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EDITORIAL: As feared by informed observers, thousands of Afghans with their families have fled their homes in Helmand province on May 3, 2021 and taken refuge in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah as fierce fighting has broken out between government forces and the Taliban after the US military started withdrawing from the area. The US handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan government forces a day before. The latter claimed pushing back the Taliban on multiple checkpoints after they had fallen to the Taliban offensive, retaking them all and killing 100 Taliban and 22 al Qaeda fighters. The Taliban on the other hand claimed a large number of Afghan troops were killed in the fighting. Both sides are prone to exaggerating the other side’s casualties. Nevertheless, even after discounting the claims for being inflated for morale reasons, the fact remains that the expected Taliban push after the US withdrawal seems to have begun in the exact area where the US and British forces suffered their highest casualties during the war, reflecting the entrenched Taliban hold over Helmand. Fighting is also reported to have broken out in several other provinces, presaging a general offensive on all fronts by the Taliban. To save face, the Pentagon has attempted to downplay the fighting, but facts are stubborn things. The Taliban offensive has raised concerns that US troops may also be at risk as they pull out.

As US top military commanders have admitted, there are no good outcomes to look forward to as the US finally winds down its 20-year longest, and arguably least successful, foreign war. For the US, the only remaining question is the nature of the fallout from its ignominious retreat and what can be done to limit the damage to its reputation and image. The victims of the fresh civil war that is erupting and may end in a complete Taliban victory are, first and foremost, women, whose increased rights may be rolled back by a Taliban in power as witnessed during their stint in 1996-2001, and non-Pashtun ethnic groups that constitute what has been called the mosaic of nationalities that defines Afghanistan. Second, fears are being voiced that as the US forces withdraw and the Taliban tighten their grip on the country, including the capital Kabul, even the US embassy staff may be under threat. In addition, Afghan translators and others who supported the US effort are at high risk, being dubbed ‘traitors’ by the Taliban. So far there appears little or no planning to help such elements escape the extremists’ wrath by relocating them and their families to the US or at least outside Afghanistan. Last but by no means least, despite soothing noises from Washington that aid for the Afghan military, development and civilian programmes will continue, this seems a hope flying in the face of the impending reality. Washington is also concerned at losing its intelligence gathering base in Afghanistan, with hints thrown around that other countries in the region may offer relocation of such facilities. All this seems to be wishful thinking at best at the moment, and the US is unlikely to avoid the ignominy of defeat.

Inside Afghanistan, the non-Pashtun ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Farsiwan of western Afghanistan are unlikely to go down without a fight. Each of these groups enjoys fraternal ties with their co-ethnic neighbouring countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. Help and succour from these sources for the impending civil war is likely, threatening a prolongation of the bloodshed. As is being witnessed in Helmand, intensified fighting may trigger a fresh refugee exodus, with all neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan, being once again inundated with helpless people fleeing for their lives. Last but by no means the least, the sputtering Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) campaign that took the lives of two of our soldiers and wounded two others in a roadside bomb blast in Bajaur on May 4, 2021, may see an uptick as the Taliban gain ground since the TTP is now safely ensconced on Afghan soil. So much for our much vaunted ‘proxies’. Just as the US top brass sees little good coming out of the impending debacle in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries too will be hard put to avoid the almost inevitable negative fallout of an eventual Taliban victory.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021