Do Afghans have a future?
The dread that Afghanistan is reverting to its pre-2001 status as a generator of global terror would have arisen after the suicide bomb attack on August 26 in which 170 people were killed. While it would be foolish to totally rule out this possibility, the slide is not likely to happen in a hurry. Even if a reversal does happen over time, the menace that can be posed might not be as powerful as it was twenty years ago.
Three separate forces are currently in contention to control the destiny of Afghanistan. The most powerful of these, the Taliban, controls Kabul and the capitals of most of the country's 34 provinces, But, its leadership does not seem to have settled on the direction to take. Only when this regime gives shape to its policies, can assessments begin to be made about the prospects of the other two forces.
Whenever the Taliban is mentioned, a template arises in the minds of most people in the world. A picture of grim, bearded men with turbans and dressed in loose shalwar-kameez brandishing weapons. Video images of these men praying, even as they supervise the execution of young girls for the crime of not wearing face veils. Soundtracks of them promising eternal war against infidels. There is nothing in these memories that render the Talibs less than abhorrent to people outside their ideological bubble.
Hostility towards the Taliban is innate even in the countries that have moved quickest to deal with the new Afghan regime. Russia and China are only too aware that insurgent groups within their territories have in the past drawn inspiration and support from these proponents of theocracy. Pakistan is currently celebrating its success in installing its proteges in power. That happiness has not altogether erased the fear of disaster lurking in the future. All other people in the world are appalled at the way the United States so mismanaged its “war on terror” that Afghan politics has reverted to apparently the same outward form as it had when the war began.
In place of an Arab-dominated Al Qaeda there is now an Islamic State- Khorasan with militants from all over the world. The Northern Alliance, votary of moderation then as now, has retreated to its last bastion in the Panjshir Valley. At the centre, both geographically and metaphorically, sits the Taliban. Everyone is waiting to see which way this group will tilt. It has been involved in turf battles with the IS-K and it sees the NA as the just defeated enemy. There are forces within the Taliban pushing it in both directions. Its past performance in power suggests that the Taliban will incline towards extremism. However, logic indicates that such an outcome is not inevitable.
Those in the Taliban leadership who are acquainted with global trends know that they cannot behave as they did between 1996 and 2001. The terrorist strikes inside the US on September 11, 2001, brought about a fundamental change. Until then, the international community had not set a clear boundary that extremists would not be allowed to cross. For years before that, Islamist militant groups from Algeria to the Philippines had been moving steadily towards their common objective of establishing a Khilafat to rival or eclipse all other powers. Given the asymmetry in military might, the militants had chosen terrorist attacks on civilians as they prefer mode of war.
They had even come to believe that they would be victorious because no country would have the will to confront them. Governments all over the world, except for the Russian, seemed to confirm this impression since they neither coordinated countermeasures properly nor even set benchmarks for retaliation that would be commonly accepted. It was a time when groups in one country designated as terrorists were called ‘freedom fighters’ by another.
9/11 led to the drawing of the boundary. The US and the coalition it led, went on to commit blunder after blunder. But the fundamental rule was established. Any large-scale resort to terror would be matched by recourse to overwhelming retaliatory force. All US Presidents in future will be pressured by their people to follow the example of George W Bush, with support for any other government that embarks on the same path.
Terror versus conventional military might is an absolute mismatch. Over two decades, governments have also developed the means to hit even car-sized targets with high precision bombs launched from vast distances. Their ability to kill while keeping their own troops out of danger has increased manifold. A whole architecture of laws and systems has also been set up to choke funding for terrorist groups and governments that sponsor them. Although there will certainly be terrorist strikes in different parts of the world for years to come, only die-hards can continue to believe that these will lead to the establishment of a Khilafat or, thereby, a change in the configuration of the global order.
With its futility exposed, the jihadi project has lost much of its appeal. Religious militancy is a spent force in most of the countries--Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria Iraq--where it was ascendant during the 1990s and the first decade of this century. Non-religious governments in all these countries are now the first bulwarks against the revival of militancy. Pakistan’s military-dominated establishment is yet to reach there, though financial sanctions are beginning to bite.
