Taliban uses quick battles, slow negotiations to take territory and gain legitimacy

AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT/ Fear in the air: Supporters of the Taliban near the Friendship Gate crossing point in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman | Reuters

When the Taliban captured Spin Boldak, a town in the southern Kandahar province bordering Pakistan, in 1994, not many people took notice. But the battle made history later as it was the first military success of Mullah Omar, the founding leader of the Taliban. The group captured the town once again on July 14, repeating Omar’s tactics.

Spin Boldak is the latest in the series of border towns that fell to the Taliban in the past one month. It started with Sher Bandar Khan on the border with Tajikistan on June 22. The next ones to fall were Islam Qala close to Iran and Torghundi on the Turkmenistan border. “The Taliban has modified very smartly,’’ said Rakesh Sood, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. “Back in the 1990s, it was unknown and untested. Now it is a seasoned entity. It has run the country for six to seven years, lived through an insurgency and has run shadow governments. But the Taliban’s ideology remains the same. It has not given us any indication that it has changed.’’

The taking of the border posts is part of a calculated plan. In 1994, when Omar captured the Spin Boldak crossing, he had help from Pakistan. And history seems to have repeated. “The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is involved,” said Sood.

Islam Qala hit headlines in February after a blast destroyed oil tankers, causing a loss of $100 million. It is one of the busiest transit ports in Afghanistan, which generated revenue over $1.3 billion in 2019.

“The idea is not only to deprive the government of aid, but also hem it in further and stop regional allies from sending military equipment,” said Jonathan Schroden of the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). “The government had a chance to reset its posture as the US started to withdraw, but it failed to do so. That left a lot of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) positions in rural areas bereft of support. The Taliban sensed those weaknesses and pounced. What is interesting is that it pounced mostly in the north—that caught people by surprise. It is clearly a strategic move, designed to pre-empt militia networks.’’

The Taliban is now within touching distance of being the rulers of Afghanistan once again, and this time perhaps with political legitimacy. “The 1990s experience of being a pariah was a bitter one,’’ said Ibraheem Thurial B., independent researcher with the International Crisis Group. “The Taliban is desperately trying to have regional legitimacy, if not international legitimacy.”

The organisation’s supreme commander Hibatullah Akhundzada indicated as much in his Eid message. “In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement,” he said. Sood said Akhundzada’s message could be a tactical move and an indication to wait till the Americans left. Yet, with its gains over the past few weeks, the Taliban is now in a position to set the agenda for future negotiations. “The concessions it was willing to make in 2014, [were not on the table] in 2020 because it was in a stronger position,” said Thurial. “And the concessions that it would be willing to make now will be nowhere near what it offered last year.”

The military offensive is deliberate. “The Taliban will continue to push where it thinks it can make easy gains, but it is unlikely to mass fighters against major cities or ANDSF strongpoints because they will get decimated by airstrikes,’’ said Schroden. “Instead, the strategy now is a continuation of what it has been doing for years: surround, isolate, and choke the cities in an attempt to get them to capitulate without a fight.”

In 1994, Omar captured the munition dump at Spin Boldak before he marched to Kandahar, the second largest city. Kabul fell on September 26, 1996. This time, the conquest has been quicker, and without much of a fight.

Thurial said the Taliban had a clear strategy in seeking surrenders. “It sends intermediaries or village elders or the group’s own commanders to negotiate surrenders. In most cases, it treats soldiers well and gives them money for not returning to the battlefield. We have seen an unprecedented number of people surrendering. Had the Taliban gone by the Islamic State model of executing everyone, it might not have had the same success. In the 1990s, it treated soldiers harshly.”

The plan seems to be working. In a short span, 13 of 15 districts in Herat have fallen. The city remains with the government, but only just. The Taliban’s quick victories also point towards the lack of investment in building Afghan capabilities. “Say, there are 50 Afghan fighters with tanks, Humvees and machine guns. But 20 Taliban fighters may come and take away everything,” said Arash Yakin, a counterterrorism researcher based in Washington, DC. “From 2010 to 2012, the focus in military training was on quantity, while quality went down. President Obama wanted to get out. Also, a lot of investment was in Kabul, and not in the remote areas.”

The military strategy is only a small part of the Taliban game plan. The larger aim is to have a seat at the high table with the international fraternity.

“Pakistan is playing the long game,” said Sood. “The Pakistanis provided the Taliban with safe havens and sanctuaries and waited. The first indication of the change came in 2011 when Obama’s secretary of state Hillary Clinton changed the preconditions for the talks with the Taliban into outcomes of the talks. It was stage one of ensuring legitimacy. The next stage came when it opened the Doha office. There was a lot of uproar about it, but the Taliban had a foot in the door.” It was followed by talks okayed by the Obama administration and the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the special representative for Afghan reconciliation by president Donald Trump.

Battle tactics apart, can the Taliban establish a successful administration? Experts say it will depend on the unity of the group. “The Taliban could be considered the most united political movement in Afghanistan,’’ said Thurial. Mullah Omar’s death resulted in a power struggle between his son, Yakub, and Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Yet, most commanders stayed on as they realised that breaking away would push them into political irrelevance. “But that is not to say that in the future, if the Taliban joins a hybrid system with different actors, it would not splinter,” he said.

Sood believes that there may be fissures that will surface. “We would like that to happen now. But the Pakistanis will want them to emerge later,” he said.

Being relegated to the margins, India has no option but to wait. There are reports that India has reached out to moderate elements within the Taliban, like Mullah Baradar, one of the cofounders of the group. But the ministry of external affairs and the Taliban have denied it.

The Afghan government, which is clearly on the back foot, wants India in its corner. Afghan army chief General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai is expected to visit India on July 27. It is no secret that Afghanistan is keen on procuring military equipment from India, but New Delhi has, so far, been reluctant to oblige. With Kabul in danger, the Afghan government is looking for assistance from every possible corner. Unlike during the Taliban takeover of the 1990s, the Afghan army still stands, and it remains the only buffer between the Taliban and Kabul.