In reaction to the infighting and power tussle between the seven warring Mujahideen groups in the aftermath of defeat and ouster of Soviet forces in Feb 1989, the Taliban movement led by Mullah Omar erupted in 1994 in Kandahar, which was his birthplace. By Sept 1996 they managed to take control over 93% of Afghanistan’s territory including Kabul and they established Islamic Emirate.
A small toehold in the north was held by Northern Alliance (NA) forces under Ahmed Shah Masood. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE recognized the regime in Kabul, while Russia, the West, Iran, and India supported NA. The NA army and air force were trained in Iran by Iranian and Indian instructors.
Strict Islamic laws helped the Taliban in overpowering warlords and their private militias, eliminating street crimes, rapes, drug trafficking, and all other social vices, and in making the lawless country stable and peaceful. They came on the wrong side of the West due to the restrictions imposed upon the women, their education, dress code, and liberal habits.
The destruction of Bamiyan statues became another sore point. But it was the cancellation of gas and oil pipelines deal with the UNICAL which broke the camel’s back and the country was put under sanctions by the US in 1997. The Taliban would have continued to rule for a long duration had they not been forcibly toppled by the western forces in Nov 2001.
Talibanization in Pakistan
Like the word ‘Fundamentalism’ coined by the West after the takeover of Iran by an Islamic regime of Imam Khomeini in 1979, the word ‘Talibanization’ was drummed up in the 1990s when a segment of people of FATA and Malakand Division got influenced by the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
Tehrik-Nifaz-Sharia- Muhammadi (TNSM) movement under Sufi Muhammad in Malakand in the early 1990s became so threatening that the Khyber Frontier Corps had to launch an operation in 1994 to subdue them but not before agreeing to their demand of introducing Sharia in that division. Sufi’s son-in-law Fazlullah was the product of TNSM but he, later on, joined Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 and turned Swat into his fiefdom and wreaked havoc.
The initial wave of Talibanization sprouted in FATA in South Waziristan (SW) under Naik Muhammad from the Wazir tribe in 2003, which was in reaction to the deployment of the army in SW. Interestingly, the first batch of regular troops was sent to SW by the then 11 Corps Commander Lt Gen Aurakzai, himself a tribesman. Naik was killed by a US drone in 2004 after he signed a peace deal in a fort in SW with Lt Gen Safdar.
The TTP came into being in Dec 2006 under unknown Baitullah Mehsud, hailing from the Mehsud belt in SW, which had its tentacles in all the seven agencies of FATA, and each TTP chapter under a different commander. Hafiz Gul Bahadar of the Othman Wazir tribe was commander in North Waziristan (NW). His one-legged cousin Abdullah Mehsud who had lost his leg in the Afghan Jihad was released from Gitmo after staying there for two and a half years. He too took to militancy but operated outside the zone of Baitullah. He died in a crossfire in Zhob in 2007.
A tacit understanding was developed between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, the former confining their battle to Afghanistan and the TTP to Pakistan. Logically, the TTP should have targeted NATO containers and CIA/FBI agents deployed in FATA and American targets so as to help the Afghan Taliban to achieve their mission. Instead, they targeted Pak security forces, Khasadars, police stations, government officials, schools, jails, and barber and music shops.
Once their sphere of influence spread to urban centers, they targeted ISI setups, GHQ, Naval HQ, Kamra base, Mehran naval base, FIA HQ, and many other sensitive installations apart from the wave of suicide bombings and IEDs.
The TTP came in the bad books of the people once it was recognized that their claim of establishing Islamic Nizam was a farce, and they were on the payroll of foreign agencies and had created lawlessness in the tribal belt at their behest. When Baitullah was killed by the US drone in August 2009, he had left behind more than $ one billion stashed in his in-laws’ house.
The TTP command and communication infrastructure under Hakimullah Mehsud was busted and all its leaders and fighters were pushed out of Pakistan in 2015. To stop infiltration of terrorists, over 90% of fencing of the western border has been completed and border management vastly improved.
Although the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are of the same stock and creed, in practice there is a vast difference. While the former is not purchasable, the leaders and the led both lead a Spartan life strictly in accordance with Islamic injunctions, and have been fighting for a just cause to free their land from the illegal occupiers and to get rid of the collaborators, the latter is devoid of scruples and they fought for dollars and are playing into the hands of adversaries of Pakistan.
Views of moderates in Pakistan
With high prospects of the Afghan Taliban returning to power, fears are being expressed in certain quarters about the possibility of re-emergence of the phenomenon of Talibanization in the Pashtun belts of KP and Baluchistan.
