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Afghanistan: Galloping Backward

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 27, 2006

    That the Taliban power stands resurrected is a fact now. At the same time, the 'war on terror' is also showing signs of fatigue. It has already come to a halt in the north-western tribal expanse of Pakistan, the cradle of the Taliban's resurrection. Dubbed as 'remnants' until recently, the Taliban today are a power to reckon with, effectively redrawing the power equations within Afghanistan. NATO-led forces, which were meant to have acted as an effective deterrent against the Taliban are proving to be a mere buffer force between the Taliban in the south and the mujahideen factions in the north. The five-year old political process and the paradoxical 'war on terror' have failed to transform the political dynamics in Afghanistan. With the levels of violence and poppy boom breaking all previous records, and effective institutions of governance still a far cry, Afghanistan seems to be galloping backward. A sense of perplexity and growing uncertainty has certainly come to grip the campaigners of the 'war on terror'.

    While Pakistan prescribes the replication of the deals similar to the ones it has struck with militants in Waziristan in southern Afghanistan, the West appears to be reconciling to Taliban control in these areas. Pakistan and the resurrected Taliban have certainly emerged as the biggest gainers from the 'war on terror'. They are the 'new winners' of the 'war on terror', whereas the 'old winners', the mujahideen factions of the United Front and the pro-Karzai elements, are being subjected to criticism for the failures of 'war on terror' in Afghanistan. It is no secret that the US has been looking for an ally from within the Taliban.

    It would not be wrong to say that Afghan politics has begun moulding the West to its own advantage. Instead of the 'war on terror' shaping the Afghan conflict, it is the Taliban and Pakistan who have begun laying terms and conditions for the 'resolution' of the conflict. The fact that both Pakistan and the US have, since the rout of the Taliban in 2001, been proposing the inclusion of 'moderate' Taliban in the Afghan government, makes the cooption of 'sections' of the Taliban not so distant a possibility.

    Ironically, post-2001 Afghanistan has witnessed the resurgence of both the mujahideen factions and the Taliban, the two prime actors in the Afghan civil war. With Pakistan determined to regain its share of influence in Afghan politics, another round of jockeying for power, involving both domestic and external actors, could be on the anvil.

    The term 'Taliban' has undoubtedly come to assume a more generic connotation. In the meanwhile, a plethora of anti-West extremist forces, both local and foreign, have come together with a unity of purpose. The western forces engaging the anti-Kabul forces are finding the exercise costlier day by day, both in terms of expenditure and human casualties. About 40,000 international forces present in Afghanistan today appear to be clueless in developing an effective counter-strategy against the anti-Kabul forces. Needless to say that the kind of mobilization that has taken place in the vast rural Pashtun tribal belt from NWFP in Pakistan to south-western Afghanistan was ignored and trivialized by the campaigners of the 'war on terror' in favour of the US war in Iraq. No wonder, the Taliban have been shifting their battle lines further close to the urban centres in the southern and eastern provinces around Kabul.

    The Taliban are expected to move sooner or later to areas where factions aligned with Kabul appear to be in control. They have already filled the vacuum in rural Pashtun areas and NATO-led forces are left with no option but to remain content with control over the urban centres around Kabul either by striking deals with the local Taliban or launching military operations against them, whichever way it works. Worst of all is the prevalent trans-Atlantic divide among NATO member-states, which is reflected in NATO's faltering Afghan mission. Similarly, the commitment of the myriad Afghan factions that comprise the anti-Taliban coalition kept together under an externally-sponsored political process also remains questionable.

    The role of highly experienced former mujahideen Pashtun commanders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalal-ud Din Haqqani in rejuvenating the military power of the Taliban is a notable phenomenon. It may not be far-fetched to say that the mujahideen politics with its deep ethnic undertones has also contributed to the resurrection of the Taliban. Given the trend of shifting loyalties and changing alliances in the Afghan civil war, the possibility of more disgruntled Pashtun commanders aligning with the Taliban cannot be ruled out in the coming years.

    It is difficult to say as to what extent the Taliban could be de-linked from the Pakistani State in future. The probability of the Taliban having acquired a certain dynamic of its own and assuming relative autonomy from the Pakistani State is worth enquiring into. Among the Pashtun tribes straddling the contentious Durand Line, the Taliban definitely have a strong rear base to fall back upon in times of urgency. Pakistan's failure to subdue the tribes in its north-western region has gone a long way in exposing the institutional weaknesses of Pakistan and its enforcement agencies to rein in the tribal populace and the militant Islamists of all hues present in the region. In fact, the tenuous hold of the Pakistani State over the region has left pro-Taliban Pakistani religio-political parties emboldened to carry on their experiment with medieval ideological fantasies. Thus, the extensive support for the Afghan Taliban among the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan's north-western tribal areas and the influential religious political parties are proven assets for the Taliban.

    However, the possibility of the Taliban repeating its conquest of the 1990s may not be possible as minority ethnic factions have consolidated their strength in the last five years and the US is not likely to completely withdraw from Afghanistan. Kabul's limited strength, which lies in the international support it has enjoyed over the last five years, could wane with the elections in the US and UK. Given the changing scenario, a new political configuration may also emerge in Kabul. In this context, it may be worth considering whether it is time to revive something on the lines of the earlier 'Six-plus-Two' Group. Perhaps, a 'Seven-plus-Two' Group, including India, could be formed to monitor, discuss and analyse the Afghan situation on a regular basis and to engage various Afghan factions more meaningfully with the objective of resolving the Afghan conflict.

    However, as of now, the fact remains that Afghanistan is years away from stability and peace, if any has to come to the land of buzkashi.