Taliban takeover of Afghanistan: A savage future awaits

The return of the Pakistan-parented Taliban foretells the suppression of women, bloodbaths and terrorism which threaten the safety and security of the world. India is right to be worried.
In this file photo, a family runs across a dusty street in Herat. Due to decades of conflict, women and children have been the most vulnerable sections in Afghanistan. (Photo | UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya)
In this file photo, a family runs across a dusty street in Herat. Due to decades of conflict, women and children have been the most vulnerable sections in Afghanistan. (Photo | UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya)

At the end of 2001, America was on a high of retribution and redemption. The Taliban were routed in Afghanistan, or so they believed, after Osama bin Laden ordered aeroplanes to be flown into the Twin Towers on September 11 and changed the world.

The new Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was feted worldwide as a figurehead of freedom, and even became a style icon: the great designer Tom Ford called Karzai, “the most chic man in the world”. The British media called him “the most unlikely style icon since Mahatma Gandhi”. But a little-known secret at that time was that Karzai, who has as much in common with Gandhi as a vegan has with oysters, was as corrupt as they came.

The most chic man in the world was receiving kickbacks from the CIA—tens of millions of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and even plastic shopping bags. Just short of 20 years since American troops landed in Afghanistan, nothing changed. With undisguised schadenfreude, the Russian embassy in Kabul reported that Karzai’s successor, President Ashraf Ghani, fled the country “to avoid bloodshed” with four cars and a helicopter full of cash, some of which had to be even left behind because all of it would not fit. 

In the telling words of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, “They (Afghan Army) had all the advantages; they had 20 years of training by our coalition forces, a modern air force, good equipment and weapons. But you can’t buy will and you can’t purchase leadership. And that’s really what was missing in this situation.” In a nutshell, the reason the US was humiliated was that it could only purchase leaders, not leadership.

Every conflict has victors and losers. And fence sitters. The winners in the Afghan war are Pakistan, China, Turkey, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Sunni Saudi Arabia. In July, a news photo that shocked the world was China’s foreign minister Wang Yi posing with the Taliban’s chief negotiator and public face Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The losers are India, the US, the West and Shia Iran. On the fence is Russia, keeping a wary eye on the region, carefully considering Chinese geopolitical and geoeconomic ambitions. Moscow said it is in no rush to recognise the new government that the Taliban has called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Where Geography and History Meet

The northern part of the Indian subcontinent has been a theatre of power conflict since the days of the Silk Road and the Great Game. When the Cold War was at its height and Soviet tanks were patrolling Afghanistan, the Americans were worried that their influence and access would be curtailed, if not ended. Pakistan had become America’s traditional ally after 1954 when it signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement with the US that allowed the Americans to set up a Military Assistance Advisory Group in Rawalpindi. Pakistan also allowed US spy flights and missions to the USSR from its soil—the same soil which would give sanctuary to Osama bin Laden nearly five decades later. Richard Nixon called Pakistan its “most allied ally”.

Meanwhile, India had come under the Soviet umbrella. US military and financial aid to Pakistan flowed unhindered. The collapse of the Twin Towers ended the bonhomie. On July 31, 2003, John S Pistole, Deputy Assistant Director of FBI’s Counter-terrorism Division, testified before a US Senate Committee, linking the 9/11 terrorists and Pakistan. High-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives played a major role in moving funds in Pakistani accounts to the hijackers. America’s growing closeness with India has now alarmed Pakistan, so has the withdrawal of support from most Arab nations.

People, holding Taliban flags, gather in the Pakistan-Afghanistan
border town of Chaman in Pakistan

This has inevitably drawn Islamabad closer to its all-weather ally, Beijing. Lt Gen Kamal Davar, Founder DG, Defence Intelligence Agency, and noted strategic affairs expert, says, “History will record America’s unplanned and hasty exit from fratricidal violence-afflicted Afghanistan as President Joe Biden’s monumental strategic blunder. Newer geopolitical realities have emerged with the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan which should prompt India to take a fresh look at its Afghan policy as everything has drastically changed in the last week.” The US is not convinced of the Taliban’s assurance that it will not provide a launching pad for terror.

Installing Presidents

To accuse the Taliban as political novices would be a folly. In 2001, after US forces routed them, Karzai negotiated with the few remaining rebel groups to surrender to a new government. Retired Lt Col Jason Amerine who commanded a US Special Forces team in Afghanistan says that this time, the transition of power may have been brokered by Karzai. The Taliban had learned from him in 2001 how to negotiate and bring together the Pashtun tribes. The man who sat across the table with Karzai then was Baradar, Taliban co-founder and the public face of the Islamic Emirate.

