A generation of Afghans who grew up without Taliban rule are unlikely to submit easily to the mores of an emirate harkening back to the 1990s
The Afghan generation that was born and grew into adults during the 20 years of life under a U.S.-supported government cannot be expected to submit easily to the Taliban and their “emirate” in 2021. What was acceptable under the government of Mullah Umar is today no longer acceptable to Afghans, in general, and the non-Pashtun who make up 70 percent of Afghanistan.
Kabul’s neighboring states, too, can’t take the Taliban anymore. Iran and Pakistan, jointly hosting over 6 million Afghan refugees the Taliban had forced to migrate, are no longer willing to see the group repeat its medieval style of governance. Add to that the Central Asian states—protected by Russia—and China, some of whose Uighur Muslims have been forced to “Talibanize”, and you have an unhappy neighborhood ready to oppose the re-Talibanization of Afghanistan. One must also calculate the extent to which the people of Afghanistan were transformed during 20 years of America’s “liberal” rule, affecting narrow tribalism and treatment of women in particular. What the world has not measured is the extent to which the common man in Afghanistan has been rendered “unfit” for Talibanization.
Pace of change in Afghanistan
How Afghanistan changed after 9/11 was charted by Farrukh Saleem in daily The News on Aug. 22: “In 2005, 22 percent of the Afghan population had access to electricity. The number has now grown to 97.7 percent of the population (Source: The World Bank). Twenty years ago, Kabul used to get roughly three hours of electricity a day. Since 2002, more than $4 billion have been spent on improving Afghanistan’s power infrastructure. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has played a crucial role. ADB pumped in $40 million to build a transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri north of Kabul to Uzbekistan. Another $56 million from ADB links Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
“Afghanistan now imports more than 670MW of electricity from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran for $280 million a year. Most residents of Kabul now have access to 24-hour electricity. Between 2006 and 2019, four power plants were commissioned—Istalif, Salma, Tarakhil and Bayat. Between 2012 and 2019, four solar powered projects came online—Bamyan, West Herat, Kabul and Kandahar.
“In 2001, Afghanistan had only 50 miles of paved roads. Over the past 20 years, $3 billion were spent on roads. National Highway 1, or the Ring Road, is a 2,000km two-lane road network circulating inside Afghanistan, connecting Kabul, Maidan, Ghazni, Kandahar Delaram, Herat, Maymana, Sheberghan, Mazar Sharif, Pul-e-Khumri and back to Kabul. National Highway 1 has extensions that also connect Jalabad, Bamyan, Khost, Lashkargah, Zarank, Farah, Islam Qala, Torghunid and Kunduz.”
Similarly, Vappala Balachandran has written for think-tank Atlantic Council on the progress in Afghanistan: “India invested heavily in a peaceful Afghanistan.” Quoting External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, he said that “no part of Afghanistan” had remained untouched by the 400-plus projects that India undertook in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. “Over 20 years, India spent more than $3 billion on projects—from roads, dams, and electricity-transmission capacity to schools and hospitals—in Afghanistan,” he cited the Indian Express as reporting. “The highway from Zaranj to Delaram was inaugurated by President Hamid Karzai and India’s then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee in January 2009. (The only ‘contribution’ the Taliban made was by killing six Indian workers and 129 Afghans in terrorist attacks while they worked on the highway project.) Afghanistan’s new parliament building, built by India, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.”
What may be in the offing
But is Afghanistan now standing on the edge of a cliff that will send it hurtling down? Columnist Fahd Husain, writing in daily Dawn, foresees a ‘best-case’ scenario: “In this scenario, the following could take place: (1) Taliban form an inclusive government that includes leaders from the former Northern Alliance who may also have been part of the Ashraf Ghani regime, as well as representatives from all major ethnic groups; (2) this government is accorded recognition by the international community; (3) with all rivals joined in the government, fighting comes to an end and there is finally peace in the country after decades of conflict; (4) international pressure, and need for assistance, moderates the Taliban government to a degree of acceptable normalcy and the country begins to inch towards the global mainstream; (5) China and Russia as the two largest regional powers enhance their diplomatic and economic footprint inside Afghanistan, with investment leading to greater inter-regional trade and infrastructure connectivity. Prospects brighten for linkages between Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative spinning off prosperity via Afghanistan.”
