By the evening of August 15, 2021, new reports of the Taliban seizing control of Kabul started appearing on various news portals. The victorious Taliban captured ARG[i] and several government offices in Kabul and declared the “war is over.”[ii]They stated, “We have reached what we were seeking, the freedom of our country and the independence of our people”.[iii]The same day, theUS Embassy lowered the American flag and relocated all its staff to the Kabul airport, thus bringing an end to the 20-year American era in Afghanistan.
Earlier that day it was reported that the Taliban had taken control of Jalalabad in the East, “without a fight”[iv] and the only major urban center that remained with the government was the capital. Within a few hours, the Taliban reached the outskirts of Kabul heightening fears that the city would collapse. Amidst the uncertainties, the Taliban issued a statement that the members of the group were ordered not to enter the city as the negotiations were undergoing at the ARG for a “ peaceful transfer of power” to the Taliban.[v] By the end of the crucial day, the head of the US-backed Afghan government Ashraf Ghani stepped down and left the country along with his National Security Advisor HamdullahMohib, on the ground that he wanted to “avoid bloodshed”.[vi]Following the collapse of the government and abdication by Ghani, former President Hamid Karzai assured the people of the country that he will not leave Afghanistan and that he was working to resolve issues with the Taliban through dialogue. Reportedly, Karzai along with Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, former mujahideen leader and chief of Hezb-e-Islami party Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have formed a Transition Council for a smooth transition of power to the Taliban.[vii]
The Taliban fighters made rapid advances across Afghanistan since May 2021, as the Biden administration rushed to meet the revised 9/11 deadline to withdraw US combat troops from Afghanistan, bringing the curtains down on arguably America’s longest and most expensive military intervention. By July, an emboldened Taliban was making unverified claims of seizing control of 85% of the country, including several districts and key border crossings. The Afghan government repeatedly dismissed those claims, highlighting that the Taliban’s gains have little strategic value on the premise that it did not manage to capture any provincial capital in Afghanistan and is struggling to take over the control of major population centres – where the fulcrum of the country’s post-US future lay. That narrative got a huge blow when on August 6, Zaranj - the capital of the Nimruz province on the Afghanistan-Iran border was the first to fall to the Taliban[viii]. Over the next few days, scores of provincial districts fell to the Taliban, in many cases, without a single shot being fired. It took less than two weeks to take control of 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, including important population centres like Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. [ix]Their rapid advance in Afghanistan especially in the period between July and August (as reflected in maps 1 & 2 below)caught everyone off-guard. While the successful takeover of the provincial capitals provided a significant breakthrough in the Taliban’s relentless attempts to increase pressure on the Afghan government and recapture power in the country, the reason behind the near-total surrender of the US and NATO trained and equipped Afghan army and police forces, the ANDSF without much fight ( with a few exceptions in Herat, Taloqan and Lashkargah), against an insurgent group that was far less in number, needs to be pondered upon.
Map1: Taliban control of Afghanistan (Aug16) Map2: Taliban control of Afghanistan (July 9)
The political and military realities in Afghanistan have been changing very quickly, more so over the past couple of weeks. Initial reports from Kabul indicated tension and fear among the common people about their future but serious incidents of violence were not reported in the city. Meanwhile, as the US and its allies scrambled to evacuate their staff, the Kabul airport was overwhelmed with thousands of Afghans hoping to flee the country. This created total chaos and resulted in the suspension of all commercial flights. Reportedly, due to chaos at the airport seven individuals were killed on August 16, although it was not clear whether the victims were killed by gunshots or in a stampede.[x] After the collapse of the Kabul government, the Taliban has become the de-facto rulers of Afghanistan raising questions over the fate of thousands of Afghans whose lives hang in balance as also of progress that was achieved over the past two decades.
Taliban’s messaging since capturing Kabul
Former US President Donald Trump’s administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 which stated that all US and international forces would withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. Trump’s successor, the Biden administration initially decided to “review”[xi] the agreement to see if Taliban was living up to the pledges it made. By March 2021, the Biden administration had come to the conclusion that the Taliban were willing for talks and that is when Biden administration’s blueprint for Afghanistan came to the forefront, which provided a 3-step pathway for peace in Afghanistan, namely (1) negotiations for an inclusive interim government (2) a ceasefire and (3) coming together of Kabul and the Taliban to discuss the future political system of Afghanistan.[xii] Now that the Taliban have captured the country and have claimed victory, the group will see no reason to adhere to Washington’s plan. Yet demonstrating strategic thinking at the top, the Taliban stated its willingness for “peaceful transfer”[xiii] of power in Kabul as opposed to seizure of power by force (as witnessed during their offensive in several districts and provinces).