Baradar had only one message to give Karzai this time, “Tell the Pashtuns the US is leaving and the Taliban are back and supported by Pakistan.” Karzai and Ghani could not have stayed in power without Islamabad’s influence, backed by the US State Department. Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir wrote in The Washington Post, “I vividly recall the honour guard given to Ghani in the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in 2014. And how can I forget that the current national security adviser of Pakistan, Moeed Yusuf, wrote a long paper in support of Ghani in 2015 for a US think tank? He described Ghani as a very balanced leader fighting against unfavourable odds. I remember that Ghani received another guard of honour from Prime Minister Khan in 2019.”

Pakistan’s Double Game

On August 15, when India celebrated independence, Afghanistan descended to medieval slavery. The truth is that the Taliban was never defeated in Afghanistan, they simply went to recoup across the border to Pakistan. The ISI acted as its shadow travel agent and terror trainer. Rajesh Talwar, author of two books based on Afghanistan, says, “It was great to have a democratic Afghanistan as a neighbour, however flawed the system was due to election irregularities and corruption.

The Golden era of Afghanistan, when women attended Kabul University wearing miniskirts, is lost. Under the Taliban regime, women were tortured and beaten for showing even a glimpse of ankle and those accused of adultery or blasphemy were executed. This week, Governor Salima Mazari (right), who took up arms against the Taliban fighters in Balkh province, was captured.
The Golden era of Afghanistan, when women attended Kabul University wearing miniskirts, is lost. Under the Taliban regime, women were tortured and beaten for showing even a glimpse of ankle and those accused of adultery or blasphemy were executed. This week, Governor Salima Mazari (right), who took up arms against the Taliban fighters in Balkh province, was captured.

Now that system is being replaced by a medieval, autocratic system that will push back women’s rights a thousand years.” Though there were slogans raised and posters put up in Pakistan praising the Taliban last week, their return spells doom for Pakistan. The Taliban was Pakistan’s most beloved creation. General Pervez Musharraf had admitted that it was the ISI that created the insurgent group. “We were looking for some groups to counter Indian action against Pakistan. That is where the intelligence work comes in. Intelligence, being in contact with Taliban groups. Definitely, they were in contact, and they should be,” Musharraf had said. Islamabad’s tunnel vision on India keeps it blind to the Taliban’s ambitions to seize power in Pakistan.

Taliban offshoots grew and flourished in Pakistan after 2001. In 2014, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan murdered 134 schoolchildren in an Army school in Peshawar. Violent anti-France demonstrations by Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan paralysed the country recently—it was a signal to the civilian government of Imran Khan not to challenge the clout of radical mullahs. Pakistan has decided to plunge further into folly by engineering the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. With the Taliban back in Kabul, Islamabad now has acquired a spearhead to be used against India. The good Taliban versus bad Taliban narrative had emerged in Pakistan between 2007 and 2014, when homegrown Pakistani Taliban rebels began to massacre citizens and bomb markets, mosques and schools.

The good Taliban, according to Islamabad, were the ones who fought in Afghanistan and now wished to responsibly govern through power-sharing and democracy. Pakistan had realised that India was participating in rebuilding Afghan infrastructure. Islamabad sold the idea of a third Taliban—a political Taliban which could be reasoned with, while the war-hungry Taliban was being destroyed. Donald Trump bought it, believing that the “good Taliban” will share power with the legitimate government. The Taliban leaders went along because they were biding time to reinstall their vicious version of sharia. A Taliban saying goes, “You have the watches, we have the time. We were born here. We will die here. We aren’t going anywhere.” Israeli security experts fear that this second coming will empower and engender violent religious outfits in Pakistan. In 2014, former ISI boss General Hamid Gul had issued a chilling warning: “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”

China’s Dilemma

Pakistan’s all-weather ally China has a lot more to lose, because the Taliban will take realpolitik only so far. Beijing’s statement on the Taliban takeover was classically and enigmatically Confucian—“China respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny and is willing to continue to develop friendly relations with Afghanistan.” Would-be world conqueror and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first weapon of global dominion is economic power using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Afghanistan is crucial to his plan. China will be hesitant to trust the security of BRI infrastructure in unreliable hands; the instability around Central Asia and the Middle East will be severely destabilising. Another big BRI initiative, the 2,100 km Five Nations Railway Project that will connect China with Central Asia (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe, cannot be executed without a stable Afghanistan. Beijing has already invested in Afghanistan’s fibre optics connectivity through Wakhan Corridor in August 2017. China also fears that the Taliban 2.0 could further stoke the Uighur rebellion in Xinjiang.

