Taliban supported by Pakistan took over Afghanistan by force, amidst an embarrassing, botched withdrawal of US and allies, posing a façade of negotiated takeover. With announcement of a caretaker Government led by 18 UN designated terrorists out of 33 Ministers, it has mocked the global community, UNSC, all world players and actors, who were propagating Taliban 2.0 to be moderate and reasonable, hoping for inclusive government. The desperate cries of Afghan women, and attempts of people to throw babies out of Taliban controlled land, has shamed the world community, finding itself helpless due to varying interests, hiding behind “Wait and Watch” policy, as the last cry for resistance in Panjshir also fell to Taliban-Pakistan nexus, in territorial terms, although insurgency and tactical actions of resistance will continue. There have been many strategic errors by US and its allies, Afghan leadership, and security forces, recounting which doesn’t help the forthcoming grave threat, which humanity is being pushed into unless some mid-course correction is done globally.
The jubilation amongst Taliban and Pakistan of seemingly defeating the most powerful US and allied forces and freedom to form a ‘Government, which is of the terrorists, by the terrorists, and for the terrorists’, has rejuvenated terrorism, fundamentalist ideology and self-belief in victory, by displacing a democratically elected government and forcing the world community to keep mum, with praises from few countries. US decision to withdraw can well be understood to be in its national interest, having crossed its culmination point, but the manner in which withdrawal was conducted has created an awkward situation, where in combat troops have left, without evacuating many citizens of many countries, whose exit is at the mercy of Taliban. Withdrawal is a proper military operation wherein, the force is expected to maintain adequate combat troops to keep the exit passage and airport/base safe for softer elements to pull back, and troops withdraw at the end. The fact that $ 85 billion worth of US equipment (some rendered unfit) is in Taliban hand has appreciably increased its capability, with potential of its repair, transfer to Pakistan/China and possible reverse engineering, will haunt US Military of botched withdrawal for many decades.
The resultant hostage situation has muted the response of many, who would otherwise could have been critical of blatant human right violations, leading to unprecedented human disaster. Evacuating the people, likely to be victims is therefore, the topmost priority/implication, and countries are calibrating their responses accordingly. Some countries are forced to depend on Pakistan, despite knowing that it is root cause of the problem and epicentre of terrorism, while others are seeking evacuation through Qatar. It has also exposed the hypocrisy of major world powers, like China emboldening Taliban even before takeover, and US not punishing Taliban and Pakistan for supporting terrorism, and sanctioning Iran on similar excuse. It has also exposed the double speaking Islamic terror groups, who want to speak for Muslims, but choose to ignore Chinese treatment of Uyghurs, to get funding and legitimacy from a P5 member in UNSC. It proves that terrorist live for themselves, to grab power and spoils of war, and misuse religion for self-interest. It has also exposed the weakness of UN, passing the buck to member states. The UNSC resolution is so weak, deleting the word Taliban from the text, regarding not to allow use of territory for terrorism against other countries, justifying poor credibility.
With Terrorists at the helm of affairs, Haqqani network with interior ministry, and al-Qaeeda, ISKP, JeM, LeT and many more terror groups flourishing in terror enabling environment, the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) Region is going to be the largest conglomeration of terrorists in the world. US (as per some media reports) may have calculated two years lead time for any terror group to be strong enough to strike its main land, but this estimate may prove optimistic, like its estimate of Afghan forces holding out for six months. A 9/11 type of strike is thus possible in any part of the world, in quicker time frame than it ever was, making the world much more vulnerable to terrorism, after rejuvenation of misplaced idea of global Jihad, post-Taliban takeover. The threat of global export of terrorism from this region is omnipresent. The lone wolf warriors and sleeper cells also seem to have been rejuvenated.
All neighbours of Afghanistan are concerned about export of terrorism and refugees from Afghanistan including Russia, CAR countries, Iran, and China. Iran has also voiced concern over Pakistan active involvement in Panjshir Valley battle. Pakistan’s immediate strategic aim has always been to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan by enforcing Durand Line over friendly government in Kabul, and edge out other players from Afghanistan, including India. Pakistan also utilsed the opportunity to send out large number of terrorists to fight alongside Afghan Taliban, whom it wanted to relocate to avoid FATF fallouts, yet preserving its ‘Strategic assets’ to be used against India later. Having achieved the immediate aim, getting Haqqani into strong position, it now faces a challenge of push back from rejuvenated Pashtun community and TTP. Pashtuns have 30 out of 33 Ministers in caretaker government. Taliban in power never compromised on Durand Line and their stance in future may well be similar. A regular backlash with TTP, overflow of refugees and germination of Talibanisation and Shariah Law amidst fundamentalists, in some of its areas will be a challenge for Pakistan in long term.