They have been conducting an extremely sophisticated media and communications campaign in five languages (Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Arabic and English). Messages are being communicated via Twitter[xiv] to the Taliban Commanders instructing them to respect the “life, property and honor” of Afghans, assuring the international missions and charitable organisations that “no problem will be created for them on part of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Additionally, Mullah Yakoob’s[xv]( son of Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar and head of Taliban’s military commission) audio message instructing Taliban fighters “None has the right to go to anyone’s home. None has the right to take weapons or vehicles from homes of former officials” is noteworthy. Recently, the Taliban also declared “amnesty” across Afghanistan and urged women to join its government, in a bid to calm an anxious population.[xvi]These can be seen as overtures from the Taliban in order to make a point to the international community with the objective of gaining acceptability and legitimacy from them. In his first news conference[xvii] Taliban Spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, who had been a shadowy figure for years, doubled down on the Taliban's efforts to convince the world that the group that imposed a brutal rule on the country in the 1990s, now had changed. Mujahid promised that the Taliban would honor women’s rights, but within the norms of Islamic law and that the group wanted private media to “remain independent,” but stressed journalists “should not work against national values.” He further stated that the insurgents would secure Afghanistan — but seek no revenge against those who worked with the former government or with foreign governments or forces. Intriguingly, the symbols of the press conference[xviii] were rather important, he was keen to answer questions from Western media, he did not seem too keen to respond to the questions of the Afghan media and cut off some of their questions to take more questions from international media. Therefore, in some sense the messaging from that media conference was to the international community. The crisis in Afghanistan demands that the major stakeholders critically observe and asses the unfolding situation and the Taliban’s action on the ground in order to re-evaluate and re-shape their policy decisions. Given the nature of the fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan, it is difficult to predict with certainty the definite course that country will take in near future, nonetheless, this ICWA Issue Brief attempts to put forward three plausible scenarios for how the situation in Afghanistan might play out from here.
Scenario One: An inclusive political administration
On August 15, a delegation of Afghan leaders comprising of Speaker Ulusi Jirga Mir Rehman Rehmani, Salah-ud-din Rabbani, Mohammad YunusQanooni, Ustad Mohammad Karim Khalili, Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ahmad WaliMassoud, Abdul Latif Pedram, and Khalid Noor, went on a four-day visit to Pakistan[xix]. According to media reports, they were there to discuss the evolving situation in Afghanistan, transfer of power and establishment of an inclusive government with the Taliban, given Islamabad’s reported influence over the Taliban.[xx] According to reports,[xxi] both sides agreed that a negotiated political settlement would be the way forward. On August 17, Anas Haqqani, a Taliban commander and senior leader of the Haqqani Network militant group, held two meetings separately, first with Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah; second with Hekmatyar amid efforts by the Taliban to set up a government.[xxii] that discussion and negotiations with the members of Transition Council in Kabul can be seen as the beginning of the Taliban trying to signal to the international community that they will not just take power by force, they are going to try to form an inclusive administration. It is difficult to predict the shape of the government but the Taliban statements have indicated that it would be the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.[xxiii] The period after the return of this delegation from Islamabad will be crucial. Protracted negotiations about power-sharing, tax and resource distribution and cabinet slots can be expected. The Taliban would want high-profile cabinet positions such as Justice and Education, the roles that shape societies. The Taliban is likely to see merits in talks about government formation in order to hold off UN sanctions against them. Key figures of the recently formed Transition Council and members of the delegation to Pakistan are likely to play an important role in the negotiations. It is possible that the Taliban will agree to have a coalition government with broader representation after the transfer of power. The future dispensation might accommodate some of the key figures from the previous government in order to get recognition of the international community, however, what sort of influence/ power those figures will be able to exercise in the future government structure that would be dominated by the Taliban remains questionable.
Scenario Two: A non-inclusive dispensation
The discussion pertaining to a negotiated political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been doing rounds ever since the Trump administration struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020. The Doha negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul that began in September last year could not make any progress. The Taliban did not show much flexibility towards the demands of Kabul during the course of talks held at various venues. The Taliban at that time was dealing with an internationally-backed government, substantial Western troops were still present in Afghanistan, the Taliban controlled far less territory in Afghanistan. Today, the scenarios have drastically changed- the Afghan government has collapsed, Taliban have taken control of entire Afghanistan, with an exception of the Panjshir province; US troops have largely left- the ones who are present are mostly at the Kabul airport for evacuation purposes, embassies of the Western countries have shut operations and have moved to Kabul airport. It seems that there would not be any western military present beyond August 2021 and their diplomatic missions are likely to shrink substantially. Under the prevailing circumstances, barring the question of international legitimacy and international aid; why would the “victorious” Taliban show any inclination to accommodate members of the previous political order who have lost the battle to them remains questionable. In case the Taliban are inflexible, it might end up as a non-inclusive political entity, as was the case during its first stint in power. Washington on its part has stated that US and its allies would be “watching closely” and called for an inclusive new government in Afghanistan that respects human rights, including women’s rights, saying that the Taliban’s behavior will determine whether Washington will recognize any new administration in Kabul.[xxiv]It is evident that, if there emerges a scenario of a non-inclusive dispensation in Kabul, international recognition might not be forthcoming.
