Afghanistan has always existed in a state of ordered Anarchy. A region that has seen empires -kingdoms and chiefdoms- rise and fall like the winter wheat for 3000 years. From the early Scythians to the modern age, no transfer of power has been as peaceful as the one that has been orchestrated by the Taliban over just 2 months.
Before looking at where the Taliban stand today and what it means for the region, it is advantageous to look at how the Taliban were able to not only survive the past 20 years, but thrive in most aspects in Afghanistan while a coalition of the world’s strongest military force was hellbent on annihilating the movement.
In the context of Afghanistan, it’s pertinent to note how understanding the country through the lenses of traditional western statecraft is not beneficial. Afghanistan is home to an array of different ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras. However, historically Afghanistan has been ruled by a Farsiwan Pashtun monarch and for the most part, this sovereignty, as is understood in the modern sense, only extended to Kabul and key administrative bastions such as Herat, Kandahar and Mizar Sharif. Most of the countryside was governed autonomously by village councils by virtue of the customary law known as Pashtunwali (the Pashtun way) and the Islamic Shariah. The autonomy to govern independently without interference from Kabul has been a key feature of the Afghani political arena throughout history and ignorance of it is one of the main reasons for the failure of the American effort. The Afghan people have been fiercely independent on the micro village level as well on the macro level, as in the community of nations. Resistance to any particular government can be attributed to three main reasons in context of Afghanistan. Firstly, if the ruling government lacks traditional and religious legitimacy secondly a government that decides to rapidly change their lives, societal fabric and traditions. Lastly when the government tries to overtax and does not deliver administratively.
The American backed Karzai government and subsequent administrations ticked all three boxes and the Taliban exploited this to the fullest. The illegitimacy of the mentioned governments was established by the fact that the Pashtun’s of Afghanistan had been grossly disenfranchised and other minorities were given key positions that had been historically manned by Pashtuns. The rapid modernization and secularization of urban centers did not appease the conservative majority of afghans either. The inability of the government to properly administer the country, and the Taliban filling up this administrative vacuum only adds more credibility to what Iqbal Ahmed wrote in the context of revolutionary warfare ” a revolutionary army wins as soon as it starts to out administer the occupying force”. The Taliban provided swift judicial services through their Shariah courts in their controlled areas further, they provided security to commercial areas in contrast with the sitting government that was seen as corrupt and incompetent. Furthermore, the decentralization of the military effort by the Taliban meant that it could survive in small pockets and resurface even after costly tactical defeats- and it did. For the Taliban, it had always been a war of attrition. After all, the memories of the Soviet occupation and the Anglo-Afghan wars were all too fresh. An interesting proverb attributed to the Taliban beautifully explains this ” the American’s have all the clocks, we have the time”.
Between the signing of the Doha peace accords in 2018, the evacuation of the last American troops from Bagram airbase and eventually entering the capital on 15th of August 2021 the Taliban have invested considerable time in reorganizing their decentralized power structure. Further, they’ve been adamant to not repeat the mistakes they made in the 90s. To begin with, they focused all their energy in securing the borders of Afghanistan primarily the north and northwestern provinces. It’s pertinent to note that this was also wise as these were the main regions that rose against them post 9/11- in the guise of the Northern Alliance. This offensive per se- did not include a lot of military thrust as was forecasted. diplomacy and assurances were the weapons of choice. Additionally, a visible effort can be observed of portraying a softer image of the movement vis a vis human rights, women rights and inclusivity. The only region to resist militarily was the Panjsher valley; however, this last Bastian too fell by the 6th of September.
Although the swiftness of the Taliban takeover surprised the world. Most regional countries were already preparing for such an outcome. China for one has been monitoring the developing situation closely. Beijing’s primary concerns in regards to Afghanistan have been pockets of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Afghanistan. The Taliban led by the then negotiator and deputy leader Mullah Baradar Akhund- who as of publishing this article is serving as the Prime Minister- met China’s special envoy for Afghanistan and assured the Chinese that the aforementioned terrorist group will not be given any kind of sanctuary. Further, the Taliban are eager to invite the Chinese to rebuild Afghanistan which the Chinese will resort to. This will benefit both countries, China won’t shy away from increasing its influence in the region as this will only strengthen its BRI initiative. Moreover, the untapped resources of Afghanistan are too lucrative of an opportunity for Beijing to miss out on.