Militants have ceased to be cultural icons as the youth they once sought to inspire now look to other role models. A new generation has come of age even in rural Afghanistan and the refugee camps in Pakistan, the main recruitment areas for the Taliban. These youth are connected to the global information highway through their mobiles. Clips of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri are not the only audio-visuals they consume.
Generational change is not the only current buffeting the Taliban. Mullahs became powerful figures in the refugee camps because they were the conduits for the huge relief funds donated by patrons in the Arab world. That flow has dried up with the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabis and the UAE turning their regimes against the jihadist project. The clerics, who provide the skeletal system for the Taliban, now must negotiate with other power elites. Without the backing of such elements, Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah would not have been able to engage directly with Mullah Baradar and Anas Haqqani.
When the Taliban talk of inclusive government or hint at softer interpretations of the Shariah, they are not merely trying to dupe or placate people outside their country. They know that a regression to the barbarism they displayed the last time round will have consequences. Afghani bureaucrats might not be very efficient, but they are still needed to run the government. No society can survive without doctors, engineers, and other technocrats. They and businessmen cannot operate in a stifling atmosphere.
Proponents of the opposite take on the Taliban would point out that these considerations would have been in play in the 1996-2001 period and yet the mullahs were not restrained. That argument misses the point that the central bureaucracy, technologists, and businessmen had fled Kabul over the course of the previous years as the city was reduced to rubble in the four-way combat involving Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Hazara Shias. At that time, the Taliban not only had no ability to build, but they also had nothing to build on. If they can now persuade Afghan civilians to stay, they can start running systems that are already in place.
As the suicide bombing at a gate of the Kabul airport demonstrated, jihadists continue to find havens in Afghanistan. Many suspect that elements within the Taliban, especially the extended Haqqani clan, might have some connection with the attack. No analyst, from any government or otherwise, is likely to deny the possibility outright. But for the moment, even the US seems to have given them the benefit of the doubt. That is probably because the outfit that claimed responsibility does exist.
The IS-K remains intent on establishing the Khilafat and still believes that this goal can be achieved through terrorism. About 10,000 fighters--from the Chechen-Dagestan regions of Russia, China’s Xinjiang and parts of the Arab world are said to have gathered in sanctuaries within Afghanistan. This is a vast, mountainous country with many secluded spots. The terrain is ideally suited for hiding large bodies of men, there are enough stockpiles of arms and explosives in a country ravaged by forty years of warfare and the borders with all five neighbouring countries are porous. Terrorists can venture from their hide-outs, strike anywhere, and disappear into their foxholes with ease.
Unless and until the Afghans turn against them. The Afghani people are very parochial in that they do not tolerate outsiders encroaching on the rights or properties of their clans or tribes. Friction can easily build if ideologically driven foreigners start dictating to the locals. Any analysis of this aspect must lead directly to a consideration of the approach Pakistan is likely to take. Our neighbour has gained much from the turn of events in Afghanistan since it was about the only backer of the Taliban. Will it remain content with what has been obtained?
While some factions of the Taliban have served as operatives of Inter Services Intelligence, others have been its victims. Imperatives of being in power could widen already existing fissures. If or when matters start going out of control, Pakistan could bring into play other proxies such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad to act independently or in conjunction with the IS-K. The involvement of these Punjabi militants could easily trigger a backlash.
The third force in Afghanistan appears to be too weak to play much of a role. The Northern Alliance has a shrewd and compact leadership but reportedly has only 2,500 fighters to confront the 60,000 estimated to form the Talibani hard-core. Equations could change if the NA is able to attract elements of the army that fought alongside US forces before being left without ammunition, fuel, and food. Although only a fifth of that army was reportedly on the active muster and although many surrendered to the Taliban, thousands of them simply melted away with their weapons. If they feel threatened by the new rulers, they could find ways to link up with the Panjshiris.
Afghanistan’s future course has not been marked out yet. The world hopes that it will turn out to be sensible.
(The writer, a veteran journalist served as a foreign correspondent of the Hindu, is also the great-grandson of K P Kesava Menon, founder-editor of the Mathrubhumi)