The Islamic emirate has started warming up to several countries in the region, including India.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi
A few days ago, Taliban celebrated its first anniversary of the takeover of Kabul and the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A video showed Taliban fighters firing projectiles in the sky in the backdrop of a primarily derelict and badly illuminated Kabul. In many ways, that image is representative of what is happening in Afghanistan.
The last 12 months have been very difficult for the Taliban. While its victory over the Western forces and their Northern Alliance collaborators was spectacular, it has struggled to stabilise the country. Much of its problems, however, are of its own making, except the economic misery for which the blame lies largely on the US and the collective West.
What is worse is that the initial euphoria died rather soon as it realised that while the Northern Alliance was finished for all practical purposes, it left behind a bigger and bloodier problem in the form of Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). The way ISKP has expanded its reach and influence has scared the daylight out of the Talibs. They feel threatened both on the issues of security as well as legitimacy. Let’s examine the security aspect first.
ISKP’s swift expansion has both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban to blame for. The govt in Kabul in its final days tried to use ISKP as leverage against the Taliban. Not only were the cornered ISKP fighters evacuated from the hammer-and-the-anvil trap laid by the Taliban, but they were also allowed to regroup. This was done under the direct orders of the Afghan Intelligence and numerous photo and video evidences testify that.
But that was not the only factor bolstering its ranks. Defeated Tajik elements of the Northern Alliance joined its ranks in several hundred. So much so that sources in Afghanistan maintain that the ISKP has as many Tajiks now as it has Pashtuns. It also helped that the Taliban Fighters—not the most brainy people on the earth—broke open several jails during their blitzkrieg towards Kabul and released several hundreds of the most dreaded and skilled ISKP fighters who had been rounded up all these years.
Add to this the traditional Salafi bastion of Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan and Laghman. ISKP draws a lot from these provinces. And it has seen recruitment skyrocket recently. Primarily because the Taliban has little or no expertise to tackle insurgency and that’s why it targets the Salafi population with indiscriminate violence. This has forced many Salafists who need not necessarily sympathise with the ISKP to ultimately join their ranks, starting a cycle of violence that is feeding itself.
Then there’s the problem of ideological legitimacy as well. In this area, the ISKP is giving the Taliban a taste of its own medicine. Salafi clerics close to ISKP are criticising the Taliban for not being stringent enough in the implementation of Sharia. The general criticism of Hanafi jurisprudence has been applied to the Taliban as well. This is influencing a lot of more conservative youngsters to look at the Taliban as not sufficiently Islamic. A recent example was the way ISKP-aligned clerics and ISKP itself used the news about the Taliban restoring the bombed-out Sikh gurudwara in Kabul to paint it as murtad–apostate–of sorts. The gurudwara in question was targeted by ISKP last year.
However, here too the Taliban has acted more on its impulse than with thoughtfulness. Rather than co-opting the clerics, it has gone on to assassinate them. It all started with the killing of Abu Mustafa Darveshzadeh, a Salafi cleric active in Nangarhar and Kunar. However, he was comparatively a smaller fish. But then, in a step that makes no strategic sense, it went on and killed Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, who was almost universally regarded as the lodestar of Salafism in Afghanistan. This made ISKP go belligerent. Within a few weeks, in retaliation, ISKP killed at least seven Hanafi clerics, two of which were prominent names: Mullah Amir Mohammad Kabuli and Rahimullah Haqqani. Now, this cycle of violence has also taken a life of its own. The coming winters are feared to be really bloody for the clerics unless a behind-the-scene understanding to leave them alone is arrived at.
However, this is not the only headache the Taliban has. There’s another issue of Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). As the Taliban took over Kabul, it started posturing rather arrogantly. Not only did it not hand over the elements of TTP to Pakistan as the latter had demanded, it also started providing them sanctuary in some of the border provinces, especially in Kunar, Paktia and Khost. Pakistan witnessed an immediate rise in the cross-border TTP attacks in Kurram, Waziristan and Khyber Agency. So localised actions were taken, but it became amply clear to the Pakistani authorities that the behemoth was going to get out of control if cross-border actions weren’t taken. Since Imran Khan has little appetite for military action and is generally sympathetic to such elements, the Pakistan Army saw its hands tied.
The US-engineered post-modern coup, which was supported by at least the very upper echelons of the Pak Army, removed this hindrance. Sources say that the Taliban was asked to rein in the TTP but it feigned inability. This is where the behind-the-closed-door deal that the Army struck with the Americans came into play.
This untied the hands of the Pak Army as the subsequent actions also suggest – the killing of Zawahiri followed by the killing of some top commanders of the TTP. In case of Zawahiri, the drone used Pakistan’s air space. The official denial given by DG ISPR is interesting in its wording. The denial says that “Pakistani soil” was not used for the assassination. Of course, it was not. This is just a wordplay. It was the Pakistani airspace that was used. However, since such a distinction could not be understood by the hoi polloi, the Establishment appears to have assuaged the concerns of the masses. On the other hand, the unmistakable message that nothing is off-limits reached Kabul.
Almost immediately, one of the top commanders and the main strategic brains of the Hafiz Gul Bahadur faction of TTP, Yasir Parakay, was gunned down in Afghanistan. In the weeks that followed, another three commanders were liquidated. All three of them were considered quite senior in rank. What was interesting was the use of small arms in these assassinations. And in all four cases, the assassination took place when these commanders were away from their bastions in Kunar, Paktia and Khost. In fact, all those killed were targeted when they were either in Kandahar, Kalat or Spinboldak. Unlike in Kunar, Paktia and Khost, Pakistan’s agencies have good assets in these cities and they use them to good effect.
However, sources have also mentioned a more worrying situation for the Taliban. Earlier this week, a TTP commander whose name has not yet been revealed, was assassinated in a safe house in Helmand by a drone strike, not by small arms like in the previous four cases. While Pakistan has the wherewithal to execute such an operation, sources are pointing towards American involvement – a sort of quid pro quo for helping the Biden Administration assassinate Ayman al Zawahiri. What is particularly shocking for the TTP is that this commander was one of the three sent by the outfit to Afghanistan to find out how Pakistan got to Yasir Parakay.
That both Pakistan and the Taliban are quiet on this latest assassination is indicative that the medium itself was a message here and it has reached where it was supposed to. Such is the fear in the ranks of the TTP that its leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud has been sent to an isolated place with very little or no contact with the rank and file. The Taliban, on the other hand, has also been told that such operations could be executed in Afghanistan with or without their formal cooperation.
On the political front, the Taliban has reached out to several countries in the region including India but New Delhi remains cautious. The Taliban is in an unenvious position because of the security and financial issues facing it. So much so that a spokesperson on Al Jazeera admitted that the group had no problem with Israel and might be open to a rapprochement. It has seen the example of Sudan were establishing ties with the Zionist regime helped the former get off the hook on the issues of terrorism. Looks like someone in Kabul is taking a page out of the same handbook.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi has covered The Greater Middle East for over 15 years and has reported from Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem among other places.