The President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, announced that the remaining US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021 – a historic date in US history. This is two decades after the Al Qaeda’s attacks on US soil (9/11) set in motion a new phase of American strategic and foreign policy. Indeed, the War on Terror, which ousted the Taliban, was America’s longest war in contemporary times, and mobilized a large section of the international community as well. Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had entered into an agreement with Taliban representatives to complete the withdrawal by May 1st, 2021, a deadline Biden would be exceeding. In May, the Taliban threatened to recommence hostilities against foreign troops if the US did not keep its promise, and thus, Biden set a near-term date for withdrawal to reassure the Taliban that the US would not prolong the process longer than necessary. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed the NATO allies on April 14th, 2021, and emphasized that the Biden administration has decided upon an unconditional withdrawal, because conditionalities would ensure that the US would never leave Afghanistan. The US Central Command (CENTCOM), on June 2nd, 2021 reported that 30-44% of troops have already been withdrawn, coming closer to Biden’s promise, having also officially transferred six facilities to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense. The US Department of Defense has also withdrawn approximately 300 C-17 loads of material and consigned nearly 13,000 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency for disposal. On February 29th, 2020, “after a rigorous policy review”, a momentous agreement was signed between the US and the Taliban to allow lasting peace in conflict-ridden Afghanistan through the removal of US troops within 14 months.
The US also put the onus on the Taliban’s continuing terrorism-based association with the Al-Qaeda for the delay in complete withdrawal, besides asserting that Al-Qaeda was no longer a threat to US homeland. Expressing their belief that there is “no military solution” to the troubles in Afghanistan, the US has also renounced the leverage it possessed in peace efforts and international negotiations. This decision has, however, worried the government in Kabul and the general public of Afghanistan that the removal of the US troops would lead to a security and power vacuum in the hostility-ridden region, and would be erroneously seen as a victory for the Taliban, leading to exponential increases in violence, unrest and disruptions to peace.
This article aims to study the rise, fall and the resurgence of the Taliban and the implications this has had on regional security. It is divided into two parts. Part I will first provide a short history of the Taliban in the region to understand its roots and context, while analysing why the resurgence of the Taliban was inevitable. Second, it will study what the implications of US withdrawal are for domestic security in Afghanistan, as well as summarising the basic concerns of the government and the international community. Part II will then examine how Iran, Pakistan and Russia have reacted to this decision, with a special emphasis on the worrying rise of the new Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan). It will probe the role of China in this rising threat to regional security. It will also explore how the Taliban has soured peace in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan); focusing on how these “stans” can act as bridges to regional security. It will also study the implications of this decision on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) by understanding the purpose of the SCO Contact Group. Finally, this article will scrutinize India’s role in this issue.
History of Taliban in the Region
In 1996, Mullah Mohammad Omar appeared on the roof of a mosque holding the cloak taken from the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet in downtown Kandahar (next to the tomb of the founder of modern Afghanistan, King Durrani), in a conference of the Taliban’s operatives, fighters, commanders and mullahs. In that spiritual and political mainstay of the Taliban, he was hailed as ‘Amir ul-Momimeen’ (or the commander of the faithful). Although by then the militants had not yet breached Kabul, President Burhanuddin Rabbani was under siege by Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the general public was divided on whether the Taliban (at that time comprising mostly of students) would challenge the government; that “coronation” of Omar would then lead to the capture of Kabul and the foundation of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan.
Omar would lead Afghanistan for the next half a decade, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Taliban would retreat to the mountains of Afghanistan, with Omar fleeing to Pakistan. The origin of the Taliban may be found in the Mujahideen uprising against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with Omar and several of the Taliban’s leaders having to be a part of the movement, buttressed by the Central Intelligence Agency, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and Saudi Arabia. With the Soviets withdrawing in 1989, the factions of the Mujahideen broke out into in-fighting, and the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah was swiftly overthrown, especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. This Afghanistan, which was post-communist, was separated along ethnic lines, with Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, and Uzbek commanders building their own kingdoms and the Mujahideen divided into factions even in Kandahar. These instabilities fomented a civil war in the country, and created an environment where business or infrastructure could not develop, there was no space for stable governance, and the country plunged into poverty and underdevelopment. In this environment, a group of ‘Talibs’ (students) originating from the Deobandi madrasas (schools of Islamic religious education) with support from Deobandi groups in Pakistan (like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam), unified to create a new Afghanistan through a “reform movement”, and chose Omar as its leader. Their goal was to re-establish conditions of law and order, bring back conditions of peace, neutralize the militias, and unite the public under the Sharia code and their vision of a new Islamic nation. On October 3rd, 1994, the Taliban captured Kandahar and by 1995, it took control over the reins of 12 Afghan provinces. Although their first attempts to overthrow the government were repulsed by the army of Defence Minister Ahmed Shah Masud, on 27th September 1996, the Taliban conducted a coup d’état, announced the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, controlling 90% of Afghanistan’s territory by 1998. Though the country was in dire need of humanitarian aid, with the civil war having disrupted all civic facilities of water, electricity, telecommunications, food and medicine as well as toppling the tribal socio-political local authority system, the Taliban refused to accept any external aid on the principles of Islamic purity. This regime was formally recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and provided shelter to Osama Bin Laden where he purportedly planned and organized international terror attacks while also providing the Taliban with financial resources. This led to the United Nations Security Council implementing Resolution 1333 (December 2000) and imposing sanctions on the Taliban regime for its territorial, monetary and training support to the Al-Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, Omar chose not to hand over Osama Bin-Laden as commanded by the USA. This was the beginning of the fall of the Taliban. In a few weeks, the NATO coalition led by the USA and the Afghan Northern Alliance invaded Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and expelled the Taliban from power, with leaders of both Al-Qaeda and Taliban fleeing Kabul. In Bonn, Germany, at the International Conference of Afghanistan, Hamid Kerzai was chosen by the expelled Afghan leaders as the head of the Afghan Interim Administration, and was elected President subsequently.
