The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (not recognized by any country) is currently faced with the imminent possibility of a civil war based on any or all of the following three scenarios:
First is a possible internal conflict between the factions of the IEA, second is a possible civil war between the Taliban and International Terrorist Groups such as ISIS, and third is a possibly potent resistance from the second generation of the anti-Soviet Mujahidin such as the National Resistance Front.
There is a firm belief and possibility that Daesh will form an umbrella and then acquire more capabilities, resources and geography. The growth of Daesh will provide an opportunity to the rise of the second generation of the anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahidin at present symbolized by the National Resistance Front. Any setback may trigger inter-Taliban blame-game that may lead to factional in-fighting within the Taliban.
Afghanistan suffers from many fault lines that are not limited to geographic, ethnic, religious, and tribal divide. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the victorious Afghan mujahidin unleashed violence against each other along one or the other of the above-mentioned fault lines. Their in-fighting led to the emergence of the Taliban that in turn led to the US invasion of Afghanistan. The constitutional state that was built under the auspices of the US presence managed to keep all the above fault lines deactivated but failed to diminish the risks of reactivation. The constitutional state had significant achievements in state-building but not many in nation-building.
The Taliban is not immune to fall prey to the new and traditional fault lines. Some of the most visible fault lines at present are geographical, religious, ideological, ethnic, tribal, power, wealth and lucrative positions. Some of the fault lines are under the impact of the larger geo-strategic, geo- political, and geo-economic dynamics in the region. The Taliban is particularly prone to the geo- religious dynamics of the region.
Taliban vs IS-K & other Terrorist Groups
The second paradigm shift is of a possible re-escalation of conflict in Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Daesh, which had already commenced before NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Daesh continues to become stronger, as the more extremist elements within the Taliban are reluctant to the idea of giving up fighting. They want to continue fighting and are thus defecting in large numbers to Daesh. Furthermore, to save their lives and to take revenge from the Taliban, many former ANDSF fighters are also joining Daesh. The foreign fighters that were embedded in the Taliban who now want to export jihad to other countries are disappointed with the Taliban’s stance of not facilitating terrorist attacks in other countries. Many of these foreign fighters continue to defect to Daesh, thus further empowering the group. Another opportunity to exploit for Daesh is rampant poverty. If Daesh can pay and feed starving youth, then thousands of them will join this terrorist faction.
Taliban & Its Alignment with Pakistan
Pakistan is the epicenter of regional dynamics in context to Afghanistan. The country has been holding the key to both war and peace in Afghanistan since 1973, and ever since Pakistan has been sheltering, training, and financing various Islamic dissident groups against Kabul. Afghanistan has also tried to reciprocate through support for Pashtun and Baluch nationalists inside Pakistan. However, Afghanistan has had limited success in its efforts to promote nationalists inside Pakistan. But now for the first time in the history of the Taliban government of Afghanistan, it has acquired the ability to sponsor religious dissidents in Pakistan led by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In other terms, for the first time in recent history, it is Afghanistan that can interfere in Pakistan’s affairs through a religious context.
Pakistan is the only country that publicly and widely celebrated the Taliban’s victory. The country’s military and religious establishments were excited to see the US and especially India out of Afghanistan. The US intervention was key for India as it provided them with a huge opportunity to establish a wide and deep presence inside Afghanistan much to the discomfiture of Pakistan. After the 15th of August 2021, India is no longer present in Afghanistan in the form that it was during the past 20 years. Remembering the plane hijacking of 1999, India must be deeply concerned. If the Taliban follows the policies of the 1990s, it will be the beginning of another proxy war. It is reported that a segment within the Taliban is already facilitating the smuggling of weapons left from the US to the Kashmiri insurgents. The US made weapons are spotted in Pakistani smuggled goods markets in significant quantities. As a major strategic player, India may not react to this development with indifference. Their strategists may be trying to confront Pakistan elsewhere including inside Pakistani territory. India may attempt to strengthen the anti-Pakistani religious and separatist organizations that have suffered at the hands of the Pakistani military establishment.
On the other hand, a sensible faction of the Pakistani policy makers or policy influencers may already be concerned about the possibility of the Afghan Taliban turning the table around and using Pakistan as Afghanistan’s (IEA’s) sphere of strategic influence. Some leaders of the Taliban have gone on record saying that they have scores to settle with Pakistan, referring to their arrests, torture, and the handover of some Taliban leaders to the US. The TTA has potent tools at hand if they choose to settle these scores, and the most important is TTA’s influence over TTP.
