What Taliban resurgence means for the region
Nazar Mohammad, popularly known as Khasha Zwan, was an Afghan comedian. On July 22, 2021, he was abducted from his home in the south of Kandahar by Taliban fighters. He was abused, beaten up and then shot multiple times. The comedian's crime? He was a member of the Afghan National Police, as alleged by Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson.
Khasha Zwan is one of the many victims of the Taliban's macabre revenge killings across Afghanistan. The resurgent Taliban is scouting for individuals who have worked for the Afghan government or been involved in actions against the Taliban.
With the US eyeing 9/11 of 2021 to completely pull out its troops from Afghan soil, after two decades of their eventful presence, the Taliban are increasingly gaining ground in the war-ravaged country. The terrorist outfit is becoming bolder in their ruthlessness. Earlier in the week, they launched rocket attacks aimed at Kandahar airport, apparently because the government had been using it to launch air strikes against the Taliban.
The Taliban now control a significant part of Afghanistan. Earlier in July, they boasted of controlling 85 percent of Afghanistan—a claim rubbished by the Afghan government. However, over time, the Taliban have spread their dominance in major parts of the country. Their aggressive attacks in the three major cities of Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah continue.
Amidst mounting tensions in the country, more than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the first half of 2021. Some 64 percent of these deaths have been attributed to anti-government forces by the UN. In the face of sweeping Taliban advances, more than 300,000 have been displaced, especially around Kunduz, Balkh, Badakhshan, Baghlan and Takhar. With brutalities on the rise across the nation, Afghan civilians are living in constant fear of retribution and mayhem. However, the resurgence of the Taliban is not only a matter of concern for the war-torn nation, but for Asia as a whole.
India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, among other nations, should be wary of these recent developments in Afghanistan. While the Chinese foreign minister officially met Taliban delegates in the Chinese city of Tianjin recently, it was not without its fair share of polite warning. China expressed that it feared Afghanistan could be used as a base by separatists, referring to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
While the Taliban delegation has "assured China that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China," as Al Jazeera quoted Taliban spokesman Mohammed Naeem as saying, one cannot fully rule out this possibility, especially amidst the chaos unfolding in the country. However, if China plays its cards right, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan could also lead to a new opportunity to expand its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Asia Minor through Afghanistan. This is unlikely to sit well with India.
India has fought its own battles with China and Pakistan and, over the years, endured some of the worst terrorist attacks in history. In the midst of fighting a global pandemic of epic proportions, the last thing it needs is another threat of terrorist resurgence close to home, or an alliance between Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. Such a scenario would be neither economically, nor politically, pleasant for India.
Bangladesh will have equally pressing concerns. With a history of Bangladeshis migrating to Afghanistan in the 1980s to join the Taliban in the anti-Soviet war and then returning to the country post-Soviet defeat—battle-hardened and well-trained in operating heavy arms—to create unrest internally, the country should be on the lookout to prevent this history from repeating itself. In 1992, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (Huji) was launched, and many of its members were said to be Afghanistan returnees. This militant outfit had been behind multiple militant attacks in the country between 1999 and 2005, killing more than a hundred people.
There are other militant groups in the country that might now be looking at opportunities to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban as well. It has been reported that three members of the militant group Ansar Al Islam have already travelled to Afghanistan, which the police are now investigating. And there remains the possibility of Bangladesh youth being groomed and recruited by militant outfits to join the Taliban. India is not immune to this threat either. In fact, with the internet enabling easy connectivity between people from various regions of the world, grooming and recruiting unsuspected youth have become easier than ever. And both these countries, along with Pakistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and others, should keep their guard up. All these countries have fought terrorist threats in the past and these separatist, terrorist elements might now see new opportunities with the resurgence of the Taliban.
While certain groups are accusing Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, strategically it is not a fruitful course for the nation, as it would pose significant internal security threats. In view of the worsening situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan's military and intelligence chiefs held a parliamentary committee briefing where all the political parties decided "to stand behind the army" in this situation, despite their political differences, as reported by the media.
It is to be noted here that the Afghan Taliban had earlier captured Spin Boldak bordering Pakistan and the situation there has been tense, resulting in closure of a crossing that was only recently reopened. In the midst of growing tension in the bordering regions, many are entering into Pakistan and Iran to flee persecution. While Pakistan and China's roles in handling the situation in Afghanistan are still vague, one hopes they will be able to assess the long-term repercussions of the Taliban's re-emergence and act in the greater interest of the region.
Observers are of the opinion that China and Pakistan are playing with a double-edged sword here. According to them, support for such a militant outfit offers both strategic threats and opportunities, but in the long run, the threats will outweigh the opportunities.
With the re-emergence of the Taliban, Afghanistan has become a potential hotbed for terrorism and criminal activities. If the Taliban is allowed to pursue this course with impunity, soon they will destabilise the country, posing a risk to the entire region. While considering the lack of control of the Afghan government in containing the situation, it has become important to initiate regional dialogues to support the Afghan government in curbing the growing encroachment of the Taliban.
The international community, especially Asian and South Asian countries, including China, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, should now look beyond individual interests and consider the long-term implications of a strong Taliban presence in Afghanistan. In order to fill the void left by the retreating western forces, a dialogue that includes all regional players and the Afghan government in achieving a consensus on concerted regional action to combat the deep-rooted Taliban influence has become imperative.
In the face of growing uncertainties, regional cooperation is the only way to achieve long-term stability in Afghanistan and the region as a whole.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb