February 29, 2020
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Refining The Great Game

The Taliban’s troubles increase as it takes on the Afghan warlords and concerned neighbours

Refining The Great Game

NON-recognition of their government, widespread international condemnation of their rigid policies on human rights and women’s issues, and a formidable military challenge posed by former defence minister Ahmad Shah Masood and warlord Rashid Dostum—the Taliban Islamic movement’s travails only seem to be increasing.

Not a single country, not even Pakistan which is a great supporter of the Taliban, has yet formally recognised their government. Islamabad has delayed recognition of the new government until some other states do so. In desperation, the Taliban sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia. The delegation also held talks with officials of the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the pan-Islamic body, Motamar Al-Alam-i-Islami, to win much-needed support.

The widespread criticism of the Taliban’s policies has only made them more rigid in their approach. They haven’t relented on allowing women to resume their jobs in government and other workplaces in Taliban-held areas. The only exception are women doctors and nurses and those employed in certain all-female institutions. However, the Taliban have promised to pay salaries to affected women. Nothing has been paid thus far, fuelling concern among those dependent on their meagre government salaries for survival. In fact, the Taliban are finding it difficult even to pay the male government employees because of a critical financial crunch.

Even more daunting for the embattled Taliban is the heightened military threat to their control of Kabul and Herat by the Masood-Dostum combine. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who renounced Communism and joined the Afghan mujahideen in early 1992 to hasten the fall of the Najibullah government, has now come out openly against the Taliban. His support has enabled Masood to come out of hideouts in his native Panjsher Valley and inflict heavy losses on the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtoon, in the Tajik heartland north of Kabul. Backed by Dostum’s jet-fighters, heavy armour and battle-hardened soldiers, Masood’s forces succeeded in recapturing Bagram airbase and pushing the Taliban to within 12 km of Kabul. The bombing of Kabul by Dostum’s warplanes didn’t achieve much in military terms but it spread terror among the capital’s war-weary residents.

Having lost many strategic areas, the Taliban weren’t expected to keep Kabul for long. But they have held on to the capital, thanks to steady reinforcements of men and arms from southern and eastern Afghanistan. By digging in on the high ground and holding on to the hills ringing northern Kabul, the Taliban were able to halt the Masood-Dostum offensive and force a military stalemate. Masood’s commanders conceded that they suffered losses in their low-lying position and found it difficult to proceed ahead or retreat due to fear of further losses. Dostum’s air force was unable to put Kabul’s Khwaja Rawash airport out of operation despite bombing it several times and Taliban jet-fighters were still able to use the runway to bomb their opponents’ positions north of Kabul.

To ease pressure on Kabul, the Taliban subsequently opened a second front at Badghis province in western Afghanistan. They pushed back Dostum’s troops to Fariyab province. But the move also prompted old foes like Dostum and deposed Herat governor Ismail Khan to set aside their past differences and form an anti-Taliban alliance. Mulla Yar Moh-ammad, the Taliban Governor of Herat, told Outlook that Iran had brought Dostum and Ismail Khan on one platform to launch an attack on Badghis and Herat. "We are ready to defend Badghis and Herat and if attacked we would march right up to Mazar-i-Sharif," he boasted.

On its part, Tehran accuses the Taliban, who are Sunnis, of being in the pay of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Tehran’s anxieties are understandable as the Taliban occupy all provinces—Herat, Farah and Nimruz—bordering Iran. Other neighbour-ing and regional powers have also become fully involved in the Afghan civil war. The former Soviet republics, led by Russia, have thrown their weight behind Dostum and Masood. China too is concerned with the rise of the radical Taliban because its Sinkiang province is presently facing unrest due to a strong Islamic movement.

At a recent regional summit on Afghanistan hosted by Iran (see box), Russia, China, India and the Central Asian states expressed concern over the escalation of armed hostilities in Afghanistan and, without naming Pakistan, urged "respect for the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity of Afghanistan" and called for an end to foreign interference in the country. Significantly, Iran kept the US out of the conference. All this was an obvious sign of new battlelines being drawn and fresh permutations taking place in yet another round of the Great Game now under way in Afghanistan. 

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