G Parthasarathy

Untangling the Afghanistan knot

G. Parthasarathy | Updated on July 20, 2021

The Taliban’s military ‘successes’ are gross exaggerations. They are incapable of even holding on to the towns they have captured

The Taliban, quite obviously with Pakistani backing, has embarked on totally exaggerated claims of its “successes,” after the Americans finally withdrew from Afghanistan, at the Bagram Airbase, near Kabul. Its strategy is quite clearly, to make exaggerated and invariably false claims, about its “conquests,” all across Afghanistan.

The reality is that the Taliban has the capability for attacking and taking over towns in the country’s South, close to the border with Pakistan. It, however, does not have the ability to retain control of towns, which are distant from the country’s Southern borders. Even Kandahar, which is close to the disputed Durand Line, which separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, can only be threatened, with some areas, even taken over, temporarily. Areas captured by the Taliban, cannot, however, be held by them, at present, for any length of time.

Using sharp propaganda, Pakistan and its Taliban allies are pushing the line that the Taliban controls 85 per cent of the territory of Afghanistan. The reality is that the Taliban is presently capable only of capturing individual towns and villages.

Moreover, the Taliban has not taken full control of even one major urban centre. While India has withdrawn its Indian staff members from its Consulate in Kandahar, the Consulate has not been closed. In a recent drama staged by the Taliban and its Pakistani backers, the claim was made that they had captured the border town of Qalai-Naw, on the Afghanistan-Iran border, on July 9.

With the Afghanistan government deploying troops immediately to successfully “fully retake” the town, it has been established that there are now even local militias, ready to challenge the Taliban. Moreover, the reality is that Iran has made it clear that it will respond strongly to any attack on the Shia, Hazara population, which inhabits areas in western Afghanistan.

While the Taliban caught the security forces on Afghanistan’s western borders by surprise, the strongest leader in that area, Ata Mohammad Noor, has made it clear, that the Taliban’s efforts in his Balkh Province will be responded to strongly. Noor had requested for Indian support when he visited India last year. He is regarded as one of the most respected commanders in Afghanistan, though he, like some other regional leaders, has serious differences with Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani.

The Taliban has a close relationship with several Pakistani terrorist groups, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are reportedly reinforcing Taliban forces in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. Noor was clearly anticipating this Taliban offensive, even last year. He had joined the Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum last June, for uniting the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities in a new “Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan.”

The Iranians have made it clear that they will not tolerate any attempt to attack, or cause harm to their Shia-Hazara brethren, in Afghanistan. This is as applicable to the Taliban, as it is to their Pakistani backers. What we are now seeing is an armed, Pakistan backed, Pashtun Taliban, endeavoring to take on ethnic communities, which constitute 55 per cent of the population of Afghanistan. These Taliban fighters enjoy little support, even from their fellow Pashtuns, who constitute 45 per cent of the country’s population.

These are realities that are surely understood by the Pakistanis and their Taliban protégés. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban is fully aware that within Pakistan and especially within the Pashtun tribal areas, bordering Afghanistan, there is immense anger towards the Pakistan army. This army reduced several areas the Pashtuns inhabited, to rubble, in its operations against Pashtun towns and villages, just over a decade ago. Moreover, the medieval orthodoxy practiced by the Taliban is hardly acceptable across Afghanistan, where millions have received modern education and have enjoyed democratic freedoms over the past two decades.

Interestingly, the Taliban publicly shares the beliefs of its Pakistani mentors, when it comes to relations with China, where one million Uighur Muslims, in China’s neighbouring Xinjiang Province, are under detention. The Taliban Spokesman Suhail Shaheen recently described China is a “friend” of Afghanistan, from whom the Taliban expected investments for reconstruction.

The Taliban Spokesman added: “We have been to China many times and we have good relations with them”. The Taliban has also made no effort to attack the Capital, Kabul, as it is well defended.

There are now a number of Conferences being held by regional organisations, like the Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) on Afghanistan, where one finds India and Pakistan participating. These Conferences are marked by pious pronouncements, by participants. Precious little, by way of a constructive dialogue emerges from such meetings. While most members have contacts and negotiations with the Taliban, there has been little progress, in moves for peace and economic growth in Afghanistan.

The UK based, and well-informed Pakistani journalist, Ayesha Siddiqa notes: “As far as China’s long-term planning is concerned, it seems to have got what it wanted — getting the US forces out of Afghanistan”. She adds that Russia feels similarly satisfied, and notes: “The Afghan army may not be the strongest, but it certainly has some capacity to fight”. While Imran Khan and his Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureishi, may make claims of great successes, by getting the Americans out of Afghanistan, the consequences of their actions, will result in a long term internal conflict in Afghanistan.

The Taliban will seek control of Northern Afghanistan, while establishing close ties with their Pashtun brethren in the neighbouring tribal areas of Pakistan.

The Pakistan army’s actions in these tribal areas have left deep scars in the minds of their Pashtuns. The Taliban also never recognised the Durand Line as an international border.

Whipping up Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan, after having launched military operations against Pashtuns in Pakistan, is set to leave Pakistan with serious problems. While Imran Khan has been grumbling that US President Joe Biden has never spoken to him, he seems forget that the Americans are not going to forget his, or his country’s role, in their losing out to the Russians and Chinese in Afghanistan.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on July 19, 2021

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