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As inexorably as night follows day, the Taliban has returned to Kabul. The whole of Afghanistan has fallen to the Islamic Emirate, barring Panjshir where former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, are trying to raise a resistance force comprising of all anti-Taliban commanders. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his confidants fled to Oman before chaos descended on the airport, and Americans relived the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975.
The Doha deal initiated by US President Donald Trump, and executed by President Joe Biden without completing negotiations for an organised retreat, has been criticised by many in Washington and abroad. Trump lambasted Biden for presiding over “one of the greatest defeats in American history.”
Many accused Washington of ditching its allies in the “war on terror” and launching a “new Cold War” with Taliban as frontline ally. Pashtun leader, Afrasiab Khattak (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan), alleged that Afghanistan was being Talibanized to destabilize the region and block China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This is why China and Russia are being very cautious in dealing with the Emirate.
Matt Zeller, former CIA analyst and Advisory Board Chair of the Association of Wartime Allies, lambasted President Biden’s August 16 speech on the Afghanistan crisis. Speaking to MSNBC, Zeller said he had tried to tell the Biden administration how to evacuate the thousands of Afghan interpreters, translators and support personnel who worked for years with the US at great risk to themselves and their families.
Gerald Keen, who served in Afghanistan, told CNN that the withdrawal should have been done before the closure of Bagram Airfield. Of 20,000 Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to come to the United States, only 1,200 Afghans and their families have been evacuated. Some do not qualify for a visa under new rules despite serving with the US Marines on the front line. This has created a deep sense of betrayal among those who are now being hunted by the new regime. The US departure from Bagram in the middle of the night, without telling the Afghan commander, has aggravated their fears.
Way back in 2009, Stanley McChrystal, US Commander in Kabul, warned that reducing troops would not succeed. His successor, Gen David Petraeus, said America should “reverse the decision” to depart. Petraeus lamented that before withdrawing, America withdrew air support, about 18,000 contractors who maintained the US-provided helicopters and planes that ensured resupply to the forces, additional forces, air medevac, all of which were critical. Other reports said the army had not been paid salaries for several months. Thus, when the soldiers realised that there was no back-up, they simply melted away. Only a forensic audit by the US Congress will reveal the extent of financial and administrative mismanagement that resulted in the present denouement, with nothing to show for 20 years and over US$ 2 trillion in Afghanistan.
Petraeus added that as the Haqqani network and other insurgents had major bases in Pakistan, which refused to eliminate them, making victory impossible. Now, Al-Qaida, Islamic State, and others will find a haven in Afghanistan.
Diplomat Richard N. Haass warned that the Taliban will soon attempt to extend their writ to Pakistan, though it gave them sanctuary during the past two decades. Like ordinary Afghans, the Taliban too, do not recognise the Durand Line.
MEMRI scholars Yigal Carmon and Tufail Ahmad called the fall of the democratically elected Afghan government “an American betrayal of democracy” that began with the Doha agreement of February 2020, which excluded the government of President Ashraf Ghani. Former Afghan lawmaker Shukria Barakzai blamed US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for creating an opportunity for Taliban, “a historically unforgivable mistake toward Afghanistan and its people”.
RSS national executive member, Ram Madhav, observed that a “new non-Arab Islamic arc is emerging in India’s neighbourhood comprising Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey”. A Taliban regime in Afghanistan would naturally join this arc.
New Delhi does not have any serious commercial or military stakes in Afghanistan, but was its largest development donor, having invested over US$ 3 billion in the country, taking up large projects such as the Salma Dam to provide electricity and drinking water to Herat province, and the Parliament building. This aid was extended under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy.
Now, however, there is a popular perception that Pakistan and China, followed by Russia, have made some unspecified strategic gains in Afghanistan, though these may turn out to be a chimera.
While the embassy has been vacated due to the current turmoil, New Delhi commands respect and did not scramble to exit like some other nations. It has promised visas on humanitarian grounds to those who have reason to fear for their lives, for either being part of the deposed government or helping American forces as translators, and so on. The Citizenship Amendment Act has proved to be a prescient piece of legislation, and can help to resettle the miniscule Hindu and Sikh community whom India hopes to airlift with dignity.
Taliban has acknowledged India’s contributions. Spokesperson Shaheen said, “We appreciate everything that has been done for the people of Afghanistan like dams, national projects, infrastructure and anything that is for the development of Afghanistan, for its reconstruction, for economic prosperity and for the people of Afghanistan”. This suggests that the infrastructure will not be destroyed.
Women, however, are in a limbo. Schools and universities are still closed. On August 17, Mullah Yaqoob, a deputy of the Emirate, warned cadres not to enter people’s houses and seize vehicles or public properties. But there are reports of revenge killings and brutal tactics in many areas of the country. Zarifa Ghafari, mayor of Maidan Wardak province, told the media she was waiting for the Islamic militants to come and kill her. Her father, General Abdul Wasi Ghafari, was gunned down on November 15, 2020, days after an abortive third attempt on her life. She was given a job in the defence ministry in Kabul, but now she has nowhere to hide.
In Kabul, however, Taliban is moving cautiously to win international approval. Its chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid assured that the lives of women and opponents would be protected and “amnesty” given to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces. In a departure from 1996, female anchors (albeit with abaya) returned to TOLOnews and Pajhwok, and even interviewed senior Taliban leader Abdul Haq Hammad.
Taliban is holding its first diplomatic meeting with the Russian Ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, who said the aim is to ensure the security of the embassy’s activities. The Russian Presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said Moscow will not rush to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new rulers: “Recognition or non-recognition will depend on the behavior of the new authorities. We will carefully look at how responsibly they will govern the country in the near future”.
Beijing, aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires”, has urged various parties in Afghanistan to “safeguard the safety of Chinese citizens, Chinese institutions and Chinese interests.” Beijing has substantial investments in the region and the sudden return of the Taliban is a security challenge. It bitterly criticised Washington for acting “irresponsibly” with its “hasty withdrawal.”
Afghanistan shares an 80-km border with China’s Xinjiang province; hence Beijing fears that Afghanistan could become a base for those fighting for Xinjiang’s independence. In July, nine Chinese workers were killed in a suicide bombing in Pakistan, which Islamabad attributed to “the Pakistani Taliban out of Afghanistan.”
Beijing hosted a high-profile meeting between Taliban leaders and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July, where Wang declared the Taliban would “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan”. This was a hint that Beijing could recognize a Taliban government as long as its interests were protected. Wang raised the issue of Xinjiang with Taliban leaders, who reportedly promised that they would “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.” Beijing also signaled that it would not send troops to Afghanistan to fill the power vacuum left by the US.
In response to the potential refugee crisis, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen refused a request from Washington to give asylum to Afghans fleeing their country, saying Dhaka has problems due to giving shelter to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Turkey, despite claims to leadership of the Muslim world, has begun to build a wall along its border with Iran to prevent an influx of refugees, mainly from Afghanistan.
Finally, on August 17, Amrullah Saleh declared himself as ‘caretaker’ President. In a tweet, the first vice president said: “As per the constitution of Afghanistan in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President, the FVP becomes the caretaker President. I am currently inside my country and am the legitimate caretaker President. Am reaching out to all leaders to secure their support and consensus”.
Clearly Panjshir could emerge as the fulcrum of anti-Taliban action in coming days.