A similar reaction is seen by the Kremlin – feeling sheer satisfaction at her adversary’s defeat on the same battleground that the soviet bear had lost on. Russia has been taking positive steps to increase its influence in the region. Alongside all regional players, Russia’s primary concern is firstly the influx of any hostile elements into her sphere of influence and how to benefit from the vacuum that has been created. Although Russia is yet to officially recognize the Taliban government publicly, the Taliban have Russia’s support unofficially. Just before the Taliban marched onto Kabul photographs of Maxim Shugalei with Zabihullah Mujahid were circulating on social media platforms. Shugalei is thought to have connections with the Russian mercenary apparatus and was previously detained in Libya on espionage charges. This points to an increased Russian interest in the region beyond commercial ventures.
Pakistan (that shares a 2400km border along Afghanistan) has been amongst the most proactive players in the Afghan peace process. Other than fencing the porous border, a number of peace talks have been hosted in Pakistan or have been brokered by the country to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. Pakistan after all, has the largest stakes in the outcome of the American withdrawal. The Taliban triumph has been branded as a “Pyrrhic victory” for Pakistan by international experts and pundits; however, this would be disingenuous to the careful trotting Pakistan has been doing between the west and its former allies in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been very selective when supporting or denouncing allies within Afghanistan as result of decades of trial and error. Pakistan’s main aim is to not have an Afghanistan ruled by a hostile elite that undermines Pakistani interests. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union Pakistan has been looking towards central Asia, and a stable and a friendly Afghanistan is the only way through, thus, it is only natural to observe efforts to ensure this is achieved. Signs of this were visible when the Taliban from the onset of the Doha accords made statements reiterating their commitment to ensuring Afghan soil would not be used against Pakistan in any way and this included measures against the Threik e Taliban Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence chief also visited Kabul to further deliberate on the notion. Pakistan is keen on getting Afghanistan back on track of stability as this ensures better bilateral trade between not just Pakistan and Afghanistan but, opens routes to central Asia as well. Lastly, the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan over the last two decades was something that constantly put Pakistan in an insecure position, this has been curbed by the Taliban taking over the Afghan political arena.
New Delhi can be seen in sheer panic over the events of the summer. India had invested considerably in the American backed government apparatus enough to believe that they’d stand their ground against the Taliban. The fundamental miscalculation of not engaging with the Taliban, as the rest of the region has done will cost India in the long term if she is to yield any influence in the country; however, the forward maneuvering by Pakistan and China means there’s little space for a country that is still debating to talk to the new regime or not.
The central Asian states have had a positive response to the Taliban takeover and it’s clear that they’ll accept the new status quo for better security, trade and transit agreements. Most of the region accepted the Taliban in the 90s albeit tacitly and will do so this time around as well.
An event that may be cited to prove this corporation per se is the Uzbek government’s refusal to allow fleeing Afghan soldiers refuge, who fled across the border to Uzbekistan and were sent back. Border security has been pumped up to better regulate the anticipated influx of refugees. Other regional players such as Iran and Qatar have been proactive as well to safeguard their interests. Iran too has been rather reluctant to grant any formal recognition to the new government; however, high-level dialogues between the Taliban and Tehran have taken place and it wouldn’t be unwise to expect cooperation between the two countries as Iran’s main concerns are regarding the narcotics trade, status of the Shia minorities in Afghanistan and the influx of more refugees are catered too. Qatar although does not fall in the immediate vicinity of the region has scored a home run in reference to increasing her influence internationally, Doha served as the broker of the Taliban US peace agreement and will use this to increase its influence in the country.
To conclude, the USA although has suffered in prestige by the hasty withdrawn undoubtedly holds the most influence over the new regime in Kabul. To predict the future of American policy in Afghanistan one only needs to look at Afghan history to ascertain what will follow. The USA like the British after the Anglo-Afghan wars will exert its influence through economic means. The British practically called the shots in Afghanistan after the Anglo-Afghan wars even though they lost tactically by virtue of their economic aid to Afghanistan. It would be wise to assume and predict the Americans will do the same albeit with new variables involved as China, Pakistan and Russia step in to help rebuild Afghanistan and attempt to remold the region.