Afghanistan continues to amaze generations of analysts. Correct prediction about how, where and when the Afghan situation takes a turn, is contingent upon correct understanding of the Afghan demography, sociology and anthropology. And nothing of this would be of utility unless one knows the Afghan language(s), its culture and the traditions. This essay would try and decipher some long-held myths in the backdrop of current affairs.
Experience shows that Afghanistan follows its own historic precedence and cycle. In this cycle, with its own tempo, usually, the stronger side prevails (militarily). The political process consequently ratifies and makes the emergent order more amenable for all others. Regional countries, therefore, need to remain constructively engaged for damage control against any spillover. Accordingly, the world and the region either sets in for prolonged cycle of violence and continued chaos in the region, or more wisely, helps in early completion of this cycle of history, which most probably might see more violence despite all measures.
This is especially the case when the traditional Afghan conflict resolution mechanism (CRM) is mauled due to migrations and wars…as is the case nowadays.
The level of violence would, however, depend upon stamina of the side(s) opposing the stronger stake-holder and the vulnerability of their ‘culminating point(s)’.
Traditional Afghan society is described as “segmentary, acephalous (leaderless), patriarchal, mostly monogamous and egalitarian with weak political organization”. Hence their non-agreement on core issues, compels the stronger stake holder to make others fall in line. Afghans by their nature, psyche and sociology will never remain perpetually indebted for any favour done to them. They would, however, return such khegara or shegara (favour) as early and as best as possible, in order to re-establish the social/egalitarian equilibrium with their benefactor(s). So, our expectations of them to remain grateful forever for Pakistan’s favours is misplaced and non-pragmatic.
Taliban by their very composition are mostly rural Pukhtuns, with a worldview that is mainly derived from their rural hinterland…with its conservative Sunni Islamic traditions, intertwined with Pakhtunwali (the honour code), the riwaj (traditions) and Taliban’s peculiar understanding of Islam. Interestingly when Islam contradicts riwaj, it is riwaj that prevails in a perfect Islamic context…duly structured and sanctioned. Having said so, exposure to social media, urban dwelling in neighboring countries, education and IT prowess make Taliban of 2021 far different from their earlier version in 1996.
Geo-Politics and Pakistan’s Imperatives
“Peace with Afghanistan at almost all costs” remains Pakistan’s social, economic, strategic and military imperative. The love-hate relationship between the two countries is not new. Pakistan has always displayed greater restraint and accommodation, remaining forceful beyond a certain threshold. Non-involuntary repatriation of the Afghan refugees (most of whom are poor rural peasantry); letting Afghan students study in Pakistan and learn cricket; allowing Afghan patients’ treatment in our hospitals; allowing them work and economic pursuits irrespective of ethnicity; holding the Mujahideen/Taliban card and the stated policy of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution to the current impasse, supporting inter and intra Afghan dialogue have remained our factual and wise policies.
There has been sporadic criticism of Pakistan’s reliance on the Afghan Pashtuns at the cost of non-Pashtuns. One needs to understand that non-Pashtun Afghans (except for those now part of Taliban. And that is a good number) mainly facilitated foreign occupation. While Pashtuns, the erstwhile ruling elite in Kabul and beyond, have always been instrumental in fighting the occupation forces and bore the brunt of the most brutal fighting. They share kinship and enjoy the traditional Easement Rights (permission to cross the Border for social and economic reasons) across the Durand Line. From Pakistan’s standpoint, Pashtun unrest affects Pakistan’s KP and Balochistan provinces directly.
Our policy makers also need to look beyond the bogey of Pashtunistan. With some 35 million Pashtun population in Pakistan and some 15 million on the Afghan side, it is Pakistan that provides ‘strategic depth (if any) to Afghanistan’. Keeping aside etymology, Afghans/Pashtuns/Pukhtuns and/or Pathans once part of the Afghan Empire, after demarcation of the Durand Line (on Afghanistan’s request), are now firmly embedded in the state and society of Pakistan.
