On the brisk morning of Aug 15, two young boys in the city of Kabul; left their homes; rather hastily. They did not know each other’s name, family or clan, yet their goal was same—to reach Hamid Karzai International Airport, as soon as possible. The ‘90s infamous Taliban warriors had descended at the gates of their city.
The same city where 179 years ago, Imperial Britain troops were decimated, so much so that solo survivor made it back home. Later 32 years ago, the undefeated Red Army was forced to concede defeat. Now, the mighty US/NATO forces were humbled 20 years later. One thing is conspicuous, the city, and, by extension, the country, don’t accept foreign rulers.
In that very city, the Talibs, charged with a potent ideology; spurred by the withdrawal of foreign forces; and battle-hardened by decades of guerrilla warfare were ready to retake what they claimed to be theirs.
Soon, the two boys who are in their late teens; found out the half of the city went hell for leather to the same airport they were heading.
Two words: Fear and hope. The fear of dreams ought to trample under the iron fist rule of the Taliban, meanwhile, the hope of making a new life in the refuge of their benignant rights guarantors, the West. Ironically the West, especially the US, has a long history of leaving allies in the lurch.
And it happened that day too.
At the airport, the US was busy in evacuating ‘the Americans’, sacred Afghans swarmed the US C-17 military cargo plane. Desperate Afghans were jostling to earn a space for themselves on the airplane. Shots were fired; some died, there were chaos everywhere. Witnessing it, the two boys found themselves the only place where they could hide without anyone expecting, let alone believed. They stowed away within the wheel well of the aircraft. Naively, thinking, it may lead them to a step closer in fulfilling their cherished dreams.
However, Mother Nature has other plans for them.
Soon, the craft hit the sky—the dashed two boys touched the ground. Reza and Zaki, the former was a 17-year-old teenager, only wanted to go to United States or Canada to escape the Taliban rule. While, the latter was a promising player of national youth football team of Afghanistan—just aged 19.
It wasn’t a death of mere two young boys. But, with them, their dreams, prospect of bright future and the West’s sham veneer of rights protector fell to death from that US plane. Their videos of huddling to the aircraft wing and falling to their death will forever haunt the US interventionists, warmongering congressmen; foreign policy hawks; and ultimately weakens the US standing in the world.
Pakistan in Crosshairs
The Taliban, born in the refugee camps of Pakistan; expelled from their homes during the Soviet occupation; only to get indoctrinated in the Pakistani Deobandi-affiliated madrassas which was bankrolled by the Wahhabi/Salafi wealthy Gulf donors. Dubbed as the ‘Pakistan’s proxy’ in the Afghanistan to achieve the Establishment’s long-desired objective of “strategic depth,” as many critics allege.
However, to paint the Taliban as mere ‘pliant fighters with AK-47s flopped over their shoulders and ready to do the Pakistan’s bidding’ is completely divorced from the reality. Also, this line of reasoning discredited the Taliban’s long aspiration and struggle, mostly armed, to expel the uninvited aggressors.
Nevertheless, the overthrow of New- Delhi-backed Kabul regime led by Ashraf Ghani, strategically speaking, was a triumph for Pakistan that left India to lick its wounds. With the Taliban in Kabul, the Indian policy of ‘double squeeze,’ through the nexus of RAW-NDS to encircle Pakistan will minimized, if not vanished. Furthermore, one should tread carefully, as any laudation for the victors of Kabul from Pakistan will be used as an easy target by the West, especially the US, to scapegoat, or worst, coerce the FATF to blacklist the country, to divert the blame for its failure in Afghanistan.
But, there’s a catch-22 situation for Pakistan. Given the Pakistan-friendly government in the face of Taliban in Kabul, realistically, it won’t allay Pakistan’s many serious concerns soon. Well, for one, the Afghan Taliban murky relationship with the TTP. Their proximity can be gauged by the fact, the TTP, recently, pledged allegiance to the emir of AT; changed their ideological objective from, previously fighting for implementing the caliphate system in line with Al-Qaeda’s goal, to now form an independent state in the tribal regions of Pakistan, inspired by Afghan Taliban’s nationalistic movement in Afghanistan.
