The Afghan Taliban on trial

The spectacular victory of the Taliban in freeing their country from foreign occupation forces and their stooges has taken everyone by surprise. My selection of words in the opening sentence may have irked many. So let me first acknowledge that we know very well and understand that the attack by the US and coalition forces was approved by a UNSC Resolution and supported by the world at large, thus legitimate and just. But what about the continuous changing of objectives and goal posts? Without going into the details and taxing readers, suffice it to say that the whole exercise of the allied forces in Afghanistan became illegitimate the moment there was deviation from the UN approved purpose. Anyway this is not our main subject. 

Is it a military miracle that the Taliban pulled in Afghanistan? Definitely not, but strategic brilliance was also a part of the entire episode. I would rather term it a ‘politico-military’ coup. It also carried with it a mastery in psychological and intelligence operations. They managed to do all this in the absence of any support from international media. So let us dissect the various aspects of this magic.

The first to go wrong were the Americans, the UK and allies, who undermined the Taliban’s prowess and believed in the much exaggerated Afghan government forces’ abilities. The US probably couldn’t care less what happens to the Afghan government and its forces after taking the decision to exit. Ashraf Ghani was confident about the strong Afghan armed forces equipped to the teeth with the most modern military hardware including night fighting capabilities, modern helicopters and combat aircrafts. The Afghan Taliban left nothing to chance. They kept themselves busy in making pre-war political preparations through clandestine meetings with all important personalities in all provinces, probably employing carrot and stick pressures. 

The Taliban, at the very outset of operations, first absorbed all the relatively empty spaces and communication arteries, followed by entry and exit points all along the international border and finally went for the important cities and provincial headquarters, leaving Kabul for the final coup de grace. And most of this happened without much fighting, more with the help of talking and activating sleeper supporters. The lightening speed with which they defeated the reluctant Afghan national army is mind boggling, defies all military logic, and can only be termed as a politico-military coup. 

On the other hand, an Afghan Army that was well equipped and trained but poorly led with no motivation to fight in the absence of any worthwhile national purpose, was dispersed in small penny packets void of strong air support. The Afghan soldiers were also not happy with the behaviour of the occupation forces with them and their fellow citizens. The corrupt-to-the-core Ashraf Ghani setup was also no inspiration for the Afghan people and the soldiers. The way the Taliban was greeted at places further lowered the morale of the Afghan army. 

The Taliban enjoyed overwhelming support of the people in most areas. This can be amply deduced from two facts; one, that such a large freedom struggle against the strongest armies of the world cannot succeed without the masses providing shelter and logistics. And secondly, such speed of operations, freeing city after city cannot happen without local support. 

Taking over the country from an existing regime that was weak due to a lack of independent working space, relied heavily on US economic, military and administrative support and on top of it all, was highly corrupt, may not have been very difficult. But cobbling up an inclusive government in such a politically and ethnically diversified country will be an Herculean task, and may take some time. Then creating or strengthening an effective governance infrastructure and running it against a plethora of contesting and conflicting interests will be another big challenge. On the foreign policy front, to get initial recognition by enough countries, enabling the new regime to get international legitimacy and the right to represent Afghanistan at the UN and other global forums would be another diplomatic difficulty. The Taliban have made numerous pledges to alleviate some strong apprehensions the world over. Harbouring terrorists or providing them safe havens, the attitude towards working women and their dress codes, girls education etc are the leading questions that are being asked due to the world’s memory about the last time the Taliban were in power. 

The Taliban’s two spokespersons, Zabihullah Mujahid and Sohail Shaheen have been working and speaking over and over again, giving assurances that without abandoning their original faith, the modus operandi this time would be very different and in line with the expectations of the international community. There are some indicators that also give positive signals. The fact that the Taliban by and large adhered to the clauses of the agreement signed with the US (though the Americans violated the agreed timelines), avoided much bloodshed, granted amnesty to nearly all and are allowing a peaceful exit of foreigners and their Afghan helpers in spite of enjoying good control over nearly all the country including Kabul except Panjsher Valley, speaks volumes about a change in their attitude. The continuation of such benevolent and peaceful behaviour may get them international recognition and internal support, two very important ingredients required to help them settle as legitimate rulers. Some riots related to resistance to changing the national flag etc has been observed but were swiftly controlled. Protests by women for their rights were also allowed and remained peaceful. 

If peace and comparative tranquillity return to Afghanistan—that seems probable this time—it will have huge positive influences on the entire region of Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia. Pakistan needs to prepare for this enormous opportunity as it would require agility and organised endeavours to benefit from the unprecedented economic activity waiting in the wings. Connectivity is likely to improve, BRI and CPEC will start bubbling with commerce and industrial activities. Transborder movements, people to people contacts, education and arts are likely to flourish. The negative impacts that were envisioned earlier pertaining to a high influx of refugees and increase in cross-border terrorism are quite unlikely. 

However, certain Islamist groups can get inspired and start asserting themselves with more vigour. As long as these activities are within the political domain, there should be no worry. Any show of muscles can be conveniently taken care of by state institutions. So all said and done, the impact on the region and Pakistan is likely to be positive and reassuring. 

Reading the cards, it seems as if the Taliban will succeed to form an inclusive government within a few weeks. The first group of countries likely to recognise would be Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and a few CARs. It will be quickly followed by many European, African and South American nations—those who would not like to miss the boat. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan, India and the UK with some allied countries may take some time, but they would also not like to leave the arena for the Russo-China group uncontested. 

Economic competition may also bring with it certain intrigues and destabilising efforts, but if the future Afghan government keeps a firm control over events and steers its economic and political policies well, they may be supervising over an emerging international market with unprecedented economic activity.

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