across the Shamali valley (Image: Reuters/Patrick De Noirmont)

It held power over a large part of the country between 1996 and 2001 and enforced its strict interpretation of the Sharia, or Islamic law.

Because of historical, cultural, ethnic and geographical factors, the Taliban's ideology evolved into becoming a combination of the Sharia and militant Islamism. It follows a mix of Deobandi fundamentalism along with Pashtunwali – the Pashtun lifestyle code.

They have been condemned internationally for enforcing their interpretation of the Sharia and brutal treatment of civilians – especially women who have faced oppression under their rule.

The organisation was also involved in a cultural genocide. In 2001, they blew up and destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan – two 6th century statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff.

‘This is a mistake’

There have been growing calls, including those from former US President George W Bush, for his country to slow down its exit. Bush said civilians were being left to be “slaughtered” by the Taliban. “Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm. This is a mistake... They're just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart,” Bush told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

That’s also the mood inside Afghanistan. Maryam Orozgani, a Master of Gender and Women Studies student at Kabul University, told Moneycontrol: “The US decision of leaving immediately while Afghans are in a tense situation is not wise. Although, I should accept that in these years that the US military was in Afghanistan, the situation was not good either. There were and are suicide bombings, murders and violence against women.”

“Currently we are in a failed peace process. So, the US should halt their withdrawal. Because they had started [this], they gave power to the Taliban. Now with the Taliban attacking districts and provinces of Afghanistan, as the US and other international army (personnel) leave, makes everyone anxious,” she said.

However, President Joe Biden has made it clear that there’s to be no waiting.

“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” Biden said in a speech from the White House’s East Room on July 8, adding, “Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future.”

The US president further justified his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan even as the Taliban was making rapid advances across the country.

“How many more, how many more thousands of American daughters and sons are you willing to risk?” Biden said to those calling for the US to extend the military operation, adding firmly, “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

After taking the Oval Office, Biden had announced that US soldiers will be out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The attacks on multiple locations, including the World Trade Centre in New York City and The Pentagon in capital Washington DC, were masterminded by Osama bin Laden, the then leader of terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda. The attacks caused the death of more than 2,970 victims.

Taliban, which was giving refuge to bin Laden, refused to turn him over – triggering ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, the official name given by the US government for the global war on terrorism.

The US and its allies bombed and drove the Taliban out of power, denying Al-Qaeda a safe base to carry out its operations in Afghanistan.

A US Air Force AC-130H is seen bombing Taliban troops and weapons in Afghanistan in this undated file photo (Image: Reuters/File Photo/US Air Force) A US Air Force AC-130H is seen bombing Taliban troops and weapons in Afghanistan in this undated file photo (Image: Reuters/File Photo/US Air Force)

America's longest foreign war

After two decades of fighting (America’s longest foreign war), spending an estimated $2.2 trillion and establishing a pro-West civilian democratic setup in Kabul, the Donald Trump administration signed a conditional peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar in February 2020.

The deal requires the US and its allies to withdraw from Afghanistan within a time frame if the Taliban upholds the terms of the agreement. The Taliban promised to reduce violence, cut ties with foreign terrorist outfits and join the intra-Afghan peace talks.

Those peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, aimed at ending internal fighting, have not progressed well so far.

As Taliban held significant clout in rural areas, with the backing of some state actors, there was always a risk of the extremist group’s resurgence.

US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops moving out has only aided the Taliban’s return. Having been able to rapidly consolidate territory with some sort of a blitzkrieg, the Taliban now sees no point in coming to the negotiation table with the Ghani government.

This has resulted in palpable fear in Kabul and all major cities that remain under the Afghan government’s control.

The US announced on July 2 that it had vacated the Bagram airbase, situated about an hour north of Kabul. This effectively concluded its military campaign in the country.

But Afghan General Asadullah Kohistani, the base's new commander, told the BBC that the American forces had left Bagram under the cover of darkness – without informing him. The Afghan military found out only hours later, about their exit.

