Taliban’s resurgence, backed by Pakistani patronage, highlights the outright failure of the superpower which failed to take lessons from history, that were always there
Afghanistan — the land that has always been so hostile to foreign interference — is currently at the epicentre of global debate. An insurgent group from the landlocked country of rugged terrain has made the greatest of military and economic powers on the planet bite the dust. Apart from Afghanistan, the whole world remains terrified — except, of course, a few.
History is witness, this is not the first time Afghan insurgents brought the superpowers to their knees. Elizabeth Thompson's oil canvas painting 'Remnants of an Army' lays bare the shattered pride of Great Britain towards the mid-19th century — depicting the sole returnee from a contingent of 16,000 in the first Anglo-Afghan war.
More freshly, the fate of the Soviet and now the US is before the world's eyes. Afghanistan is called the Graveyard of Empires not without a reason. This time around, the buzzword is the Taliban that is conceived as a threat not just by foreign powers but by domestic stakeholders as well, thanks to its five-year rule towards the close of the previous century. It is worthy here to understand who the Taliban actually are, and how they have risen to power, again?
The word 'Taliban' means students in the widely spoken Pashto language by Afghans. Three decades ago, in the post-Soviet troops' withdrawal phase in Afghanistan, those enrolled in religious seminaries (Madrasas) in Pakistan were drafted for it.
Backed by basic studies in hardline religious practices, the Taliban consisted of predominantly Pashtun groups who worked their influence across parts of Afghanistan which, at that time, was controlled by the Mujahideen — the forces which offered resistance to the Soviets and eventually took charge of the country.
Promising a better life free from corruption, checking lawlessness and offering a safer life for people to resume normal lives, the Taliban gained the trust of the people after making inroads into the country during mid-1995 and consolidated their position over the next few years across most parts of Afghanistan. The only pocket of resistance remained the Panjshir area where the deposed Afghan president Burranhuddin Rabbani took shelter and, along with Ahmad Shah Massoud (known as the 'Lion of Panjshir'), formed the Northern Alliance.
Gradually, over these years, the Taliban began cracking the whip literally, enforcing the strict Sharia laws, handing over instant punishments, flogging people, taking out limbs and at times announcing summary execution. The enforcement meant that women were under strict surveillance, behind veils at all the time and confined to homes, allowed to move out only in the company of a male member. The code included compulsory beards for men, a ban on music and entertainment, and denying girl child education in schools.
Their reign over Afghanistan continued uninterrupted from 1996 to 2001 — with recognition by just a handful of countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Taliban were pushed out of the country by the international forces, including those from the United States and its NATO allies, by launching action against Al-Qaeda.
US moves to reduce boots on the ground
Having entered into Afghanistan in 2001, the United States spent at least USD one trillion and lost several hundred of its soldiers, as the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan across the border, and launched insurgent attacks against the American and other foreign troops on its soil. According to a study, '20 Years of War', by Watson Institute at Brown University, the United States alone lost some 6,000 military men and contractors in Afghanistan during October 2001 and 2019. The US deployed 7.75 lakh troops in the country since the start of the war.
Meanwhile, the narrative at home was changing. Just as during the 2008 presidential elections the country leaned heavily towards "leave the course" in Iraq, over the next few years, American citizens became tired of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Around the time, while ordering for a surge, the then US President Barack Obama announced a drawdown of troops from 2011. The cast was being set by the time Joe Biden entered the electoral battle. President Donald Trump, through his envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, concluded a peace pact with the Taliban represented by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to withdraw its military by May 2021. The negotiations which began in February 2019, were concluded a year later and set in stone. President Biden who, in the run-up to his election, also promised to end the 'forever war' went ahead to implement the agreement albeit under a slightly delayed deadline – September 11, 2001, the anniversary of the terror attacks on Twin Trade Towers in New York. The cost of war both in terms of lives lost — of military and civilians – and severe drain of its resources, altered the domestic mood in the United States even as many in the strategic and defence domain disfavoured the exit route being planned.
The peace agreement of February 29, 2020, envisaged: Afghanistan soil would not be allowed to be used to attack the United States and its allies; a timeline for withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country; Taliban would start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides; and, a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire with participants in negotiations and finalise a future political roadmap for the country. The emphasis by the US Envoy was that nothing was agreed till everything was agreed.
Despite early signals that the Taliban was not strictly following the agreed roadmap amid reports of attacks inside Afghanistan, the US continued to go ahead with the withdrawal plan. Just days after signing the agreement, the Taliban carried out rocket attacks on Afghan security forces, and the United States retaliated with airstrikes in Helmand on the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the intra-Afghan negotiations did begin in Doha in September last year after the Afghan government completed the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, one of the points in the peace pact. The then Afghan president Ashraf Ghani came up with his own set of demands, initially disagreeing to release the prisoners stating his government made no such deal. Till his departure from Kabul, as the Taliban reached the gates of the city, Ghani gave an impression of seeking to reorganise resistance through warlords but eventually capitulated.
Now, the Washington Post last Wednesday carried a report based on confidential documents, with the government showing that senior officials in the US administrations did not tell the truth that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won. The paper claims to have secured the documents of a Federal project on the war, under the Freedom of Information Act, after a prolonged legal battle.
"We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing"…What are we trying to do here? We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…" The newspaper quoted Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House Afghan war czar under the Bush and Obama administrations.
