Afghanistan, its sectarian divisions, and international stakeholders

Pakistan has checkmated India to some extent, though the Taliban has recognized India’s role in the reconstruction projects and Salma Dam, writes Brig Dinesh Mathur (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Salma Dam

The challenge has returned, to where it began. Afghanistan’s reputation as a ‘graveyard of empires’ stands fully validated, where both superpowers made forays to a place where even “angels fear to tread” and achieved results of no significance. Traditionally too, it has never been a stable country with consistent administration under a single authority.

As the Taliban - fresh from their victory over the US-backed government forces - intensify efforts to formally take over power in Afghanistan, an analysis of the broad divisions in the country on ethnic and sectarian lines and their role against the Taliban resurgence would be instructive. Equally interesting and diverse has been the response of the international stakeholders spread across the region, and even beyond. Both the domestic and the international factors are crucial, as they together are likely to give shape to the new internal dynamics in Afghanistan.

Pashtuns - Areas around Kabul to its northeast, the Badhakstan province and parts of the south, were loyal to Hamid Karzai,  the ousted former Afghan president, a Pashtun, who headed the High Council for National Reconciliation, along with Abdullah Abdullah (Tajik), who led the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Pashtun), a two-time Prime Minister.

All five Pashtun factions had strong militias but chose to avoid combat with the Taliban, possibly on some inducement/promise of uninterrupted opium production later.  

Tajiks - After the Northern Alliance ceased to exist, the north, especially the famous Panshir Valley, was the most peaceful region of Afghanistan. Tajiks are loyal to Hamid Karzai, but totally opposed to Uzbeks. They did not assist the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) and dispersed. The Taliban’s success in neutralizing the Tajiks was mainly due to the unpopularity of the Ghani regime and Karzai’s waning influence because of the rivalry with Abdullah Abdullah.  

Uzbeks - Mazar-I-Sharif province has a militia bordering Uzbekistan loyal to former Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a pro-Communist controversial figure who controlled five provinces. He chose to remain abroad and returned to avoid combat in Mazar-i-Sharif. His Uzbek militia did not assist ANDSF for fear of antagonizing the Taliban.

Hazaras - The Bamiyan province bordering Iran has its warlord Mohammad Karim Khalili, leader of the Shiite Hazara party coalition, controlling a large swath of the Afghan interior and a sizeable pro-Iran Shia militia, opposed to both Uzbeks and Tajiks. Iran has denied support to them and the militia appears to have offered little resistance to the Taliban and surrendered in its three provinces.  

These four main tribal power centers in Afghanistan, each with suspect loyalties, are faction-riven and influenced by the countries in their neighborhood.

Tribal rivalries have made the country difficult to govern. Each group maintains its armed militia ready to quarrel with its rivals and unwilling to submit to any central government.  In addition, Afghanistan is an arena for its neighbors to play out their own rivalries. If the President is a Tajik and his government Tajik dominated, it may become a source of alienation to the Pashtuns.

Both Karzai and Ashraf Ghani had even alienated their own tribes and made little effort to extend the writ and security of their governments beyond Kabul.

Going by history, agricultural and dairy produce was just enough to sustain the population in good times but now the situation has changed. Most of the food items are imported. When the warlords were left to govern their respective areas controlled by them, they found it more lucrative to cultivate poppy instead of cereals. Poor farmers, eking out a living growing opium, were contributing to the wealth of the warlords, who with drug traffickers funded the Taliban insurgency by supplying large stocks of weapons captured from the warlords’ warehouses.

The areas between Jalalabad and Kandahar, inhabited by the Pashtuns, is the rich agricultural belt that also produces the bulk of opium. The power vacuum created by the warlords and the drug traffickers enabled Taliban and Al Qaeda to make fresh inroads in places, which once were liberated by the coalition forces.

In both the Tajik North and Pashtun South there is a realignment of power centers after the Taliban’s resurgence. Their militias have dispersed and they could lose their control in their respective areas of influence if they remain in hiding for too long. They would want to re-assert their hold, in case the Taliban is unable to consolidate its hold in Kabul. Simultaneously, they would like to continue in their ‘narcotics for weapons’ trade, if not disturbed by the new regime.

