In the brutal December of 2001, as anti-Taliban forces prepared to storm its stronghold at Kandahar, the organisation’s portly spokesperson called journalists to announce surrender. “Tomorrow,” he began, “the Taliban will start surrendering their weapons.” The Taliban, he went on, no longer sought a political role: “I think we should go home.”
For weeks before that press conference, Pakistan had been quietly evacuating hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda jihadists, along with its intelligence personnel, flying them from Kunduz to bases in Gilgit and Chitral. Thousands more streamed south, to Peshawar and Quetta.
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Letting the enemy flee, western planners and their allies in Afghanistan hoped, was a way to bring a quick end to the war. The plan was, however, to backfire horribly.
“There is no avoiding war,” Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote, “it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.” The Taliban are now demonstrating he was right.
Monday’s Taliban strike on Afghanistan’s Parliament failed, with security personnel holding their ground in the wake of a car bomb attack to kill the seven fidayeen who had hoped to storm the building. There hasn’t been a lot else going wrong for the Taliban, though, as it has staged its most fierce summer offensive in years — the first against Afghan troops fighting without the United States by their side.
Beginning with strikes in Kunduz in Afghanistan’s north, using jihadist units displaced from Pakistan’s North Waziristan, the Taliban have registered significant gains in provinces from Badakshan to Helmand.
Figures show just how grim the situation is. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan reported 1,800 civilians had been killed or injured in the first three months of this year alone, setting the stage for a record level of casualties. Four hundred and thirty of those casualties were children. UNAMA said 73 per cent of those casualties were caused by “anti-government forces”.
The Afghan army and police are also taking a beating, reportedly suffering over 300 casualties a week, some 70 per cent higher than last year — numbers experts say are simply unsustainable in the long run.
President Ashraf Ghani, a diplomatic document first revealed by The Indian Express this month revealed, gambled all on promises from Pakistan that it would rein in the Taliban, and deliver its leadership for peace talks.
There’s no sign of that happening, though. And Pakistan has shown no signs of acting against the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, or its allies, the network of jihadist warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Islamabad’s generals, it seems probable, can’t push the Taliban beyond a point, knowing the Afghan jihadists have real influence with Pakistani Islamists. Those Islamists, in turn, provide the army with legitimacy — and are allies it can’t risk alienating.
The best explanation is that the Pakistan army has decided to play both sides — and deal with the one that wins.
To many experts, the Taliban’s decision to continue with war makes no sense: more long years of conflict, expert Michael Semple has pointed out, would leave its leaders irrelevant. Yet, it appears to have made that choice — guided by internal pressures, external threats and complex political calculations.
Key among those backing talks with Kabul is Maulana Akhtar Mansoor — the Taliban’s deputy chief, an ISI-backed figure implicated in the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet.
His protege, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai — who graduated from IMA, Dehradun, in the 1970s — is now the Taliban’s key negotiator at its office in Qatar.
However, Mansoor’s pitch for peace has been rejected by Maulvi Abdul Qayoom Zakir, the Taliban’s former military commander. Though Zakir was pushed out of his command role in 2014, he continues to control key elements of the Taliban’s fighting units.
Then, the Taliban are under seige from new jihadists calling themselves the Islamic State of Khorasan — though their ties to the West Asian organisation remains unclear. Led since January by Khan Saeed, a former Tehrik-i-Taliban commander, the Islamic State has fought pitched battles with the Taliban. While the Taliban have mostly come off best, the Islamic State has hit back — beheading 10 Taliban in June, and assassinating the Taliban’s chief for Nagarhar province, Maulvi Mir Ahmad Gul Hashmi, in Peshawar.
The Islamic State’s Afghan head, Abdul Rehman Muslim Dost, a one-time jeweller and poet who spent several years in Guantanamo Bay, is alleged to live in Peshawar under ISIL protection. His brother, Badru Zamaan, was blamed by al-Qaeda for passing on targeting information on its leadership to the US, through the ISI.
In a June 16 video, Taliban commander Mansoor appealed to the Islamic State not to create “divisions and differences in the jihadist ranks”. He also underlined the Taliban’s continuing commitment to al-Qaeda’s vision, hailing “the heroes of the current jihadist era — the prayer leader of mujahideen, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam; the leader of mujahideen, Sheikh Osama bin Ladin; the defeater of crusaders, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”.
The language suggested the Taliban leadership knows it can’t sign on to a peace deal without losing its jihadist rank and file to the Islamic State — locking it into a cycle of violence. Fuelled by drug trade earnings, the insurgency can sustain itself indefinitely.
Where might things go from here? It is possible that the Afghan army might get its act together. In the course of the campaign, the army has learned that its tactic of holding ground through pickets scattered across the countryside simply creates targets of opportunity. It is now calling for more air assets, to enable fluid, mobile counter-insurgency tactics.
There are also signs that superpowers China and Russia are stepping into the space being vacated by the US. China fears Afghanistan could become a base for jihadists from Xinjiang; Russia worries that its Central Asia periphery is being destabilised.
Failing concerted international action to back the Afghan state, though, the long war will continue. In this real-world Macbeth, after all, all of the pretenders believe god has prophesied they will one day sit on Afghanistan’s Throne of Blood.