Rajat Sharma

Afghanistan under Taliban: the ground situation is scary

akb2711With the exit of US troops from Afghanistan and Taliban taking full control of Kabul airport, things are now moving fast. Taliban has started showing its true colours despite public announcements about following a moderate line. Taliban fighters have pasted notices outside the homes of those Afghans who helped the US, summoning them to attend “Taliban court” along with the threat to execute family members if they failed to do so.

There are reports that Taliban officials have accessed a huge biometric data base of nearly 40,000 Afghans who had helped the US and former regime. There are speculations that the Taliban may single out names of officials from this data base and carry out reprisals.

Meanwhile, the US President Joe Biden in his address to the nation a day after the unceremonious exit of US troops, said, withdrawal was the only best option before him. Biden said, “Leaving August 31 is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives. My predecessor, the former President, signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove US troops by May 1, just months after I was inaugurated.”

Biden said, “ …The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1 deadline that they had signed on to leave by, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces. But if we stayed, all bets were off. So we were left with a simple decision: Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops. Going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice. Between leaving or escalating. I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not extending a forever exit.”

The US President said, he took full responsibility for the decision. “I take responsibility for the decision. Now, some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and “Couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner?” I respectfully disagree. Imagine if we had begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war. There still would have been a rush to the airport. A breakdown in confidence and control of the government. And it still would have been very difficult and dangerous mission.”

Biden also gave an ominous threat to ISIS(K) terrorists. He said, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground, very few if needed. We have shown that capacity in just the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our service members and dozens of innocent Afghans. And to ISIS-K, we are not done with you yet.”

Biden’s promise notwithstanding, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is scary. There is huge scarcity of foodstuff across Afghanistan, with thousands clamouring for bread and food. There are visuals of huge crowd of Afghans fighting over a piece of bread. There are serpentine queues of people in Kabul and other cities, waiting outside ATMs to withdraw money, but most of the banks have run out of cash.

There are reports of Taliban fighters entering homes, dragging out people who had supported previous regime, and shooting them on the spot. Some have their tongues slashed. A popular Afghan folk singer Fawad Andrabi was executed 100 km away from Kabul. Taliban fighters went to his home, sipped tea with him, then dragged him out of the house and shot him in the head in front of a horrified crowd. There is a video of Taliban fighters with rifles standing behind a TV news anchor who was engaged in a debate with a Taliban sympathizer. The news anchor was shivering.

In mid-August, a female TV news presenter Beheshta Arghand interviewed a Taliban leader Mawlawi Abdul Haq Hemad, in the studio and after the interview, the female anchor quietly left the country. Beheshta said, she feared for her life and Kabul was no more safe for women.

The most amusing part is that while the ground situation is scary for Afghans, male and female alike, there are leaders in Pakistan, right from Prime Minister Imran Khan to cricketer Shahid Afridi who are praising Taliban. Afridi told Pakistani media, “Taliban have come with a very positive mind. They are allowing ladies to work. And I believe, Taliban like cricket a lot.” Afridi should visit Afghanistan and meet Afghan women to know what they think about Taliban.

It appears as if the Pakistani leadership has shut its eyes to the ominous dangers. Pakistani leaders are harbouring the illusion that the return to power of Taliban is surely a big badge of achievement for Pakistan army, a development that, they believe, can frighten India. Pakistani leaders are blindly supporting every move of Taliban.

There are Pakistani experts who claim that Taliban may stray to its old ways of torture and medieval tendencies, if they do not get support from the US, India and Pakistan. Pakistani leaders have gone to the extent of saying that if India refuses to recognize the Taliban, it may extend support to separatists in Kashmir. Such views are nothing but efforts to blackmail India. The harsh realities on the ground are that with Taliban in power, ISIS(K) active in the provinces, and Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba active, Afghanistan has become a breeding ground for terrorists

The US had to return from Afghanistan someday, but nobody ever imagined they would retreat in such a shabby manner. On the issue of troops withdrawal, all the three US Presidents, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, were on the same page. The US leadership was saying, enough is enough, after Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed, the Afghan army was trained and equipped by the US and a democratic regime was installed.

The overall sentiment of Americans was that there was no point staying in Afghanistan and suffering huge losses. The plans for withdrawal were being drawn since the days of Obama regime, but nobody expected the US to withdraw in such a haphazard manner, without a proper plan. Even the Taliban and the Afghan army did not expect the US to leave in such a haste. That is why when the last American military plane flew out from Kabul, there was jubilation and celebratory firing by Taliban all over Kabul.

Where does India stand in the midst of such developments? On Tuesday, the Indian ambassador in Qatar Deepak Mittal met Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai in Doha, following a request from Taliban side. Stanekzai promised the Indian envoy that the Taliban would ensure safety of all Indian nationals, safe passage for Afghans seeking to come to India and preventing Pakistan-based terror groups from using Afghan soil to target India. The proof of the pudding lies in eating. India will have to wait and watch.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not want to take any decision on Taliban in a hurry. He has already set up a high-level group consisting of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, and other PMO and MEA officials. This group will keep a close watch on developments in Afghanistan and then decide.

Modi has asked this group to chalk out India’s priorities in Afghanistan. This group is now preparing details of Indian nationals now stuck in Afghanistan, and suggest ways and means to deter Pakistani terror groups from launching attacks against India. As of now, most of the nations across the world including India are watchful about Taliban. They want to wait and see how the Taliban government works in the coming weeks and months.

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