With its limited influence, Pakistan, repeatedly in past, pressured the Afghan Taliban to renounce their ties with the TTP, in respect to end sanctuaries for TTP fighters, forced the TTP leadership to end violence in Pakistan, and quit freeing the TTP fighters from prisons, but failed on all counts. Despite recent assurances from the Afghan
Taliban to rein in the TTP, the Pakistan’s civil-military leadership remains skeptical.
For instance, a cabinet member of PTI-led government admitted that Taliban’s victory does pose a security risk for Pakistan. Also, not to mention, the threat of Afghan Taliban’s ascendency to emboldened the other ‘jihadist groups’ in Pakistan. These fears in the security circles are ubiquitous. “Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” an unnamed senior Pakistani official told a leading American daily.
“Pakistani sectarian and other militants will be the ultimate beneficiaries of Taliban state capture. Instead of being a strategic asset, the Taliban will become a strategic threat to Pakistan,” a former senior counter-terrorism official warned. Take for example, back in ‘90s, Riaz Basra, former dreaded chief of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, indicted in multiple attacks against the state of Pakistan, was sheltered, and later, refused to hand-over by the Afghan Taliban to the Pakistan authorities. Moreover, a former senior security official, for example, said: “The imposition of the Taliban’s preferred version of Deobandi Islam in large parts of Afghanistan is boosting Pakistani Deobandi militant.”
Similarly, a former senior Pakistani diplomat disclosed: “The Pakistan military has tried but has failed to convince the Taliban leadership to distance itself from the Pakistani Taliban.” Even, the army supremo and intelligence czar, Qamar Bajwa and Faiz Hameed respectively, in briefing to lawmakers, conceded the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were “two faces of the same coin.”
And to add insult to injury, Afghan Taliban’s leadership pragmatic approach to world politics, particularly engagement with India, left Pakistan in a quandary, given the latter utmost efforts to do the opposite. Also, to the Islamabad’s consternation, the Afghan Taliban refused to recognize the Durand Line as an international border between two South Asian countries. What’s worse, when ‘father of Taliban’ Major-Gen (retd) Naseerullah Babar coaxed the then-Amir-ul-Momineen of Taliban, Mullah Omer, over a meal to accept the border line between the two countries. His host response was: “Omar took serious offence at his guest’s unsolicited advice and, going against the grain of the Pashtun code of honour, shouted at Babar to stop eating and leave the place at once — calling Babar, who was an ethnic Pashtun, a “traitor.”
Another two prime concerns that dogged Islamabad-Rawalpindi, is the mass exodus of refugees and the least known, conflict of Kabul River. The country is hosting up to 3 million Afghan refugees, falling just behind Turkey on the second spot for the largest refugee population in the world. Giving that, another 700,000 was expected to reach its borders amid the chaos, however, it was staved off. But, the volatile situation in Afghanistan is making another wave of refuges very likely to the doors of its eastern neighbor.
On the dispute of Kabul River which is another thorn in the side of normalizing the hostilities between the two overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries. For Afghans, populated near river basin, the river is the only source of fresh water for about seven millions; meanwhile, the same river is the major source of irrigation in KP and electricity, for Pakistanis. Without a formal water treaty, this created a rift which the Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, exploited. By offering to sponsor the construction of dams on the Kabul River which could reduce the water flow to Pakistan’s downstream. The plan is now shelved due to abrupt change of administration in the ARG, but given India’s overtures to the Taliban, and the latter dismissed the reports of boycotting trade with India. The Afghan Taliban; guided by interests, not any country’s whim; yet to decide on the materialization of the Indian-funded dams’ plan.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Afghan Taliban leadership and Pakistan is best described as “roller coaster.” Mullah Akhtar Mansur, former emir of Afghan Taliban, expressed dread from Pakistan, shortly afterwards from his death by a drone. Another co-founder of Afghan Taliban was jailed by Pakistan, only to release for Doha talks. His name is Mullah Ghani Baradar. Also, repeatedly, Pakistan put Afghan Taliban leadership behind bars to exert pressure on them. Back in 2014, the relations were such a low ebb, the fighters of Afghan Taliban were ready to attack Pakistan forces, if found any.
