All eyes on shape and form of new Taliban regime in Afghanistan with the US finally out of the picture

Regional powers and international community will try to persuade Taliban to conform to their expectations using the stick and carrot method, but nobody can predict how things will pan out

Representative Image
Representative Image

Sankar Ray

With the end of a 20 year war and occupation by the US forces in Afghanistan, Taliban 2.0 have a free hand to decide which way the new regime will go. The last US military C-17 took off from Kabul, the Afghan capital on August 30, after it conducted a chaotic airlift, evacuating more than 120,000 civilians although thousands of others remain stranded in the war-torn country.

The intolerant attitude of the Taliban is visible from day one – September the 1st – with a video clip showing a US Black Hawk helicopter that flew over Kandahar with a body hanging from a rope below.

Significantly, Muhammad Hassan Ilyas, a Pakistani theologian, in an opinion piece, reminded Islamic leaders that Quran (Ashura; 83:38) states, “And their system is based upon mutual consultation.” This is addressed obviously to the Taliban.

It’s quite likely that the Taliban regime will not be friendly towards India and tilted towards Pakistan since the latter has resolutely supported the Taliban since 1996 and India has consistently backed the US-installed 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 might extend olive branch to India which has invested around $ 3 billion in Afghanistan.

The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lays faith in the Taliban 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 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 of the British team that paid Afghan poppy farmers for destroying their crops. This 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 Taliban 2.0, the main headache is how to do away with the 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. Once only hopes the new Taliban leadership has learnt from the self-destructive excessive patronage to opium cultivation that served the interest of ethnic overlords and 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 they seized Kabul. But even he can’t predict the next move by the new rulers in Kabul.

Already, in one incident, gunfire from across the Afghan border 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.

Nevertheless, the Pakistan-Taliban relationship is unlikely to be strained as the two 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, Pakistan’s ‘miltablishment’ will remain tense until the formation of a new government.

This will likely see installation of the triumvirate comprising of Haibatullah Akhundzada, supreme commander, more of as a religious leader than a military commander; Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader who is likely head the next government and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of designated terrorist group, Haqqani Network, and the 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 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 that 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. It has other, more lucrative options like 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 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 may drive an Afghan boom in the cultivation of its origin, the ephedra plant, too if 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.

Two opposing tendencies are likely to prevail in the coming weeks and months as the regional powers and international community try to bully the Taliban to “do more” using the stick and carrot method. The Taliban may be forced to back down and negotiate for peace. But tensions will mount as terrorist groups like IS and Al Qaeda will try their best to thwart these efforts and exacerbate tensions between 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.

Afghanistan under Taliban is like an algebraic lemma with more variables than number of equations, with too many loose ends.

(IPA Service)

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