After the final withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan at the Bagram Air Force Base near Kabul, the Taliban, obviously with Pakistani support, made completely exaggerated claims about their “successes”. His strategy is very clear to make exaggerated and invariably false claims about his “conquests” across Afghanistan.
The reality is that the Taliban have the ability to attack and take over cities in the south of the country, near the border with Pakistan. However, it is unable to maintain control of cities that are far from the country’s southern borders. Kandahar, too, which is close to the controversial Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, can only be threatened temporarily, and in some cases even taken over. However, territories conquered by the Taliban cannot currently be held for any length of time.
With fierce propaganda, Pakistan and its Taliban allies are pushing the border for the Taliban to control 85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. In reality, the Taliban are currently only able to conquer individual cities and villages.
In addition, the Taliban do not have complete control over even a single large urban center. Although India has withdrawn its Indian staff from its consulate in Kandahar, the consulate has not closed. A recent drama staged by the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters alleged that they captured the border town of Qalai-Naw on the Afghan-Iranian border on July 9.
With the Afghan government immediately dispatching troops to successfully “completely retake” the city, it has been determined that there are now even local militias ready to challenge the Taliban. In addition, Iran has made it clear that it will respond vigorously to any attack on the Hazara Shiite population inhabiting areas in western Afghanistan.
While the Taliban surprised security forces on Afghanistan’s western border, the strongest leader in the area, Ata Mohammad Noor, has made it clear that there is a strong response to the Taliban’s efforts in his Balkh province. Noor had asked for Indian support during his visit to India last year. He is considered one of the most respected commanders in Afghanistan, although like some other regional leaders he has serious differences with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The Taliban have close ties with several Pakistani terrorist groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, who are reported to be adding to Taliban forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Noor had clearly expected this Taliban offensive last year. He joined Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum last June to unite the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities in a new “coalition to save Afghanistan”.
The Iranians have made it clear that they will not tolerate any attacks or attacks on their Shiite Hazara brothers in Afghanistan. This applies to the Taliban as well as to their Pakistani backers. What we see now are armed, Pakistani-backed Pashtun Taliban struggling to take on ethnic communities that make up 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population. These Taliban fighters enjoy little support, even from their Pashtun compatriots, who make up 45 percent of the country’s population.
These are realities that the Pakistanis and their Taliban protégés are sure to understand. In addition, the Afghan Taliban are aware that there is immense anger against the Pakistani army in Pakistan, and particularly in the Pashtun tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. A little over a decade ago, this army devastated several Pashtun-inhabited areas in its operations against Pashtun towns and villages. Furthermore, medieval orthodoxy practiced by the Taliban is barely acceptable in Afghanistan, where millions have received modern education and enjoyed democratic freedoms over the past two decades.
Interestingly, the Taliban publicly share the beliefs of their Pakistani mentors when it comes to relations with China, where a million Uighur Muslims are imprisoned in China’s neighboring province of Xinjiang. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen recently described China as a “friend” of Afghanistan, from whom the Taliban expected investments in reconstruction.
The Taliban spokesman added: “We have been to China many times and have good relations with them.” The Taliban also made no effort to attack the capital, Kabul, as it is well defended.
There are now a number of conferences organized by regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) on Afghanistan, in which India and Pakistan are participating. These conferences are marked by pious proclamations, by participants. From such encounters precious little arises, in the sense of a constructive dialogue. While most of the members have contacts and negotiations with the Taliban, little progress has been made in efforts to achieve peace and economic growth in Afghanistan.
UK-based and well-informed Pakistani journalist Ayesha Siddiqa notes, “As far as China’s long-term planning is concerned, it appears to have achieved what it wanted – to get US forces out of Afghanistan.” She added that Russia was similarly satisfied and remarked: “The Afghan army may not be the strongest, but it certainly has some combat capability”. While Imran Khan and his foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureishi, have had great successes, the consequences of their actions in getting the Americans out of Afghanistan will lead to long-term internal conflict in Afghanistan.
The Taliban will seek control of northern Afghanistan while developing close relationships with their Pashtun brothers in neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan.
The actions of the Pakistani army in these tribal areas have left a deep mark on the minds of their Pashtuns. The Taliban never recognized the Durand Line as an international border either.
The whipping of Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan after launching military operations against Pashtuns in Pakistan will leave Pakistan with serious problems. While Imran Khan grumbled that US President Joe Biden never spoke to him, he seems to forget that the Americans will not forget his and his country’s role in the defeat to the Russians and Chinese in Afghanistan.
The author is a former High Commissioner of Pakistan