Current situation    

The US - The US has a right to bring the war to a close like the Soviets did, but not in the manner that it turned out to be. The intelligence and planning could have considered the safety of all those who sacrificed so much to help them achieve their aim. Be that as it may, the US is now more preoccupied with the evacuation of its embassy in Kabul after the exit of all the forces. Additional troops to evacuate stranded US diplomats and citizens have arrived.  

A core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul was being moved to a diplomatic facility at the international airport. The US warnings to the Taliban to allow uninterrupted evacuation appear to have been well received. The US has warned the new regime of its obligations to the UN Charter and human rights including women.

Taliban - The Taliban blitzkrieg has evidently thrown all things out of gear as evacuation plans appear to have been hastily contrived. Even the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has acknowledged that the offensive had moved faster than US officials had expected. He admitted that despite two decades of war with American-led forces, the Taliban have survived and thrived, without giving up their vision of creating a state governed by a stringent Islamic code.

If records are any indication, the declarations and assurances by the top Taliban leaders of the safety of minorities and women’s rights and other issues, have no meaning. The Taliban would return to its repressive measures, impose Sharia laws, deny citizen’s rights, and control the media.

Pakistan - Pakistan’s contiguous borders with Afghanistan, based on the designs of the 19th Century British colonial administrators, stand disclaimed by the opposite parties and to this day are disputed. What Pakistan fears most is that the unified Pashtun tribal belt, across the disputed Durand Line, would be detrimental to its own sovereignty.

In its quest for a deep state in Afghanistan, Pakistan PM Imran Khan had a pre-condition - Ghani should quit - which has been done now. Their support for “good Islamic militants” in Afghanistan, such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Lashkar e Taiba, is nothing new.

It now remains to be seen how Pakistan moves forward to bring the “Loya Jirga” (Special legal assembly in Pashtunwali, the traditional code of laws of the Pashtun people) in the peaceful transition to a Taliban-led government. Pakistan would not want Karzai’s presence at the National Council for Reconciliation, as he is perceived to be an Indian supporter.  

Iran - The pro-Iran Hazara Shias fear the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban takeover and have the full support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran’s active involvement has been subdued by the present US sanctions. They did not provide arms and safe sanctuaries to the anti-Taliban factions in the adjacent border provinces.

It appears an understanding has been reached with the Taliban that anti-Shia operations would not take place in the future. Iran has established relief camps on the borders, for screening Afghan refugees entering Iran.

Russia and Central Asian Republics - Geography confers this region with limitless options. It remains a potential tinder box, its vast natural resources have given some of the states significant bargaining power with all those who have stakes in the region. The Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have a treaty with Russia - the Collective Security Treaty Organization - and hold their own views (read Russia’s) on the border situation with the Taliban resurgence.

China - The Wakhan Corridor - a narrow strip of territory in Afghanistan, extending to China and separating Tajikistan from Pakistan - has its geostrategic importance for both China and Pakistan in their trade with Central Asia. It also provides a route for Uyghur rebels to move into their safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The Taliban claims control of the vital passage from China, inhabited predominantly by the Tajiks, who support the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) from its very inception.   China badly needs to plug its escape routes to safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan and is prepared to seek an understanding with the Taliban very soon.

China's interests in Afghanistan also lie in its ambitious global infrastructure project Belt and Road Initiative. With the Taliban coming to power, a road through the slender Wakhan Corridor from Xinjiang province to Kabul and then on to Peshawar – the capital of the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - complements the existing corridor to Gwadar, a port city on the southwestern coast of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, that enhances the trade and its rare earth mining prospects in North Afghanistan.  

India - Pakistan has checkmated India to some extent, though the Taliban has recognized India’s role in the reconstruction projects and Salma Dam. It is well known that groups like the JeM, LeT and IS are an adjunct to the Taliban and would definitely expand their training facilities and camps in Afghanistan for expansion towards the South. The obvious target would be India through Jammu & Kashmir. 

In the present scenario, wait and watch would be the best policy for the recognition of the regime, status of development projects/activities and the exodus of refugees. Some contingency planning must already have taken place.

(The writer is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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