Scenario Three: A Crisis of Governance
The turn and pace of events in Afghanistan in the month of August surprised many. The lightning speed with which the Taliban took over the country’s crucial provinces and main population centers surprised even the members of the insurgent group.[xxv] It is possible that the Taliban themselves have not yet figured out what to do in terms of governance, except patrolling around the cities they have captured. Reportedly a senior leader said the group would wait until foreign forces had left before creating a new governance structure.[xxvi]The duration of the period of transition before the formation of the new government will be an important factor in determining if the Taliban military takeover will be followed by a daunting crisis in governance or not. Taliban had insisted on a vision for an Islamic Emirate based on their interpretation of the sharia Law. The Taliban certainly don’t have the sophisticated capacity to run a modern state. Moreover, it is important to note that it is a “movement” and not an apolitical party and that movement does bring together many different groups and factions who have conflicts of interest and have fought amongst each other in the past. These new groups like the Islamic State or Daesh, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tajik groups and groupings of Syria-returned fighters will have a critical influence in the future political order in Afghanistan. Although Taliban briefly talked about an inclusive government at their first formal press conference in Kabul, it did not talk about elections, therefore bringing accountability to a government imposed by force might be a challenge for them.
Recent trends indicate that the Taliban rule will lead to a mass exodus of skilled Afghans who could technically do jobs from policymaking to service delivery and development initiatives. However, flawed the past political dispensation might have been, the fact is that a generation of Afghans have been beneficiaries of modern values, democracy, rights and liberties and international exposure. Thousands of Afghans, who have been beneficiaries of the US-led era over the past 20 years and have contributed in the state-building mechanisms cannot identify with the Taliban’s ideals and values. If the new order fails to respect the basic freedoms and rights in Afghanistan that allow educated Afghans to live without fear of persecution, that might result in a humanitarian crisis. The way in which the Taliban have swept Afghanistan in a matter of days, the chances of an imminent civil war are limited. Yet the domination of one ethnic group might alienate some ethnic groups and lead to ethnic tensions in the country. Given their recent atrocities and repressive policies in the provinces they have captured, they are unlikely to attract significant donor aid and that would impact the economy adversely. Recent reports indicate that some resistance is being formed against the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley- the only district unconquered by the Taliban under the leadership of FirstVice President Amrullah Saleh who is being backed by Defence Minister Bismillah Mohammadi and Ahmed Massoud, the son of the slain Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Masooud during whose lifetime the Taliban could not conquer Panjshir Valley in its first spell in power from 1996 to 2001[xxvii]. It might take a while to understand how long it may take and how intense the resistance will be but even if it takes some time for routed anti-Taliban forces to regroup, a counter-revolution is a possibility unless a balanced and inclusive political settlement can be reached.
