US handover of Afghanistan to Taliban: Placing new puzzle on region’s table - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 25 Jan 2022 1 Comment

Dec 10: The recent chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, and whirlwind takeover of the country by the Taliban, has evoked some ugly memories and presents fresh threats to the region. Though most regional powers have welcomed a powerful foreign power’s departure from its vicinity, they also realize that the US departure could bring about an explosion of terrorists within Afghanistan.  These countries are doubtful about Taliban’s willingness to take on the terrorist groups they have worked with for years.  Some of these groups   have already seized territories within and attained enough strength to extend their reach into the neighboring countries, they fear.


The regional powers’ concerns stem from two realities: First, since the incoming rulers of Afghanistan lack basic administrative skills and can best be identified as orthodox Islamists who for decades were engaged in terrorism and trafficking narcotics, countries in the region are dubious about whether they will be able to put in place a functioning administration. Second, vast sections of Afghanistan are now under the control of local Taliban commanders and fighters who have implemented their radical versions of Sharia law using raw gun power. It is impossible to evaluate how much authority the Taliban leaders in Kabul have over these rural commanders.


Further, Taliban have taken over a bankrupt nation where 14 million Afghans - too many of them are children - face hunger and starvation. Wholly unprepared, the new rulers will have to deal with inadequate essential services, such as electricity and water, in a country that has been badly damaged by decades of conflict. The situation calls for emergency action, but there is no indication when such actions can be undertaken. At the time of this writing, three months since their takeover, the new rulers have not been recognized by any foreign government, not even by their biggest backer, Pakistan. Those donors, who used to contribute to the now-defunct Ghani government, stopped contributing in August when Taliban took control. The countries in the region fear that Afghanistan could implode, plunging this highly divided nation into yet another period of relentless bloodletting and civil war.


The presence of powerful terrorist groups functioning inside Afghanistan is serious enough, but what worries the neighboring countries most is the proximity of some of those groups to the new rulers. The present rulers do not advocate global jihad, but they conduct their communications in a way that appeases global jihadis. They maintain close ties with al-Qaeda and other global jihadi movements that do not recognize nation-state boundaries and strive to establish an Islamic caliphate. Taliban’s unwillingness and inability to break ties with such militants is a particularly worrisome factor for countries in the region, who are also aware that some of the terrorist groups are actively trying to expand their Islamic militancy beyond Afghanistan into its immediate neighborhood.


Fueling their anxiety is the powerful presence of one terrorist group, the Haqqani faction, within the Taliban. Over the years, this group was involved in myriad terrorist attacks, using suicide bombers, killing innocent civilians. The incoming Taliban authorities’ appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the feared Haqqani faction, as the Minister of Interior, was read in the region as a signature statement. Haqqani faction members have also been placed in other prominent positions in the administration.


The hasty US and allied forces withdrawal, following a sham of a “peace agreement” with the Taliban, makes the regional powers also wonder about underlying US policy motives. Why did the United States, after pursuing an unwinnable war for two decades, setting up deeply flawed “democratic” regimes and financing them generously, chose to hand over power willy-nilly to the very group that it had fought and successfully dislodged from power in 2001?


Immediate neighbors, such as those Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan - Iran and China, in particular - remember the brutish Taliban regime that ruled from 1995 to 2001. During that period, Taliban, recognized only by one such neighbor, Pakistan, carried out a murderous domestic policy that further sharpened ethnic and sectarian divisions inside Afghanistan.  During its first reign, too, the Taliban established close ties with the dreaded Islamist terrorist group from Arabia, al-Qaeda, and allowed it to set up its own base inside Afghanistan. The threat that al-Qaeda posed to the region at the time has not been forgotten. What is startling is that al-Qaeda still exists within Afghanistan and is still close to the new rulers.


Throughout its negotiations with the United States since 2019, Taliban representatives in Doha sought to assuage fears, arguing that Taliban 2.0 is a vastly mellowed version of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan so brutally in the late-1990s. They apparently succeeded in convincing the US team, whose prime objective was to find a way to get out of Afghanistan by handing power over to the Taliban, that their means of repression and the way they plan to frame their administration will be much less repulsive this time. What they never promised, however, is that the new regime will be less authoritarian or even less conservative than the first one. That is as much, or as little, as the regional countries have come to know about the future modus operandi of the newcomers in Kabul.


