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Taliban are unable to govern Afghanistan; Pakistan's influence overplayed; whither India?

The Taliban is unlikely to be able to govern Afghanistan despite toppling the US-backed Afghan government three months ago, experts said, as the hardline Islamist group faces a combination of both external and internal challenges

Nov 17, 2021
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Taliban are unable to govern Afghanistan (Photo: AP)

The Taliban is unlikely to be able to govern Afghanistan despite toppling the US-backed Afghan government three months ago, experts said, as the hardline Islamist group faces a combination of both external and internal challenges. Although the group’s ideology has not largely changed in comparison to the 1990s, there also remains a great degree of uncertainty over the group’s cohesion in the coming months.

“At no stage has there been any indication that the Taliban has changed their ideology,” Ambassador Rakesh Sood (retd), former Indian envoy to Afghanistan, said during a seminar titled ‘The Political Crisis in Afghanistan”,  jointly organized by the South Asia Institute (SAI), University of Heidelberg, Germany and South Asia Monitor, New Delhi.

The group’s claim that it has no global agenda holds little value when its own ideology "also motivates those who have a global agenda", Sood said, adding the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda are “extremely close.”   

Having been able to sustain the insurgency and terrorism for over two decades, “They (Taliban leaders) will be different in their tactics; they will be smarter; they have learned from their past mistakes,” said  Dr. Jonah Blank, an expert on Afghanistan who had earlier served as US President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan advisor when he was a Senator between 1999 to 2009. 

“We can’t expect them to be so-called 'moderate'  in that sense, ideologically,” Blank added.

Despite the clear military victory, some recent reports indicated growing tensions within the Taliban among differents groups, influential clans, raising questions over their internal cohesion. Mullah Haibutullah Akhundzada, the group's elusive leader, hasn't appeared in public.

On these growing differences, Blank said, “We are seeing a real schism between ( the leaders of ) the north and east. And, it tracks pretty closely with the traditional tribal schism between  the Durranis and Ghilzais.”

Furthermore, influential clans, like Muhammadzai, Barakzai in Durranis, and others in Ghilzais remain wary of the growing influence of Zadrans ( the clan Sirajuddin Haqqani comes from), Sood pointed out.

Adding to these challenges are unpaid soldiers, unsatisfied ultra-hardliners, who remain vulnerable to shifting allegiances, said Omar Sadr, an assistant professor at the American University of Afghanistan, Kabul, who is currently at the University of Pittsburgh, US.

On providing security and governance, the Taliban has failed miserably, he opined. No country has so far recognized the Taliban government and the larger region remains concerned over the rising activities of the ISKP (The Islamic State-Khorasan Province) and their rivalry with the Taliban.

“The Taliban doesn’t have any better bureaucratic and technocratic ability to provide services,” Sadr said, adding that the group had also purged many who were willing to work, and “kicked them out of the government.”

The exodus of professionals would not only affect the Taliban’s ability to provide basic services but also the networks of aid organizations, involved in crucial sectors of health and other humanitarian works, he explained.

Speaking on Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban,  Dr. Asim Sajjad Akhtar, Associate Professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, said, “The Haqqani Network ( considered close to the ISI) is one of the different factions. And I think to overplay the extent to which Pakistan controls the Taliban is something we do at our own peril.”

He, however, dispelled the notion that Pakistan was dragged into the Afghan conflict after the Soviet invasion in December 1979. Contrary to it, he said that Islamabad’s flirting had “started in 1973 with the original groups of Afghan Islamists against the (pro-Soviet) Daoud regime” which later overthrew the Afghan monarchy. as part of its long-standing desire of securing "strategic depth" in a region of great geopolitical importance.

All governments in Kabul in the last four decades enjoyed limited control over the rural parts of the country, which then was successively used by insurgents-terror groups who acted as proxies to regional powers. The disunity in the immediate region as well as within Afghanistan, Sood said, has remained the most prominent factor, continuing the cycle of the insurgency.

India had been one of the strongest supporters of the Afghan Republic, investing over $3 billion in developing infrastructure there in the form of hospitals, schools, dams and public buildings like the Parliament. On the Taliban’s return, Akhtar said Pakistan was happy because they thought “the strategic depth can limit the cost of India.” 

“Pakistan will have to move beyond the concept of strategic depth,” Akhtar said, emphasizing the necessity of some sort of regional agreement to end the cycle of insurgencies in Afghanistan. Furthermore, despite the public jubilation of Pakistan in mid-August after the return of the Taliban, Islamabad remains concerned over the motivated Islamist groups like TTP and TLP, aligned in many ways to the Afghan Taliban, on its own soil.

When asked if India had put its all eggs in one basket--backing the Ghani government - Sood agreed on the notion as all players upon which Indian presence was predicated --Americans and the Ghani government--are no longer in the country. This, despite the fact, India is trying to demonstrate ts relevance by recently hosting the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue, which included Russia, Iran, five Central Asian countries, but was boycotted by Pakistan and China, and did not include the Taliban or US representatives.

Also, the larger presence of the Haqqani network, seen by India as a proxy of Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI, in the Taliban government, was one of the key reasons why New Delhi opted out of Afghanistan diplomatically, Sood said. 

However, on the regional solution, he said, “I don’t think that there is any scope for a regional approach... India and Pakistan, they are not in the same boat,”  underlining the geopolitical fault lines that have so far prevented a unified regional approach to the Afghanistan crisis. 

Commenting on the Iranian approach, Syed Hossein Zahraini, Senior Lecturer at Heidelberg University, said Iranians appeared to have reached an understanding with the Taliban much before the Doha agreement on its key concerns.

Despite being an ideologically opponent of the Sunni Taliban,  Shia Tehran has so far not opted for an aggressive posture, even resisting rising domestic pressure for taking on the Taliban.

However, like the 90s, when the international community had abandoned the intransigent Taliban, that option, this time, will not only compound the humanitarian crisis but also further "radicalize" the group more, Sadr said.

The panel was moderated jointly by Prof Dr Rahul Mukherji, Director, SAI and Cmde C Uday Bhaskar (retd), South Asia Monitor (SAM) who drew attention to the urgent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the need to overcome the political impasse that is adding to the hunger and deprivation that vulnerable Afghan citizens face.

The bulk of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million people risks being plunged into near-universal poverty faced with a “catastrophic deterioration” of the country’s heavily aid-dependent economy, according to a warning issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (SAM)

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