Playing with fire

September 5, 2021

The Taliban are on a quest to wash their image clean and form a new ‘inclusive’ government. Some analysts see a dangerous game

Playing with fire

A swift takeover of Afghanistan is as surprising for anyone as it is for the Taliban themselves. But as the dust of this utter “surrender and collapse” of a US-backed regime settles down, there are haunting questions about the viability, validity and vacuity of a Taliban-led Afghanistan. The Taliban, to the best of their ability, are luring domestic and international support to form a government which can help them cover up their past and get them enough financial, moral and social support to remain in power.

No matter how successful the Taliban have been so far in showcasing their soft image to the world during and after this takeover, the test of their capacity, resilience and magnanimity will start once they unveil their “inclusive” government to let the world and the internal opposition assess and react. Reports indicate that they are struggling on these fronts because the United States, the European Union, key NATO countries and Russia are holding their bets and demanding that the Taliban ‘earn’ their legitimacy. China remains indecisive but hopeful. Pakistan is doing everything short of claiming a victory in the sub-continental context. The OIC, through Saudi disinterest, seems to have avoided taking any position on support for the Taliban.

All eyes are on these Guantanamo-hardened warriors in terms of how they will manage a country known for nothing but a war either with an intruder or within. The country has hardly ever been under any one rule since its demarcation under the 1919 Rawalpindi Treaty between the receding British Empire and the then Afghan-warrior-turned-king Amman Ullah.

The crumbling of a government in Kabul is not new to Afghanistan. Senior war-hardened commanders I came across during my stay in the country in recent years, believe that the age-old dictum “live to fight another day” fits all warring parties in Afghanistan. They might make an intruder feel like it will be a walk in the park as they vanish into their safe havens. Once the euphoria of the success gets to the intruder’s head, they wage a guerrilla, tactical war that leads to enough harm to persuade the intruder to leave. Once the foreign object is out of the way, Afghans use the weapons and the cultivated military might to dictate the terms of settlement at the local level.

Prime Minister Sardar Daud Khan had orchestrated an almost identical bullet-less takeover in 1973 by formally ending the monarchy and declaring a Republic of Afghanistan. Even then, infighting was an absolute constant during his tenure. It was this Afghan-infighting that raised the hopes of the USSR which landed its armies only to see the pitching of a Mujahideen-force with massive US greenbacks, salafis fed by Saudi Riyals and royals, and Pakistan’s nurturing of them in pursuit of strategic depth for itself.

Given this context, the abdication by a 309,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANF) makes sense. Many of them have crossed over to neighbouring countries (Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan). Thousands have joined the only remaining ‘bastion of resistance’ Ahmed Masoud’s ranks in Panjshir Valley. Ahmad Masoud, a 32-year-old, is the only son of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the revered local warrior who was killed days before 9/11/2001. Like his father, he is offering himself to the West, the US in particular, for backing him up against the Taliban and vowing not to surrender. In his recent article, appearing in The Washington Post, he has appealed to the US and the West not to leave him alone because no matter what he will not surrender to the Taliban. His father, Ahmed Shah Masoud is remembered for offering stiff resistance to the Taliban during their 1996-2001 rule. Even after his demise, his forces, leading the Northern Alliance, had remained the only on-ground ally of the US after 9/11. Masoud’s son is a Sandhurst-trained graduate in war studies from King’s College, London. He holds a master’s degree in international politics from University of London.

Former First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, former Second Vice President Rashid Dostum and former Balkh Governor Noor Mohammad Atta are all in touch with Masoud hoping to form a joint front to negotiate with or resist an Islamic fundamentalist government led by the Taliban.

Khalid Noor, 27, the youngest member of the deposed Afghan government delegation for intra-Afghan talks in Doha last September and son of Atta Mohammad Noor, confirming the formation of a National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) to the Western media, was quoted as saying, “At his point, the Taliban are very, very arrogant, because they just won militarily. We are assuming that they know the risks of ruling the way they did earlier.”

Despite a commitment to negotiations with the Taliban, Noor said there was a “huge risk” that the talks could fail, leading the group to keep the option of an armed resistance against the Taliban open. He said a “surrender is out of the question for us.”

Based on initial reports from various parts of Afghanistan, especially the northern and western provinces, a rebellion is all set and waiting in the wings to see the announcement of a new government in Kabul and how the Taliban pan out their policies towards the mosaic of ethnic, cultural, religious and traditional warlords. Sources close to these developments say the Taliban have been proactive in making sure that they manage to engage all the warring factions and give representation to all key parties. The caveat remains that they cannot make everyone happy because if they are trying to engage the warring factions, the ethnic and linguistic issues keep popping up. The control of high-yield trade routes is a bone of contention amongst the parties.

The Taliban are currently utilising the services of Hamid Karzai, Afzal Khan, Abdullah Abdulah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to engage with the key parties to ensure that they can form an inclusive government. However, they have internal fissures to manage as well.

They have thus far been very accommodating to the requests of the US and European administrations to help them with evacuation of as many officials and their human resource liabilities out of Afghanistan as possible in the hope that this will earn them some legitimacy and result in unfreezing of foreign exchange reserves and resumption of humanitarian and governance aid. None of these things has happened so far, but the Western media has not been able to bad mouth the Taliban as openly so far as in 1996.

Sources close to the negotiations say the Taliban have yet to make a breakthrough in talks with Ahmad Masoud and Amarullah Saleh. A delay in finalising the structure of the government can provide breathing space to the opposition forces and help them broaden their network by reaching out to disgruntled youth and even the IS-K. Sources in Balkh says many of the deposed governors and tribal chiefs are poised to join Masoud and Amarullah-led resistance front.

The first challenge for the Taliban leaders is to dispel the negative image about the group that is making many to worry about the safety and security of the youth, women and those who have been working for foreign armies and organisations. Another issue is the functionality of the government structure. Many government employees have not been paid their salaries for the past three months.

Sources in Afghanistan says in Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar and the needs of Helmand the Taliban have got access to electronic databases of the interior ministry so that they are no longer resorting to house to house searches. Instead, they are picking up those considered the major beneficiaries or aides of the Ghani government and taking them away for interrogation.

Another issue is their ability to govern. Senior officials of the previous government say the Taliban may be good warriors but they have hardly any experience of running a government responsible for the needs of 38 million people.

Many of the Afghan youth, a majority of the population, are uneasy with the idea of living under a Taliban government having grown up in post-2001 era. Many have been working either for the government or for some Western entity. If the Taliban cannot calm their jitters, they are likely to try and flee, failing which they might become ready fodder for the opposition.

The author is a senior journalist and can be reached via

Playing with fire