See pictures of US troops leaving Afghanistan after a bloody 20-year war

The Afghan forces are expecting the Taliban to attack key military installations such as Bagram at some point. The Afghan Armed Forces, comprising the National Army and the Air Force, have been equipped by the US with modern weapons and trained by multiple allies, including India.

Aerial porters work with maintainers to load a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III as American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, on June 16, 2021 (Image: US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Corey Vandiver/Handout via Reuters) Aerial porters work with maintainers to load a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III as American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, on June 16, 2021 (Image: US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Corey Vandiver/Handout via Reuters)

While the national army has taken back some districts, it hasn’t resisted the Taliban the way it was expected to. “You know, if we compare ourselves with the Americans, it’s a big difference," General Kohistani told the BBC, “But according to our capabilities... we are trying to do the best and as much as possible to secure and serve all the people.”

About 650 US soldiers will remain in the country, mainly to protect embassy staff. They will also assist Turkish forces, who are on a non-combat mission to operate Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Ankara has hinted that it may deploy Syrian mercenaries in Afghanistan, a move that the Taliban has warned against.

The human cost

Between 2006 and early 2020, the US reportedly dropped more than 58,600 bombs as part of the conflict. As of April 2021, 66,000-69,000 Afghan security personnel were killed in various skirmishes.

According to data collated by The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the civilian death toll in Afghanistan stands at over 47,200. This excludes 444 humanitarian aid workers and 72 journalists, who have died in the conflict.

The fighting also resulted in the death of about 2,442 US troops. Additionally, about 1,140 allied troops and 3,846 US contractors were killed until April 2021 and thousands of others were wounded.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the conflict escalates.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, an estimated 2.7 lakh Afghans have been newly displaced inside the country since January 2021 primarily due to insecurity and violence. That has taken the total displaced population to over 35 lakhs.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan suggests that civilian casualties increased by 29 percent during the first quarter of this year compared to 2020.

Families forced to flee their homes in recent weeks have cited the worsening security situation as the main reason for them to leave, according to UNHCR spokesperson, Babar Baloch.

“The resilience of the Afghan people has been pushed to the limit by prolonged conflict, high levels of displacement, the impact of COVID-19, recurrent natural disasters, including drought and deepening poverty … A failure to reach a peace agreement in Afghanistan and stem the current violence will lead to further displacement within the country, as well as to neighbouring countries and beyond,” Baloch said during a press briefing.

An internally displaced Afghan girl carries a child near their shelter at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul on June 20, 2019 (Image: Reuters/Omar Sobhani) An internally displaced Afghan girl carries a child near their shelter at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul on June 20, 2019 (Image: Reuters/Omar Sobhani)

With the Taliban rapidly advancing, young Afghans who have lived in a relatively free society but who have also heard of the hardships faced by previous generations, are growing increasingly wary of the future.

During its rule in the late 1990s, the Taliban had outlawed playing music, television soap operas and fancy haircuts, and favourite Afghan pastimes such as kite flying.

Now there are concerns that these, and others like women’s education, may be banned again if the Taliban wrests power. Thus, many young Afghans are considering leaving the country, while they can.

Fears of oppression

Closing embassies and the growing violence has left many Afghans, including Orozgani, scared and unsure of the future.

“There is no hope for Afghan girls. There is a high possibility of girls being kept inside houses, deprived of freedom, education, and the simple right of living. This is not easy to tolerate. As a student of gender and women studies, I am not sure if I can complete my MA if the Taliban captures power,” she pointed out.

“They (the Taliban) don't accept girls being empowered, how will they allow us to be in a field in a university teaching gender and women studies? Thinking about all of these things makes us anxious and disappointed; how should I not be anxious?” Orozgani exclaimed.