Troika, CAR and Gulf Interests
In 2001, when the West was prepping for the invasion of the Taliban-led Afghanistan, due to the latter strong ties with the Al-Qaeda, notwithstanding the fact, the then-Taliban leadership had agreed to hand over the ‘Osama Bin Laden’ to Pakistan, or any neutral country, for a trail. But, the Bush administration already had made up their mind: to invade.
Against the backdrop of imminent war, the British officials made a surprising-yet-secret visit to Moscow. The delegation was tasked to seek ‘expert advice’ from their Russian counterparts in Afghanistan. Their response was brutally prophetic: “When the Russians stopped laughing they told us: ‘You will make the same bad choice we did, you will go in, you will lose, many of you will die and then you’ll be forced to retreat, which will be good for us. How can we help?'”
Yet, the Britain went on board for the US-led invasion—along with over 60 countries in 2001. Fast-forward to 2021, Afghanistan is in disarray; the Western forces are in full retreat; their puppet regime leader, (who is also an author of a book titled “Fixing Failed States,” ironically), fled with piles of cash or mere clothes on his back from the country; is left on the accuracy of Russian and American media. Over 300,000-strong US-backed, trained, and equipped Afghan forces; remained strong only on paper; and melted down like a house of card against a ragtag militia, which led to reminiscence of similar ‘meltdown’ of American-backed South Vietnamese and Iraqi forces in 1975 and 2014 respectively. It followed a serious of scathing questions on the brute might of US military forces, and by extension, raised doubts on the continuance of Pax Americana.
Nevertheless the US withdrawal, however, botched, was long in the offing and a part of grand strategy to end American’s “forever wars” to shift the country’s focus, resources, and narrative to a new front: For the tussle of global order with rising China and resurgent Russia.
Following this pattern, many alleges, the US was concerned with the rapidly increasing politico-economic clout of Russia-China in the Central-South Asian region. To impede them, the US retreated from Afghanistan abruptly. And to save face, the US negotiated an exit with a flexible leadership of the Afghan Taliban, to placate its public.
But, on the contrary, China and Russia has much to gain from the US ‘ignoble exit’ from Afghanistan. Especially, China, a leader in mining rare earth metals, is eyeing for the up to $3 trillion worth of minerals the country possesses. Plus, Ashraf Ghani, under the Washington’s influence and to curbed Chinese influence, rejected the latter loans. But, the new Kabul administration under the Taliban is more open to the Chinese investment than their predecessors.
Meanwhile, Russia, though officially considered the Taliban as a terrorist organization, and rightly so. The latter forefathers (Mujahideen) were instrumental in the disintegration of U.S.S.R. And in a bid to twist the knife further, the Taliban recognized the independence of Chechnya; hosted Chechen separatists to train in Afghanistan; and declared a “Jihad” on Russia. But, pragmatic enough, the Moscow engages with the Taliban to secure its security and economic interests in Afghanistan. The Kremlin is working toward to supplant the US-dominated “unipolar world to multi-polar.” And Afghanistan is the first step to it.
However, potential threat of spillover of militancy, after the Taliban’s takeover, into the China’s restive province of Xinjiang and Russian long-beleaguered region of North Caucasus dogged both the countries. To make matters worse, the presence of ISIS on their borders has caused jitters in the power corridors of Beijing and Moscow respectively.
Speaking of militancy, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf states, particularly the KSA and UAE are stood to lose much from the ascent of the Taliban in Kabul. Due to multi-ethnicity, Afghanistan has always attracted the interest and influence of its neighbors, the CAR. The CARs boasted cordial relations with the previous Western-backed Afghan governments, but fell short of warm relationships with the Taliban, due to the latter has a history of hosting anti-Central Asian militants in their controlled-areas.
Similarly, the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, former patrons of the Taliban, (who spread extremism at behest of West to counter Soviet influence during Cold War), now feared the coming of the militia group may reset their political gains, if not inspired the reactionaries to rebelled against their ‘moderation’ initiatives.
