Has The US Really Left Afghanistan?

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Taliban Leaders Go AWOL, Russia Boycotts Taliban Government Inauguration, India Expresses Grave Caution

Rumors the Taliban’s most senior diplomats have been murdered

Moscow has boycotted the Taliban government inauguration ceremony to express displeasure at the non-inclusive nature of the initial government structure. It had stated it would attend if the Taliban, who are mainly ethnic Pashtuns, included other tribal groups and members of the previous regime. Pashtuns make up about 48% of Afghanistan’s demographics – the largest ethnic group but marginally a minority.

As a consequence, Moscow has refused to lift the state ban on the Taliban as a terrorist organization. The makeup of the Taliban government has also called into doubt the ability for the group to form a sustainable, workable governing structure as it appears hardline elements within have wrested control away from moderates who had claimed the 2021 Taliban would be less extreme than twenty years ago.

The top Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has not been seen in public a month after the militants seized control of the country. A spokesperson has gone on the record to deny rumors of his death. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the Taliban’s most recognized faces, has also gone missing. Questions about the wellbeing of the head of the political office and key figure in peace talks began mounting after he was not seen in public for several days. There have been rumors in Kabul that he has been killed or badly injured in a fight with another senior Taliban figure during an argument about how to divide Afghanistan’s ministries.

Warnings have also been given by renowned Indian diplomat Ajai Malhotra, Chair of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee and former Ambassador to Russia from 2011 to 2013. He has stated that the first steps taken by the Taliban exhibit inconsistencies in their words and actions.

“Little can be made out about this incarnation of the Taliban so far, but its first steps reflect a mismatch between its words and deeds, which its past performance does not generate confidence in any case. It is also noteworthy that leaders of the Haqqani network, with its strong terrorist moorings, have been assigned important posts in the new cabinet and would be supervising domestic security. Further, the Taliban’s long-standing cohabitation with Al-Qaeda and some Islamic State factions apparently remain undisturbed. All this makes it prudent to approach the new dispensation in Kabul with extreme caution” Malhotra said.

When answering a question on whether the world community should recognize the Taliban government, the Indian diplomat emphasized that it was the sovereign choice of each country. According to Malhotra, “it is certainly premature to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at this stage and few countries are likely to do so. For now, India would not be one of them.”

Warning signs

The seasoned Indian diplomat pointed out that regarding the new Taliban government, one should pay attention to some important features.

“Firstly, this regime has not been elected by the Afghan people and it lacks democratic credentials. Secondly, the new Cabinet is neither broad-based, inclusive, nor representative. Non-Taliban Pashtuns as well as the local Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, for example, have been completely sidelined. Thirdly, women have deliberately been excluded from the Cabinet. Fourthly, there are credible reports of journalists being whipped, women intimidated, and ridiculous comments being made by the Taliban personalities on local TV about the participation of women in public life. These are disturbing early pointers that not much have changed with the Taliban compared to its profile two decades ago,” the Indian diplomat said.

Malhotra noted that the Afghan people were proud, hardy and freedom loving. So, they are best to judge what the new Taliban governance means to them, according to the envoy.

Afghanistan and India

Malhotra put the spotlight on the mutual sympathy among the Afghan and Indian peoples, which was facilitated by New Delhi’s assistance and broad support in Afghanistan’s development.

“For our bilateral ties to progress, the Taliban would need to decisively and permanently stop terrorist outfits from using Afghan territory as a safe harbor and bring to justice the perpetrators of terrorist acts found on its soil. The UN also requires that the Taliban permit safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid and uphold the human rights of all Afghans, including women, children and minorities,” Malhotra emphasized.

“If these benchmarks are met, new vistas for Indian-Afghan cooperation could open up,” the Indian diplomat concluded.

China’s position also seems one of disappointment although language has been ambiguous. No doubt much behind-the-scenes horse trading is going on, both within different Taliban factions themselves and with regional diplomats – China, Russia and Pakistan especially will be key to resolving any issues and trying to shore up what initially appears already to be a crumbling, dysfunctional regime.

The disapparence of Haibatullah Akhundzada and Abdul Ghani Baradar is cause for alarm itself as Baradar in particular had been the Taliban’s primary negotiator with China, Russia and the United States. If these two figureheads have been removed from power it means the Taliban is even more isolated and unpredictable.

The danger is Afghanistan falling into a covert civil war, with the United States indirectly involved in the type of unofficial warfare that has most recently been waged in Syria. With that country now destroyed, the resulting battles between Russia on one hand and the US on the other can be merely relocated to Central Asia.

The question for President Biden to answer is exactly how much of the US presence in Afghanistan has truly left and how much remains or can be redeployed to maintain and fund continuing elements to disrupt and prevent any distinct Sino-Russian advantage appearing in the region.

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