Ten days that shook the world

Ten days that shook the world
The Afghan Taliban talked and fought. They won. The Americans talked and ran. They lost. The end was foretold in 2020 when President Donald Trump announced an exit from Afghanistan without installing a broad-based, inclusive interim government in Kabul. But few – certainly not President Biden who actually gave an unconditional cut-off date in September for full withdrawal but believed that the Afghan National Army could fight on for another year at least -- expected the ANA to fold and President Ashraf Ghani to flee in ten days. This followed the last round of talks among the internal and external stakeholders in Doha, August 10-11.

​The Taliban’s brilliant strategy was based on the basic principles of guerilla warfare -- gain Time to capture Space and use Space to erode the Will of the enemy to fight. This theory was first successfully enunciated by Mao Tse Tung in China in the 1930s and then by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam in the 1960s. For a decade after their rout in 2001, the Taliban regrouped and reorganized on both sides of the Pakistan border, becoming bolder and more aggressive after 2010. But after signing the Agreement with the US in 2020, they dragged Time to forestall any US-selected “inclusive” government in Kabul while focusing on capturing Space in north Afghanistan – ethnically hostile regions led by warlords who had challenged and undermined their power in 1997-2001. Their tactics of talking and fighting on the front lines – “the Americans are leaving, lay down your weapons, surrender and go home, we won’t exact revenge or hurt you” – paid huge dividends. In the last stage, when the Americans began to progressively pull air support, commanders, trainers, contractors, and air supply lines to distant front lines were severely disrupted, the ANA lost critical elements of the war machine manufactured by the Americans, and crumbled. It didn’t help that massive corruption in the Ghani regime, including in the ANA, was a core demotivating factor, no less than the frequent shuffling of military commanders from the Presidency. The Taliban encirclement of Kabul was complete after the provincial garrison towns surrendered one after another and American soldiers caught their last flights home.

​The biggest strategic mistake Ashraf Ghani made was fighting with Pakistan, a key stakeholder, and flirting with India, a distant spoiler. Pakistan’s stake in Afghanistan, for various reasons right or wrong, is forty years old. If Kabul couldn’t be overtly friendly with Islamabad, it should not have been overly hostile to it. Thus Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban became natural covert allies. The Americans, too, lost sight of the ball when they signed the 2020 Agreement by rejecting the Taliban’s demand to replace Ghani with an acceptable transitional option. What next?

​In America, President Biden – who was banking on popular goodwill for “bringing the boys home” by ending “America’s longest war” – is besieged with a popular backlash at another “Saigon moment”. Approval for his exit strategy has fallen radically among Democrats and Republicans from over 70% to under 50%. This implies that America might scapegoat Pakistan for its defeat. The anti-Pakistan narrative of “safe havens”, “Haqqani network is a veritable arm of the ISI”, “double-crossing”, etc, is already well established. If pushed, it could estrange Islamabad and derail international efforts to  stabilize Afghanistan under an inclusive regime with regard for core human rights.

​In Afghanistan, the Taliban 2.0 can be expected to establish only a minimally acceptable inclusive regime with substantive levers of policy and power in their own hands. Initially they will try and run the country with an Amir ul Momineen or Supreme Leader at the helm of a handpicked Council of Ministers along the lines of Iran immediately after the Islamic Revolution. They will also crave international recognition and legitimacy by assuaging the fears of the regional powers – Russia, China, Iran, Central Asian States and Pakistan – by pledging economic cooperation and ending safe havens for regional militants, insurgents and separatists based in Afghanistan. For the international community, they will try to square their idea of human rights in an Islamic regime with Western notions of freedom and democracy.

​These factors are going to make or break the Taliban 2.0 regime. Al-Qaeda, TTP, ETM, IS, Daesh, Baloch separatists, etc., will not be easy to knock out or neutralize quickly. Their ranks have been swelled by the thousands of prisoners who have been released. If they continue to spill over across borders, tensions with neighbours will arise. If any Al-Qaeda attack on US soil is uncovered with footsteps going back to Afghanistan, America will come under pressure to exact revenge again.

​There is also the factor of Afghanistan 2.0. In the last two decades a new generation of Afghans has grown up in the light of secularism, media freedoms, women’s rights and information revolution. If the Taliban try to scuttle these in any brutal or swift manner, there will be a definite reaction at home and abroad with blowback consequences. Afghanistan 2.0’s economy -- its financial system, education, administration and infrastructure , forex reserves, etc -- are totally dependent on American largesse and aid.

Finally, much will depend on the experience and wisdom of the three top Taliban leaders who will guide Afghanistan into a new age. Their reputations and credentials precede them. The Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, was “an enthusiastic proponent of suicide bombings” who ordered his own son to blow himself up in an attack in Helmand province. He is also the strategist who fashioned the “talk talk, fight fight” strategy which proved so successful in the end. Sirajuddin Haqqani, number two, has been the “most dogged opponent” of the US who concentrated on “complex suicide attacks and targeted assassinations”. Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is the leading Presidential candidate, has served a decade in Pakistani prison on the say-so of the Americans.

​Pakistan is poised to win or lose big time. If Taliban 2.0 neutralize anti-Pakistan elements based in Afghanistan and facilitate the Pak-China CPEC corridor to Central Asia and the Central Asian rail, road, gas and oil corridor to South Asia, it will reap enormous dividends. But if the Taliban victory and American defeat raise the spectre of Islamic radicalism inside Pakistan either by emboldening disgruntled religious elements like the TLP or TTP or by triggering an anti-American populist wave that isolates Pakistan in the international community, the outlook will be bleak. Pakistan’s economy is totally dependent on the goodwill of the West and its civil society is sufficiently developed to resist any radical “Islamist” encroachments on their democratic freedoms.

​If the road to a Taliban victory in Afghanistan has been long and hard and bloody, the road ahead is neither secure nor assured. The predominantly Pashtun Taliban constitute only a small percentage of the 45-50% Pashtuns of Afghanistan. The other Pashtuns and ethnic regions may have surrendered to the Taliban military juggernaut but if they are not made real stakeholders in an inclusive broad based political and administrative state system, tribal revolts and foreign interventionists will start brewing once again in the bowels of Afghanistan.


Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.