View: As US, allies leave Afghanistan, Taliban makes rapid strides

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As a bewildered world watches helplessly, the Taliban (students), inappropriately named so, are making rapid territorial gains in Afghanistan with the beginning of withdrawal of the forces of the United States (US) and other allies from May 1. Hastening its departure amid growing fears of attacks by the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the US has completed more than half of its withdrawal from Afghanistan by June 8. According to the Doha Agreement of February 29, 2020, with the Taliban, the US was supposed to withdraw all its troops (about 2,500) and that of its allies (about 7,000) by May 1, 2021 — a deadline that was unilaterally extended by president Biden’s administration to September 11, 2021.

The rampaging Taliban have notched up some quick victories due to inability of Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANDSF) to fight, hold on and take back the territories in the absence of US air support. In the ongoing offensive, the Taliban have taken control of 30 districts spread across 17 (out of 34) provinces from government forces in the last two months. Before May 1, the Taliban controlled about 73 out of a total of 387 districts.

In the month of May itself, 405 pro-government forces and 260 civilians have been killed in various theatres of fighting with the Taliban. Taliban have also carried out targeted killings of members of civil society, journalists, women activists and human rights defenders. Simultaneously, to swell their ranks and demoralise members of ANDSF, the Taliban have announced an amnesty programme seeking former’s surrender with arms, ammunition, and military equipment. Some such defections have been witnessed in recent weeks, signifying shifting of balance of power in the battle ground in favour of the Taliban.

With these victories in their pocket, the Taliban have not shown much interest in intra-Afghan dialogue or any power sharing agreement with President Ashraf Ghani. They didn’t agree to join the talks that were scheduled to be held in Turkey under the United Nation’s auspices. They had already got their side of the bargain by securing release of about 5,500 Taliban prisoners. Cunningly, the Taliban never agreed to a ceasefire, but at the same time carefully avoided targeting coalition forces thereby providing no excuse to delay their exit.

The US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners are unable to come out with either a military or diplomatic response to stem the crisis unravelling in Afghanistan. Jens Stoltenberg, general secretary, NATO, acknowledged that “we see reports about violence, attacks and also brutal violence against the children’s school, young girls, and absolutely innocent civilians which are victims of this meaningless violence”. But expressed helplessness by adding, “to decide to stay and continue to support the mission will also have entailed risks. The risk of increased violence… the increased risk of being forced to increase troops, and also the risk of being engaged in an open-ended mission.”

That makes it abundantly clear that neither the US nor its NATO allies have the stomach to prolong the stay beyond the September 11 deadline. Despite getting more than four months breathing space, the Pentagon officials have not been able to secure agreements with allies in the region for repositioning of the US troops, war planes and drones. These are crucial to diminish any threat to the US mainland and provide air cover to Afghan forces to at least save the cities.

Fearing possible tie-up between Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (bad Taliban) and Afghan Taliban (good Taliban) with serious internal security ramifications, Pakistan, an old US ally, also refused to provide bases. Before even Pakistan could react, the Taliban threatened any country against doing so. The last air base to be vacated would be Bagram. It is most crucial for the security of Kabul and diplomatic missions based there. Fearing reprisal attacks, Australia has already announced closing down of its diplomatic mission. It is worthwhile to recall that in November last year, Australian troops were indicted in an internal enquiry of grave human rights violations, including alleged execution of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, deliberate cover-ups, and abuse.

Whatever may be the assessment of the Taliban of their capabilities, the government of Ashraf Ghani is unlikely to fall easily. This time around, Pakistan would also be wary of extending support to them. In no case the world should allow a bunch of obscurantist mullahs, armed to teeth, to capture power and heap further miseries on the people of Afghanistan. It is time to let the people of Afghanistan decide their future democratically by framing a new constitution before holding elections. Till that time, the people of Afghanistan need every support from those countries that have no imperialistic and strategic ambitions there.