Why India Should Worry

The Taliban, sure in their newfound power, is in a mood to be fickle. Deviating from their previous stance on Kashmir, the Taliban called it a “bilateral and an internal matter”. But India is a natural enemy of the Taliban, being a Hindu majority nation and Pakistan’s arch enemy. Lt Gen Davar says, “India must look at Afghanistan keeping its own interests in mind and not from an American angle or an unduly influenced Pakistani prism. Best it will be to wait and watch to see how the Taliban’s internal and external policies unfold.

Afghanistan may be the ‘graveyard of empires’, but for India it offers a hugely strategic expanse.” The Biden Administration bowed to Pakistan’s demand to keep India out of settling the Afghan question. This was a bitter pill for the North Block to swallow since India is Afghanistan’s fifth biggest aid donor. It has built schools and roads, and repaired its ruined power grid. Indian businesses have invested heavily in Afghanistan. Knowing the Taliban’s unreliable stances, Afghanistan is likely to become a terrorist haven again. The Taliban had allowed JeM and LeT to operate safely in the country, letting the ISI and the Pak military train operatives who were sent to Kashmir. This time, the Taliban leadership was given a warm welcome in Beijing, which is a cause of concern to India. Lt Gen Davar adds, “China-Pakistan collusive machinations in Afghanistan need to be diligently monitored. Also, though a trifle late, India must still work towards a regional consensus with Russia, Iran and the CARs on board to influence the Taliban.”

Taliban’s Blood Money

The Taliban has become financially self-sufficient. It ran a shadow government in the provinces and operated a secret government in major cities. David Kilcullen, professor of international and political studies at the Australian Defence Force Academy, points out that these shadow organisations collected local taxes and their share from drug, agricultural and timber production. A UN report in June noted, “The primary sources of Taliban financing remain criminal activities, including drug trafficking and opium poppy production, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, mineral exploitation and revenues from tax collection in areas under Taliban control or influence.” It placed the terror group’s annual income at $1.6 billion. Mullah Yaqoob, Taliban leader and son of founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, said the Taliban earned $1.6 billion revenue by March 2020.

The radical group made $464 million in profits by mining and imposing taxes on miners of copper, oil, gas, cobalt, gold, iron, lithium and lapis lazuli, according to the report. Afghanistan is the source of around 84 percent of the world’s global opium supply, according to the UN’s World Drug Report 2020. The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit reported that “the Taliban imposes a 10 percent tax on every link in the opium production chain.” It also earns around $160 million through extortion and highway tolls. Shopkeepers have to pay taxes directly to the Taliban in controlled regions. Farmers are forced to pay an “ushr”, or 10 percent tax on their harvest, plus a 2.5 percent wealth tax, according to the Centre for Afghanistan Studies. Industries are also taxed by the Taliban. It had imposed import duties on goods entering the country. A classified CIA report in 2008 estimated that foreign sources, particularly from Gulf states, donated $106 million to the Taliban.

Signs of a Chilling Future

Image management was on top of the Taliban’s mind after its capture of Afghanistan. Even as reports of fighters checking lists and searching door to door for Afghans who had worked or helped the coalition forces emerged, the new Emirate declared a national “amnesty” and urged women to join its government. “The Islamic Emirate doesn’t want women to be victims,” Enamullah Samangani, member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, assured, “They should be in government structure, according to Shariah law.” A female reporter who had to change into a hijab asked a Taliban commander on a Kabul street whether women and girls can continue to work and go to school. He said they could. But the journalist has to wear the niqab, cover her face except for her eyes and wear gloves to cover her hands. And, of course, they cannot work with men. For a generation of young women, the future looks terrifying. Talwar says, “During my recent visits to Kabul it was a pleasure to see young girls heading off to school.

The Afghan Parliament had so many female representatives and even ministers. I shudder to think that all that may become a distant memory. The youth of Afghanistan is very bright with enormous potential. What will become of that potential, of those hopes and aspirations?” The first glimpses of the new Afghan future were revealed by the shadowy Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. He said that the group’s ideologies and beliefs haven’t changed, but now they have a different perspective. Which means women and men can work together, there will be free press, and women will have rights—but all according to Islamic law. Early in the month, the Taliban dragged a young woman from her car and shot her for not wearing a veil. A well-known comedian was executed as an “informer”. The last time the Taliban were in power, the health minister Mullah Balouch complained to BBC journalist John Simpson that since the International Red Cross refused to provide surgeons to amputate the hands and feet of convicted thieves, he was forced to chop them off himself.