American journalist Michael Tomasky reacted to the Afghan situation in The New Republic earlier in the year, laying out the retreat of the Western world and the U.S. in particular: “The fate of Afghanistan, it saddens me to say, isn’t up to us either. It’s up to the people of Afghanistan. It sickens me to see the Taliban take over, and we may need to step in now and do something to shore up the Afghan military for a short time. But here’s the unalloyed truth: We could stay another 20 years, or 40, or 120, and nothing would change. And finally, let us be honest with ourselves: The United States of America is no longer a country that can afford the luxury, if that’s the right word, of promoting democracy abroad. Our first task is to preserve it here at home, where it is under such an extremely serious threat. The best way to show the rest of the world that we treasure democracy is to make sure it triumphs within our own borders. We’d better tend that garden first.”
Bad news from Panjshir
With the West all but washing its hands of the present situation in Afghanistan, it is up to the neighbors to do the fixing. But the neighborhood may get divided due to its own contradictions. A disenchanted Pakistan wants Kabul to capture and surrender the Pakistani Taliban who are wanted for their terrorist action in Pakistan. But the Taliban in Kabul are focused on the northeastern province of Panjshir where Pakistan’s most virulent enemy, former vice president Amrullah Saleh, has taken refuge with Ahmad Massoud, the son of the late Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Saleh’s message to the Taliban gives us an idea of where things will go in Afghanistan in the coming days.
He said that he would “under no circumstances bow” to the Taliban and will continue to fight. “I will never, ever and under no circumstances bow to the Taliban terrorists. I will never betray the soul and legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander, the legend and the guide. I won’t disappoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER.” This is, unsurprisingly, in contrast to the Taliban who claim the situation in Panjshir can be resolved ‘within hours’ if it comes to a full-on conflict.
Saleh is also unlikely to be of any help to neighboring Pakistan after being such an anti-Pakistan scourge in the government of Ashraf Ghani. What we thus get is the complexity of what Afghanistan has become, even minus the “India factor” that Pakistan has dreaded. Saleh harks back to the days when Pakistan was supportive of the Taliban under Mullah Umar and the Northern Alliance was supported by India. Now that India stands ousted from the Afghan arena, Panjshir may well have to eventually submit to the Taliban.
Pakistan’s past with the Taliban
Freelance journalist FM Shakil, writing in Asia Times, quotes Ryan Clarke of the East Asian Institute of Singapore on where Pakistan stands after the fall of Ashraf Ghani: “Pakistan has a small fraction of strategic control over an Afghan Taliban that is now a far more capable and experienced fighting force. The Pakistani civilian, military, and intelligence leadership that are attempting to drive these Taliban operations in Afghanistan are playing with TNT inside a nuclear reactor. The Afghan Taliban will no longer take orders from Pakistanis and may even come to view them as a liability. In the interests of self-preservation, it would be wise for Pakistan’s leadership to take note of this reality.”
In a warning, Clarke advises Islamabad against complacency. “The Pakistani leadership has continued to operate under the false assumption that the influence and reach of the Afghan Taliban will never spread into settled Pakistan, namely the provinces of Punjab and Sindh,” he adds.
Once upon a time Pakistan was widely regarded as the “breeding ground” of the Taliban and nurtured them to take on the pre-9/11 set-up in Afghanistan. It is now faced with negotiating with them but as an “outsider” together with the other affected neighbors, China and Russia. Has the new power-map in Afghanistan sunk in enough for Pakistan to give up clapping over “the U.S. defeat” and change tack? Based on numerous media appearances by the political leadership since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Pakistan might not have learned the right lesson.
The fog of the frontline state
Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi expressed his skepticism about Pakistan’s policy on the Taliban in The News: “First and foremost, the wisdom and clarity of the civilian and military leadership on what Pakistan’s role is and should be, with respect to Afghanistan, has not permeated even the core members of P.M. Imran Khan’s cabinet. The in-camera parliamentary briefing by the military top brass did little to inform how many in responsible positions are thinking about the issues. As a result, a special assistant to the P.M. chose to harangue a young American think tanker, mocking him much in the manner a schoolboy might mock a playground nemesis. A federal minister, (a senior confidante and adviser to P.M. Khan), shared two juxtaposed images of U.S. humiliation, one from Saigon in 1975 and another from Kabul on Sunday, August 15. Earlier last week, retired two and three star generals had shared gleeful expressions of approval at the impending victory of the Taliban, with one publishing a full op-ed detailing how unfairly the West treats the Taliban.”
