By Sankar Ray
With the end of 20 year war and occupation by the US forces in Afghanistan as the latter officially ended its military presence in war-raked Afghanistan ending America’s longest war, the Taliban 2.0 will have a free hand to decide which way the new regime will go. The US military C-17 took off from Kabul, the Afghan capital and concluded a chaotic airlift, evacuating more than 120,000 civilians although thousands of others were stranded in the war-torn country.
But the intolerant attitude of the Taliban is from day one – September the 1st – explicit , the proof of which is the video clip showing a US Black Hawk helicopter that flew over Kandahar a body hanging from a rope below. Significantly, Muhammad Hassan Ilyas, a Pakistani theologian, in an opinion piece reminded Islamic leaders and the concerned that Quran (Ashura; 83:38) states. “And their system is based upon mutual consultation.” This is addressed obviously to the Taliban.
Apparently, the Taliban regime will not be friendly towards India or unfriendly towards Pakistan since Pakistan has resolutely supported the Taliban since 1996 and India has consistently backed the US-installed anti-Taliban governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. But the Taliban 2.0 will be predictably distinguishable from the pre-2001 Taliban rule. The Western perception hinges on the possibility of a major transitional shift from opium-based economy into one of economic development with emphasis on infrastructural growth. Which is precisely why Taliban 2.0 may extend olive branch to India which has invested around $ 3 billion in Afghanistan. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lays faith in the Taliban’s spokespeople’s assurance that Afghanistan would cease to be a hub for growing opium and trading drugs as a step ‘indicative of a right way forward.” But sceptics among specialists do not indulge in all such wishful thinking.
Diplomatic circles have to await the scale of change that the Taliban plan to transform the Afghan economy away from narcotics and towards other agriculture or industries. But it is unrealistic to expect that land reform is on the cards. The new Afghanistan will have to keep opium trade intact for several years ahead. Remember the bitter experience by the British team that paid the Afghan poppy farmers for destroying their crops. But this experience backfired as those farmers increased poppy harvest next year— which only encouraged them to grow more the next season.
Later when the US government eradicated poppy fields without compensation, the farmers got infuriated and sided with the Taliban. For the Taliban 2.0, the main headache is how to do away with opium-obsession. And one can’t agree more with Julia Buxton, professor in drugs policy at the University of Manchester who points to “catastrophic failure” in the past in efforts to curb drug production. But the new Taliban leadership has leant from the self-destructive excessive patronage to opium cultivation that served the interest of ethnic overlords international Islamic terrorists.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan Niazi has been wooing the Taliban top brass from the day he praised the Afghan Taliban(distinctively different from the Pak Taliban) for “breaking the chains of slavery” after seizing Kabul. But he seems unaware of the next move the new rulers in Kabul. The gunfire from across the Afghan border that killed two Pakistani soldiers in Bajaur district and as per intelligence reports, Pak army troops liquidated at least two terrorists, aside from injuring a few terrorists. Bajaur is one of the lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border, sheltering fighters, including the Pakistan Taliban that revalidated its allegiance to the Taliban in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul. Thus Islamabad is on pins and needles.
Nevertheless Pakistan-Taliban relationship is unlikely to be strained as the two leaderships have a past history of camaraderie. Islamabad has to shoulder the burden of three lakh Pashtun refugees only to keep the Taliban in good humour. Even then the Pak authorities, especially, the ‘miltablishment’, will remain tensed up until the formation of new government. The likely triumvirate comprises Haibatullah Akhundzada, supreme commander, more known as a religious leader than a military commander, Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy leader who is likely head the next government and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of designated terrorist group, Haqqani Network, and second deputy Taliban leader.
Baradar was closely associated with Osama bin Laden and co-founder of the Taliban along with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed cleric who was the group’s first supreme leader. But Baradar was captured in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2010 and kept imprisoned for eight years. The billion dollar question is whether Baradar will forgive and forget the unfriendly experience.
The Taliban brass have reasons to restrict poppy cultivation since they profited much less from the narcotics industry than their enemies in the former Afghan government. Rather more lucrative has been the cross-border trade in legal goods, such as fuel and consumer goods. Moreover, opium prices are lower than they have been for more than a decade, cannabis prices have fallen these last few years, and the margins on methamphetamine – a relatively new drug in Afghanistan’s portfolio – are less than $30 per kilogram. In 2020, Afghan farmers harvested about 2,300 tons of opium, according to the UN estimates. That accounts for over 90 per cent of illicit global supply of and 95 per cent of UK market. However, bigger profit margins on crystal meth drive an Afghan boom in the cultivation of its origin ephedra plant too. But the benefits are reaped by non-Afghan interests.
The three main neighbours, China, Pakistan and India, have to await whether and how the new strain of Afghan rulers perceive the scale of change needed to transform the Afghan economy away from narcotics and towards other agriculture or industries. But this writer doesn’t agree that land reform is in the agenda in the near future. The Taliban are yet to make any policy commitments to any of stakeholders so far. The unstable situation on the economic, political and military fronts doesn’t spiral out of hand.
Two opposing tendencies are likely to prevail in the coming weeks and months as the regional powers and international community will try to bully the Taliban to “do more” with offerings of carrots and threat of sanctions. The Taliban have to back down and negotiate for peace. Tensions will mount as the terrorist groups like IS and Al Qaeda will leave no nerve unstrained to thwart these efforts, exacerbate tensions and strains between the stakeholders. Pakistan will be used as the area for retreat and there is no shortage of wannabe Taliban from the hitherto vexed neighbour of Afghanistan.
But Afghanistan under Taliban is like an algebraic lemma with more variables than number of equations, meaning that indeterminates are to call the shots. Screenshots showing TV news readers at Taliban gun points suggest hindrances for transition, despite assurances. (IPA Service)