Reports from Afghanistan now refer to a “resurgent Taliban” as the violent group has now taken more territory than it ever had since it was pushed out of power in 2001. While the situation on the ground is rapidly shifting, there is no doubt that the Taliban have the upper hand and mean to keep it that way. Alongside is reportage of what everyone knew all along – the Taliban hasn’t changed in the slightest. The old rules against music, shaving beards and girls’ education are back. And yet another wave of refugees is on the move.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf warned a Senate committee that the situation in Afghanistan was “out of Pakistan’s control”. That was of course an inadvertent admission that the Taliban had been, in fact, always under Pakistani control, but the NSA seemed to be trying to make a public case that Pakistan was in danger. It is, but for reasons that the security establishment may be blind to, while it actually cheers the ‘victory’ that it has sought for more than three decades. No one is fooled, except the Pakistani establishment itself. Despite extensive planning and frenetic diplomacy, trouble is coming to Pakistan.
Refugees and Pakistan’s three-point border protection
As the Taliban rampages across Afghanistan, another flow of refugees has begun – to Turkey, US , UK, and closer home to neighbouring countries. Tiny Tajikistan says it’s ready to take in 100,000 refugees, while Iran is seeing some 10,000 arriving every day through well-known smuggling routes via Pakistan. Oddly, there is no indication of much movement into Pakistani territory. Data collected by migration mapping agencies indicate that while some 81 per cent plan to stay in Iran and others are aiming for Europe, just two per cent plan to go to Pakistan. The reasons for this indicate a carefully planned policy.
First, Pakistan can police its 267-km border better than it pretends to, with 88 per cent of its border with Afghanistan double fenced and accompanied by ditches, bunds and sensors. It’s a one-way system that allows the Taliban to go as they please, but no one else comes in. Second, Pakistani parliamentarians note that the Taliban are roaming freely in Quetta and adjoining areas. Any fleeing Afghan coming to these areas is likely to be sent back as a Taliban recruit faster than the blink of an eye. When asked why these insurgents were not removed, Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed warned lawmakers that this would result in a ‘blowback’ on Pakistan. That’s strange for a country that has no compunctions in removing, killing or threatening its Pashtun and Baloch population, not to mention disobedient political parties.
Third, is the fact that much of the territory opposite Pakistan have already been Taliban-controlled for years. Main border crossings like Spin Boldak have recently fallen, even as the Pakistan Air Force threatened air strikes if the Afghan Army sought to wrench it back. The strategy is aimed at ensuring that the Taliban police the border areas, thus preventing any huge ingress of desperate people. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has declared that the country will not take in any more refugees. But if matters worsen, as they surely will, Pakistan has the option of dealing with 700,000 refugees expected to arrive or shelter them. The key point is whether the Taliban can take control over all key border crossings, as well as the dozens of mountain trails that cross into the tribal areas.
The ideology next door
Before blaming the Taliban for being a bunch of rabble-rousers, remember that the fundamentalist ideology that sustains their ranks, or the ‘mujahideen’ before them, was part of a deliberate ISI policy to funnel US funds to the most extremist groups to stem the tide of rising Pashtun nationalism that had erupted even before the USSR walked in.
Afghans were never fundamentalist; they had it thrust upon them. Now it seems the Taliban are reiterating that with a vengeance. Report after report talk of the Taliban preventing girls from attending schools, barring the wearing of red and green clothes (the colour of the Afghan flag), shaving and listening to songs. This lunacy has largely emanated from Pakistan’s madrassas, with major madrassa leaders declaring their pride at Taliban ‘alumni’, and seeing their victories as vindication of this revanchist ideology. The end result is that groups like the extreme Right-wing Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) do well in provincial elections, and a former office-bearer of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been nominated by Islamabad for the ulema seat in PoK elections. Parliament is no exception, with passionate statements declaring the Taliban as a ‘protective barrier’ for Pakistan. Islamist parties and even common people are united in their admiration of Taliban victory against a superpower.
This is ideology coming home to roost; and like all extreme ideologies, it could swallow up its creators.
While the Taliban is on a winning spree, it’s not going to be a walkover. Former warlords and the Opposition in Kabul are banding together for their own survival. Within all this, outside powers are fishing for new proxies among the second generation leaders like the son of Ahmed Shah Masood, or even Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Despite the Taliban being sent around to major world capitals such as Beijing, Moscow, and Teheran, few want a Taliban-dominated government in place, despite the best efforts of a sophisticated PR machine that nearly sold the argument of a ‘changed’ Taliban, particularly to US academics. Such a civil war scenario, where each will back their own grouping is Islamabad’s worst nightmare. There is an even worse scenario. That once within sight of power, the Taliban itself will splinter along its weakest points. Success in insurgency has its own price when each leader wants a share of the pie. Ironically, chances of a civil war are the highest if Kabul falls, with warlords like Atta Mohammad Noor likely to try and carve out their own territory.
The only ones who will welcome civil war are the terrorists. As a recent UN Report observed, the al-Qaeda is still around, aligned with the Taliban through the ‘offices’ of the Haqqani network in a complex network of intermarriage and operations. This deadly combination of terrorist groups is fighting and sharing victories with the Taliban and are therefore largely on the right side of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. But this is an uncivil war. With enough money and spunk, any or all of these can be bought by various actors, or they can just decide to do their own thing. It’s already apparent in the tribal areas where two Pakistani soldiers were recently killed and several wounded in cross-border attacks. A flareup of unrest in these areas, bracketed with wounded Pashtun pride, could mean ‘Waziristan redux’, or return of the war that sucked in thousands of Pakistani troops in intermittent operations between 2003 and 2014. In that case, Pakistan will find that it has left itself wide open to total chaos. All the black ravens it has let loose, will finally come home to roost. Pakistan’s ‘game of thrones’ in Afghanistan has gone on for much too long. The audience is simply tired of it.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.