According to her, “The Taliban doesn't believe in international decisions, they got 5,000 Talib (members of the Taliban) released (from Afghan jails as part of the peace deal with the US), but what did they do in return? They are saying one thing and doing another. On the other hand, every district that they are taking, they are enforcing silly rules for women like having mahram while leaving the house.”

In Islam, a mahram is a family member with whom marriage would be considered illegal and from whom purdah (concealment of the body with a hijab) is not obligatory. According to the customs, the mahram, if he is an adult male, may escort a woman outdoors – though it’s not obligatory.

Orozgani, who lived in Pakistan’s Peshawar until 2002, said that the Taliban’s rule requiring men to escort women out of their house is impractical. “If I, as an educated woman, want to do a job, I will also need to have one man with me as a mahram. Is it even possible? It makes me anxious and my heart is breaking! I don't want to experience what my mother went through during the Taliban regime,” she wailed.

‘They might succeed’

The student from the Master of Gender and Women Studies at Kabul University, listed her anxieties. “My biggest concern about the next six months to a year is a possible takeover by the Taliban. They might succeed. When they wrest power, they will deprive women and girls of education and work, and there will be forced migration. These are my other big concerns in this tense situation.”

The current scenario has left all women perturbed, especially those who are educated, she said. The 27-year-old also highlighted how the Taliban has supported forced marriages. “This makes men and women of Afghanistan worried”.

“I really want to be optimistic, with all my heart; I want them to reach a good peace deal. But so far, I have observed that the Taliban doesn't keep its word,” she says.

Asked if she has considered leaving Afghanistan for her safety, Orozgani said: “I hate thinking about leaving but as a woman, do I have a choice? In my family, most members are women and they are working. If the Taliban succeed in taking over Afghanistan, there is a high possibility of women being forced to remain inside the house. In that situation, what are we going to do to make a living? So yes, unfortunately, if I find a way to keep my family safe, I'll definitely take the chance.”

India's gambit

The Afghan government has hinted that, at some point in the future, it may seek India's military assistance if talks with the Taliban fail.

“Should we not get to a stage in the peace process with the Taliban, then maybe a time [will come] where we would be seeking India's military assistance in the years ahead,” Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan's Ambassador to India, told NDTV on July 13.

However, he made it clear that Afghanistan was not asking India to send troops. The assistance would instead be sought in areas like training and technical support.

In June, news reports cited Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, Qatar’s special envoy for counter-terrorism and conflict resolution, as saying that he believed there had been a “quiet visit” by Indian officials “to speak with the Taliban” as the organisation is now seen as a “key component” in any future government in Afghanistan.

A day later, India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, highlighted that the intra-Afghan talks had not resulted in reduction of violence and that “any political settlement”, must “preserve the constitutional democratic framework”.

Speaking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on July 14, Jaishankar again stressed that peace negotiations are the only answer. “An acceptable compromise that reflects the Doha process, Moscow format and Istanbul process is essential. The future of Afghanistan cannot be its past. A whole new generation has different expectations. We should not let them down,” he said.

“The challenge is to act seriously and sincerely on these beliefs because there are forces at work with a very different agenda. The world is against the seizure of power by violence and force. It will not legitimise such actions,” Jaishankar charged.

Harsh V Pant, Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, told Moneycontrol that India’s immediate priority is to protect its investments, many of which are more of confidence building measures.

“But the priority is also to ensure that Afghanistan (under Taliban) doesn’t become an extension of Pakistan’s establishment,” he cautioned.

While India's foreign ministry denied reports that Jaishankar had met the Taliban delegation in Doha, it didn’t reject the notion that such a meeting may have taken place at another level.

“We have been engaging with Afghans across ethnicities as a friendly neighbour,” External Affairs Ministry’s Spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, said at a news conference, while responding to questions on whether India was engaging with the Taliban.

That could be India’s gambit towards the rapidly developing situation.