The moderates in Pakistan brand the two entities as two sides of the same coin and strongly feel that both have been operating in unison with common goals. Their suspicion has increased since the Taliban who are now in control of 85% of Afghanistan’s territory including most of the crossing/transit points with neighbors, so far they have not taken any step to rein in the TTP and their affiliates, all residing in Taliban dominated districts/provinces.
However, the good news is that the Taliban have given an assurance to Pakistan that the TTP will not be allowed to carry out cross-border terrorism. I have a hunch that, like the call given to the estranged Baloch leaders, a similar call could be given to the TTP leaders once the Taliban hold the reins of power in Kabul.
Irrespective of the assurances, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Qureshi stated that “We do not want Talibanization of our country”. The Islamists and conservatives have interpreted his statement that what he implied was that we do not want Islamization of Pakistan, and would like it to remain a secular country with Islam in name only. Sherry Rehman and NSA Moeed Yusaf attending the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs nodded in agreement and were all smiles.
— APP 🇵🇰 (@appcsocialmedia) July 9, 2021
New Taliban more seasoned than old Taliban?
Learning from their last offensive drive from 1994 to 1996 in which they moved upwards from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan towards other parts of the country, it had enabled the NA to fall back to Northern Afghanistan and hold on to Panjsher Valley which couldn’t be captured by the Taliban. This time they changed their strategy and focused more on northern parts and today are in control of greater numbers of its districts including Sher Khan Killi, a transit point to Tajikistan.
With 85% territory in their control and 28 out of 34 provinces in their bag, five out of six transit points including Islam Qila opposite Iran seized and having gained dominance over the major highways, militarily they are in a very strong position and they are smelling victory.
Although they have encircled all the capital cities and major urban centers, they are in no hurry to attack and capture them since it would entail bloodshed. What they seem to be doing is to choke the cities by disallowing food and arms supplies to the defending armed soldiers and force them to voluntarily surrender. This is in line with their announced policy that they will not allow further bloodshed of the Afghans.
Poor fight back by ANA and Taliban’s affability
The world was taken by surprise when they saw the well-trained and equipped ANA troops surrendering to the Taliban at several places without putting up a fight. The Americans had spent over $ 80 billion to prepare them to be able to fight with the Taliban on their own, but all seem to have gone to waste.
What surprised the world the most was the polite and sanguine behavior of the victorious Taliban after every victory! They welcomed the surrendering troops, called them their brothers, treated them with respect, and not a single case of killing, torture, or degradation took place. In fact, they have assured the uniformed personnel that once they return to power they will be re-employed. All the administrative units, schools, hospitals, etc. are functioning and none have been closed.
The Taliban have learned a lot of lessons in the longest war and are playing their cards sensibly and are quite different from what they were during their previous rule of 5 years. The sagacity and maturity of the Taliban can be gauged from the way they kept the prongs of military, political, and diplomacy in step with each other. They are in touch with all the regional countries and have assured them that the minorities’ rights will be protected.
They already had prolonged negotiations with the US which resulted in the Doha agreement. They may like to maintain diplomatic relations with India, but a clear message has been given to India that clandestine operations in Pakistan will not be accepted. Another good news is that dejected India has closed six of the seven consulates in Afghanistan that were wholly involved in covert operations against Pakistan.
With their humane and sanguine outlook, the Taliban are winning the hearts and minds of the people across the country and are treating all sections of the society regardless of ethnic and sectarian divisions with respect. The neighbors of Afghanistan are also dealing with the Taliban wisely and are extending their support instead of exerting pressure.
A last-ditch effort?
To bolster the sagging spirits of the ANSF and the urbanites, warlords Like Ismail Khan, a Tajik once known as the lion of Herat, are flexing their muscles and egged on by the spoilers, they are collecting their militias in order to recover the lost districts in conjunction with the ANA.
Some processions of non-Pashtuns chanting anti-Taliban slogans were taken out. Segments of women in some cities also paraded on the streets carrying guns and shouting slogans against the Taliban. These efforts are too late in point of time and would fizzle out in the face of high momentum gained by the Taliban.
While the spoilers are circulating their gloomy narratives painting the Taliban as barbarians and depicting the onset of civil war, India after flying out all its RAW operatives from Bagram airbase in military planes in panic, used these planes for dropping huge quantities of arms and ammunition in Kandahar where fighting is going on and Indian consulate has been closed. This shoddy effort must have displeased the Taliban and would be the last consignment from India.
The ground realities
Americans will not return to Afghanistan, and sooner than later they will ditch the regime they had installed in Kabul. The days of the tumbling Kabul regime are numbered and in anticipation of what is likely to happen, the family of Ashraf Ghani and friends have flown to Dubai with bags and baggage. The future of the Afghan ANA is dark since it has little stomach to fight.