Some Taliban leaders are already mulling that the price for obeying Pakistan is much higher than turning against that country. It might give TTA a better reputation among the people of Afghanistan and in the region, if they turned against Pakistan. The recent skirmishes along the Durand-Line where the Taliban destroyed parts of the border fences being built unilaterally by Pakistan since 2018, is a worrying development for Pakistan. If the Taliban receive better offers from Iran, Russia, and the West, they may not take long to turn against Pakistan and settle some outstanding scores. Below the surface, there are also discussions among the Deobandi scholars of South-Central Asia that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is the first step in building a new religious empire in this region. This mentality will cause more trouble to regional countries, especially Pakistan where religious thought is dominated by the Deobandi School. Pakistani experts are increasingly concluding that there is no difference between the TTA and TTP, and that both groups are deeply integrated.
Although Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment is unclear, there are the geo- religious dimensions of the Taliban-led ideological groups that makes Pakistani military establishment nervous. For the time being, Pakistan is monitoring the Afghan Taliban through the Pakistani religious establishment, but the future viability of this strategy is unknown. The possibility of the Taliban being divided along the line of friends and foes of Pakistan is also high. The case of the Afghan Mujahidin that divided along this line in the 1990s is a good example in itself.
A broader shifting trend is Pakistan’s policy of diversification of the country’s strategic relationships. The country is trying to remain a strategic partner with China, US, UK, Russia, and the European Union, at the same time. Pakistan also wants to simultaneously remain friendly with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Iran. It will be difficult for Pakistan to keep hold of all these strategic relations in an increasingly fragmented global order. Under these circumstances, it will also be difficult for Pakistan to unilaterally recognize the Islamic Emirate. From an economic perspective, trade between Af-Pak is experiencing a sharp decline after the Taliban’s takeover. This is in contradiction to Pakistan’s expectations. It is increasingly apparent that Afghan traders prefer to trade with the Central Asian Republics over Pakistan. The level of trade between Af-Pak had touched $5 billion in 2012. It dropped to $800 million in 2020. Since the Taliban’s takeover it has reduced to unprecedented levels i.e., below US$500 million.
China is increasingly becoming the country that can tilt the balance of power in favor or against the Taliban. China and the US have been in the process of shifting their geo-economic rivalry to geo-strategic confrontation, mainly in the Pacific region, but also in the subcontinent and Central Asian States. The US is increasingly moving in the direction of asking blocs and countries to choose between the US and China. While China is happy to witness the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is not comfortable with managing the consequences. Some pro-China analysts argue that the US left Afghanistan to trap China in a new war in Afghanistan, as was the case with the Soviet Union. However, so far China has been careful not to over-step militarily into the “graveyard of empires”.
If the Taliban entrench themselves in Afghanistan, extremism will spread over to Central Asia and to China’s mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang. China is gradually realizing the complications associated with the Pak-Taliban nexus. The Taliban thought that China will be one of the countries to recognize Taliban’s regime ignoring the US stance. They also expected China to fill the economic assistance vacuum left by the US. Both of these things did not happen. This is pushing the Taliban in believing that their priority should be recognition from the US, as that may open the doors for removal of sanctions, a matter in which China cannot be of much help. Most of the Taliban’s senior leadership prefer to have close ties with the west rather than China, because they look at western countries as Christian countries which categorizes them among the “people of the book.”
With respect to India the fear of the Taliban stoking terrorism in J&K still hovers like a dark cloud. Time will confirm the rumors regarding the possibility of infiltration by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As of now the conclusion was to let alone the Taliban, Pashtun, Sindhi or Balochi terrorist who had not yet ever been killed or caught in J&K. All foreign terrorist groups so far had been from Pakistan’s Punjab. Moreover, Pakistan will be more worried about Pashtun nationalism, terrorism emanating from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and from across the Durand Line. Sources have also confirmed that terrorist and drug threats are still emerging from Afghanistan’s territory, as well as the general situation in these concerning areas of that country, which are still a pressing problem for neighbouring countries. I mention with regret that the situation has not changed after the Taliban coming to power and the worst is likely to come cascading down on us.
Authored is -Dr (Prof) Nishakant Ojha (Eminent Expert in Counter -Terrorism -West Asia & Middle East)