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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 41, New Delhi, Sept 25, 2021

Taliban face a Hobbesian choice | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 17 September 2021, by Apratim Mukarji


One month since they grabbed power in Kabul, the Taliban have been increasingly called to sort out growing contradictions both within the group and with Pakistan, their sole mentor and manipulator.

A Taliban commander has blurted out against the ISI for trying to dominate the new government in Afghanistan, alleging that the ISI Director-General Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed exerted his influence and command over the Taliban to such n extent that he was able in th end to prevent the formation of an inclusive government nd stuff the new interim government with the hard-core Quetta shura people like the interim Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, his two deputies Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi, have been on the United Nations Security Counil sanctions list, and Interior Minister and chief of the banned Haqqani Network Sirajuddin Haqqani has been on the FBI-wanted list with a US $ 10 million price on his head.

The very fact that despite the world body’s disapproval, they are now ruling Afghanistan testifies to the defiant stand of Pakistan not only in hoodwinking the international community but also in forcing the Afghans to accept these people as their masters. In this manner, Pakistan has brought Afghanistan under its command and control. Pakistan is also masterminding Afghan economy by preparing an economy recovery plan and making it accepted and implemented by the new government. The Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral trade is now mandatorily conducted in Pakistani rupees thereby forcing Afhan traders to suffer losses as the Afghani is a much stronger currency than the Pakistani rupee.

Thus being put under a tight Pakistani control,the very fact that the Taliban 2.0 have started their second innings with a conciliatory tone while talking to the international community but pursuing their familiar ruthless treatment of the population betrays their anxiety to properly put into practice the lessons the terrorist movement has learned from their 1997 experiences. At that time too, the Taliban revolted at times against the Pakistani command though so far they have not yt done so in public. But the rumblings are unmistakable.

Following the blitzkrieg-style advance the Taliban made in Afghanistan, then being ruled by the Burhanuddin Rabbani-Ahmad Shah Massoud government (1992-1996) and being ferociously attacked by the Haqqani network supported logistically by the Pakistani army and the ISI Directorate, during September-October 1996, was checkmated by the combined strength of the Northern Alliance led by Commander Massoud and various other ethnic parties determinedly fighting to restore national pride and independence from the eastern neighbour.

By the end of 1996, all the regional capitals lay at their feet and it was only the North with its capital Mazar-e-Sharif still standing free that remained to be defeated; when the task would be completed and only then all of Afghanistan would be the Taliban territory. But, as history shows, this did not come to pass, and till the fall of the Taliban 1.0 Massoud held up his banner of independence. The proud and arrogant Taliban---its morale was however boosted by the largely false image of the speediest advance ever seen in recent Afghan history.

Due to their intrinsic belief in the myth of their invincibility, the Taliban had taken it for granted that Massoud and his colleagues would crumble before their might in no time. They had neglected the fact that Commander had defeated the two-lakh strong Soviet occupation force seven times and that the labyrinthine Panjsher Valley was a nightmare for all outsiders.But this proved to be illusionary, and the beatings that they received from their enemies in the summer and autumn of 1997 amounted to a clean massacre. A contemporary account said that while the overall count of Taliban dead far outnumbered the available figures, a later re-opening of mass graves opened in the Shibergan area and from inspection of the bodies by Western journalists, it was clear that many of the victims were hors de combat when they were killed. According to a subsequent report, it appeared to have been mutual butchering by both combating sides.

Several analyses of the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan from 1994---when the student-zihadis for the first time rose under the leadership of Mohammad Omar, later the supreme head of the Taliban, in Kandahar province and succeeded in wiping out looting, killing nd raping sprees on the highways--- to 2001 show that in the beginning contrary to the general impression, the movement had a rough ride in several areas and especially in the south and thereafter in the west. These were the regions where, even under the Rabbani-Massoud dispensation, the administration was relatively free, liberal and people-oriented. The west also was an exception in another sense; it was virtually Pushtun-free. It must be remembered that the Taliban were and continue to be principally a movement of Pushtuns drawing their clansmen from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their basic structural weakness is also due to their diversity in language; at one time there were even Shi’ite Hazaras within the Taliban (since they are deadly enemies and the Hazaras have been with the Northern Alliance ever since), not just a linguistic but also a religious adversary. Right from the beginning of their entry into Afghanistan from Pakistan in 1994, even Khalqis (members of the former Afghan communist party) were active members and fighters in the terrorist movement.

This time, the Taliban leadership is apparently mindful of not repeating the old mistakes. They are seeking to exploit the differences between the various linguistic and religiously diversified ethnic clans who have historically been antagonistic to each other. Afghans so that they do not succeed in forming a solid united front against them. Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was able to forge such an alliance and fought the Taliban with their help. But this time also, the Taliban have been witnessing a similar forging of unity between various clans and making them into the valiant National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, which is being led by Commander Massoud’s son Ahmad Massoud and former Vice-President Anurullah Saleh. Presently, the resistance force has been forced to retreat in the face of the severe assault mounted by the Taliban army in the Panjsher Valley. But the fight is continuing, though the Taliban appear to be making considerable progress in defeating the resistance. Probably, the resistance will be decisively beaten soon. But the Taliban appear to have realized that the people in Afghanistan are living under their rule only because they find no alternative but they remain resentful and do not accept them as their legitimate rulers. The danger of a revolt remains.

* (Author: Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and of geopolitics in the Indian Ocean Region)

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