However, the Taliban was already regrouping and restructuring through guerrilla warfare, ambushes and attacks on rural areas and suicide bombers in the urban areas, attacking the NATO-led International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) and the Kerzai government. The ISAF, between 2009 and 2011, were compelled to increase their numbers, with 140000 soldiers (100000 from the USA), and with the USA in 2012 announcing the termination of its operations and complete conclusion of NATO ISAF activities by December 28th, 2014. On that date, all security responsibilities were transferred to the Afghan government, and the USA proclaimed the commencement of the NATO-led Resolution Support Mission. However, the central government failed to restrain the Taliban’s attacks, and the country was far removed from conditions of peace. The Taliban announced in 2015 that Omar had died in 2013, in Pakistan, and his successor, Mullah Mansour was killed in a US airstrike in 2015. The new leader of the Taliban, since 2016, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada has pursued a ‘fight-and-talk’ approach with the USA and the international community. He also purposely split the command of the Taliban’s military forces between Haqqani and Yaqoob (the former, an ally of Al-Qaeda and Pakistan; and the latter, preferring a peace process and rapprochement with India). Though with Akhundzada and Haqqani incapacitated now, Yaqoob has assumed operational control of the Taliban. Akhundzada had chosen to split the Taliban to prevent it from breaking into potentially powerful factions. The USA restarted negotiations under Donald Trump’s presidency, with President Ashraf Ghani proclaiming that Afghanistan would recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, release Taliban prisoners, and enter into unconditional negotiations with them. Though the first meeting between US officials and the Taliban was held in Doha, Qatar, on February 25th, 2019, the Taliban refused to accede to a continuing ceasefire.
Resurgence of the Taliban
Pakistan had played a crucial role in the Taliban’s resurgence. Concerned by India’s overtures to post-Taliban Afghanistan, it not only supported the US-led War on Terror, but also secretly backed the Taliban from the ISI’s secret unit (‘Directorate S’) in Ojhri, in Rawalpindi. Trump’s special Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad announced in August 12th, 2019, that the Taliban and the US were close to an agreement, which was delayed again after Taliban attacks in Kabul caused the death of one US soldier. Khalilzad had also announced at the US Institute of Peace that the release of Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Barabar on 24th October, 2018 by Pakistan after his capture by ISI and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); had happened on “his request”. The fact the US played a constructive role in driving Barabar’s release became integral to the peace process negotiations, and was hailed as a “major diplomatic victory on all sides”. Barabar was then appointed the chief of Taliban’s diplomatic office at Doha, and signed the peace and withdrawal agreement that was incumbent with the USA on the Taliban’s behalf. Negotiations recommenced in December 2019, with the agreement to institute an active ceasefire conditional to the reduction of violence. After a 7-day negotiation and discussion period between February 22nd and February 29th, 2020 in Doha, a peace deal was signed, which was later brought forward by the Biden administration’s decision of complete withdrawal of US troops. The US has partially withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan before, and negotiations have also occurred. It is unclear whether this time, situations would be different and conditions of peace would prevail in this war-torn nation. Scholars believe that the US is entering another era of domestic economic reconstruction and relative isolationism, and will continue to focus its defence expenditure in the homeland or in the Asia Pacific, away from the costly and violent Afghanistan. Other scholars also believe that this Taliban is different from its predecessors of the yesteryears, with respect to its relationships with Pakistan’s fundamentalist establishment, and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda; although their core ideology is the same, as are its perspectives towards women’s rights, minority rights, and liberal principles of democracy, secularism and freedom.
There are several scholars and analysts across the international community and the political spectrum who believe that the resurgence of the Taliban and the socio-politico-economic devastation it wrought on Afghanistan was inevitable. When the USA had invaded with the NATO-led coalition after 9/11, though their legal base was in accordance with international law, they lacked a clear plan of action, or a comprehensive blueprint of the objectives they hoped to achieve with the exception of exterminating Osama Bin-Laden.
The Bush administration promised to “provide security that is the foundation for peace”, but did not develop any workable conception of what that meant outside of temporarily defeating the Taliban. In any case, the initiatives towards democracy-building, infrastructure development and government capacity-bolstering which were formulated and implemented by the NATO, were NATO-led and built without the consultation of the Afghan government. Afghanistan could never organically build its own legitimate authority and security strategies, because the Afghan government only received its legitimacy from the foreign forces. Thus, when the NATO retrograded from Afghanistan, there was a power and security vacuum left behind that the indigenous government did not have the resources or the legitimacy to fill, and which was occupied by the revived Taliban. This was similar to what occurred after the US withdrew from Iraq: the divided Iraqi Security Force was incapable of staving off the resurgence of the militia and terrorist groups; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s fractionalized government had almost no public legitimacy; and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was formed and gained in strength.
Implications of US Withdrawal
What is the domestic environment in Afghanistan today? What is happening as the US troops are swiftly and surely retreating? There is a persistent Taliban operating outside Kabul that threatens the Afghan government’s and the Afghan National Security Force’s (ANSF) control over the territory. The Taliban control 76 or 19% of Afghanistan’s 325 districts, while the government forces control 127 or 32%. There is an enduring concern about the continued threat of the Taliban insurgency in rural Afghanistan and the fact that it is constantly evolving and strengthening itself. On April 22nd, 2021, the Taliban made a statement that they will never “relent of complete independence and establishment of a pure Islamic system”, with analysts worried that the withdrawal of the US troops will make it simpler for the Taliban to not cooperate or enter into a dialogue with the Afghan government. Biden’s proposal including a 90-day ceasefire, talks under the United Nations’ auspices between Afghanistan, China, India, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, and a meeting in Istanbul between the Taliban and the Afghan government for an “inclusive” transitional government – all seem to have had a slow start. The Taliban has also utilized the USA’s delay in implementing the decision to withdraw its troops, termed it a violation of their agreement, and has declared that it has taken “counter-measures” which are completely the USA’s doing, and not the Islamic Emirate’s. Findings by international fact-finding bodies look grim as well. As the Council of Foreign Relations has found that the Taliban are stronger now than at any point since 2001, the US Threat Assessment Report has found that the prospects of enduring peace are dim, as the Taliban is almost likely to yet again unleash war. Though President Ashraf Ghani has declared that he would hold a re-election for the presidential seat if the Taliban were ready to compromise, the Taliban have refused because they find elections “un-Islamic” and the Afghan government to be the USA’s “puppet”. Ghani’s security forces are reportedly unmotivated, lowly-paid, with high casualty rates; and the fear is that the absence of air support of the USA will cause the security establishment to collapse before the Taliban.
The new middle class society that emerged in Afghanistan’s urban centres under the security umbrella of the USA fear a return to the oppressive and theocratic regime of the Taliban that had existed from 1996-2001. However, analysts in the USA are hopeful that the Taliban will not be able to as easily oust the government as they had done in 1996, because there have occurred important transitions in the capital. The Taliban have realized the need for some international support and aid, because there are vulnerable centres of armed resistance precipitating into civil war, and because the Taliban understand that it is essential to find political solutions to aid their return to power. Though American agencies believe that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are not an immediate threat to US homeland or Afghanistan, not only has the Afghan Study Group predicted a “reconstitution of the terrorist threat” within 18 months to 3 years, there is are also amorphous but powerful outfits of the ISIL operating silently in the region and waiting to return since their military defeat in Afghanistan in 2019.
The most alarming consequence of the US withdrawing from Afghanistan is how it will affect women’s rights and those of minorities. Though the Taliban negotiators have inconsistently declared their support of women’s rights, their narrative is that women should only play the roles endorsed by strict Islamic law, and that whatever rights women had succeeded in possessing under US occupation were all immoral and anti-Islamic. This is perturbing because the Human Rights Watch has found that contemporary Taliban unleashes its “morality” officials and “lashings” on women for “moral crimes”; and as young girls constitute 40% of Afghanistan’s students, it is unlikely they will be allowed to continue their education. There are barely any schools for girls in Afghanistan in any case, and where there are, the government has bowed to the Taliban and banned social sciences and English education for girls, instead replacing it with religious education. The persecution and the massacre of ethnic communities like the Hazara (a Shiite ethnic group in a majority-Sunni country) had become international news; and the contemporary Taliban that is still almost-monolithically Pashtun, still mistreat the Hazara by harassing and persecuting them disproportionately at roadblocks and in makeshift prisons.
In the Part II of “The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Taliban” we will examine how Iran, Pakistan and Russia have reacted and probe the role of China in this rising threat to regional security. It will also explore how the Taliban has soured peace in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan); focusing on how these “stans” can act as bridges to regional security. We will also study the implications of this decision on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) by understanding the purpose of the SCO Contact Group and scrutinize India’s role in this issue.
To Be Continued…