Today’s self-proclaimed moderate Taliban have a long way to go before they can earn the trust and confidence of their neighbors. It is not unlikely that some of the Kabul-based new Taliban leaders are, indeed, less militant and seek cooperation in the region, but it is not clear how they could control those militant Taliban commanders who rule the roost in rural Afghanistan. Throughout the US stay, these commanders have wielded their guns, extorted cash and goods, intimidated rural Afghans, and built up their individual fiefdoms. Months before the Taliban arrived in Kabul in 2021, they closed girls’ schools in the north. This was also a power performance, a gauntlet cast down for the Afghan government to pick up. (What my 20 years in Afghanistan taught me about the Taliban - and how the west consistently underestimates them: Sippi Azarbaijani Moghaddam, University of St Andrews: The Conversation: Nov 30, 2021).


The new rulers’ sectarian bias, too, is evident. Although they no longer openly espouse hostility to Shi’ism and have better relations with Shi’a Iran, the Taliban’s return to power has been marked by a purge of Shi’ite Hazaras from government jobs, closure of their businesses, and their expulsion from their homes and villages.


This article explores why the United States chose to stay in Afghanistan as long it did, and will also make the argument that the United States was thoroughly complicit in the Taliban take over. It will also briefly assess the strengths of the various terrorist groups whose existence within Afghanistan and their proximity to the Taliban cause deep concern in the region.


At the Outset, a narrow US mission


Following the collapse of the house of cards that the US built in Afghanistan, condemnations and despair were heard across the US media. Who Lost Afghanistan? The answer is not hard to find.


In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, assisted by both the Iranians and the Northern Alliance fighters. The result was a swift dismantling of the Taliban regime. Yet it soon became clear that Washington’s focus was not to make Afghanistan Taliban-free. That was   apparent when Washington allowed thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to flee to Pakistan, a strong ally of Washington in its “war on terror”. The stated mission of Washington at the time was not to allow anti-US terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, to maintain a base in Afghanistan; and to capture the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden - the alleged mastermind behind terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.


It was assumed, but never stated, that the US military would leave Afghanistan once those two objectives were met. Twenty years later, on Aug. 31, 2021, without having attained its very first objective, the US called it quits. (The United States did achieve its second objective in 2011 - almost nine and a half years after it went into Afghanistan - when a virtually crippled Osama bin-Laden was gunned down by US Navy Seals in Pakistan, in a house built for him where he had been living for at least five years.)


The broad picture that emerges when trying to follow the hunt for, and killing of, Osama is part of the miasma that surrounds the US’s 20 years of wasteful stay in Afghanistan. The Osama killing episode is rife with question marks. To begin with, what we have now come to know is that Osama had fled to Pakistan in 2001, and that he, along with his family, while being hunted by the Americans and the Pakistanis all those years, was residing in a house built for him close to a major Pakistani military installation. The residence, where he was gunned down, was less than two miles from the Pakistan Military Academy, an officers training center located near Kakul village in the city and district of Abbottabad.


Investigating this bizarre episode in his book, The Killing of Osama bin-Laden, American journalist-author Seymour Hersh spoke to a retired US intelligence official. Hersh quotes the official: “The bin Laden compound? was less than two miles from the Pakistan Military Academy, and a Pakistani army combat battalion headquarters was another mile or so away. Abbottabad is less than 15 minutes by helicopter from Tarbela Ghazi, an important base for Inter-Services Intelligence covert operations and the facility where those who guard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal are trained.”


The retired official added: “Ghazi is why the ISI put bin Laden in Abbottabad in the first place to keep him under constant supervision.” Naturally, the Obama administration, which took a victory lap for eliminating the icon of anti-America terrorism and a crippled decrepit, chose to keep a tight lid on the whole sordid episode, lest it expose what could be read by an average American as its ally’s underhandedness and Washington’s willful compliance therewith.


If Osama’s “hiding” in full sight of America’s top ally, who was also a partner in America’s “war on terror” and recipient in June 2004 of a special status as the major non-NATO ally of the United States, seems like an enigma, President George W. Bush’s announcement on April 17, 2002, broadening the US mission to Afghanistan was no less puzzling. On that day, addressing a group of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) President Bush stated: “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls that work. We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations.” The speech was reminiscent of the June 5, 1947, speech of then-US Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who, on that occasion, told an audience at the Harvard University that it was in America’s vital interest to rebuild Europe after World War II.


By broadening the mission, President Bush laid the ground for a longer, indeed indefinite, period of US stay in Afghanistan. Did that broadening of mission have anything to do with the United States’ growing interest in Central Asia, located north of Afghanistan, and extending all the way to southern Russia - America’s “vanquished” Cold War adversary? Was the invasion of Afghanistan actually a new geostrategic move passed off as part of the “war on terror”?  


(To be continued…) 

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