Afghanistan: Back to Square One?

Air Cdre (Retd) Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury | Monday, 26 July 2021

As the US and NATO forces abandon Afghanistan after 20 years of engagement, the Taliban forces are consolidating their position across the country. It appears that the Afghan Government forces are collapsing faster than anyone predicted. It is almost a repeat show of what happened in South Vietnam in April 1975 when the US forces withdrew leaving behind their long-time South Vietnamese allies at the mercy of the Vietcong. 

Americans had been in Afghanistan for the last for the last four decades. It was the US President Ronald Reagan who in 1979 started arming the Afghan dissidents to form the Mujahedin Forces to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan as a part of the Cold War. US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pumped in millions of dollars to conduct a proxy-war against the Soviet Forces. CIA opened thousands of madrassas along Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas that acted as the recruiting centres of Mujahedin soldiers. Young people from across the Muslim world too joined in the so-called Jihad. As the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Mujahedin entered Kabul and soon an all-out civil war started between the various factions of the Mujahedins that further devastated an already war-torn Afghanistan.  With the withdrawal of the Soviet forces the Americans assumed that their mission was accomplished and Afghanistan disappeared from the US radar. In the backdrop of the in-fighting among Mujahedin factions, by 1994, a new force was organized by the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) of Pakistan, composed of madrassa students of Afghan refugee camps aptly named the Talibans. The Talibans emerged from Quetta, Pakiatan and quickly occupied Kandahar and then Kabul. By 1996, the Talibans were ruling most of Afghanistan till late 2001 when they were defeated by a coalition of US-led NATO and anti-Taliban Afghan forces. It may be noted that during the four years that the Talibans were in power in Kabul, no countries in the world recognized their government, except Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Rest of the world, including Bangladesh, continued to recognize the ex-Mujahedin government, then led by what was known as the "Northern Alliance". The Taliban rule was noted for extremely harsh application of what they termed as "Sharia Law", like of which the world had never witnessed before.

With the defeat of the Taliban and the establishment of a national government in Kabul in 2001, some semblance of normalcy returned. The Afghans drafted a constitution, established a multi-party democracy and held regular elections of national and local bodies, freely elected Presidents served their tenures and peacefully handed over power to the next incumbent. Remarkably, all these developments were taking place in spite of the constant threat of the Talibans who were bent upon disrupting the constitutional process. The Afghan women, for the first time took active part in the political process and despite repeated attacks on the female candidates, many got elected defeating their male counterpart. Afghan women joined the police, military, judiciary and executive posts. While football, cricket etc. were banned under the Taliban rule, Afghan football and cricket teams, including female teams, won championships in international arena. From a nation that had virtually no functioning economy, Afghanistan saw the establishment of banks, insurance and other financial services. While the Talibans had closed down all schools, colleges and universities and physically destroyed many, those were repaired rebuilt and are now functioning across the country.  Thousands of Afghan students are now pursuing higher studies across the world. Notwithstanding these developments, the internal security situation did not improve. Before finishing off the Taliban forces, the US and the West got busy with toppling Saddam Hossain and a new ME war that gave rise to ISIS and a resurgent Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Talibans quietly reorganized in the sanctuary provided by Pakistan along Af-Pak border. While US and Afghan forces were fighting the Taliban forces inside Afghanistan, their rear bases inside deep mountainous regions of Pakistan remained intact.

In fact, Taliban leaderships operated whole time from the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar. Funds for the Talibans had never been a problem while donors across the world, especially from the ME countries, were ready to contribute for what they saw was for Islamic jihad. Since the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, many of the IS sympathisers have joined with the Taliban forces. A faction of Taliban are now aligned with the Al-Qaeda and another is with Islamic State (IS).

What would be possible outcome if the Taliban re-enters Afghanistan? We are going to witness a far worse situation in Afghanistan than what we saw in Syria or Iraq. Schools, colleges will be shut down, girls will have to stay indoors, libraries will be burnt down and museum artefacts destroyed. Afghanistan will once again be cut off from the rest of the world and enter into an abyss of darkness. It is unlikely to be recognized by the world community, except may be Pakistan and some Gulf states. Pakistan always aspired to use Afghanistan as its strategic depth in its ultimate fight against India, but as we saw last time when the Talibans were in power they did not recognize the "Durand Line" and did not give up the claim of' Pakhtunistan'. There is also the possibility of another civil war within Afghanistan between the IS and Al-Qaeda factions of the Taliban. Also, the northern Tajik and the Shias of Hazara tribes are unlikely to accept the Sunni Taliban domination. Thus, we might witness a civil war on multiple fronts. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) might once again engage in terrorist activities within Pakistan. China would like to see an Afghanistan that joins its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), provide access to its mineral resources and provide land route to the Indian Ocean via Iran. Russians are closely watching the situation as they are worried about the spillover effect over Central Asian Republics. A Talibanised Afghanistan will fuel further unrest among the Uighurs in NW China. If the Taliban start campaign against Shia ethnic people, Iran will, naturally, get involved.

A Talibanised Afghanistan will be a long-term strategic challenge for India. India had invested heavily in building schools, hospitals, roads, power stations and communication networks. Thousands of young Afghans were admitted to colleges, technical institutions and universities in India. Unrestrained Talibans may become a magnet for the Jihadists across the world. Muslim youths in India, marginalized due to BJP's Hindutva policies, might be increasingly drawn to it. There could be a rise of Jihadist activities in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. Bangladesh, too, might face new challenges in its security environment.

A hasty US withdrawal, without ensuring continued survival of a democratic government in Kabul, has been a prescription for disaster in Afghanistan. The Arab countries, such as Qatar, UAE must refrain from providing Talibans with billions of Dollars in cash. Pakistan must be pressured by the major players to deny weapons and shelter to the Talibans. China and Russia too have important stake in peace and stability in Afghanistan. The Russians with the help of the Central Asian states, including Iran, need to form a cooperative axis that will ensure that Afghanistan does not become a lawless land. India must remain engaged in Afghanistan if it wishes to prevent the Jihadi spouring into Kashmir from across the Pamir. It is thus evident that for a stable, peaceful, democratic, progressive Afghanistan, all nations across the ideological divide must cooperate, collaborate and coordinate in order to build a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan. A collective failure will be a collective disaster.


[email protected]