To conclude, it can be said that the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government and its military will spur endless postmortems about what went wrong and who to blame in the days to come. While the security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious, the immediate need is to ensure minimal humanitarian disaster. Recent overtures by the Taliban signaling a departure from its previous hardline approaches should be treated with caution. It would be imperative to test their ability to deliver on their promises. The period after the departure of American troops will be critical to understand the trajectory that Afghanistan will eventually take. The situation in Afghanistan is extremely fluid at the moment. It would take time for the transfer of power to take place and then a new government will be formed. It remains to be seen if any one the discussed scenarios will be the way forward for the war-torn country.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “Taliban enters Afghan presidential palace after Ghani flees.” Al Jazeera, Aug 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/15/taliban-continues-advances-captures-key-city-of-jalalabad(Accessed on 23. 8.2021)
[ii] Afghan president Ashraf Ghani flees country ‘to avoid bloodshed’ as Taliban enter Kabul.”Independent,Aug 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/central-asia/afghanistan-taliban-ashraf-ghani-flee-b1902917.html(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[iii] “Taliban says Afghanistan war over as president flees: Live”.Al Jazeera, Aug16, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/16/taliban-says-afghanistan-war-over-as-president-diplomats-flee(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[iv]Taliban seizes Afghanistan’s Jalalabad, cuts off Kabul from east. Al Jazeera, Aug 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/15/taliban-capture-afghanistans-jalalabad-cut-off-kabul-from-east (Accessed on 16.8.2021)
[v] “Afghan government handing power to Taliban.” Khama Press, August 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.khaama.com/afghan-government-surrendering-power-to-taliban-5474/?fbclid=IwAR3GHAXd2IGtdhzh-kJrb8TRzbEtke_EpNh_gL2xAvw3RfVoIZk8FsfdUFQ(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[vi]Afghan president Ashraf Ghani flees country ‘to avoid bloodshed’ as Taliban enter Kabul.”Independent,Aug 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/central-asia/afghanistan-taliban-ashraf-ghani-flee-b1902917.html(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[vii] “Afghanistan: Former president Hamid Karzai forms coordination committee for peaceful transition to Taliban regime after president Ghani fled Kabul”.Republicworld.com,August 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/rest-of-the-world-news/ex-afghanistan-president-hamid-karzai-forms-power-transition-council-wont-flee-taliban.html(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[viii] “Taliban Seize Afghan Provincial Capital Just Weeks Before Final U.S. Withdrawal”. The New York Times, August6, 2021. Available at:https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/06/world/asia/taliban-afghanistan-capital-zaranj.html. (Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[ix] “Taliban enters presidential palace as Ghani flees”.Al Jazeera, Aug 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/15/taliban-continues-advances-captures-key-city-of-jalalabad. (Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[x] “At least five killed at Kabul airport – witnesses. Reuters, August16, 2021. Available at:https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/least-five-killed-kabul-airport-witnesses-2021-08-16/(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xi] “Afghan war: Biden administration to review Trump's Taliban deal. BBC News, January 23, 2021. Available at:https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55775522.
[xiii] “Taliban await 'peaceful transfer' of power.”The Hindu, Aug 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/taliban-wants-peaceful-transition-of-power-in-days/article35924768.ece(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xiv] Twitter handle of SihailShaheen, Spokesman for international Media for the Taliban on Twitter, Aug 15, 2021 Available at: https://twitter.com/suhailshaheen1/status/1427287905635024907?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xvi] “Taliban announces ‘amnesty,’ urges women to join government.”Al Jazeera, Aug17, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/17/evacuation-flights-resume-as-biden-defends-afghanistan-pullout(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xvii] “Taliban offers amnesty, promises women’s rights and media freedom”. AL Jazeera, Aug 17, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/17/evacuation-flights-resume-as-biden-defends-afghanistan-pullout(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xviii]First Press Confrence Of Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, ARYNews,Aug 17, 2021. Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=671QInGBK0I
[xix]“Afghan delegation spotted at Islamabad airport on day Taliban took Kabul”. Indian Today, August 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/afghanistan-political-delegation-islamabad-airport-taliban-kabul-1841178-2021-08-15(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xx] “Afghan delegation spotted at Islamabad airport on day Taliban took Kabul”. Indian Today, August 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/afghanistan-political-delegation-islamabad-airport-taliban-kabul-1841178-2021-08-15(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xxii] “Former Afghan president Karzai meets Taliban faction chief - group official.”Reuters,Aug18, 2021. Available at:https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/former-afghan-president-karzai-meets-taliban-faction-chief-group-official-2021-08-18/
[xxiii] “Taliban to declare Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: Official.”The Times of India, Aug15, 2021. Available at:https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/taliban-to-declare-islamic-emirate-of-afghanistan-official/articleshow/85352655.cms
[xxiv] “US lays out conditions for recognizing a new Afghan gov’t.”Al Jazeera, Aug17, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/16/us-lays-out-condition-for-recognising-a-new-afghan-govt(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xxv] “Even the Taliban are surprised at how fast they are advancing in Afghanistan”. NBC News, Washington,June 25, 2021. Available at:https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/even-taliban-are-surprised-how-fast-they-re-advancing-afghanistan-n1272236(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xxvi] “Taliban announces ‘amnesty,’ urges women to join government. “AL Jazeera, Aug17, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/17/evacuation-flights-resume-as-biden-defends-afghanistan-pullout(Accessed on 17. 8.2021)
[xxvii] “An anti-Taliban front forming in Panjshir? Ex top spy Saleh, son of 'Lion of Panjshir' meet at citadel”. The Week, August 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2021/08/17/an-anti-taliban-front-forming-in-panjshir-ex-top-spy-saleh-son-of-lion-of-panjshir-meet-at-citadel.html. (Accessed on 17. 8.2021)