Taliban leaders at the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. File/Reuters
Afghans have been rattled by the Taliban’s claim to have won the war against US and its Nato forces which will begin a five-month staged pullout on May 1st. Afghans believe the evacuation will precipitate increasing violence rather than lead to a peace deal between the resurgent Taliban and the weak government. Since the US invaded the country in October 2001, 158,000 Afghans have been killed, 43,000 of them civilians.
Peace negotiator Fawzia Koofi told CNN the Western powers have shifted from a “condition-based withrawal to withdrawal at any cost” — with a high price to be paid by Afghans. Koofi, who has survived an assassination attempt, pointed out that 400 women have been killed by the hardline fundamentalist Taliban or its radical allies since talks between the US and Taliban began in Doha last year.
The Taliban responded by saying the US postponement of the pullout until September amounts to a violation of the agreement reached in Doha in February 2020 for full withdrawal by May 1st this year and have refused to attend peace talks in Istanbul, scheduled for next week.
It is ironic that the Taliban should take such an uncompromising stand. It was founded by Afghan mujahadeen who were supported by the US and Pakistan in the 1978-88 war to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan. The group gained its name when it recruited students — “Taliban” — from Afghanistan’s Pashtun community who were studying in Pakistani seminaries. Thousands of foreign fighters recruited by Al Qaeda, founded by Osama bin Laden, were also funnelled into Afghanistan to take part in this battle as the Cold War was winding down.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanistan erupted into civil war. The Taliban, organised, gained strength, and came to power during 1994-96. The group imposed social and cultural practices on Afghans and targeted non-Pashtun minorities, particularly Shia Hazaras.
Following Al Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the US invaded and toppled the Taliban, but the movement regrouped in the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban reject power-sharing with the government as its openly stated goal is to transform Afghanistan, a fragile democracy, into a conservative “emirate” led by a cleric. The rural-based Taliban dominates 20 per cent of the country while the writ of urban-based government holds 30 per cent and 50 per cent is contested.
During the past 19 years, areas outside Taliban control have seen significant advances in education, women’s participation in the workforce, internet growth, and free media. There has been a reduction of persecution of and attacks on minorities.
The eruption of full-scale civil war and/or a return to power of the Taliban could reverse these gains. As the evacuation of the 2,500 US and 7,000 Nato forces proceeds, Afghans’ fears will grow apace. Many believe the US/Nato-recruited and trained Afghan army could fracture and dissolve if the Taliban mounts full-scale offensives, takes more territory, and stages attacks on targets in government-held cities.
The Taliban had halted operations against US and Nato forces during the talks, but stepped up strikes on the Afghan army and civilians and has failed to curb Daesh which also carries out brutal attacks on civilians. Now that talks are suspended, the Taliban could resume operations against US/Nato forces.
While retaining some popular support among traditional allies, the Taliban has been weakened by the split between factions which seek a military solution leading to Taliban rule and groups prepared to accept a power-sharing deal with the government — in the expectation the Taliban will, eventually, seize power. It regards the government as US-owned and considers democracy a Western import.
The Taliban have up to 85,000 full time fighters while the Afghan army claims 180,000 and should be able to contain the Taliban. After all, the US has had nearly two decades to train and equip Afghan forces for precisely this mission. However, the Afghan military suffers from the deficiencies of the US-recruited, trained and armed Iraqi army: corruption and “ghost soldiers” who do not exist but are on the books so commanders can collect their salaries. Consequently, Afghans fear their army could cut and run, as did the Iraqi army when confronted by Daesh in Mosul in 2014.
In anticipation of renewed warfare and the possible return of the Taliban, Afghans could once again seek refuge in Pakistan, India, Iran, and other neighbouring countries. Many could travel to Turkey to take smugglers’ routes to Europe. Officials and soldiers fearing retribution and women rejecting repressive Taliban rule would be prominent among the refugees. At least seven million fled Taliban rule from 1996 until late 2001 when the US invaded and occupied the country following Afghan-based Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington. More than 2.7 million remain refugees in Pakistan, Iran and Europe while 2.5 million are displaced within Afghanistan. After Syria, Afghanistan has produced the world’s second largest population outflow.
While the Biden administration calculates that Al Qaeda and militants have been contained and the Taliban does not pose a threat to the US, withdrawal is a risky gamble for other countries near and far. Consequently, Russia and Iran have already begun to coordinate policy on Afghanistan and Tajikistan and Iran have formed a joint military committee to tackle potential destabilisation.
Although the Taliban reject external intervention in Afghanistan and say it would not interfere in the affairs of other states, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan could boost the political ambitions and authority of fundamentalists in the Central Asian republics which gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poverty in these countries has turned many to religion while youths, seeking salaries, have become prey to radical preachers and movements.
Since Daesh and Al Qaeda, both branded terrorist organisations, remain embedded with the Taliban, they could be reinvigorated, secure fresh foreign recruits, and resume external operations. Their offshoots in the Middle East and North Africa could also revive and mount attacks in host countries and Europe. Al Qaeda-founded Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates Syria’s north-western Idlib province, could branch out and carry put strikes in Syria and Iraq. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — still active in war-ravaged Yemen — could also be strengthened and energised. The unintentional consequences of withdrawal without seriously hobbling or defeating the Taliban are myriad.