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The Shia-Sunni divide amongst the Taliban intensified sharply with the killing of Maulavi Mahdi, a rebel Hazara commander, who was captured at the Herat border in the morning of August 17, 2022, while trying to escape to Iran. Sources said that Mahdi was trying to regain Tehran’s support in his fight with the Taliban. The Afghanistan defence ministry denied local reports that the commander was murdered in captivity. Provincial information officer Naeemul Haq Haqqani said Maulavi Mahdi was alone and was “killed after a conflict.”
During their first stint in power (1996-2001), the Taliban had captured and assassinated Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari and heaped numerous atrocities upon the Hazaras. Maulavi Mahdi’s killing is a clear signal that the Taliban remain unchanged despite the gap of three decades and that life will not be easy for the Shia minority under their rule.
Maulavi Mahdi, a former military commander of the Shia-dominated Balkhab district of Sar-e Pol, was the Taliban intelligence chief of Bamiyan province before he fell out with the group in June this year. The dispute was reported to be over the control of the coal trade in the province. Al-Arabiya reported that the Taliban sent thousands of troops to crush his followers. The United Nations estimated that around 27,000 people were displaced in the armed conflict.
The cycle of violence continued with an explosion inside a mosque in Kabul on the evening of August 17, 2022, in which around 21 persons were killed and around 35 injured. The UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) regretted the attack on the mosque and said bombings have killed and injured more than 250 people in recent weeks. On August 18, there was an explosion in Mandigak palace in the Kandahar province, where Taliban leaders and foreign diplomats were present. However, no details are known.
An American journalist, Ivon Shearer, and his Afghan colleague, were detained and blindfolded for filming on the main Sherpur road in Kabul on August 17. Both were accredited to work in Afghanistan. So far, they are being held incommunicado.
On August 18, 2022, a day-long meeting of Taliban leaders in Kandahar concluded with a resolution, the first article of which condemned the US drone attack on an Al-Qaeda leader in Kabul and designated it as “a crime and violation of the Doha Agreement.” The second article of the resolution declared that any neighbouring country that has allowed the US the use of its space to attack Afghanistan is also a partner in this “crime,” but did not name Pakistan for facilitating the drone strike on al-Zawahiri. There was no mention of reopening schools for girls.
Meanwhile, the resistance to the Taliban has intensified. National Resistance Front (NRF) leader, Ahmad Massoud, who was willing to dialogue with the Taliban when it seized power last year, is now adamant that armed resistance is the only way to end the rule of the militant group. In an interview to the Atlantic Council, he said the Taliban must be made to realise that they must submit to a constitutional and legal process so that a legitimate government, accountable to citizens of Afghanistan and the world, can come to power.
Massoud revealed that initially, he and his allies, while stationed in the Panjshir Valley, attempted to engage the Taliban and make them understand that “legitimacy in Afghanistan … cannot come through the barrel of a gun” but through the voice of the people. But the Taliban insisted on complete surrender and allegiance to the regime. This prompted Massoud and others to form the NRF, which has since engaged the Taliban forces; hostilities have increased in recent months.
Massoud said the conflict would continue until “the Taliban realize that the military regime, or a militant group’s rule over a country, is not an option.” The Taliban, he lamented, are even more radical this time. The NRF commander admitted that attempts to work with regional actors to hammer out some sort of truce with the Taliban have failed.
World leaders, Massoud said, must understand that Taliban 2.0 is not different from Taliban 1.0. This should be evident from the fact that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed in a US air strike on August 1, 2022, was being sheltered in a posh locality in Kabul. The Taliban, thus, continued their relationship with terrorist entities and organizations. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are given refuge in Afghanistan.
Ali Maisam Nazary, head of foreign relations for the NRF, in an article in Foreign Affairs observed that one year of Taliban rule has brought Afghanistan to the brink of the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times, with the economy in tatters and people facing acute food insecurity. There has been an increase in human trafficking and drug trafficking. Worse, the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul exposes the ties between the Taliban and transnational terrorist groups.
The Taliban, Nazary alleged, have handed over the security of the Afghan-Tajik border to the militant groups Jamaat Ansarullah and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. More dangerously, terrorists from Tajikistan have formed a group called the Taliban Movement of Tajikistan that aims to establish its own Islamic emirate in Central Asia.
Foreign Policy columnist Lynne O’Donnell, who returned to Afghanistan after a year, was detained on her way back because Taliban officials believed they could act with impunity. Persons she had contacted were detained and interrogated; her driver was held incommunicado for three days, beaten, and deprived of sleep. His phone and car were kept for a week, but later returned. Even the manager of the guesthouse where she stayed was threatened. There is, she observed, an undercurrent of violence; over the past year, citizens have been detained, beaten, jailed, many are hiding or have fled over land borders. O’Donnell said the $9 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves must be released to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in the country, but kept out of Taliban hands.
Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert, observed that the killing of al-Zawahiri proves that the Taliban protected and hosted terrorists and terrorist groups in violation of the Doha Agreement of 2020, whereby it pledged not to allow Afghan soil be used by those that threaten the security of the U.S. Islamabad, in his opinion, may be experiencing “buyer’s remorse”, as the Taliban are firmly in control in Kabul and have not deferred to Pakistan’s wishes, especially with regard to the border. The Taliban never accepted the Durand Line, and recent attempts by the Pakistani army to fence the border has led to clashes with Afghan fighters.
Another bone of contention relates to the Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban (TTP) that poses a threat to Pakistan and has increased its attacks in Pakistan in recent months. Islamabad expected the Taliban to control the Pakistani Taliban, but this did not happen. The Taliban helped Islamabad talk with the Pakistani Taliban, but the meetings were not fruitful.
Further, hopes of financial and other assistance from Islamabad have not materialised, given Pakistan’s own dire financial straits. There are also tensions due to Islamabad’s refusal to recognize the Taliban regime (unlike in 1996).
The international situation has unfolded very differently from the assessments of most experts. Many had opined that once Washington departed, countries like China, Russia and Pakistan would rush to work with the Taliban, to India’s disadvantage. However, it is Pakistan that has serious issues with the Taliban, while India has partially reopened its embassy in Kabul, if only to process and deliver humanitarian aid and facilitate the exit of persecuted minorities. New Delhi can now pursue its own interests in Afghanistan more easily.
India’s principal concerns will be containing terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which have a presence in Afghanistan and threaten India. India can also try to counter potential Pakistani and Chinese moves in Afghanistan. Above all, India wants access to Central Asian markets and energy resources.
The Express Tribune, Rogue Taliban commander killed by Islamic Emirate forces, Shahabullah Yusufzai, August 17, 2022
The National News, How the Taliban has rolled back civil rights after a year in control of Afghanistan, Nada Al Taher, Aug 10, 2022.
Alarabiya News, Rebel Taliban commander Mahdi Mujahid killed trying to flee to Iran, 17 August 2022