With the role of seminaries in Pakistan becoming the cradle where the Taliban spent impressionable years, the country's assistance and continued patronage of its military remained in focus. Despite all the protests from Islamabad, the strategic analysts' community sees a clear link between the Taliban and Pakistan, which also became the base for the Taliban in the post-2001 phase. If the United States maintained that it went to war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and that is over, reports from the ground suggest otherwise. A report last year said Al-Qaeda has been carrying out covert operations in Afghanistan.
Besides Taliban and Al-Qaeda relations, Bruce Riedel, a senior policy analyst who advised four US Presidents on West and South Asia wrote recently that other Pakistan-based terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba are also embedded with Taliban. "They have over 1,000 fighters in Afghanistan, co-located with the Taliban. Both have longstanding ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence'', Riedel wrote this week in the Economic Times.
These are early days to come to any definite conclusion whether the Taliban will be different in its approach as compared to the hardliners who enforced Sharia codes with strictness, bordering at times on violence.
Early signals by the Taliban at its first press conference in Kabul last week offers a glimmer of hope as the spokesman offered amnesty for all those Afghans who worked for the previous regimes, made some politically correct pronouncement amid a candid assurance that women's right would be protected as determined by the Sharia law. There was no room for any ideological confusion.
Meanwhile, the Taliban also reached out to consult former President Hamid Karzai and the former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and others in Kabul. Are these announcements and moves meant to assuage fears of the people in the country and assure the international community that the regime Taliban seeks for governance would be different? The world has to wait for the developments to unfold in the weeks ahead as disturbing reports emerge from some areas where the Taliban took early control underscoring that its fighters on the street are embarking on the old pathway. As mentioned, at the start, these are indeed early days.
The Taliban has realised the importance of legitimacy. It understands the need of the hour and is learning the art of speaking contrary to what it does. Above everything, can political power earned at the tip of the gun be ever legitimate? There are counter voices from the Panjshir that have always managed to keep the Taliban at bay. The vice-president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, is still out there. However bleak the chances of a truly legitimate government may be, it will be wrong to announce a curtain call — for the sake of thousands who are braving the situation out there.
Afghanistan: A narco-state
As Afghanistan passed through an age of instability over the past 40 years — it has seen wars, swathes of terror, foreign intervention, the rise of domestic resurgence and poverty. One thing that persistently made its way amid the Afghan turmoil was poppy. The cultivation of the narcotics plant defined the success and failure of the US intervention/interference in the landlocked country. It would define how the Mujahidin, and then, the Taliban will make their advances. Most importantly, it would entrap generations of cultivators into the lure of profit which was the only alternative to the harsh reality of destitution. For Afghanistan — poppy has been drug, poppy has been weaponry and poppy has been power.
Regimes have changed in Afghanistan since the 1980s but the momentum that poppy cultivation gained at that point in time appears unstoppable. Back then, Mujahidin were eager to throw the Soviets out of the country, and no less eager was the US that saw it as an opportune moment to avenge the fall of Saigon — where the US had to back out ultimately against Soviet-backed Northern Vietnam. Towards the end of the decade, the US-backed Mujahidin would overthrow the Soviets from their land. But this decade also saw a massive surge in poppy production.
The reason was twofold — both connected to the war — on one front, poppy complemented the US monetary aid to Mujahidin, enabling them to sustain their resistance for a year — and overthrow a superpower, the USSR. On the second front, poppy cultivation would turn out to be a respite for suffering masses, gripped under poverty and unemployment. The Afghan climate was favourable for the low-cost poppy cultivation which would end up giving high dividends to the cultivators.
The woes of the country were not to end with Soviet troop withdrawals. Having its purpose served, the US also abandoned the country in a state of turmoil. The war was over but its implications on the economic and social life of Afghanistan were lasting — poppy again was the lethal saviour! It somehow ensured that the nation sustained itself. Between 1970 to 1991, the annual production of poppies in Afghanistan grew from 100 tons to 2,000 tons. Pakistan was already in the drugs game. Besides Pakistan, Afghan poppies also found hungry markets in Europe and the US via Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan etc.
It is at this point that the Pakistan-backed Taliban entered the frame and exploited poppy cultivation to optimum levels — making it more centralized and profitable than ever. It is unclear what exactly led the Taliban to ban Opium production towards the end of the 20th century, forgoing massive revenues, afflicting its GDP and stripping its population of employment. Interestingly, this ban coincided with the fall of the Taliban government after the 9/11 attacks.
The poppy has been the powerhouse for the Taliban. It has been so dear to the strong middlemen in the country and it has also been a respite for cultivators. It is well-entrenched in the system and sentiments of the country.
The Taliban was destined to come back to power. Post-9/11, as The Taliban started looking for the lost ground hustling past other local warlords, the US remained oblivious and indifferent until the problem rose to an insurmountable proportion. When it awoke it was perhaps very late. By 2007, poppy production touched new heights, surging to 8,200 tons, and the Taliban intrinsically made inroads in Afghan villages. It would turn the cultivators into dependents of poppy. The US and its allies made futile attempts to check the mushrooming of poppy but now, ahead of it, was not just the resistance from the Taliban but entire villages. Meanwhile, the Taliban went on becoming stronger and stronger. It would foil each of the attempts made by the US administrations one after another.
To take Afghanistan out of this narcotics grip, thus minimizing the strength of the Taliban, there has to be change at the grassroots first — providing Afghan cultivators viable alternatives through positive intervention in the area of agriculture. But now with the Taliban in full control, the task appears uphill.
With inputs from Suraj Kumar and Arif Mohammad. Views expressed are personal