Pakistan would never want to dilute the Pashtun card. Afghanistan had and would only survive as a nation state, when the Pashtun ruling elite dominates the relatively docile non-Pashtun highlanders and keep the country together. This is a harsh reality of their volatile history. The stronger side carries the day. Moreover, Pashtuns enjoy a dominant position since the times of Amir Abdur Rehman (1880-1901), the Iron Amir, when he forcibly settled Pashtun tribes giving them vast land titles to dominate the non-Pashtun north and west. Despite the ethnic cleansing after the infamous take-over by the Northern Alliance in 2001, Pashtun elevated social status remains largely unscathed.
This makes a North-South division of Afghanistan unlikely due to sustenance of the North and its social and economic dependence on the Pashtun South. Moreover, the current mood among Afghans of all ethnicities is not supportive of a divided Afghanistan.
The Indian Factor
India has traditionally invested heavily in visible projects in Afghanistan. It generally suffered curtailed leverage during the last Taliban rule (1996-2001). The story of seven consulates, mostly ringing the Pak-Afghan border, RAW’s presence at Bagram and its cultivation of Ashraf Ghani and his coterie of rabid anti-Pakistan establishment etc. are well known.
As of now India is strategically displaced (for the second time) abandoning its massive investment in Afghanistan, alongside the US. She after licking her wounds, ‘may’ go anti-status quo over CPEC and Gilgit Baltistan… remotely likely but inconsequential. If Ajit Doval et al think that attack on bus carrying Chinese workforce for Dasu Dam can derail CPEC, it is grave miscalculation of the Sino-Pak resolve…that will only harden.
Indian officials did reach out to the Taliban’s Doha office using video link. Taliban pragmatism is not totally divorced from ideology and that means they would remain ambivalent at best to Indian overtures.
Therefore, in Afghan Taliban, we have the only chance to stabilize Afghanistan and our Western border, curtail Indian influence, leverage against TTP and stem the fresh tide of refugees. The manipulated reiteration of a historically hostile Afghanistan – that circulates on social media – stands overtaken by ground realities.
The US Dilemma
For Biden’s America, Afghanistan is a far away and insignificant foreign policy priority, a bottomless pit; unnecessarily distracting US policy from containing an unstoppable Middle Kingdom and a resurgent Russia; besides, domestically, addressing the worsening race-relations, crumbling infrastructure, faltering education system, Covid-induced poverty and economic stagnation etc.
Moreover, situational constants describe the US predicament as a “military defeat” and their psychological captivity to the ‘Saigon Moment’ etched in their military memory… hence the rush to the exits at night from Bagram. This was the over-riding consideration for “negotiating with the enemy” in Doha. The US is willing, in its typical U-turn, to throw the Ashraf Ghani government under the Talban truck, calling Ghani’s bluff and sticking to its agreement with the Taliban.
After cutting loose, their “over the horizon support” to a besieged Afghan government is just a bloated solace for a helpless ally. However, in policy pragmatism, the US establishment ‘should’ stay engaged constructively – offering reconstruction and budgetary support, otherwise the dragon of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will gulp down the US regional influence for good. And that is Biden’s enduring dilemma.
Taliban – What is Different
Mr. Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson outlined the Taliban’s operative strategy first in a Webinar with Pakistani media and then on the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). He reiterated the Taliban’s aim of “completely ending the chapter of foreign occupation of Afghanistan in totality” and “forming an inclusive Islamic government” in the country.
He emphasized all US/NATO troops (including Turkey), advisories, trainers and contractors to leave Afghanistan, as agreed. That the Taliban are willing and capable of protecting embassies, consulates and NGOs and would “not allow anyone to use its soil against any country/organization.”
Outlining power-sharing and elections, he was categorical that these remain agenda points for the restarted Doha parleys, aimed at negotiated settlement. As “Dialogue and peaceful outcomes” remain Taliban’s stated and ‘unchanged’ policy preferences.
Militarily, Mr. Shaheen attributed the Taliban victories and swift control of over 250 out of 421 Afghan districts and 85% of Afghan territory to a) their successful tasleem (surrender) strategy, which emphasizes peace and Afghan and Islamic amity, and b) the lack of trust and unwillingness to fight the Taliban by the ANA troops and Afghan people. He restated Taliban’s field directives to keep schools, offices, markets and even media outlets open in the captured areas.
