Though looking for legitimacy, recognition and aid, Taliban remains cold to India & Iran
People favouring accommodation with India and Iran have been sidelined while a Tajik General is now Afghanistan’s army chief
When Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud withdrew to the legendry Panjshir valley with the “Resistance Militia” in August, there was excited chatter among experts, who thought something interesting was in the offing. Those reporting from inside Afghanistan knew there was really no hope in hell for the duo.
Sources tell me that despite his age, Massoud took a pragmatic line and wanted to strike a compromise but Saleh, who wants to assuage his ego by fighting to the last Afghan, presented a rather optimistic strategic picture to Massoud and dragged him towards a short but decisive defeat.
So how did the Taliban defeat the Resistance in Panjshir, a hitherto impregnable natural fortress that beat the Soviet Army’s foray as many as nine times? Well, that’s because this is not the 1980s and the Taliban are not foreigners.
One of the biggest achievements of the Taliban in the last few years has been its wooing of ethnic minorities, especially in the North. The Taliban were playing the long game, knowing that if and when it comes to power again, it cannot afford a protracted battle. It co-opted hundreds and thousands of Tajiks and Uzbeks in its ranks and it is these Tajiks and Uzbeks, under the leadership of a Tajik general, Qari Fasihuddin, now the Islamic Emirate’s Chief of Staff, who crushed the Resistance in Panjshir.
The Taliban also want to replace the old elite with their men. Qari Fasih is one name. Another one to watch is Hamid Khorasani. The Taliban co-opted Khorasani several months ago and the latter played a major role in the fall of Panjshir. Not only did he provide detailed maps of routes and strategic positions to the Taliban for the operation, but he also mounted massive sabotage operations behind Panjshiri lines, making the situation hopeless for them. He will be promoted as the new elite at the cost of Massouds and Rabbanis.
Qari Fasih is a military man, and while his aura will be used to accomplish other things, it is Khorasani who will be instrumental in which way the Tajiks go. After all, it is Khorasani who engineered the defection of several Andarabi and Panjshiri militias for the Taliban, that made the operation in the valley a cakewalk.
But can the Resistance be revived? That would depend largely on Iran. By relying on the fake videos generated by the Indian media vis-à-vis Battle of Panjshir, Iran jumped the gun and has riled the Taliban. While sources say that while most of this was posturing and that Iran only wanted to up the ante to secure its interests in Kabul, it certainly backfired badly. At least for the time being.
Taliban commanders, who Iran had carefully cultivated, namely Sadar Ibrahim, Daud Muzamil and Amir Khan have all been sidelined. Sources inside Afghanistan say that the Taliban made a volte-face and hardened its position because of the Resistance in Panjshir. While it initially wanted to accommodate many from their ranks, it couldn’t be seen getting arm-twisted in public especially after what it considers a glorious victory against NATO.
And thus, a clear signal was sent not only to the likes of Massoud and Saleh but to Tehran as well while the elevation of Qari Fasihuddin as the Chief of Staff is a nod to Tajiks, a signal that if they continue to repose faith in the Taliban, they would gain.
The irony is, by grossly over hyping Pakistan’s role in the Battle for Panjshir Valley, experts in the media may have helped Pakistan in ways that they don’t even realise. Members from “Doha Guard” who advocate less dependence on Islamabad had their wings clipped. Except for Sher Muhammad Stanakzai, who is a junior minister and Mullah Baradar, none have been given any role.
Overtly anti-Pakistan commanders such as Amir Khan, Gul Muhammad and Akhtar Mansour have been sidelined completely. As the propaganda war heated up around Panjshir, the Taliban looked towards its long-time benefactors in Islamabad, who were more than happy to make a foray in the breach.
This leaves Iran in a quandary. It shot itself in the foot. Unlike New Delhi, Iran had not put all its eggs in one basket; and on the eve of the withdrawal by US, its options were not as limited as India’s. However, it is looking towards an abyss now. It could have provided help to the Resistance in Panjshir while it was still possible, but it dithered. And then Tehran managed to rile the Taliban anyway.
Panjshiri militia is a spent force; scattered and cowering as of now. Considering the terrain, they will continue to prove a minor irritant for the Taliban, conducting small hit-and-run and ambush operations. However, there's no critical mass left there to change anything substantially. A small village here and an enclave there will keep changing hands but that's that. If Iran lends them any military support, it will become relatively deadlier, but not deadly enough to change the map of Afghanistan in any meaningful way.
Do remember that NATO with all its economic and military might couldn’t avert what was essentially a fait-accompli. What chances does Iran have now to undo this? Iran will mount a diplomatic challenge to win Kabul’s favour now but it knows that it is on the backfoot.
However, does this mean that the Taliban shall go unchallenged? No, far from it. But its nemesis is sitting not in New Delhi or Tehran now. It’s right there inside Afghanistan.
Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will up its ante. Now that the Taliban are in the government, ISKP are the insurgents. And they will use the same talking points, laced with the religious leitmotif that the Taliban had used, to recruit poor Afghans to swell its ranks. Also, scattered elements of Afghan Intelligence, ANDSF and other state militias will start joining ISKP in good numbers.
NDSF always had more than a working relationship with ISKP and well-informed Afghans accuse the former of using the latter not only for propaganda purposes but also for false-flag operations. It is on record that when the Taliban had cornered ISKP in Nangarhar and its total elimination was a fait accompli, NDSF engineered their “surrender”, evacuated them with helicopters and gave them a new lease of life.
It is also very likely that a section of disgruntled Tajiks will swell ISKP ranks now that all of the other organisations are in tatters. Contrary to what liberals believe, Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan are as conservative as Pashtuns, if not more. Those with their ears to the ground in Kabul will tell that every time Afghanistan has tried to modernise itself, the fiercest resistance came from the Tajiks. To think that Islamic State’s talking points would not attract them is to live in a fool’s paradise.
Where does that leave India now?
The Frankenstein in the form of mainstream media that the current dispensation in New Delhi has created is out to devour us. The hyperventilating and clueless anchors have poured cold water on India’s diplomatic offensive.
People like Baradar and Stanakzai were willing to accommodate India in a limited way to balance Islamabad but the role played by the Indian media during the Battle of Panjshir has not only severely set Indian interests back but has also helped Pakistan put leaders like Baradar, Mansour, Amir Khan and the likes in the dog-house.
Unless the Indian Government gets its act together and rein in the blood-lusting media, our defeats will become chronic.