Afghanistan Crisis: From Terrorists to Rulers

The Taliban seized Kabul much earlier than US expectations but we see no signs of provocative aggression. While there is plenty of chaos and confusion- yet there are signs of method in the madness.

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  22 Aug 2021 3:21 AM GMT
Afghanistan Crisis: From Terrorists to Rulers

For many, there could be more to the situation in Kabul than meets the eye. The US and the Taliban have fought for each other's blood for nearly 20 years, and amazingly, at Kabul airport today, we see the Taliban and the US and its allies in close proximity of each other. The Taliban seized Kabul much earlier than US expectations but we see no signs of provocative aggression. While there is plenty of chaos and confusion- yet there are signs of method in the madness.

What is going on? We need not forget that from the US point of view, the disengagement from Afghanistan is a political solution to the Afghan problem - a political solution that Barrack Obama just enunciated but hesitated from initiating, Donald Trump commenced groundwork of, made initial and hurried beginnings and finally, Joe Biden chose to sail along with at a pace that may have even surprised Donald Trump!

"Our Secretary of State (Mike Pompeo) signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban. This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn't defeat us. We defeated ourselves." Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was quoted saying in a podcast.

Another Trump administration official, former Defense Secretary Mike Asper, told CNN that while Biden "owns" the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan, former President Trump had "undermined" the agreement through his barely disguised impatience to withdraw forces with little regard for the consequences.

Political solutions exclude the use of military force and all parties (the US, Taliban, and the deposed Afghan government) understood this. The US wouldn't have used force in these final months of disengagement. Afghan National Army which could have and should have - didn't do so. The US and its allies should have set some conditions for the Taliban before ordering pullout - but they also did not. Consequently, the Taliban are now in full control of almost entire Afghanistan. The power that the US intended to transfer to the Afghan government was prematurely taken away by the Taliban.

While there could be some minor scuffles at the rank and file level, the process of withdrawal will most likely be completed without any major upsets for the US. Nonetheless, the major unexpected setback for the US is the refugee and humanitarian crisis that now stares the US and its allies in the face. A similar crisis appearing few months down the line when there was no US presence in Afghanistan would have had a different shade to it. It would have then required a different kind of response.

The fallout of this political solution brings to fore many familiar faces -including those hiding in Doha and Pakistan until recently - surfacing in the corridors of power in Kabul. The man who appears to be much in news is - Abdul Ghani Baradar - co-founder of the Taliban. Who is Baradar?

Baradar comes from the Durrani Pashtun lineage (Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan). He fought against the Soviet Union in 1980s as mujahedeen under command of Mullah Omar. Title 'Baradar', meaning brother, was conferred upon him by Mullah Omar. Baradar and Omar are brother-in-laws, having married two sisters. When Mullah Omar formed the Taliban in 1994, Baradar became his deputy. He is reported to have held the positions of Governor of two Afghan provinces during the Taliban's rule (1996-2001) in Afghanistan. After the Taliban government was thrown out by the US Forces in 2001, Baradar moved to Pakistan and directed the insurgency from there.

Baradar was arrested by Pakistan in 2010, paraded in chains on the street of Karachi and kept in custody for two main reasons: first, for his ability and willingness to negotiate with ex-President Hamid Karzai- an Indian ally and, secondly, for impressing upon the US that Pakistan was going tough on Taliban militants.

When the Trump administration decided to pursue a political solution to the Afghan problem, they needed to find a person who could enforce the deal in the Taliban cadres. Founder Omar had died in 2013 (officially announced in 2015) of tuberculosis and the co-founder was languishing in a Pakistani jail.

US Envoy and negotiator Zalmay Mamozy Khalilzad commenced the peace process with Haibatullah Akhundzada (a cleric), current Taliban supreme commander (In Pakistan Army's custody presently??), and soon identified Baradar, a fellow Pashtun most suited to this role.

Once Baradar arrived in Doha, he assumed the main role in negotiations. The agreement was signed by Khalilzad and Baradar in the presence of then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Baradar didn't fail to state on that occasion that a new power structure would take shape in Afghanistan after the foreign forces withdrew.

