Afghanistan comes full circle
17 Aug 2021|

Afghanistan has come full circle. Twenty years after having been evicted from Kabul by US and allied forces, the Taliban are back in control of the Afghan capital and most of the rest of the country. Capital after provincial capital fell to the Taliban with such breathtaking speed that even the most seasoned observers of the Afghanistan scene were left bedazzled. The unopposed takeover of Kabul was the crowning act of this astounding drama.

Scenes of the hurried evacuation of American embassy staff by helicopters and the often futile efforts by Afghan citizens to board planes to get out of the country has revived memories of the humiliating US retreat from Saigon in 1975. The attempt by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to portray the unedifying spectacle—‘This is manifestly not Saigon,’ he declared—as the end of a successful mission is almost Orwellian in character.

While most intelligence agencies and observers were caught unawares by the astonishing swiftness of the Taliban victory, some analysts concluded in hindsight that ‘The stunning campaign by the Taliban to systematically take cities while closing in on the capital by isolating small pockets of government troops was clearly well-planned.’ If that was indeed the case, it’s a tribute to the military genius of Taliban commanders.

But a more likely explanation for the Taliban’s victory is the fact that the morale of the underpaid and underfed Afghan security forces was so low that they had lost their will to fight for a corrupt regime constantly at war with itself and were willing to cut and run at the first sight of the approaching enemy. The Guardian summed it up well: ‘It is a tale of two armies, one poorly equipped but highly motivated ideologically, and the other nominally well-equipped, but dependent on Nato support, poorly led and riddled with corruption.’

The Taliban were able to successfully exploit the foreign presence by making their fight not only an Islamic but also a nationalist cause. It is evident that substantial segments of the country’s population harboured sympathy for the Taliban. Had that not been the case, their takeover of the country with such remarkable ease wouldn’t have been possible. Patriotism often trumps ideological differences and even the quest for individual liberty.

The main question now is whether the Taliban will be able to control the ethnically fragmented country. It’s commonly assumed that the Achilles’ heel of the Taliban is their predominantly Pashtun composition in a country riven by ethnic fissures with different ethnic groups dominating particular regions. According to CIA estimates, the proportions of ethnic groups in the country are as follows: Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%.

The skewed nature of the Taliban’s ethnic composition was a major impediment to their rule during the 1990s when other major ethnic groups, especially the Tajik and the Uzbek in the north, put up stiff resistance to the Taliban’s attempt to control the areas they dominated. This led to the emergence of the Northern Alliance, supported paradoxically by both the US and Iran, that fought the Taliban through the 1990s and rolled into Kabul in 2001 to take control of the capital when the Americans ousted the Taliban.

However, the situation seems to have changed considerably during the past 20 years. The Taliban have realised that they need non-Pashtun participation at all levels of leadership to be able to retake the multiethnic country and hold it. Consequently, they have made concerted efforts during the past 10 years or so to accommodate segments of the Tajiks and Uzbeks disaffected with the Kabul government in the Taliban power structure. In the last phase of their campaign, this greatly helped the Taliban to wrest control of much of the north and west of the country with relative ease. The Taliban have even attempted to induct the Shia Hazara into their power structure despite their visceral hatred for the Shia, whom they consider not just heretics but apostates.

This strategy of cooptation seems to have worked in the case of the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, but whether it can work with the Hazaras is still an open question. Although the Hazaras were discriminated against by the ruling Sunni elites and experienced periodic massacres from the late 19th century onwards, they suffered greatly during Taliban rule, facing severe repression and a series of mass killings. It’s no coincidence that the only part of the country so far not under effective Taliban control is Hazarajat (the land of the Hazaras) in central Afghanistan.

Afghanistan sits at the conjunction of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East and forms an attractive target for intervention by more powerful neighbours as well as by major powers with strategic and economic interests in one or more of these regions. It also has porous borders and has traditionally been a weak state, both of which facilitate external intervention. Pakistan, China, Iran, Russia and India all have interests in Afghanistan that could bring them into conflict with each other, and Afghanistan may well become the playground for a series of ‘great games’ reminiscent of the British–Russian rivalry in the 19th century.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan are waiting in the wings with their own terrorist agendas. Though the Taliban in their public statements have pledged that they won’t allow their territory to be used for cross-border terrorism, the group’s history of close relations with al-Qaeda makes such declarations suspect. It will have to live down that image by clearly demonstrating that it is willing to take action against its erstwhile friends that it may find exceedingly problematic for ideological and pragmatic reasons.

Any Afghan regime that hopes to survive in this complex regional and domestic environment must demonstrate effectiveness in terms of governance and domestic legitimacy, which are very difficult to achieve in such a highly fractured society. Many earlier regimes have tried to achieve these goals but failed. The cards are stacked against the Taliban on both these counts as well. Conquering Kabul is one thing; governing Afghanistan for any length of time is quite another.