By Dr Rathnam Indurthy
On August 15, the Taliban, at lightning speed, seized power in Kabul while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his team fled to the UAE.
The US and NATO troops, close to 1,50,000, kept their presence for almost 20 years in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban and building institutions, infrastructure, and training the military and police with the belief that the Afghan government would be strong enough to withstand any threat from the Taliban.
Assured by Ghani’s government of its ability to sustain its security, the American and NATO troops began to withdraw. The US administration did not predict that Ghani’s regime would collapse so easily. Afghan troops, numbering 3,00,000, with sophisticated weapons and years of training provided by the US, could not resist a ragtag Taliban force of 75,000, defecting or surrendering to the Taliban, belying the view of Pashtuns or Pathans (Afghan army was predominantly Pashtun).
What Explains This Debacle?
The Taliban troops, who are also Pashtuns, are fanatically devoted to their cause of establishing an Islamist regime and cherish martyrdom in their cause. Whereas the Afghan army, it seems, had no commitment to its government. They may have joined the security forces either for money, or they stealthily shared the Taliban ideology or fear death.
The premise that the army abandoned Ghani’s government because it was corrupt does not hold water. For, corruption is a common phenomenon in many third world countries. However, one seldom hears, their armies abandoning their governments just because their governments are corrupt. For instance, according to German-based Transparency International, on the corruption index, Pakistan ranks 124/180. Yet, it defends its government and the state, ardently when threatened externally.
Although Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid pledged that the Taliban will not harm Afghan citizens, few believe his pledge. Notwithstanding its pledge to the Trump administration it had made, it is likely that the Taliban will covertly provide a haven to its ideological ally, al-Qaida again. It may tolerate the presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Another ideological ally, the Taliban in Pakistan (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) may be inspired again to restart its terrorism in North Waziristan and cause problems for the Imran Khan government. The Mujahedeen in Jammu & Kashmir may be inspired by the Taliban victory to revive its pro-Pakistan or pro-independence movement which has gained fillip, especially after the Modi government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A.
This Frankenstein monster, an American-Pakistan creation, has become a Trojan horse for America and the region in general. For instance, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1978, to help expel the Russians, the Reagan administration provided umpteen billions of dollars, including stinger missiles, to Mujahideen (Islamic holy warriors) through Pakistan as a conduit led by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The Soviet Union was forced out in 1988. Then President Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the Soviet invasion was a “bleeding wound”. The Taliban evolved out of this Mujahideen.
The Obama administration (2009-17) invited the Taliban to form a coalition government with President Karzai if it accepted the Afghan constitution, eschewed violence and respected human rights, but it rejected the conditions. The Trump administration (2017-21) appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born expert, to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, without conditions, and the Ghani government was not a party to the talks.
In February 2020, the US administration and the Taliban signed an agreement under which the US agreed to withdraw its troops in phases and completely within 14 months if the Taliban fulfilled its end of the bargain such as not allowing al-Qaeda or any extremist group in Afghanistan. The administration also agreed to have the Ghani government release 5,000 prisoners.
Some countries such as Russia, China and Iran may now recognise the regime, perhaps, to humiliate the US though China and Russia too, may have to be concerned about the East Turkestan movement in Xinjiang led by Uyghurs and the New Chechen Jihadi movement in Chechnya respectively, where Muslims are being oppressed. These groups may be inspired by Taliban success and even get help from the Taliban in the future. China, Russia and Pakistan are winners.
Pakistan hopes to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan, its long felt dream against India. But, the US, Europe and many other countries, including the Gulf Arab countries, are unlikely to recognise the Taliban. India which had friendly relations with previous governments is a loser as it has hostile relations with the Taliban.
China which had already signed mining contracts with the previous Karzai government may bail out the Taliban regime, but it may not last long.
Afghanistan may again plunge into civil war. This time, even Pashtun warlords may join the Northern Alliance which is predominantly Tajik at 27% of the population. Pashtun’s account for 42%. The Hazaras, who account for 9% of the Afghan population, are Shia and had been persecuted by the Sunni Taliban, may also join the Alliance against the Taliban.
Iran supports the Hazaras, its coreligionists. Even regular Afghans who had enjoyed freedoms under the previous governments for two decades may join the resistance movement if they find the Taliban oppressive. As it is, the resistance movement has already started in Panjshir Valley led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Amrullah Saleh, who was the Vice President under Ghani.
Whatever one may say or argue about America’s involvement in Afghanistan, it has transformed a primitive country into a nearly modern liveable nation by building roads, schools, colleges, hospitals and raising the standard of living of the Afghans.
Afghanistan under king Zahir Shah (1933-73) and his successor President Mohammed Daoud Khan (1973-78) though authoritarian, had functioned as a normal, friendly and well-respected country. In fact, Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffār Khān, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, was a pacifist in Pakistan. He later fought for Pashtun independence for which he was imprisoned until 1972 in Pakistan.
Afghanistan, which is ethnically and tribally divided, has had no history of democracy other than imposed by the US. It has no political culture conducive to a democracy. What Afghanistan needs is an authoritarian government in which they can enjoy a modicum of political, economic and cultural rights by restoring the tribal Loya Jirga (Grand Council). It is only then Afghanistan will be a peaceful country and so will be the region.
(The author is a retired Professor of Political Science, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana, USA)
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