Corruption Defeated the Army

Kabul had stayed neutral in World War II. The Golden Age of Afghanistan was from the 1930s to the 1970s, earning Kabul the title of “Paris of Central Asia”. Afghan women attended Kabul University wearing miniskirts. Afghanistan’s King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, summoned a council of scholars, and religious and tribal leaders to create an Afghan Constitution that supported individual freedoms. The king was deposed in a bloodless coup by former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan who later invaded Pakistan and lost. In retaliation, the ISI launched its first operation in Afghanistan in 1975 under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It bribed militants led by Ahmad Shah Massoud to oust Daoud Khan. But it got no support from the government forces which routed them easily. Forty years later, the Afghan Army was no longer the same. It is hounded by corruption, pathetic morale and over-dependence on the NATO forces.

The coalition had in 2001 established the Afghan National Army with recruits from the warlords’ demobilised armies. A UN report in June on Afghan military strength in February counted 3,08,000 personnel while the Taliban fighters numbered 58,000 to 1,00,000. Until last Sunday, the Afghan government and Army were dependent on Western forces. The insurgents had already stated to hunt down pilots of the Afghan Air Force and execute them; they did not want air attacks on their march to Kabul. The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers project found massive fudging by Afghan commanders. The Afghan security forces, including the police, on paper numbered 3,52,000 but in reality there were only 2,54,000 as per the government records. ‘Ghost soldiers’ had been created and their fake salaries were being pocketed by officers. Serving soldiers also had to pay a part of their salary to their bosses. Army supplies were sold on the black market. A few weeks ago the Taliban was offering every cop or soldier $150 to desert and join them. Now they would be lucky to escape with their lives. Only the elite Special Forces of the Afghan Army fought to the last man till the bitter end.

America’s Final Folly

The fall of any empire is nudged by economic crisis brought about through excess government spending on wars. America has spent $2.26 trillion on the conflict in Afghanistan, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. American historian Alfred McCoy, who is certain of the decline and fall of the American empire, writes In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, that “often irrational even from an imperial point of view, these micro military operations can yield hemorrhaging expenditures or humiliating defeats that only accelerate the process already under way.” McCoy predicts that the dollar will no longer be the world’s reserve currency and fall to a third of its current price.

Barack Obama on becoming president had said that America would no longer be the world’s policeman. McCoy says the US will plunge into the worst Depression it has ever experienced and will be forced to withdraw its global military presence. Iraq and now Afghanistan could be the first of a series. America could become the opposite of what it stands for—a totalitarian state. Wholesale surveillance, the abolition of basic civil liberties, militarised police authorised to use indiscriminate lethal force, the use of drones and satellites to keep us monitored and fearful, along with the censorship of the press and social media, familiar to Iraqis or Afghans, will define America. “We are not the first empire to suffer this fate. It is a familiar ending,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges who has covered the Middle East for 15 years.

When the Taliban raced across Afghanistan and rode into Kabul, it was mostly on Toyota SUVs. The best customers of the world’s largest and credible automakers are the Taliban who use the rugged air-conditioned SUVs in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad an Mali—“ideal platforms for intimidation and enforcements,” according to The New York Times in 2001. The report said, “From their Land Cruisers and Hiluxes, the Taliban were ready to leap down and beat women for showing a glimpse of ankle or to lock a man in a shipping container for three weeks until his beard grew to the approved length.

Or, most dismal, to drag an accused adulterer or blasphemer to the soccer stadium for execution.” Toyota is determined this would not be repeated by Taliban Redux. In a prescient move, in late July, it instituted a rule that prohibits the resale of its 2022 model of the Toyota Land Cruiser within a year. A Toyota press release said that the SUV “is particularly popular overseas, and we are concerned about the flow of vehicles from Japan to overseas immediately after their release, as well as the possibility of them being exported to certain regions where security regulations are in place.” In a terrain that is ideologically and typographically difficult to negotiate, the world is soon to find out that there are wheels within wheels.

The New Taliban Leadership

Haibatullah Akhundzada
Supreme leader

Former Taliban Chief Justice, he is the supreme leader since 2016. Known as the ‘Leader of the Faithful’, the 60-year-old Islamic legal scholar is the ultimate authority on political, religious, and military affairs

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Political Deputy
One of the co-founders of the Taliban, he heads their political office in Doha. Oversaw the withdrawal pact with the US.

Sirajuddin Haqqani Deputy
Son of warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, he heads the Haqqani network, a terror group that is reported to oversee the Taliban's financial and military assets. He’s believed to be in his 40s or 50s. 

Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Deputy
Son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, he is the group’s military operational commander, who was trained in Pakistan. He’s reported to be in his 30s.

Mullah Abdul Hakim  Senior judge
Head of the Taliban’s judicial structure. He’s the former shadow chief justice, who heads its powerful council of religious scholars. 

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai
A former deputy minister in the Taliban government before its ouster, he has become the head of the group’s Doha political office in 2015

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