“So far, India’s goal was to ensure Afghanistan remains stable and thus, supporting a democratic setup was the strategy. But now, the Taliban is the most important player in the Afghan political sphere for India to negotiate with. India would be ready to settle for some sort of a politically functional government in Kabul. But the Taliban is taking control of territory rapidly, so the chances of them coming to the negotiation table are slim,” Pant said.

India has helped build several schools and basic health clinics, Afghanistan's new Parliament building, the Salma ‘friendship’ dam and a cricket stadium in Kandahar.

Buses, military vehicles, Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters and ambulances have also been gifted.

New Delhi has funded the Afghan Red Crescent Society programme, arranged free medicine and medical consultations in multiple cities and sent nutritional products for schoolchildren. Additionally, India provides technical advice and trains Afghan public servants and their security personnel.

Of course, these investments have been made with the strategic intent of countering Islamabad’s influence on landlocked Afghanistan and to win Kabul’s friendship, but these projects are also seen as a win-win for both sides.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (left) before the inauguration of the Salma Dam in Herat province, Afghanistan on June 4, 2016 (Image: Reuters/Omar Sobhani) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (left) before the inauguration of the Salma Dam in Herat province, Afghanistan on June 4, 2016 (Image: Reuters/Omar Sobhani)

On July 10, India evacuated around 50 officials and security personnel from the Kandahar consulate in an air force aircraft as Taliban fighters seized key areas near the southern city.

However, responding to media queries, MEA spokesperson Bagchi clarified that the Kandahar consulate had not been closed and only “India-based personnel have been brought back for the time being”.

It is a temporary measure, he said, stating that the consulate continues to operate through local staff.

“India is closely monitoring the evolving security situation in Afghanistan. The safety and security of our personnel is paramount … As an important partner of Afghanistan, India remains committed to a peaceful, sovereign and democratic Afghanistan.” Bagchi added.

Read – US pullout from Afghanistan: 5 top diplomats weigh in on New Delhi’s options

Afghanistan’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson and Director General of Communications did not respond to Moneycontrol’s request for comments, but Afghan envoy to India, Mamundzay, tweeted on July 13 that India’s long-term commitment towards a “peaceful, sovereign and stable Afghanistan remains strong”.

Earlier, Mamundzay had told the ANI news agency that India can play a constructive role in the peace process along with other regional actors. “India can utilise its convening power to put more pressure on the Taliban through diplomatic channels to come to the negotiating table,” he said.

“We are not heading to a dark age. We need to remember that there were 40+ NATO member countries fighting a war on terror. It was expected that we would be going through a difficult period after their (US and NATO troops) withdrawal,” Mamundzay added.

On this, Orozgani hopes the international community will not leave Afghanistan alone in this time of crisis. “But it seems that they have already left because most of the embassies are closing and international organisations are leaving. This is a hopeless situation,” she said.

“My hope from India and Russia and the rest of the international community is to not leave Afghanistan alone. As human beings, Afghans deserve to experience a peaceful life. This can’t happen when countries are leaving. What I expect is for these two countries (India and Russia) to support and help Afghans and fight against the Taliban as one,” pleaded Orozgani.

Concerns of a spill over

The two other major actors involved in this conflict are China and Russia. Both countries have not been actively involved in the nation building process in Afghanistan. However, it is in their interest that the country remains stable.

China and Russia have tremendous influence on Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – all three sharing borders with Afghanistan.

A spill over of Taliban’s extremist ideology into these Muslim-dominated countries would threaten to destabilise the entire region, which is not only Russia’s sphere of influence but also a crucial part for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The three Central Asian neighbours are also important for China and Russia from the energy security point of view.

“China and Russia were tolerating American presence in Afghanistan as it helped the region to remain stable. While Chinese and Russian interests are narrow, they are concerned. In that way, for India, it’s a larger problem. China and Russia want to ensure that the Central Asian region – which is economically important to them – is kept away from Taliban’s influence and remains stable. But if radical extremism isn’t controlled, it can spill over, perhaps into China’s Xinjiang province too,” Pant suggested.

