Many of the questions raised today about the major developments taking place in Afghanistan can only be answered after the Taliban rule is effectively enshrined and the movement engages in political activity. Until then, all expectations and forecasts are mere assumptions.
The first question pertains to the relationship with the US after two decades of war and hostility. Contrary to common belief, there is a fair chance that the Taliban leadership will seek reconciliation with the US, which would be the fruit of the many bilateral talks that took place in Doha over the past few years. In fact, the militias’ entry to the Presidential Palace on Sunday without a single shot being fired was the result of coordination and agreements. This also explains why Afghan cities fell to the Taliban in seriatim without a fight, including the capital, Kabul. Sites were ceded in exchange for the safe exit of the collapsing Afghan armed forces.
Another pressing question is whether the Taliban will remain an armed, “jihadist” movement that fights extraterritorial battles or hosts terrorist groups on Afghani land. With nearly 3,000 ISIS fighters from Arab and Central Asian nationalities present on Afghani soil today, all eyes will surely be turned there.
I believe the latter is the more important question because internal politics will not matter to the rest of the world. Despite the Taliban’s claim, there are no indicators that the movement is at odds with ISIS and other groups. In fact, the Taliban has freed hundreds, or maybe thousands, of terrorists from Afghani prisons. A bad surprise, surely; but whether the Taliban’s behavior has become less hostile is a question that the few coming months will answer. If the Taliban cooperates with ISIS, or even allows it to operate from Afghani ground, a large international alliance that includes the US and Russia is expected to emerge against the Taliban, and the conflict will be back to square one.
But isn’t there any power that has significant influence over the Taliban today? This will also remain a mystery for a while. Since 1996, when the Taliban took over and settled in Kabul, fingers have been pointing toward Pakistan as having influence over the Taliban and its decisions. However, nothing indicates today that the relation between the Taliban and Pakistan is of such a high standing that Pakistan manages Kabul policies and decisions. This theory of Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban has been discussed in many articles, books, and movies. Though the Taliban and its leaders were taken under the wing of the Pakistani military intelligence, an adverse group emerged: the Pakistani Taliban. Much like al-Qaeda, despite not having direct links to the Afghani Taliban, the group has drained Pakistani authorities and threatened the country’s interests. As such, if Pakistan turns out to have an actual influence over Taliban decisions, major powers like the US and Russia, and even Saudi Arabia, would be relieved.
In this vein, one cannot but wonder: does Washington’s departure and the Taliban’s takeover mean wars in Afghanistan will end? Unfortunately, that is not likely. The Taliban has yet to show any willingness to grant other forces seats in the government, which foretells the rise of pockets of resistance. These might include Ahmad Massoud, whose father spearheaded the battle of ousting the Taliban in the past; as well as dozens of warlords who are currently repositioning and will likely pose a challenge to the Taliban should they be overlooked in any national reconciliation. Leaders like Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai, who have decided against fleeing and stood their ground in Kabul, might play a role in any upcoming reconciliation.
In the meantime, does the Russian celebration of the fall of Kabul and the departure of US troops reflect a victory for Moscow? While Russia is likely thrilled to strike back and watch US troops leave the country with their heads down, it is even more worried than Washington about recent developments. After all, Russia and its allies neighboring Afghanistan -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- are all located in the Afghani vicinity, hence the heightened alert and clear concerns in these countries, for fear of the return of terrorism. Meanwhile, some observers believe Russia is inflating the danger of the Taliban to restore its military influence in former USSR states.
To be continued…
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.
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