Afghans, who have been trying to be self-reliant, are unlikely to accept Taliban

APTOPIX Afghanistan Abrupt fall: Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul; person second from left is a former bodyguard for former president Ashraf Ghani | AP

THE TALIBAN HAS been breaking bread with terror outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba for far too long to say that it will not be a puppet government for Pakistan, where it was in exile in the past two decades.

Though it has taken over now, the Taliban is facing a challenge of acceptance not just within Kabul, but also in the vast swathes of Afghanistan where people have clung to hope of a better future for their children even amid drone strikes and bloodshed.

While military resistance might not be the Taliban’s biggest worry, the scale of and platforms for resistance are many, within and outside Afghanistan.

Matiullah Wesa, 29, has a message for the Taliban. “If the Taliban movement wants to end violence, war and destruction in Afghanistan, they should allow boys and girls to get educated, know their rights and the rights of others, which would in turn [make them] shun violence and extremism,” he told THE WEEK from Kabul.

Born in Kandahar province of Afghanistan, Wesa saw his school getting burnt in the 1990s and lost his cousin in a mine blast on the eve of Eid last year. He runs Penpath, an NGO that reopened many schools shut by war in rural Afghanistan.

The educated urban Afghans might not be against Islamisation, but history has taught them that nations are built by their own people; the Afghans have been trying to be self-reliant and self-sufficient for some time now.

Learning to live: Volunteers of Penpath, an NGO that reopened many schools shut by war in rural Afghanistan. Learning to live: Volunteers of Penpath, an NGO that reopened many schools shut by war in rural Afghanistan.

“Afghans do not like to have foreign troops in their country,” said Wesa. But at the same time, they also despise a Pakistan-controlled puppet regime and the return of terrorist forces to their land.

While the global community is aghast at the speed with which Kabul fell, the Indian security establishment is keeping its eyes peeled for any damage the Taliban might cause with Pakistan’s covert support.

According to latest intelligence reports, around 80,000 armed Taliban cadres, who were given refuge and training in Pakistan, are returning to Afghanistan after having developed kinship with the LeT and the JeM, which gave them supplies and services (health care and community support) during the long exile. There are also 1,000 to 1,200 LeT and 1,500 to 2,000 JeM cadres in Afghanistan, mostly in the eastern and southern provinces, respectively.

The reports, which THE WEEK has accessed, say that around 250 Pakistan army officers, across ranks, are involved in running the Taliban today. The veracity of this report was seen on August 17, when a major general-ranked Inter-Services Intelligence officer reportedly arrived in Kabul. “It is difficult to cut the umbilical cord with Pakistan. To gain support among people will be its (the Taliban’s) first challenge,” said a senior security official.

The reports say that the ISI is trying to bring together loose elements of Al Qaeda, Daesh, Islamic State Khorasan Province, Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi under the integrated command of the LeT and the JeM. The JeM, which was behind the 2019 Pulwama attack, has large drones, night-vision devices, thermal scopes, computers and communication sets. Pakistan, say the reports, has already started relocating training camps of India-centric entities of the LeT and the JeM to southern Afghanistan.

As per reports, the JeM is working with the Afghan Taliban; JeM commander Mohammad Ibrahim Azhar is supervising the overall ‘Afghan operations’. The JeM is regularly providing cadres—trained in Peshawar—to help the Taliban. Some of the Taliban shadow governors are apparently associated with the JeM.

Then there are outfits like the ISKP, which has claimed some of the major civilian attacks in Afghanistan of late. A senior officer said ISKP’s links with the ISI were exposed after some of its key leaders were killed in US drone strikes in Afghanistan.

In this deadly mix, the LeT's involvement reflects its wider jihadist rhetoric—it is supplying fighters to fight alongside the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. “The LeT has a presence in Nuristan, Kunar, Nangarhar, Mohmand, Khyber and Kurram regions,” said an intelligence input.

Former home secretary G.K. Pillai said it appeared that a backdoor deal was struck, which allowed the Taliban to move quickly. President Ashraf Ghani’s role is being questioned; his fleeing of the country quickened the fall of Kabul. Delhi, which had been closely working with the Afghanistan government to avoid a security nightmare in the region, did not expect that.

“The Taliban will try and show that it is a new Taliban,” said a senior intelligence official. “[It will claim that] different groups will be accommodated and communities will be represented, but as far as security is concerned, the command and control will be with the Taliban.”

Also worrying is the fact that all the arms and ammunition that the US gave the Afghan army over the years will now fall into the Taliban’s hands. This is bad news for Jammu and Kashmir in the immediate aftermath. “Kashmir is the favourite project of the ISI,” said Pillai. “Many of these fighters who are now armed with US-made weapons will be moved to the LoC to stoke unrest. The next few months will be critical for security forces as infiltration will start.”

Jammat-ud-Dawa chief and LeT patron Hafiz Saeed's fund collection and operations in Afghanistan and Kashmir are well-known.

And with Russia, China and Pakistan coming out to support the Taliban, India has more cause to worry. “These countries are filling the vacuum the US created. In the short term, Pakistan has gained with a display of strategic depth and has managed to keep India out.”

But in the long term, Delhi needs to maintain its goodwill towards the Afghan people, nurture the existing relationship and wait to see whether there is a backlash in Pakistan. The Pashtuns in the country's north-western region are holding Pakistan responsible for the deteriorating condition in Afghanistan. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, an anti-war group, has held massive rallies in the past few months condemning Islamabad's support to the Taliban.

A senior Pashtun leader from north Waziristan told THE WEEK: “The Taliban should be ready to fight elections and come to power. We will not accept rule by gun.” The leader, who has family in Afghanistan, demanded to know which country's passport the Taliban leadership was using when it was talking to the US in Doha and elsewhere.

“If Pakistan gave passports to Taliban leaders,” he said, “the onus is on Islamabad to maintain peace and not allow killings of our brothers and sisters.” He said they would continue the resistance even as several of their activists have been killed or are missing. “We are nationalists and we want development in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are against terror and killings.”

However, he added that Delhi had not supported them enough. With China's CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) interests prompting it to cosy up to the Taliban, he hoped India would wake up to the opportunity to protect its own interests.

Global intelligence agencies active in the region are alert. While a full-blown military resistance is unlikely, given that many of the forces are demoralised and the western forces are already tired, there will be, in all likelihood, a campaign of extermination in the coming months.

There were reports that forces close to caretaker President Amrullah Saleh moved from the Panjshir Valley (not under Taliban control till August 17) and attacked the Charikar district of Parwan province, north of Kabul, on August 17-18, while another force under Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum was planning an attack from the north, indicating a link up.

Amid all this uncertainty, the most vulnerable groups are women and children. Wesa is upset. “'The pull-out of US and international troops could have been done in a more orderly fashion, which would have created a safe environment for peace talks and the subsequent new government,” he said.

But he is determined to continue the door-to-door education campaign with 2,400 volunteers in 304 districts of 34 provinces, especially rural areas, to help Afghan boys and girls pursue education.

His organisation lost two members last month. “We will continue what we have done in the past and even increase our activities. We will encourage parents to allow their children, especially girls, to go to school,” said Azimaullah Zahid, a volunteer of Penpath.

Wesa, meanwhile, is applying for an Indian visa, hoping to get support to secure the future of his country and its children. He knows his efforts are a drop in the ocean. But like all Afghanis, he has learnt never to give up hope. “I request India and the international community to not abandon Afghan children and support their hopes and dreams,” he said.