Afghanistan is on the brink of an abyss. The resurgence of the Taliban is helped by many factors. The Doha agreement, a symbol of American defeat, was a huge psychological setback for the Afghan people and government. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces do not have adequate mobility, medical evacuation, weapons or ammunition. In addition to providing sanctuary and food, the Pakistani military has opened up supply lines for the Taliban and is giving them military advice. Afghan leaders are still in disarray. There is no operational unity between the Afghan government and the communities ready to fight for Afghan sovereignty and republicanism. The Afghan government is also losing the propaganda war. The Taliban’s current momentum on the battlefield is repeatedly amplified by the pervasive defeatism of the Western media, which projects the fall of Kabul as imminent.
The existential situation promises to be bleak. The fall of Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province, was quickly followed by Taliban victories in the northern towns of Shebergan, Kunduz and Sare-Pol. The Taliban’s victories in the north are a signal to the Uzbek and Tajik communities that their supposed strongholds are vulnerable.
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Kunduz had fallen twice before, in 2015 and 2016, but was picked up. Kunduz is infamous as the last remaining Taliban stronghold in November 2001, from where cornered Taliban, al-Qaeda and Pakistani fighters were allowed to be airlifted to Pakistan. Zaranj is the starting point of the road that India built in 2008 connecting the Kandahar-Herat highway to Delaram. Even then, with the exception of both ends of the road, the Taliban presence in Nimroz was omnipresent. The construction team in India advanced in a security bubble of considerable force to protect against repeated Taliban attacks. The Taliban have also launched offensives against Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Herat. Ultimately, given their proximity to the Pakistani border, the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan are vulnerable.
Diplomatic activity is centered in Doha. The enlarged troika, comprising China, Pakistan, Russia and the United States (Afghanistan is not one of them, but its representatives are expected to be present along with those of the Taliban) meets in Doha on August 10. Qatar’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani, has just concluded two days of consultations in New Delhi. Special representatives for Afghanistan meet in Doha on August 12. Meanwhile, on the ground, British Chief of Staff Gen. Nick Carter is shuttling between Kabul and Islamabad to negotiate talks between Pakistani Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the President Ashraf. Ghana.
The Afghan people are unlikely to allow a peace dictated by the Taliban, who are seen as a proxy for Pakistan. Although they may be forced to compromise on the preservation of democracy, human rights and pluralism, they want to draft the new constitution themselves and are loath to accept dictation. A return to the status quo ante might not be as easy as it seems.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) believes it can continue to guide the Haqqani network and other various terrorist groups it supports, even after the Taliban have come to power. It seems unlikely. When the Taliban was in power earlier, Pakistan’s ambassador Aziz Ahmad Khan was unable to present his credentials to Afghan head of state Mullah Omar. When asked about the matter, Mullah Omar said that Pakistan and Afghanistan had fraternal relations, which excluded the formality of state-to-state relations. Another time the Pakistani foreign minister tried to get Mullah Omar to settle the Durand line once and for all. He was scolded for his work – how dare he raise the subject of borders between two brothers!
Pakistan’s state structure, backed by its military, will be strained if Afghanistan is Talibanized. There is no love lost between the Taliban leadership and the Pakistani military because of the coercion it has been subjected to since taking refuge in Pakistan. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaef, one of the co-founders of the Taliban, wrote a long section in his autobiography about ISI’s abusive behavior, which he said was so renowned for his perfidy that he could take the bulls milk!
It is terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which will gain strategic space in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. Although the focus of the Taliban and the TTP is different, there has not been a single case of an attack by the Taliban on the TTP, despite the ISI’s wish. Intelligence agencies such as ISI tend to be overconfident in their hold over their assets, which have no enduring loyalty except to their main cause.
India has followed the example of the Afghan government in its contacts with the Taliban. There is, not surprisingly, great resentment within the Pakistani establishment about this development. In the context of India’s contacts with the Taliban office in Doha in June, Pakistan’s national security adviser Moeed Yusuf said in an interview with The Dawn TV News that it was “a shame” for India for engaging with the Taliban.
Pakistan has the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and to help secure the peace, stability, sovereignty and independence of Afghanistan, instead of undermining them. Pakistan’s grudge for Afghanistan and paranoia for India cloud his judgment. These impose political choices that Pakistan will end up regretting.
Jayant Prasad is a retired diplomat who served as Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan
Opinions expressed are personal
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