An aggressive line - GulfToday

An aggressive line

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Afghan security personnel stand guard along the road amid ongoing fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in Kandahar on July 9, 2021. Photo: TNS

Afghan local governor Salima Mazari is a rare woman in the position she holds and is leading popular resistance to the Taliban which has already taken over half her district. Agence France Presse (AFP) portrays her as riding in a pick-up truck through her remote mountainous rural area in northern Afghanistan in a mission to ginger up her countrymen to do battle with the Taliban, reinvigorated by the withdrawal of US and other foreign forces from the country.

She has recruited all manner of men — farmers, herders, labourers and students who leave their families, crops and flocks, work and studies and bring their own light weapons when they join the resistance. She told AFP, “Our people didn’t have guns but they went and sold their cows, sheep, and even their land, to buy weapons. They are on the frontline every day and night without getting any kind of credit or salary.”

She has recruited 600 volunteers to reinforce the police and security forces which, with the irregulars’ help, have been able to fend off the Taliban — so far.

She has two compelling reasons for adopting an aggressive line toward the Taliban. Wherever it has imposed its control, the movement has confined women to their homes, denied them education, and refused to permit them to work. This has meant a reversion to the Taliban’s repressive rule before the US invaded and occupied the country in 2001 and drove the movement from power. And, she is an ethnic Hazara, a member of the largely Shia community which has been persecuted by the Taliban and its Daesh ally. She is fighting for her personal existence and the existence of her community. The Taliban slew thousands of Hazaras during its 1996-2001 reign.

The Kabul government has responded to the Taliban offensive by reinforcing the army by belatedly providing weapons to local folk who are determined to resist a second Taliban take-over. But the government’s efforts may be too little, too late.  

Anti-Taliban Afghan warlords have also pledged to join battle with the movement. The most prominent among them is Abdul Rashid Dostum — an ethnic Uzbek who was based in and backed by Turkey — has returned to Afghanistan. He has vowed to recapture his hometown of Sheberghan, in the northern Jawzan Province. He has tried to convince the government in Kabul to fly in 500 special forces officers to reinforce his militiamen in the fight to retake the city.

Ahmad Massoud, son of influential militia commander Ahmad Shah Massoud who was murdered by al-Qaeda; Atta Mohammed Noor, a former northern governor and commander, and veteran Ismail Khan have committted to the anti-Taliban campaign. The latter has deployed his fighters alongside the army to defend Herat, Afghanistan’s third city with a population of 600,000. 

While the US has dispatched long-distance B-52 bombers to bomb Taliban fighters, these flights are too few and far between to do permanent damage and halt their advance. Civilians are dying from high level raids.  

Relying on the warlords is a risky strategy. They and their fighters are undisciplined and self-seeking. They have engaged in massive human rights abuses, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and land grabbing. If the Taliban advance is contained and the movement defeated, they could fight each other for territory and power.  

A Taliban victory or a civil conflict will, inevitably, produce a mass exodus of Afghans into neighbouring countries and exacerbate the migration of asylum seekers to Europe and elsewhere. The distant US, which has produced the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan by precipitately pulling out its forces, is unlikely to take in large numbers of Afghan refugees other than 18,000 vetted and approved translators, contractors, and informers along with their families.

Writing in The Washington Post on July 25 after visiting Afghanistan, ex-US ambassador to Kabul Ronald Neumann argued that the US must maintain support for government forces and anti-Taliban militias. He pointed out that the Biden administration has, along with combat troops and military advisers, withdrawn contractors who serviced Afghan helicopters which supplied far-flung military posts, leaving defending troops without the ability to hold out against the Taliban. 

He wrote, “The most positive sign is the popular resistance against the Taliban. In some areas, the opposition is led by old warlords. But in many places, the uprising is organised by local commiunities. I heard detailed accounts of strong fighting in many locations —serious enough that the Taliban is already threatening dire punishment for resistance fighters.”

Unfortunately, he said that the popular resistance “generally lacks central leadership or organisation. It is lightly armed and, unless supported, could be overwhelmed by concentrated Taliban attacks.” He warned that the precipitate US withdrawal has undermined Afghan army morale and if the army loses control over the cities, there could be “rapid fragmentation” of the regular armed forces and collapse in Kabul.  

Vast swathes of Afghan territory and its land borders have fallen to the Taliban since US President Joe Biden decided to repatriate US forces by the end of this month. As vast swathes of Afghan territory, towns, villages and cities fall, the Afghan Taliban have been joined by al-Qaeda, Daesh other radical fighters from Tajikistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, and China, internationalising the campaign. 

Afghanistan is not the only country at risk of the ongoing Taliban offensive. Having accorded bases to and backed the Afghan Taliban for decades, the Pakistani military is paying a price for its support: its troops have become targets of that country’s homegrown Taliban. And,

Tajik Taliban have deployed on the Afghan side of a major frontier crossing with their country, stoking concern in the capital Dushanbe that Tajikistan may be next on the Taliban’s agenda.    

Taliban-inspired insurgencies in countries bordering on Afghanistan could threaten the entire Indian Subcontinent, the Caucasus, and, ultimately, this volatile and vulnerable region.

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