by Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (Retd)
THE UN Security Council had been haplessly watching Afghanistan’s descent into chaos following the Taliban offensive of over three months. Only last week, with India holding the rotating presidency in August, the UNSC acted — after allowing the country to be ravaged by the Taliban — urging a halt to violence and return to talks. Oral repudiation of the Taliban has scant heft. Only after a major provincial capital like Lashkargah, Kandahar or Jalalabad falls and is held, may the Taliban offer to negotiate, armed with battlefield leverage. They have captured five provincial capitals in the north, including Kunduz, in as many days. Also hot is the news that China, the new kid on the block, will play a key role in Afghanistan after US exit. Beijing was able to invite a full delegation of the Taliban led by Mullah Baradar to China last month, showering legitimacy by calling it a pivotal military and political force. The Taliban responded as required by the hosts, pledging not to allow the use of Afghan soil for terrorist activity against China by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Islamic group fuelling unrest in Xinjiang province from Afghanistan. The Taliban have requested China for shoulder-fired missiles and electronic warfare suites to counter Afghan and US bombing. Worried about the 76-km border it shares with Badakshan province, it has funded Afghanistan in raising a mountain division to plug the access of ETIM to Xinjiang province and done joint border patrolling. In 1996, non-Pashtun Badakshan was the only area that the Taliban could not capture. This time, districts and provincial capitals in the Tajik north are the first to be taken by the Taliban.
China’s earlier Afghanistan policy was benign, marked by five noes: no objection to the Taliban attaining power through legal means; no use of Northern Distribution Network by the US; no interference in Afghan internal affairs; no boots on the ground; no criticism of the US. It has violated these norms, especially blaming the US for hasty withdrawal. China has had a free ride in Afghanistan with sparse economic assistance and investment; still, the Taliban consider it a superpower on a par with the US. China, along with Russia and Pakistan, has not only the power of leading the Taliban to the square table at Doha, but also in persuading it to behave moderately though in its quest for power and legitimacy, it has shown no inclination of abandoning its medieval ideology and Chengiz Khan-like brutality.
Having completed 95 per cent of withdrawal, the US is leaving without any political settlement. As many as 650 soldiers will stay back after August 31, the deadline for withdrawal. The Doha peace process was a US agreement with the Taliban for the safe passage of US troops. Since May 1, when the Taliban started the ongoing offensive, they initially controlled 81 districts. Today, they control half of Afghanistan’s 419 districts, mostly in rural areas. The bulk of the Afghans are still in government-controlled areas. The Taliban have surrounded 17 of 34 provincial capitals, they control crossings on all its borders and say it is not their ‘policy to fight in cities’. The seizure of provincial capitals is ostensibly in retaliation for the US bombing. An estimated 100,000-strong Taliban supported by 10,000 jihadis from Pakistan are fighting in 21 provinces. The Taliban enjoy far greater legitimacy in 2021 than they did in 1996 when only three countries — the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — had recognised them. The Doha peace accord was interestingly titled, ‘Agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the US as a State and is known as the Taliban and US’.
Attrition in combat, though very high, is classified. Civilian casualties in the first six months of this year, according to the UN, are 1,659 killed and 3,254 wounded.
American commanders have sent out mixed signals about the resilience of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to take on the Taliban, from a possible collapse in six months to two years to their imminent fall and now in a turnaround, they say their fall is not inevitable or a foregone conclusion. The sudden and quick exit has put at risk the gains of the last 20 years and is being called irresponsible. Former US president George Bush and General David Petraeus have criticised the Biden administration for its choice and decision. Petraeus said last month that between the choices of ‘leave or not leave, there was a third option: leave but with sustainable presence’. Nearly 3,500 US and 8,000 NATO troops which was the force level before the drawdown is deemed as ‘sustainable presence’.
Air power has proved to be a decisive factor in pushing back the Taliban. One reason attributed to the loss of districts is insufficiency of air maintenance as many outlying districts were sustained by air. Faheem Dashty, chairman of the National Journalists Union, Kabul and a protégé of the late Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, blames NSA Hamdullah Mohib for mismanagement of operations while Herat strongman, Gen Ismail Khan says the Taliban sweep is a conspiracy. The Afghan air force has 162 aircraft, including two dozen US Black Hawk and several Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters, including five given by India. Pakistan has spread the canard that Indian pilots are bombing the Taliban. Drones, B-52 and F18-A aircraft have been supporting ANSF in recent days in Kandahar and Helmand. There is no clarity whether CENTCOM commander Gen McKenzie will be authorised to call for air support — Over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system which is proving less effective than the previous system — after August 31. Meanwhile, Mohib told BBC’s Hard Talk of three possible outcomes: military stalemate, civil war and a political settlement.
Interestingly, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi has begun referring to India as being contiguous with Afghanistan. Pakistan says it’s not the case and this disqualifies New Delhi from any role as a non-neighbouring country.
The US-Russia-China-Pakistan extended troika which is seeking a regional solution will hold its third meeting on August 11 which does not include India, because according to Russia, India cannot influence the Taliban. India has failed to engage higher echelons of the Taliban openly and visibly. India’s capacity-building and development assistance programmes (534 projects in 34 provinces) have not converted into any political dividend. New Delhi remains on the fringes in shaping the future of Afghanistan as the US (and NATO) cut-and-run to avoid another Vietnam.