Amb. (R) Asif Durrani

18th Dec, 2022. 10:40 am

Alarm bells ringing in Afghanistan

The attack on a Kabul hotel, popular with the Chinese, on December 12, by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) should ring alarm bells for those interested in Afghanistan and its stability. This is not a stand-alone incident in recent weeks; an organized pattern is emerging in the country, which may have far-reaching implications for the region and beyond.

A week earlier, Pakistan’s head of mission in Kabul, Obaid Nizamani, escaped an assassination attempt, but his security guard got injured. In September, two Russian diplomats were killed when an IS-K suicide bomber attacked the Russian embassy entrance. In between, the IS-K has been attacking the minority Shia community in Kabul and elsewhere.
These incidents do not augur well for Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours – countries having a more significant interest in Afghanistan are the target.

Somehow the country’s close neighbours have restored normalcy in their daily dealings with the Taliban government, regular trade with Afghanistan has picked up in recent months. The increase in business happened despite an understanding, reached last year in September that the country’s immediate neighbours will simultaneously recognise the Taliban regime at an appropriate time. Nevertheless, the Taliban enjoy de facto recognition.

However, the IS-K’s growing activities are not a good omen for either the present dispensation in Afghanistan or its neighbours. There could be various explanations for the surge in IS-K’s activities. Still, the primary responsibility lies with the Taliban regime, which has been in charge of the country’s affairs since August last year. The recurring incidents at the hands of IS-K show that the Taliban are either incapable of running the country, or they overestimate their power to control dissidents, including the IS-K cadres. It also indicates that waging resistance against opponents is far easier than managing state affairs. Concurrently, one cannot rule out the involvement of extra-territorial powers engaged in realigning their geostrategic plans.


Secondly, there are indications that the National Resistance Front (NRF), headed by Ahmad Masoud, the son of the legendary leader of Panjshir Ahmad Shah Masoud, has started getting material support from western sources to resist the Taliban. However, for the time being, he is busy organising resistance in the country’s north. One cannot rule out Indian footprint in supporting the NRF if its past activities and support to the erstwhile Northern Alliance before 9/11 serves as a guide. This time the Indians are likely to run their operations in collaboration with the Americans and France. The latter because of its deep involvement with the late Ahmad Shah Masoud’s organisation. The erstwhile Northern Alliance will be keen to be an active actor in the game. The Americans will be pleased if the Indians are involved in sustaining the NRF movement as a part of their Indo-Pacific strategy to keep China at bay. Afghanistan provides the appropriate geography to disturb China by keeping the Uighur pot boiling, although Indians will be extremely cautious not to be exposed. Therefore, Afghanistan’s soil will be ideal for pinpricking the Chinese.
Thirdly, the US has already entrapped the Taliban by freezing Afghanistan’s assets worth $9.5 billion. In fact, by imposing sanctions on Afghan banks, the US is now in a better position to control Afghanistan’s affairs without physically involving itself in the country. Even from a security perspective, the US would keep a close vigil on Taliban activities, particularly the latter’s dealings with the Al Qaeda and IS-K. The manner in which the US took out Ayman Al-Zawahiri should remind the Taliban that their actions are under close watch by their detractors.

On their part, it is becoming apparent that the Taliban seem to have reverted to previous policies, which made them a pariah in the international community in the past. They created an optical illusion of being moderate and inclusive in the initial months. However, as the months passed, they reverted to the regressive template. Public death penalties are back now; women are banned from visiting parks or other public places, and girls have been forbidden to continue middle-level schooling. They are gradually dismantling all the predictions that the Taliban 2.0 would have been markedly different from and for the better.

At the political level, the Taliban are pursuing an archaic brand of rule in the name of Islam in which an ordinary person’s aspirations are crassly ignored. The popular demand of inclusive governance from the international community has been dismissed on the pretext that various ethnic and religious groups have been included in the cabinet. While the Taliban claim to be the custodians of Islam and its teachings, when it comes to women, they conveniently ignore their right to education or property. For all practical purposes, they treat women as second-rate citizens who have to be confined within four walls, meant to do household chores and rear children.

The pattern of governance the Taliban are following is reminiscent of the 17th and 18th century tribal Afghan fiefdoms where everyone was a diehard Muslim but followed the Afghan or Pashtun traditions. In most cases, the traditions were taken over by religious edicts, or it was argued that the Pashtun traditions naturally gelled with Shariah law. Mercifully, the Taliban’s Islamic model can hardly be replicated elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Given the Taliban’s non-compromising attitude in their dealings within the country, primarily through enhanced repressive measures to control the population, the evolving situation may push the government to the chaos of previous decades. One will not be surprised when the Taliban will gradually lose sympathy in the neighbourhood, especially in Pakistan, if they stick to their present style of governance.


At a time when the Taliban should be looking for allies, their behaviour is becoming abrasive. They have been indulging in pulling down border fences, which is a serious affair and may have serious ramifications should Pakistani authorities retaliate. In recent weeks, the Afghan forces have resorted to firing at the Chaman border post. Two attacks within a week have left eight people dead and injured at least 31 others.

The foremost lesson that the Taliban must learn is that they are not an island of divinity where their wisdom is the ultimate panacea for Afghanistan and the rest of the world. They may have succeeded in capturing power in the country, but they still lack the wherewithal and expertise to run it, especially in maintaining a balance in their relationship with the rest of the world. And to attain equilibrium in internal and external dealings, they will have to reach a compromise at each step of governance.

A compromise is like trimming the sails to safely get to the port of destination. Hopefully, the Taliban will listen to the voices of reason and not waste their energies only on repressing the country’s women.


The writer is a former ambassador, currently working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)