With the situation in Europe taking up most of the international communities attention interest has waned on some of the old areas of contention. But things are happening in Afghanistan that means that soon, the world’s might have to refocus on that benighted part of the planet.
It is now eight months since foreign forces pulled out of the country and the Taliban effectively took control and things have been getting worryingly interesting in the region in the last couple of months.
Since taking control of the country, the Taliban has been working to consolidate its grip on power, first move being to rename the country as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
In February the Taliban announced that they were forming a “Grand Army”, though they were vague on the purpose that this institution would undertake. However, they did state that the intention was to offer opportunities to officers and soldiers that had served in the previous Afghan military to resume their professions.
Details are unclear how successful this has proven, as the Taliban were accused by the United Nations of murdering at least one hundred former military personnel since taking power in August. But they must have had some returnees, as they have recently demonstrated publicly that their military has several helicopters capable of offensive operations.
In a display in front of officials, the Taliban’s air arms conducted live firing with MD 500 Defenders and Mi-24 Hind gunships. Additionally, they demonstrated at least one UH-60 Blackhawk being flown and used, as well as troops being transported by an Mi-17.
There are also reports that several helicopters were used in February in attacks against anti-Taliban forces of the National Resistance Front.
Certainly, the Grand Army is being kept busy by this force. The NRF is contesting their control, primarily in the Panjshir region but also, it is alleged, in other areas.
The National Resistance Front last night attacked the Taliban in the Nijrab district, Kapisa province,many terrorist Taliban killed. pic.twitter.com/9oKrbAucmQ
— WAR CORRESPONDENT (@warcoresponted) April 26, 2022
Naturally, with Afghanistan largely cut off from the world, these claims are difficult to verify definitively. What isn’t unfortunately, is the standardly vicious campaign being waged by the Islamic State – Khorasan (ISIS-K) against the Taliban and, in their usual style, the population generally.
The latest example of this was a series of attacks conducted last week that saw bombs placed at several schools, mosques and on a bus. Seventy-seven people are reported to have been killed and at least 160 wounded, and this is just the latest actions by ISIS-K as they seek to further destabilize the Taliban’s grip on power.
Unfortunately, the people of Afghanistan are the ones caught well and truly in the middle of this conflict, with the Hazara ethnic group bearing much of the brunt. The Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims, and that makes them essentially heretics in the eyes of both ISIS and the Taliban.
It has also created accusations that the Taliban may be both not really interested in the attacks on the Hazaras and in fact Taliban members may have carried out some of the attacks themselves, with Hazaras online stating that they are facing persecution from the Taliban.
As if these internal issues weren’t problem enough, the Taliban is now starting to upset the rest of the neighbourhood.
To the east, things have really deteriorated with Pakistan.
The Pakistani’s have traditionally had a close relationship with the Taliban, an admittedly broad statement given that Pakistan’s government and military are not so much instruments of central policy but rather multiple groups and factions with their own competing interests.
Having said that, it was generally the consensus in Pakistan that the Taliban’s victory would help stabilize the region, especially Pakistan’s own Northern Tribal districts which have a predominantly Pashtun ethnic makeup.
And that is somewhat understandable. Since 2000, an estimated 65,000 Pakistanis have been killed in acts of terrorism. Many of these attacks were conducted by groups based initially in the northwest frontier province, and, after being driven out by a large-scale military offensive conducted in 2014, from Afghanistan. So it was that the Pakistanis, particularly their intelligence service, assisted the Taliban during the NATO intervention in Afghanistan – a situation that did much to damage relations with the United States in consequence.
However, the policy seemed to pay off with the US withdrawal and, with a notionally friendly government in place in the shape of the Taiban takeover, the Pakistani’s were hopeful for peace.
They also hoped that the Taliban, as a hard line Islamic movement, would be more interested in Muslim solidarity than nationalist policies, and settle the border dispute that has existed between the two countries since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947.
Unfortunately for the Pakistan authorities, though I have to say hardly unpredictably, the Taliban, as a radical movement, are quite keen on exporting their ideology. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have been growing in strength in recent years and are posing a mounting challenge to the Pakistani authorities. Operating out of Afghanistan as effectively guests of the Taliban the group has even gone as far as launching attacks within the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
With the Taliban taking control in Afghanistan the Pakistani’s seem to have thought that the Taliban would rein in the group. Instead, the level of violence has escalated rapidly, and things have well and truly come to a head.
On April 16 the Pakistan Air Force launched air strikes on several locations inside Afghanistan. Pakistani security sources claimed the attacks involved drone strikes from inside Pakistani airspace, and that they were aiming to hit TTP terrorists who had been engaged in operations against Pakistan. The Taliban allege that in fact their air space was violated by both jets and helicopters.
As for casualties, this is still uncertain, but reports are that at least 45 people died and the UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan confirmed that the airstrikes killed a total of 20 children in their homes.
Naturally, reaction in Afghanistan was outrage. A protest in the border city of Nimroz in southwestern Afghanistan turned violent after Pakistani border guards shot at protestors, apparently injuring six people.
But in other parts of the border, things took an even worse turn with fighting occurring between Pakistan security forces and the Taliban. This was likely local forces acting on their own initiative, as the Taliban government has been reluctant to express too strong an opinion in the matter.
The strongest condemnation came on the 25 April, from the Taliban’s Acting Defence Minister, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob Mujahid, who said that:
“We tolerated the invasion this time for our national interest and next time we might not do so.”
Whether the Taliban, with their rather decentralized command structure, can keep a lid on the TTP and their own forces is a good question. They probably really want to if they can, because they are also in the process of provoking their other neighbours – principally the Iranians.
Because on Afghanistan’s western border, things are escalating as well. Tensions have, as with Pakistan, been mounting for months with the two sides fighting each other in December.
Then again on Saturday Iranian border forces and Taliban clashed over a road that the Taliban were building in the border area. There were also reports that the Taliban seized seven Iranian guard posts.
All this led to the border being closed until Tuesday 26 April, but also the deployment of tanks by Iran to the area. Though things appear to be simmering down, the continued border issues, as well as Iran’s concern over attacks in Afghanistan on Shi’a’s, means that this is another situation to keep an eye on.
And of course, all this doesn’t address the fact that Afghanistan is in a huge financial crisis. The UN reports that 97% of Afghans are expected to be living in poverty by the middle of this year, being unable to buy basic commodities, including food.
This of course, is a very minimal description of the situation faced by the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan – it’s all far more complicated than this. But, needless to say, the situation both in the country, and in the whole region, is definitely one that is going to be creating issues for the foreseeable future.
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“Into Helmand with the Walking Dead; A Story of Combat in Afghanistan” by Miles Vining and Kevin Schranz (2020)
“The Afghanistan File” (2021) by Prince Turki al Faisal Al Saud