Leadership tussle likely in Taliban

G Parthasarathy | Updated on August 19, 2021

A face-off between Akhundzada, the present leader, and Baradar, a founding member of Taliban, is a possibility

The past week has seen some incredible developments in Afghanistan, which have left the world shocked, astonished and concerned. The most serious and surprising development was the abject surrender, to the Taliban, of the 300,000 strong Afghan National Army, without firing a bullet. It was a development that shook Moscow, Washington, London and New Delhi, alike. What followed was predictable.

The Taliban virtually sailed into the capital, Kabul, with professions of good intentions. As the situation changed, the Taliban started emerging in their true colours, by increasingly using coercion and violence, to deal with dissenters. It must also be acknowledged that the Taliban have grown more sophisticated in the use of their propaganda machinery, though their readiness to use the stick and coercion more readily, is now apparent.

China and Russia are exploiting this situation to the hilt. The Russians joyfully proclaimed that President Ashraf Ghani had left Afghanistan, carrying a helicopter load of money — an allegation he has denied. At the same time, Taliban leader Mullah Baradar was on his way to Kabul from Qatar, where he led the Taliban in negotiations with foreign powers and international organisations.

Mullah Baradar is a Founding Member of the Taliban. He was the virtual deputy leader of the party, under its first leader, the reclusive Mullah Omar. He was, however, sidelined after Mullah Omar died. He is evidently making a bid for leadership. He is a realistic person who could lead the Taliban towards a more moderate path. He will face roadblocks from powerful elements in the Taliban, including its present leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob, a hardline ISI favourite whose radicalism will suit Pakistan’s ISI, ideally.

Pakistan would continue to have a dominant role in determining Afghanistan’s policies. India and its people should never forget how the Taliban acted in collusion with the ISI while dealing with the hijacking of IC 814 in 1999.

Playing their game

Amidst all these developments, Afghan politicians appear bent on playing their own games. Former President Karzai, former Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, and former ISI-backed Afghan Mujahideen Leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, joined hands. They decided to head for Doha to meet Mullah Baradar, who was heading the Taliban Mission in Qatar. They were stopped in their tracks, with Baradar heading for Kabul, quite evidently seeking to assert his claims for leadership of the Taliban. He also stopped at Kandahar, Afghanistan’s holy city, where a cloak, said to have been worn by the Prophet of Islam, is stored in a Mosque built in the 18th Century by its then ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali.

In 1996, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the then leader of the Taliban, removed the cloak from the shrine and held it in front of a large crowd of his followers to symbolise his commitment to historical Afghan Islamic beliefs and causes. Hence, Kandahar is of particular importance for those aspiring for leadership of the Taliban.

The ground appears to be set for a future struggle for leadership of the Taliban, between Baradar and the present leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, With diplomats from India’s Embassy in Kabul, having returned to India, there is unfortunately a fall in our abilities to keep a close eye on developments in Afghanistan. The Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, however, deserve credit for arranging a smooth exit of the entire staff and some of the Indian journalists, leaving Afghanistan.

Akhundzada became the Supreme Commander of the Taliban in 2016, while Baradar is the international face of the Taliban leadership.

The Taliban appear to have realised that they would have to reassure the world about their commitment to respect the human rights of women, and the freedom of the media. Their insincerity was, however, made clear, when their spokesman asserted that these rights would have to conform to “national values”. He also added the caveat that all this would happen within what he termed were “the principles of Islam”. He also reaffirmed the Taliban’s assurance is that they would “not permit its territory to be used as a base for attacking other countries”.

It is absolutely clear that the Taliban have no intention of giving women any meaningful democratic freedoms. Moreover, they have a track record of close ties with terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan, and from all across Central and West Asia.

A number of countries who are disgusted with the human rights record of the Taliban, especially in dealing with women in a brutal, medieval manner, could even cut diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. At the same time, it is clear that a China, Russia, Pakistan Axis is emerging, which is determined to have major diplomatic and commercial ties with the Taliban-led government. China seems to have persuaded the Taliban leadership not to have links with its persecuted Uighur Muslim population, in its neighbouring Xinjiang Province, located barely 50 miles away from Afghanistan’s borders.

India’s move

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has paid two visits recently to Iran, whose leaders have no great affection or regard for the Afghan Taliban. India has acted proactively on developments in Afghanistan. India will have to see whether it is able to get the Security Council to agree on a resolution which makes it clear to the Taliban that they will have to put their house in order and end their links with foreign terrorist groups.

The people of Afghanistan have suffered greatly for the past three decades by becoming pawns in rivalries between world powers, notably the US and the Soviet Union/Russia. They also faced malicious interference from their southern neighbour, Pakistan. The Taliban takeover has raised fears of a return to barbaric medievalism. One hopes that the present takeover by the Taliban results in the establishment of a moderate-minded Islamic set-up. Religious extremism, as practised in the past by the Taliban, will not provide peace and prosperity for its people, or enable it to secure international acceptance.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on August 19, 2021

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