A glaring example would be the recent statement of Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, (one of the co-founders of Taliban), which underlined the rift between the House of Saud and Kandahar’s religious militiamen, “Wahhabism is a deviant belief and ‘there has never been such a belief’ among Afghans and ‘we (Taliban) do not have same connection with (Saudi Arabia) as before.” Surprisingly, however, another Emirate though tiny, Qatar played its cards close to its chest, and emerged as biggest regional winner in Afghan endgame.
From Atavism to Taliban 2.0
When the Taliban entered in the city of Kabul, after the deposition from the city 20 years ago, many feared they will unleash hell onto the streets of Kabul. Bloodletting, mass looting and rampant rapes will be the consequences of ‘those’ who will oppose them. Especially, the supporters of the previous Western-backed regimes will be subjected to horrors that will pale in comparison by “The Srebrenica Massacre.”
Many put about apprehensions of hard-won women rights will be rolled-back under the Taliban rule. The press freedom will be stifle; media will merely be act as a tool of propaganda for atavistic Taliban. The minorities making four million of the country’s total population; will be turn to dust, in particular the long-persecuted Hazaras.
But, quite the opposite happened. The Taliban granted amnesty to all Afghans, including the notorious CIA’s private army, Khost Protection Force which was involved in countless dastardly abuses. Further, the Taliban assuage the fears of Afghan women to promised women-rights under the framework of Islam. They guaranteed press freedom and placate ethnic tensions by enlisting variety of ethnic members within their ranks and in future government positions.
That ‘many,’ however, is not buying the Taliban 2.0’s volte-face on these critical issues. The very mention of shariah riles them up; spurred to slanted their coverage to zeroed in on the women code of dress and severe punishments under the sharia law. Predictably, “that many,” is the particular section of Western media. The dominance and continuity of West’s social order over potential Islamic global order can be cited as a chief reason of toeing the prejudiced line. Moreover, the Western media, arguably, underreported the mass Afghan civilian casualties caused by US and its allies than by insurgents.
Naya Taliban, are they?
Skeptical journalists, foreign and domestic, aggressively pressed the Afghan Taliban’s spokespersons on issues of women rights, governance, minorities, education, and even on music. Yet the answer always came up with an explicit manner: “All matters will be performed in accordance to shariah.” But there is a caveat. The implementation of sharia will be as per we interpret it. And, yes no objections will be tolerated.
Many average Muslims around the globe has skewed understanding when it comes to “sharia.” Notwithstanding the facts, sharia is not strictly a legal code; open to many interpretations; and derived by fallible jurists. The Afghan Taliban, however, followed the austere interpretation of sharia; a hotchpotch of Deobandi strand of Hanafi jurisprudence and pre-Islamic tribal code, Pashtunwali. The sheer rigidity of the Taliban views led to the disassociation with their sect’s headquarters.
On democracy, and, by extension, the electoral system, which many Muslim-majority countries adhered to, if not all. The Afghan Taliban displayed clear revulsion toward it. Alternatively, the Afghan Taliban planned to formed 12 members (mixture of religious scholars and unelected leaders) high-powered ruling council—with a supreme leader to replace Afghanistan’s democratic structure. They argued rather forcefully, the 2004 constitution of Afghanistan is not Islamic enough. However the Article 3 of the constitution, punches holes in their argument, which explicitly stated, “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan. Moreover, numerous intellectual and religious scholars refuted the reactionary vision of Taliban’s views of Islam and democracy incompatible.
Coming on the Taliban’s general amnesty, it also met with disbelief due to group’s shady past. On September 25, 1996, the then-supreme leader Mullah Omer warmly declared, “We do not believe in any kind of revenge.” Two days later, his cadres shot the ex-president Najibullah , dragged his mutilated body onto the streets of Kabul and hung it to a post for everyone to see, on the very day the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan established. However, one might argue, the Taliban’s past cannot be its present. But, the group, recently, gave ample reasons to remain suspicious of them. From mercilessly executing 22 surrendering Afghan commandos to massacring marginalized Hazaras, with hunting from door to door West’s Afghan partners to toppling the statue of arch-rival Abdul Ali Mazari, whom the Talibs killed 26 years ago. They are too many, to name a few.