Of course, what this trend foreshadows is a future lineup of global antagonists which will end up hurting only Pakistan and not China or Russia. How will India look at the new scenario? In Daily Star, Pallab Bhattacharya had this to say: “This is an area of great concern for India, according to strategic affairs experts. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan of the 1990s was recognized by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the U.A.E. Russia and China had not recognized the Taliban then but they are now falling head over heels to embrace the group. This is a big change from 1996. China, with its deep pockets, is not only looking at making investments in the Afghan economy, but also taking its Belt and Road Initiative to that country to complement its project already going on in Pakistan.
“China is particularly keen on tapping the deposits of copper, iron ore and lithium which is important for the electric vehicles of the future. There could be a quid pro quo between China’s financial muscle to help out the Afghan economy, heavily dependent on foreign aid, and mineral mining rights. The assessment in the strategic establishment in New Delhi is that Pakistan, which has for decades invested heavily in the Taliban by supplying it with funds, weapons and intelligence, is in the driver’s seat on matters relating to Afghanistan and will now try to whittle down India’s role in the economic development of that country.”
Pak-India politics and policy
When Ashraf Ghani was ruling over Afghanistan, he saw Pakistan as the “enemy next door” and India as “a friend in need”; today India is suddenly out of the picture and can possibly seek consolation in the fact that it is a part of the U.S.-led Quad in the Indo-Pacific region. Like China, it has invested in Afghanistan, and would be worried about the revival of a Talibanized Afghanistan.
Predictably, no one in India will undertake a positive review of the changed situation in the region: India’s Chabahar Port project, as a facilitator of India’s trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, came to naught after the intensification of U.S. sanctions against Iran; and now the removal of the Ashraf Ghani government has put paid to another important trade and investment entrepot for India. There is however the new “direct” trade route through Pakistan with the great promise of lateral Chinese trade routes that Islamabad is invested in. What will be more attractive, an India-Pakistan-Afghanistan trading bloc under a revived SAARC—Afghanistan being a member—or the Quad taking on China in the region? Remember: India battles China in Aksai-Chin; yet it is China’s most important trading partner.
Jawed Naqvi writing in daily Dawn noted some promising signs for ties between India and a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan: “The Indian right has declared the Taliban a mortal enemy, and has lodged criminal cases against those allegedly taking heart in the U.S. defeat. This has reportedly happened in BJP-ruled states. But the mobs can’t do much about Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s closest adviser Sudheendra Kulkarni’s advice that India and Pakistan should come together to work with the Taliban, and create an atmosphere for regional peace and harmony around the troubled nation. Nor can the carping media do much about the seasoned commentary by former Indian diplomat who once handled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran affairs. M.K. Bhadrakumar has advised India to enable Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to play a sovereign and unbridled role in SAARC and possibly in the Shanghai club.”
Stuck on Kashmir
India and Pakistan are stuck on Kashmir, thus indirectly rejecting the possibility of “solution through normalization.” As it stands now, the issue is menacingly pending between India and Pakistan, with no end in sight. AG Noorani writing in daily Dawn laid out the hopeless scenario: “Kashmir’s future lies in the hands of its own people. The world outside can and must help them but it can only help so much and not more. The militancy which erupted in 1988 served only to revive an issue which was dormant in the eyes of some. It exacted a heavy toll on lives in the area. The All Parties’ Hurriyat Conference, which was formed in its wake, has been an utter failure. Its leaders have only proved themselves to be a selfish and self-centered lot. They failed to provide strong leadership or even a convincing strategy mainly because of internal bickering. That some prospered was no secret. The only strategy they could come up with was the strategy of hartals which imposed a heavy economic burden on the common people.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has repeatedly asserted that there can be no talks with India until it reverses its unilateral decision to abrogate the special constitutional status of India-held Kashmir. Any chance at mutually beneficial economic progress through Afghanistan is unlikely to yield much so long as this hardline stance continues to draw support across a large portion of the population.