Chinese strategic interest in Afghanistan includes, connectivity projects to Iran by extending CPEC to get warm water access and exploit mineral and other resources of Afghanistan, including narcotics trade. With initial hesitancy of not becoming the third power (after USSR and USA) to suffer in “Graveyard of Empires”, China engaged with Taliban in Tianjin earlier, and recently announcing $31 million aid, hoping that ‘Interim Cabinet will restore Order, and end anarchy’. China hopes that it will be able to secure its security and economic interests with Taliban, which is promising no support to ETIM and inviting their investments, thus opening the window for economic exploitation, in a haste for recognition. This is a dangerous honeymoon, because neither Taliban is homogenous to control all factions, nor Chinese have support of local population, and there are many groups like ISKP, which may not be amenable to ignore atrocities in Xinjiang. Taliban itself has ETIM cadres fighting for them including some commanders; hence it is unlikely to divorce them, although it doesn’t mind making a sham promise for the sake of seeking international legitimacy. China may find that it may be much more risky to operate any transport corridor/project in Afghanistan, than doing so in Pakistan, where a politicised Army is sustaining it, with difficulty. Chinese, however, are unlikely to make heavy investments in Afghanistan easily. Their aid/investment will have some strings attached in consonance with ‘Debt Trap Policy’.
Impact on India
India like other neighbours will have to be ready to face additional terrorists with better weaponry and surveillance devices, as pay back to Pakistan’s support. Pakistan was never short of terrorists to infiltrate. Post abrogation of Article 370, political, financial, intelligence support to terrorists within India has reduced, synergy between security forces and intelligence agencies has improved and strong security grid is in place to check infiltration from Pakistan; hence additional terrorists will add to waiting list for induction into India. The bigger concern is export of fundamentalist ideology, incentivising lone wolf warriors/sleeper cells within country. India also needs to strengthen its investigative, legal and other systems against people misusing right of speech to stoke fundamentalist ideologies.
The Indian strategic interest include prevention of export of terrorism and connectivity projects to CAR through Iran-Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. In this context, India may have to talk to the Government of the day. India doesn’t hold Gilgit-Baltistan; hence despite being a legal neighbour of Afghanistan, has no direct land route, which reduces its capability to directly influence any military outcomes in Afghanistan. For the time being India needs to evacuate its people and minorities likely to be persecuted fastest, refrain from any developmental work, even if requested by Taliban and work out options with other countries having similar concerns, before taking any call on Taliban, either way. The consultation of Intelligence staff and National Security advisors of US, UK, Russia, and India indicate some efforts in this direction.
Way Ahead for Afghanistan?
The terrorist leaders are breaking promise of being moderate or accommodative, on daily basis, at the behest of hardcore elements, who are unlikely to settle for anything less than Shariah Law. No women in caretaker Government, and the Ministry of women Affairs replaced by Ministry of Vice and Virtue, ban on protests, women sports and scores of restrictions are enough indicators of revival of Taliban of 2001. The caretaker Government is by no means inclusive, which will give rise to fragmentation of Taliban factions, who had joined hands to push US out. There is a likelihood of civil war to erupt, which will continue. Taliban despite being in power, will also face unprecedented cycle of instability from angry population, led bravely by women folk on the streets, resenting Sharia law and rival groups in Afghanistan and within Taliban. Various tribes and terror groups may emerge in a manner that no single entity or foreign player gets that strategic space exclusively. This will certainly have a telling effect on regional and global security situation, as Af-Pak Region will become the largest breeding ground for terrorism, with some of the terror groups becoming strong enough to strike US, EU, China, India or CAR. Afghanistan seems to be heading for a situation where in different areas will be under influence of different groups, leaving helpless population in the hands of fundamentalists.
History may not excuse global community, silently witnessing a democratic society being plunged into stone age governance, functioning on religious fundamentalism mode, ready to export terrorism globally. With no boots on ground, It may be too ambitious to control Taliban/ other terror groups by ‘Over the Horizon’ aerial operations, as it has collateral damages, which further refuel hate, new recruitment to terror industry on revenge mode. Taliban certainly needs finances and legitimacy to govern, which must be used as a leverage to make it behave in civilised way. The only workable option is to freeze its funds, not to give legitimacy and later at appropriate time sanction Taliban if it goes back from its promises.
West needs to correct its assessment of epicentre of terror, which continues to be Pakistan Army/ISI, which is doing its best to make dreaded terrorists as state actors, like them, having been reasonably exposed. Voices airing this nexus of Afghan officials, its people and lately Iran, seem to be lost, as no-one wants to step in ‘Graveyard of Empires’. The West has to get out of love for strategic space of Pakistan (which is now controlled by China) or relevance earned by it, out of its terror factory or nuclear bluff/hangover.
Unless Pakistan is sanctioned, terrorism will prevail as most group view it as role model for terror combined with nuclear arsenal, making it confident of never to suffer punishment for its deeds. This myth needs to demolished, as softer measures against Pakistan and Taliban have miserably failed in two decades. Both need to be blacklisted, to feel the threat of internal fragmentation due to mass dissatisfaction, to make them behave in civilised manner. It is unlikely to happen through UNSC, due to Chinese veto; but blacklisting by FATF is a possibility where members have equal votes. The option of creating a democratic alternative, countervailing forces was tried two decades back, but it failed due to poor strategy of external and internal players. West shouldn’t get into one more disaster to realise that Pakistan continues to be the main cause behind its unprecedented embarrassment.