Military morale will be key to the survival of the Ghani regime. It is pinning all hopes on Pakistan to convince the Taliban to share power. The spirits of the Taliban are upbeat, momentum is clearly on their side and they are pressing their advantage. Afghans living in major cities are suffering from fear psychosis and are keen to leave the country.
The Taliban are no more isolated and they have a long list of well-wishers. Their return to power is a foregone conclusion and so is the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate, with some modifications in consultation with the people. Islamic system and not the Republic will restore peace and order in the war-ravaged country.
Attempts to capture cities might start after the exit of the last batch of foreign troops by August 31. It is to be seen whether Turkey or China sends the peacekeeping force and takes control over the Kabul airport. China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran will fill the power vacuum left by the USA.
Pakistan’s vacillating responses
Pakistan’s concerted efforts to make Afghanistan peaceful were praiseworthy and were acknowledged by the USA. However, when the pendulum swung in the favor of the Taliban, its responses became wayward. We are now saying that we have no favorites, but are more receptive to the unpopular Kabul regime which is reviled by the great majority of Afghans and is anti-Pakistan.
We are singing the tunes of the defeated USA and the spoilers which are advocating a broad-based government inclusive of the Ghani-Abdullah regime and run on 2004 US-made constitution. We are in favor of the Republic over an Islamic Emirate. In the same breath, we say, the solution will have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned and none else and it is the people of Afghanistan who will decide which form of government they would like.
In this regard, the Taliban who are standing near the victory stand and the trophy is within their grasping reach, is promising that the future system of government will be in accordance with the wishes of the people. And yet we are trying to look saner and shrewder than the Taliban and are tutoring them as to what will be good and bad for their country for which they have given immense sacrifices.
Shah Mahmud Qureshi is expressing apprehensions over the possibility of the breakout of a civil war in Afghanistan, while Moeed Yusaf lamented that Pakistan had no control over the worsening situation in Afghanistan. Fears of civil war, refugee influx, more instability, and bloodshed are the narratives of the spoilers of peace that need to be discouraged rather than encouraged.
While the US utterly failed to make Afghanistan peaceful and stable, prospects of the Taliban achieving yet another milestone are brighter.
Need for introspection
If the idea of broad-based government was so good, why was it not implemented before signing the Geneva Accord as sought by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1988? Why the mighty USA couldn’t do so in its 20 years stay? Why are we so fearful of the Islamic system and that too in a neighboring country where it was successfully implemented for five years and during that time Pakistan enjoyed the best of relations and its western border was the safest?
Are our parliamentary system and Anglo-Saxon laws in vogue perfect and most suited to the psyche of our people? Is it not a fact that the great majority in Pakistan strive for an Islamic system since so-called democracy has given nothing to the common people, but it has never been tried even for experimental sake?
If so, how come and on what moral grounds we are giving our suggestions to the Taliban about the form of government when the US couldn’t convince them? When we admit that we have very little influence over the Taliban, then why are we meddling in their affairs by issuing imprudent and unproductive statements off and on merely to show our importance?
Have we ever objected to China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran for their failings in democracy and level of tolerance? Could our leaders dare tell the USA that its policies are highly unjust and discriminatory and that it failed to honor the Doha agreement, or to remind the US that it is responsible for making the world unsafe?
I am sure we are cautioning the Taliban merely to please the US. Why can’t our leaders come out of the magic spell of the untrustworthy double-dealing USA which will again betray and harm Pakistan to lessen its grief over the loss of Afghanistan? We shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the USA recognizing the future Taliban government quickly.
Zalmey Khalilzad has once again been dispatched to liaise with the Taliban. The marooned Ghani might agree to climb down the high horse and give up his wish to stay as president till the next elections.
The way forward
Isn’t it time for our policymakers to sit with the Chinese, Russian and Iranian leaders and chalk out a comprehensive plan on how to keep the spoilers at bay and how to help the Taliban in overcoming the last hurdles smoothly, and how to go about developing war-torn Afghanistan?
The early takeover of power by the Taliban will disperse the darkened clouds of uncertainty, will stop the rumor mills churning out false stories and narratives, and will put to rest the conspiracies of the spoilers. CPEC is the key to removing the regional socio-economic deprivations and bringing stability.
The writer is a retired Brig Gen, war veteran, and he took part in an epic battle of Hilli in the 1971 War with India. He is also a defense & security analyst, international columnist, and author of five books. His sixth book is under publication. He is the Chairman of Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, Member CWC PESS & Think Tank. firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.