When the religious militancy, the seed of which was sown by Islamabad, heads towards Pakistan, it will be catastrophic.
‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”, claimed Sun Tzu in his book The Art of War, written two and a half thousand years ago. As if to emphasise his point, he also added, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle”. How vindicated he would feel by the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan last week. To the astonishment of many, most cities in Afghanistan simply surrendered without a shot being fired, with the insurgents merely walking through the gates, almost to the relief of the troops of the Afghan army there to defend the people. Many grimly predicted that despite its inferiority in numbers (80,000 militants as opposed to some 300,000 US-trained Afghan soldiers, although many of these are now believed to have been “ghost” soldiers with the officers pocketing the salaries), the Taliban would eventually take much of the country. But few expected the fight would be over two weeks before the planned US withdrawal had even completed on 31 August. The national flag has now gone and has been replaced by the Taliban’s, the clearest demonstration yet that the jihadi ancien regime is back.
But what kind of regime is now ruling Afghanistan? The Taliban have been on a steep learning curve since the last time they marched on Kabul in 1996. Then they seized the former President Najibullah and his brother, Shahpur Ahmadzai, torturing them to death before their corpses were dragged through the streets and hung from lampposts outside the presidential palace in a very public warning of what was to follow. The more cerebral Taliban strategy now being adopted was spearheaded by the affiliate group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who realized that the immediate implementation of Sharia rules was alienating local populations, whose support would be vital to the longevity of any government project. Locals would therefore have to be slowly socialised into the group’s ideology, allowing the Taliban to establish long-term roots in the communities over which they ruled. Taliban forces have now been keen to portray themselves as reformed and responsible actors, a “new Taliban”, one in which “women can have access to education” said its spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, in a televised interview on the BBC last Sunday. Few are convinced and many are scared. The flow of people trying to get out of the country would suggest that not everyone feels the Taliban should be taken at its word.
The leadership of the Taliban has also radically changed since 1996. For the past 10 years, their leading politicians have been based in Doha, where they established a political and diplomatic face, travelling the world to garner good will, especially from countries neighbouring Afghanistan. The Taliban today are much more emboldened. They got what they wanted, negotiations with the US, something former US President George W. Bush refused to do following the 9/11 attack on America when he demanded that the Taliban send Osama bin Laden to the US for trial. The Taliban leadership have now chalked up the success of two consecutive US Presidents agreeing to a full-on withdrawal from the country.
Over the past two years, the Taliban built up an enormous revenue stream from the taxation (some would say extortion) system they enforced over much of the country. From customs check points on the roads and the taxation of imports at the various border points they controlled, they had effectively bagged the commerce of Afghanistan. Even issuing receipts, their list of customs tariffs covered everything from perfume to cigarettes that crossed the border. Their biggest income, of course, came from taxing the opium trade. They also developed many conventional business interests, such as the mining of coal and marble, which they extracted from many parts of Afghanistan and sold to China and Pakistan. Weapons were procured by the Taliban from friendly governments, arms merchants or captured from the Afghan army. After decades of war, Afghanistan became awash with weapons.
Nevertheless, the Taliban could not have survived twenty years out of power without the help of their neighbour, Pakistan, which has the longest border and the deepest links with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was instrumental in setting up the Taliban in the 1990s during the Afghan civil war following the Soviet withdrawal, and over the years has been the group’s principal external patron. The ISI has provided the Taliban with financial resources, training, weapons, logistical support and, above all, a safe haven in Pakistani territory that has been crucial to the Taliban’s ability to wage an effective insurgency against the Afghan state and international forces. It has also played a dangerous “double game”, publicly aiding the US in its “war on terror”, while secretly harbouring and sustaining Afghanistan’s Islamist radicals that were trying to kill US forces. Madrasas across Pakistan have been found to be key recruiters of jihadist militants, sending young men across the border to fight for the Taliban.
So will Pakistan be rewarded by all this support? Many believe the opposite. They argue that when the religious militancy, the seed of which was sown by Islamabad, heads towards Pakistan, it will be catastrophic. “I think the consequences of this are going to be serious”, said Ahmed Rashid, the author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia to the Guardian last week, adding “there is going to be a huge upsurge of fundamentalism and extremism in Pakistan”.
Despite this, politicians, clerics, military officers and even the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, were among those in Pakistan who celebrated the establishment of Taliban rule, describing the takeover as “Afghanistan breaking the shackles of slavery”. It did not go unnoticed that the biggest roar of congratulations came from Tehrik-i-Taliban, otherwise known as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), an off-shoot of the Afghan Taliban, and whose deputy chief, Faqir Muhammad, was one of the first prisoners to be released in Afghanistan this week. The TTP is seen as “two sides of the same coin” and in the past, senior Afghan Taliban fighters have even been made TTP leaders. This militant jihadi group, banned in Pakistan, has been responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in the country, where some 20,000 died between 2002 and 2016 in a wave of Islamist terror.
The Taliban’s victory is likely to have a disastrous effect on Pakistan’s domestic peace and security. Islamist extremism has already divided Pakistani society along sectarian lines, and the ascendance of Afghan Islamists next door will only embolden radicals at home. Efforts to force the Taliban’s hand might well result in a violent blowback with further TTP attacks on targets inside Pakistan. Pakistani critics inside the country have long feared and predicted this scenario, but Pakistani generals see the Taliban as an important partner in their competition with India. The ISI is fixated with the belief that India is plotting to break up Pakistan along ethnic lines, arguing that a democratic Afghanistan, supported by India, would have been a launching pad for anti-government insurgencies in Pakistani’s Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. In the generals’ minds, a Taliban rule in Afghanistan has eliminated this threat.
For those Pakistanis who see the world through the prism of competition with India, this Taliban victory might offer some consolation. But these developments will take Pakistan further from being a normal country, perpetuating dysfunction at home and locking it into a foreign policy defined by hostility towards India, a weakened relationship with Washington and greater dependence on China. Not to mention the tsunami of refugees pouring into the country. This Taliban victory has created a bed of nails for Pakistan.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.