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EDITORIAL: As the Taliban’s blistering military offensive across Afghanistan acquires pace, they are also attempting a ‘charm’ offensive to mitigate fears about a return to the type of rule they imposed in power from 1996 to 2001. The military offensive is already reaping benefits to the Taliban in the shape of the fall of isolated Afghan government outposts along the country’s borders because Kabul is unable to sustain its forces in those areas in terms of air support, logistics, supplies and reinforcements. The Taliban have captured major border crossing points with almost all of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. This development has Moscow worried that the conflict could spill over into Central Asia through fundamentalists infiltrating into the region from Afghanistan. Russia has military bases in Central Asia and has been hinting at using its forces to prevent such a spillover. Interestingly, while the situation on the ground in the battlefields of Afghanistan suggests the Afghan government forces are crumbling despite brave words from Kabul that it would retake the territories captured by the Taliban, the latter’s delegation on a visit to Moscow has attempted to play down the apprehensions about Central Asia by pledging not to allow any such infiltration/incursions and also tried to reassure all of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries that Afghan soil would not be allowed to be used against them. This has particular resonance for Pakistan since a wide swathe of opinion here dreads the possibility that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would bolster the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s scarcely disguised aim to resurrect its terrorist activities inside Pakistan from its bases across the border on Afghan soil. And it should be recalled that the Taliban have already pledged in the Doha agreement with the departing US that Afghanistan’s soil would never again be allowed to be used against the US or its allies a la 9/11. The US, apart from mealy-mouthed expressions of supporting Afghanistan from ‘afar’ (e.g. US President Joe Biden’s message to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Peace Council head Abdullah Abdullah in Washington recently), has for all intents and purposes turned its back on Afghanistan and left it to its fate. That fate increasingly looms as an internecine civil war, with no certainty that the Afghan government forces, in alliance with anti-Taliban ethnic militias and armed women’s and civilian groups will be able to hold off the determined Taliban.

While the Taliban ‘charm’ offensive has tried to portray the intentions of the group not to repeat some of the extreme brutality during their 1996-2001 period in power, there are few takers for this assurance. The attempt to convince international opinion of the Taliban’s newfound reasonableness can be ascribed to their realization that even if they come to power, they will not be able to sustain their hold or run an aid-dependent, wrecked country, especially since the troika of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the only three countries that recognised their government in 1996, will probably not extend this or any material largesse this time round. The Taliban have categorically stated that their ‘Islamic Emirate’ would be re-established, implying the present ‘democratic’ system would be abandoned. This has alarmed non-Pashtun ethnic groups, women and even Pashtuns who are anti-Taliban. This coalition with the Afghan government forces may or may not be able to withstand the Taliban assault, but if they face pressures, regional neighbours will inevitably be drawn into supporting ‘their’ co-ethnics. This is where Pakistan finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. Having provided the Taliban safe havens and support against the US/NATO occupation and their ‘creature’, the Afghan government, Islamabad’s much-trumpeted recent emergence as a ‘peacemaker’ just does not wash. It is incredible that our government and security establishment have woken up so late to the implications of a Taliban victory. Now that the Taliban feel they are on the road to outright military victory, they are even less inclined than ever to heed Islamabad’s advice to explore peace, reconciliation and power sharing with the Afghan government. A major human tragedy is in the making, and no ‘stakeholder’, near or far, will be able to avoid its fallout.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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