Taliban 2.0 are experienced in running a credible shadow government for two decades under the nose of the US/NATO and Afghan government, providing security, administration and other services in all provinces, following a proper chain of command. They are media-savvy and very sensitive to their erstwhile unpopular legacy.
Mr. Shaheen clarified the Taliban position supporting “civil liberties, and women’s right to education and work in hijab and in accordance with Islamic/Afghan values.”
He defended hijab being worn in many Islamic countries. And that Taliban seek friendly relations with all countries, especially neighboring nations and Muslim countries, welcoming their assistance in reconstruction. The above policy iterations are woven into Taliban’s synchronized political, diplomatic and military strategies.
They are preferring negotiated tasleem to combat take-over of urban centers. Militarily, their maneuver emanates from the non-Pashtun North (the bastion of anti-Taliban uprising in the late 1990s), with the help of significant Tajik, Uzbek and other support. They are capturing border crossings aiming at double advantages of: a) tapping into potential revenues from international trade; and b) cutting likely non-Pashtun challengers to their authority from their Central Asian support and funding, if any.
Most Afghan borders are tri-points mainly along Amu Darya (and its tributaries) linking Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Kunduz province bordering Tajikistan is in Taliban hands including Sher Khan Bandar on the Panj River, linking Kabul to Dushanbe. The entire province of Badghis bordering Turkmenistan is controlled by the Taliban. Control of Kunduz city and Qala-e-Naw (Badghis) is contested, and so is control of Balkh province bordering Uzbekistan.
The Taliban offensive during first week of July 2021, overran areas bordering five countries — Pakistan, China, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, in Herat province, has fallen to the Taliban. And the Taliban have swept through the northeastern Badakhshan province, to reach the mountainous border with China’s Xinjiang region. Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan, is also in Taliban hands.
The Civil War
In the hinterland and countryside, while consolidating their hold through the tasleem strategy, they have encircled most urban centers by occupying the surrounding districts in a sort of ‘soft siege’, able to squeeze and pressurize. For Kabul, they are expected to patiently wait out US/NATO departure and the ousting of Ashraf Ghani and his cabal by his mentors in a diplomatic putsch or in economic/military surrender. In a time-bound inevitability, Ghani’s escape routes are blocked with president Najeebullah’s fate haunting him and his coterie.
In a diplomatic/external maneuver, the Taliban have sent delegations to Iran, Russia and other countries explaining their position; particularly reassuring China about non-interference in Xinjiang’s Uyghur problem.
The Taliban’s silence on the Indian-perpetrated atrocities in IIOJK and the ‘reported’ plight of Uyghur Muslims, demonstrates their pragmatism and preference for hikmat in decision-making, rather than pure ideology.
The Likely Future
The Taliban may concede a political settlement in Doha, using their innate pragmatism, paving the way for the traditional Loya Jirga. Peace, power-sharing, a new constitution (form of government), and elections remain likely moot points.
Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile still repose their trust in the Taliban irrespective of the incessant machinations by the liberal brigade of Kabul and elsewhere. Localized violence is possible alongside displacement of the mainly non-Pashtun population from urban centers to their rural highlands.
Pakistan and the Right Corner
Abandoning assets and/or perception thereof once assets are winning and ascendant is poor strategy and so is trying to revive and/or bet on the losing side. The world sees us benefactors of the Taliban and our ‘purported distancing’ (if any), would do us no good. Constructive engagement and leveraging situation would stabilize Afghanistan, help Taliban get their footing and protect Pakistan’s “selfish” national interest.
Taliban 2.0 are not the ‘two sides of the same coin’ with an ‘18th Century mindset’ and their ‘military take-over’ is none of our business, as we have been clamoring – since times immemorial – for an ‘Afghan-led’ and Afghan-owned’ solution… and nobody doubts Taliban’s Afghan-ness. ‘Forming an Emirate’ and Sharia as the future form of Govt in Afghanistan should not give our policy makers sleepless nights, while serving and living in the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan. Afghanistan is an “Emirate” since early 19th Century and Pakistan “Islamic” since 1948.
And CPEC needs to be steadied and protected with likely inclusion of Afghanistan in the BRI. Afghan Baqi…kuhsar Baqi.