As far as women rights is concerned, their repeated assurances to protect them doesn’t hold water to recent outrageous events. Take for example, Zabiullah Mujahid, suave-spokesman of the Afghan Taliban, mildly delivered a shocker to women: To stay locked at home (temporarily) because rowdy fighters may/can put your safety at risk in public. This underscored the apparent disconnect and difficulties of forcing rules by the group’s flexible Doha leadership on its rigid ideological fighters on the ground. The Afghan Taliban also promised women can work in their new Islamic utopia. But not for the wrong team, they grudged. The group spelled out this policy; rich in details of how a 33-year old woman Khatera got shot; stabbed in the eyes; and left to perish onto the streets of Ghazni. She survived, however. Her sole sin was she worked at a police station. But Najia in Faryab, wasn’t remotely lucky. As the chilling story goes the Taliban fighters knocked her gate. She refused to cook for them.
That doesn’t sit well with them. Five minutes later, a blood-curdling scream came. That scream was the mother of four, Najia, died from the repeated beating from their massive Ak47s. They saved the bullets for the next target. In the puritanical world of Taliban, where music is un-Islamic, especially for women, but using them as honey-traps is somehow acceptable. Well, everything is fair in war; as the cliché goes; especially when you sell the war in the name of religion.
And last but not the least, the freedom of press. The shrewd leadership of Afghan Taliban understood the potential of media, especially social media to peddle their propaganda. To pacify the journalists’ genuine fears the Taliban trotted out, “how they going to ensure the safety and allow the freedom to work openly” for journalists. These two tall claims were put up to the test. The results were shockingly expected: In the Kabul, where the media-savvy Taliban spokesmen vowed independent journalism, in the same city, ten days earlier, they accepted responsibility to murder the head of the government-run media centre. Regrettably, the family members of the journalists are not safe either.
The constant threat forced many journalists to leave their country permanently—just for doing their job.
Tailpiece: A story of four people in focus. Azmaray, a ruthless commander of Afghan Taliban from Kandahar is gleeful on the withdrawal of American forces.Whom he fought for twenty-long years. “If it weren’t for his two friends in Al-Qaeda and in TTP, he will not taste the victory,” he reminded himself. The former bankrolled his operations, while the latter gave him shelter when the Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis were hunting from him. He promised one thing to himself when his group took over Kabul on Aug 15. That he will protect them against all odds.
Christine was 11-year-old—when she saw the planes flown into the twin towers. It was her birthday that day. Her father was a paratrooper in the 104th Airborne Division, and lost his life on the dusty hills of Kunar from friendly fire on her 21th birthday in 2011. She stopped celebrating her birthday; thinking it doesn’t augur well for her. Sadly, how right she is. On her 31th birthday, she will witness the pictures of large Taliban’s flags unfurl on the 20th anniversary of twin attacks that killed near 3,000 innocent people. She will also witness that how her daddy was among hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died fighting the wrong enemy, which has nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. She will know then know who sell them the war all these years they cannot win, let alone end it.
Anwar, a chain-smoker and an astute senior diplomat in Pakistan Foreign Office; tasked to gave recommendations on Pakistan’s Afghan policy. All night his table lamp was on; as he scribbled countless thoughts on the paper to present in the morning briefing. His 3 pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes were almost out. Brisk breeze of Islamabad entered his window room where his study notes were stacked against the wall. In the moment, he dozed off. What followed next; a stellar presentation; a universal round-applause from the meeting attendees’ politicians and generals alike; and the official announcement to the world that Pakistan will employ ‘wait-and-see’ policy and will not rush to recognize the Afghan Taliban government like the country previously did.
Unknown, unnamed and unborn. It was the description of a fetus in a mother’s womb. The mother belonged to a group of women and children, which comprised of 80% of all Afghan refugees, fleeing from violence. As chaos descended on her city, she tried to flee to the near border. Myriads of desperate Afghan civilians rushed towards the fenced borders, she was among it.
A single mother, she planned her will-be born child’s future away from her country’s long-running conflicts. She overpaid the one-eyed smuggler to get her out of city. On the way, she nearly escaped the street thugs from had been gang-raped. But her luck soon ran out. At the border many raced to reach it. She ran too, however fast she can. But, her feet slipped. And everybody reached the border, except her and her unborn- Afghan baby.