Saturday September 18, 2021

Taliban and the region

July 18, 2021

Afghanistan is heading towards more violence, chaos and instability. The fears of a bloody civil war are growing. The Taliban continue to gain more ground in rural Afghanistan at the expense of the eroding authority of the Afghan government. The Afghan forces continue to retreat and concede more areas to the Taliban forces.

Violence has drastically increased in Afghanistan in the last few months. The peace process has failed to make any serious progress. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban are sticking to their positions. In all this, the people of Afghanistan will be the real victims of this violence, instability and chaos.

What is happening in Afghanistan right now is a matter of concern not only for Pakistan but also for other regional countries. There are concerns that if the Afghan Taliban and government fail to make a breakthrough in the inter-Afghan peace talks in Doha, then violence, instability and chaos will increase even further.

There are also concerns about the possible influx of Afghan refugees. Millions of Afghan people might be forced to leave their homes if a civil war breaks out. Hundreds have already entered into Tajikistan to take refuge.

The other concern is that different militant groups might use the areas under Taliban control to launch attacks into neighbouring countries. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan faced militancy in the 1990s, and many militants belonging to these countries are based in Afghanistan. These countries are worried that the Taliban advance might embolden these militant groups to launch further attacks.

The other possible fallout might be the spread of radicalisation among the conservative sections of the population. The Taliban’s success in Afghanistan will encourage the other religious militant groups in the region to spread their influence and reactionary ideas.

The foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member countries xpressed their concern in the joint declaration after the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group meeting held in Dushanbe on July 14, 2021. The joint declaration says that: “In accordance with universally accepted principles and norms of international law, primarily the UN Charter, the SCO countries reaffirm their respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. They intend to facilitate the development of Afghanistan as a country free from terrorism, war and drugs.

“We condemn the violence and terror attacks that continue in Afghanistan, killing civilians and representatives of government bodies and call for their cessation as soon as possible. We note that the activities of international terrorist organisations remain one of the key factors of instability in that country.

“We express our deep concern over the escalation of tensions in the northern provinces of Afghanistan as a result of a sharp increase in the concentration of various terrorist, separatist and extremist groups. We consider it important for the SCO member states to enhance their joint efforts in order to counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism.

“We urge all parties involved in the conflict in Afghanistan to refrain from the use of force and actions that may lead to destabilisation and unpredictable consequences near the Afghan borders with the SCO states.”

The Taliban delegations are talking to different regional powers to address their concerns and worries. Taliban are trying to assure the regional countries that they will not allow the Uzbek, Tajik, Chechen and Tajik fighters to use Afghan soil to launch attacks. But suspicions still exist. There is mistrust between both sides, based on the experiences of the past Taliban rule.

Regional countries need a common strategy to prevent another civil war in Afghanistan. SCO member states can play an important role to bring both the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiating table to start serious talks. They must take the initiative to prevent a civil war.

It seems the Taliban want to make maximum gains in northern Afghanistan while engaging the neighbouring countries. The Taliban launched the offensive in northern Afghanistan as a strategy. One reason to target north Afghanistan instead of the western and eastern provinces seems to be to stop any resistance from developing in the areas as happened in 1997. The Taliban failed to overcome the resistance of Ahmed Shah Masood and other commanders of the Northern Alliance.

The other reason seems to be to block the major trade routes between Afghanistan and the Central Asian States. They want to dry out the revenues for the Afghan government and choke Kabul by depriving it of important revenues, trade routes, and resources in the north. The northwestern province of Herat connects Afghanistan to Iran and Turkmenistan through vital border crossings.

So that is why the Taliban have made rapid advances in northern Afghanistan, considered the bastion of anti-Taliban forces known as the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance, a coalition of various factions primarily comprising ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, fought the Taliban in the 1990s. This prevented the group from overrunning the Badakhshan, Takhar and Panjshir provinces, where a rival government mainly backed by Russia and Iran was run.

But this time the situation is different. There is a towering figure like Ahmed Shah Masood to organise the resistance. The emergence of different militias cannot be ruled out in different provinces. The weakening of Afghan forces will encourage war lords to reorganise their groups and militias.

The Taliban have reportedly overrun large areas of rural northern Afghanistan. Many districts have apparently fallen in that area without much resistance. The Taliban have encircled many provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan after overrunning the rural districts. Taliban forces are said to have captured the entire key border crossing points with Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.

In the past four weeks alone, the Taliban have overrun scores of districts and virtually overtaken most trade routes, border crossings, and major roads in the region, prompting Afghanistan’s neighbors to turn to regional powers for help. The Taliban now claim to control some 100 districts in northern Afghanistan, in addition to 85 districts elsewhere.

The writer is a freelance journalist.