Haibatullah Akhundzada is the current Taliban supreme commander and he was appointed to this position on 25 May 2016 when Baradar was in prison. Though Akhundzada, yet another Pashtun, continues to remain the supreme commander and is one of the probable to lead the country, Baradar appears to have performed a stellar role in Taliban activities and negotiations.

The immediate choice facing the Taliban is whether to return without delay to its preferred model of brutal governance or to tone down and appear more of a political body rather than a militant one. Taliban leaders and their advisers (in Pakistan, China, and elsewhere) understand well that political power can bring about tremendous legitimate authority as well as grant access to extraordinary riches. 'Global recognition' and 'international legitimacy' are phrases that are no more alien to Taliban outlaws.

When the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan (1999-2004), mainstream social media had not come into existence. There was no Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp and similar facilities. Mobile web was then available only in a few developed countries. Taliban statements and appearances in the media this week reflect that they understand the power of media/social media and the optics that can be achieved through a well-orchestrated projection. Positive projection is essential for gaining global recognition.

While most of the world is leaving Afghanistan, Russia, China and Pakistan haven't made such a move. Russia has called for an "inclusive" government in Afghanistan. China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, had met a Taliban delegation on 28 July in the Chinese city of Tianjin. The nine-member delegation, which included Baradar, was invited to Tianjin on China's initiative. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Wang Yi clarified the Chinese stance by stating: "The international community should encourage and guide it in a positive direction instead of exerting more pressure". Chinese economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan dictate that China will play an important role in Afghanistan in the coming days - making foray through infrastructure offerings and eventually acquiring significant assets.

What about Baradar's equation with Pakistan? Will the Taliban government be dancing to Pakistan's tune given Baradar's confinement for 8 long years in a Pakistani prison? It is too difficult to ascertain whether Baradar was really treated as a prisoner by Pakistanis. While his custody would have been in Pakistan's strategic interests, there was no reason not to extend him good living conditions and all the comforts of life. If so, Baradar may forget the past, unless it was dreadful, and adopt the pathway that serves best his current interests.

Pakistan is hankering for US money. The US had put a tight squeeze on the aid after Pakistan's connection with Osama Bin Laden was revealed. Taliban leadership needs to demonstrate to the US and its allies that Al-Qaeda is not being allowed to operate from Afghan soil or being provided assistance elsewhere. It will not be too much of torment for both these seasoned insidious players to go into a quiescent mode for some time until the dust settles. They could continue to build their resources and networks deviously without inflicting physical harm on any target that could ruffle the US and its allies. It is, therefore, possible that these two con artists will behave like reformed criminals in the public eye. There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on the Taliban from Al-Qaeda, Pak Army, Pak ISI, and other Islamic extremist organizations imploring uninterrupted nurturing of militancy in regions of interest worldwide including Jammu & Kashmir in India.

India must continue to watch the situation and keep open the channels of communication with important power brokers in Afghanistan. It is reported that Hamid Karzai has now entered into talks with the Taliban regarding power-sharing in Afghanistan. Karzai and Baradar are fellow Pashtuns and when the Taliban were ousted by the US, Baradar, on at least two occasions, had been in favor of approaching Karzai and arriving at some kind of peace agreements. Apparently, these efforts were scuttled by Pakistan. In case Hamid Karzai is now able to hold sway, there are hopes that ties that have existed between Afghanistan and India may continue to prevail.

For decades, stability and security in Afghanistan & Pakistan have presented significant national security threats for India. Both have served as founders for world terrorism. They have also reared their monstrous head in the Kashmir region and elsewhere in the country.

All these developments notwithstanding, India should be prepared to tackle successfully an enhanced level of cross-border terrorism. Do not forget that Baradar is a seasoned terrorist and an elite Mullah in the Taliban hierarchy. Draconian Sharia law will definitely be fully imposed soon with the rights of women curtailed. Clampdown on media and the internet can also be expected in due course of time. People who have sympathized or worked with the US in the past will receive severe retaliation. In fact, the process has already begun.

As events continue to unfold & evolve at an astonishing speed inside Afghanistan, 'Is it the same old Taliban or Taliban would re-invent themselves?' – is the moot question.

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