By Rajan Kumar & Bappaditya Mukherjee
The Taliban is back to power in Afghanistan. If force were the legitimate method of coming to power, the victory of the Taliban is decisive. It easily overran an army trained by the US for two decades. Till the very end, the Afghan army had the support of advanced US airpower, but they failed to deter the Taliban from swift advance to Kabul. Holding and occupying the rough terrain of Afghanistan requires enormous resources and resolve by ground troops. In the end, access to US military technology was insufficient for the Afghan military to resist the Taliban fighters. The Taliban captured all the important cities and territories without much resistance from government forces or other militias. The provinces and important cities fell to the militant forces in rapid succession over the past few days. This was a widely predicted outcome, subsequent to the withdrawal of the NATO forces, but none expected it to happen this rapidly. There was hardly any resistance in Kabul, and it appears that the central government found it wiser to negotiate a surrender than to engage the Taliban militarily.
Why has this happened?
It is quite apparent that the sudden decision of the US to withdraw forces changed the geopolitical balance in the region. In a diplomatic masterstroke, the Taliban kept the US engaged in Doha, acquired the military support of Pakistan, and neutralised Russia, China and Iran. It swiftly captured the areas in the North and the South West to insulate Afghanistan from Central Asian and Iranian influence. In a significant departure from their earlier policy, Russia, Iran, Central Asian states, and India made no serious effort to create or support the countervailing forces. It seems that the Taliban succeeded in co-opting or intimidating some of the warlords who formed the backbone of the Northern Alliance earlier.
The neighbouring states left the fate of Afghanistan to be decided by the internal forces. Rather than containing the rising influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, their strategy focussed on saving their territories from Talibani penetration. There was no serious attempt to save the regime of Ashraf Ghani even when his fall became imminent. The fact that he came to power with the blessings of the US became a political liability for his survival. It appears that the neighbouring states, except India, were waiting for his government to surrender.
The training of the Afghan forces by the US and NATO over the past few decades left a lot to be desired. This was admitted as such by US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, who alluded to their “hollowness”. However, it is also quite evident that the motivation and willingness to resist the Taliban was nowhere to be found amongst the rank and file Afghan forces. In Afghanistan, tribal loyalties continue to dominate the sense of national identity. It is incredibly difficult to throw up a national political figure that has pan-Afghan acceptance in such a society. The recently deposed President Ashraf Ghani suffered from this limitation. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that the Afghan forces under the central government’s command disintegrated so quickly without the backing of NATO and US ground troops.
The farcical peace talks in Doha
Afghan society and the international community are facing the consequences of the Trump administration’s farcical peace process initiated in Doha in September 2020. The Taliban were brought to the diplomatic table from their mountainous hideouts. This intra-Afghan peace negotiation could not achieve the rudimentary goal of any dialogue process, i.e. the cessation of violence. The Taliban continued to attack the government forces while the dialogue continued. However, the most devastating outcome of the negotiation was that it weakened the Afghan government and elevated the Taliban as a legitimate political force in Afghanistan. The UK defence secretary Ben Wallace criticised the withdrawal agreement as a “rotten deal”. The Taliban used this as an opportunity to mobilise resources and launch an offensive against the government forces.
The US issued a warning that if the Taliban came to power through force and violence, they wouldn’t be recognised internationally. Such warnings carry little value for an organisation rooted in militancy and has violated all the rules to acquire power. Its recognition draws from the fact it fought the most powerful army for two decades, forced them to retreat and captured power in Kabul. Its legitimacy is derived from its commitment to the Sharia Law and the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, rather than international recognition. Now the international community will be forced to negotiate with the new regime in Kabul.
The Taliban 2.0
The Taliban capture of power is a significant development for this war-torn country, the neighbouring states and the Western powers led by the US. Taliban’s victory has revived the spectre of repressive rule unleashed during the period 1996-2001. The Taliban rule was based on a strict interpretation of Wahabi Islam that severely curtailed the rights of women, children and minorities. The women were forbidden from pursuing any education or employment outside of their homes. Their rule was also marked by barbaric practices like the chopping off of hands of petty criminals and the stoning of women suspected of adultery.
It remains to be seen whether the Taliban unleash the ‘reign of terror’ or adopt a somewhat conciliatory stance. They announced earlier that they would allow women to participate in public life, but this might be a stratagem to counter the international criticism. Afghan women would suffer the most in Taliban 2.0.
They fear a return of pre-2001 Taliban rule, which confined women to household works and procreation. Nearly 3.5 million or roughly one-third of all the enrolled students in school are girls. About 30 percent of women in Afghan civil services are women. If the strict Sharia law is implemented, women won’t be allowed to go to schools or offices and leave their homes without a male guardian. There are terrifying reports of young girls and widows being forced to marry Taliban fighters in some parts. Partial gains made by Afghan women in the last two decades are likely to encounter a severe setback.
India may have to revisit its policy
India avoided talks with the Taliban and remained a peripheral player in the Doha peace process. In doing so, it became the only major country in the region to maintain a distance from the Taliban. This policy stance may have to be reviewed in light of recent developments. Since the mid-2000s, India has had investments worth $ 3 billion in Afghanistan, sponsoring a slew of developmental projects and expanding its diplomatic presence through a network of consulates. A connectivity project through Chabahar in Iran to Afghanistan was also being developed. All these gains of the past fifteen years will be squandered if India continues its current policy to effectively boycott the Taliban. The Taliban are a political reality in present-day Afghanistan, and Indian policy must incorporate this fact in its decision making.
Maintaining a distance from the Taliban would also be unwise, as this is precisely the outcome that Pakistan desires. India must use all its diplomatic resources to ensure that Afghanistan does not become the hub of anti-India activity. It can begin with offering quick humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
(Rajan Kumar teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Bappaditya Mukherjee is a former faculty at the State University of New York, Geneseo.
Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)