The Return of the Taliban

Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is complete. There is a sense of shock at the ease with which the Taliban have taken over the country. There is also deep disappointment among many Afghans at the conduct of former President Ashraf Ghani and his team. The perception that the United States has abandoned ordinary Afghans is a dominant theme in many news reports.

The speed with which the US withdrew and its unwillingness to provide air cover to Afghan defence forces came in for sharp criticism. On the other hand, US President Biden vigorously defended the withdrawal by pointing out that “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.” Nonetheless, questions are being asked about how the US intends to promote democracy and human rights in the region by handing over the country to the Taliban. The emergence of the Taliban with the support of Pakistan and China has ensured that there is a dramatic reduction in the US presence in the region that extends from Pakistan to Turkey.

There is a mood of elation in the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan. Imran Khan defined the Taliban takeover as “breaking the chains of slavery.” For over 20 years, Pakistan provided refuge and nurtured the Taliban, which today controls vast swathes of territory in Afghanistan. However, many reports suggest that the Taliban is not a homogeneous group, and therefore, Islamabad/Rawalpindi will find it difficult to control all the factions. While that may be the case in the long run, for the moment, many Afghan groups, including former northern alliance leaders, are engaging with Pakistan.

To a large extent, the Taliban’s durability will be contingent on China’s economic and political support. Pakistan is in a serious economic crisis and will not be in a position to support Afghan reconstruction. The Western countries will hesitate to provide unqualified development assistance. On the other hand, China can deploy significant economic resources in return for access to Afghan mineral resources. Further, under the rubric of the BRI, China has made massive investments in Pakistan and Central Asian Republics. China-Iran relations are also on the upswing. Overall, China has economic leverages with all the neighbours of Afghanistan. Therefore, China can prevail upon Afghanistan’s neighbours to collaborate with the Taliban regime. Such a scenario will also help China consolidate its economic presence in the heartland of Asia and beyond.

For Iran, US naval presence in the Gulf and military presence in its continental backyard in Afghanistan have been a source of concern. However, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Tehran has one less problem to worry about. Iran and the Taliban have less than cordial relations, but there have been many meetings between the two in the recent past. After the Taliban takeover, Tehran has called for the restoration of stability and national reconciliation in Afghanistan. Russia is also ready to work with the Taliban. Overall, major powers such as Iran, China, Russia are willing to scale up engagement with the Taliban.

An extremist group like the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan, and the international community did not take any action. Therefore, there is an opinion that this victory may embolden various extremist groups in Pakistan and other countries to scale up their political agendas. There are apprehensions that Pakistan may deploy Taliban soldiers to scale up violence in Kashmir in India. Further, these deployments undermine India’s connectivity plans involving Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Tragically, all these developments imply that the Afghan people will be paying a heavy price. Moreover, the little free space that Afghans enjoyed in the political and social realms will be further undermined. The return of the Taliban represents an authoritarian consolidation, which does not bode well for India and other democracies. (economictimes)

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