Xinjiang is an autonomous territory in northwest China that is home to many mostly Muslim ethnic groups, including the Turkic Uyghur people.

But Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told South China Morning Post that they see China as a “friend” and had assured Beijing of not hosting Uyghur separatist fighters.

Read – Opinion | Surging Taliban is pushing India again towards Eurasia

Earlier in July, a Taliban delegation also held talks with Russian officials in Moscow and sought to reassure their hosts that they won’t attack the Tajik border or use Afghanistan as a launch pad in the future for attacks against them.

Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that it had informed the Taliban that it was concerned by the recent escalation of tensions and warned that fighting shouldn’t spill over into other countries.

The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which is effectively led by Russia, said it was ready to 'use' all its resources if necessary, to contain a crisis on the Afghan-Tajik border, the Interfax news agency reported. The CSTO is a six-nation Eurasian military alliance comprising selected former Soviet states.

A frontier guard walks along the border fence near the Panji Poyon border outpost, some 150 kilometre south of Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, on May 31, 2008 (Image: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov) A frontier guard walks along the border fence near the Panji Poyon border outpost, some 150 kilometre south of Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, on May 31, 2008 (Image: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

Iran’s concerns

While it's not situated in Central Asia, Iran is also closely monitoring developments in Afghanistan with whom it shares a 920-kilometre border. Taliban which follows an extreme Sunni interpretation of Islam, is ideologically opposed to Shia-dominated Iran.

Tehran is already tied down by international sanctions and doesn't want an insurgency problem along its eastern border. Iran's new President, Ebrahim Raisi, may take the diplomatic route to keep the situation under control, but there are concerns over a major spill over of Afghan refugees.

Pakistan’s power play?

The Taliban’s rise in the 1990s was overtly supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and armed forces until 2001. In fact, Pakistan was one of the only three countries that recognised the Taliban regime then. The Afghan government, among many others in the international community, allege that Pakistan continues to covertly assist the Taliban.

Pakistan is happy at the moment because they are watching the US leave their backyard, Pant suggested, adding, “but there are no gains in operational terms for them.”

There is speculation that after seizing control of Afghanistan, the Taliban can create trouble for Pakistan as well.

“Islamabad has been working with them for a long time. So, they must have strategized for such a scenario. Rawalpindi may try to deflect much of that pressure towards India,” predicted Pant.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan inspect the honour guard at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on November 19, 2020 (Image: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan inspect the honour guard at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on November 19, 2020 (Image: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail)

However, he added that India is better prepared today than it was in the 1990s. “In the 1990s when there was trouble in Afghanistan, Kashmir was also unstable. Now, the Indian government has done the groundwork in Kashmir.”

Interestingly, in May 2020, Taliban had denied media reports that it could join Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir. “The policy of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) is clear that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” the group’s spokesperson Suhail Shaheen had said in a Pashto tweet.

Read – Taliban won’t get involved in Kashmir: Former IB chief AS Dulat

Pakistan may use its ally China for a carrot-and-stick approach, Pant explained.

According to the foreign policy expert, Chinese investments could be the ‘carrot’ for ensuring there’s no spill over into its own territory. But blocking of Chinese investments, crucial for Afghanistan’s functioning, may be the ‘stick’.

Watch: As Taliban prepares for victory, Islamabad is being forced to face up to the cost of getting what it wanted

Meanwhile, the Taliban has proposed a three-month ceasefire in return for the release of about 7,000 prisoners, a government negotiator said on July 15.

Still, no one can say for sure that the Afghan government will collapse, and if yes, when. Despite all diplomatic manoeuvres, violence continues on the ground and the future of the Afghan people remains uncertain.

“The next five weeks will be crucial. They (Taliban) are unlikely to take control of the entire country. But we are likely to see a Talibanised Afghanistan,” adds Pant.

The cover image was created by Suneesh Kalarickal.

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