The Next Stage in Afghanistan

Abstract: The recent display of lethal power by Taliban adversaries – ISIS-K and a rival south based faction led by Mullah Baradar - has not only eroded any illusions of stability harboured by backers and sponsors of the Kabul regime like Pakistan, China and elements from the West, it has also pushed the Afghan civil war into the next phase of deadly conflict. The only feeble defence of the Taliban and their sales pitch revolved around the myth of stability that the region could benefit from. With that hope fading fast, the days of proxies and perpetual war are back with no real regional winners.


Bottom-line-up-front: If the Haqqanis, the most deadly militant faction of Taliban sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI who are in charge of Kabul and the country’s internal security, start losing their influence and firepower, it could leave Pakistan and, by default, China without any real partners inside the arena. Pakistan’s ISI chief visit to Kabul and later handing over Kabul to Haqqanis as Bradar retreated means that Pakistan already showed its hand and decided to throw their lot with the Haqqani Network. Pakistan would be tempted to use HQN firepower as insurance against any TTP incursions against its security forces.

Problem statement: The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan now is expected to worsen over the next few months as the conflict widens and worsens. How to assess the potential for an erosion of Taliban control over Afghanistan?

So what?: By this time, Pakistan’s military might have learned that a balance of terror or its absence in a civil war largely depends on one’s ability to buy influence as loyalties shift quicker than sand in a storm. Until all regional and international stakeholders work towards broader regional stability in West Asia and Indo-Pacific it would be hard to contain this impending chaos. This may also mean that these players adjust to new geopolitical realities and emerging balances of power.


Terrorist during the Sunset
Source: shutterstock.com/Parzis Images

The Taliban, ISIS-K and the Haqqani Network


The recent spate of lethal suicide bombings, ostensibly carried out by the ISIS branch of Afghanistan ISIS-K, has paid to whatever hopes of stability the Taliban sponsors were harbouring, pushing the decades-old conflict into the next phase. After the Shia-targeted bombings of Kunduz and Kandahar, the Kabul suicide- and gun-attack claimed the life of a senior Haqqani Network (HQN) commander Hamdullah Mokhlis. He was head of elite Taliban special forces unit Badri 313 in Kabul along with 23 others at a military hospital.[1]

The Kabul hospital attack has potentially opened up a three-way deadly territorial contest among ISIS-K and Taliban at one hand and intra-Taliban fight on the other involving Haqqani Network fighters[2] and moderate Taliban factions in the east and south of Afghanistan. Though it is hard to project the winner of this latest round of civil war, as it has always been, in Afghanistan, one thing is becoming increasingly clear – there is little chance of the Taliban having full and comfortable control of the country like they had last time during 1996-2001 rule. They are being challenged both from within and outside, which may bring the regional players back into the fray sooner rather than later.


Though it is hard to project the winner of this latest round of civil war, as it has always been, in Afghanistan, one thing is becoming increasingly clear – there is little chance of the Taliban having full and comfortable control of the country like they had last time during 1996-2001 rule.

The fact that IS-K is targeting Shias as it has been in the past may activate the Fatemiyon brigade of Iran’s Al-Quds force, that is present in Afghan’s Hazara pockets and was very effectively used by Iran in the Syrian conflict in defence of Bashar Al Assad forces. If that happens, it could quickly erode the Taliban control of central and northern Afghanistan. ISIS-K employed a Uighar suicide bomber for the Kunduz Shia mosque attack. This was enough to give sleepless nights to Chinese authorities who are counting on the Taliban to provide stability in exchange for cash to facilitate Chinese reach towards Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Tajikstan and through central Afghanistan to the Iranian border. China is already wary and sceptical of Pakistan and the Taliban’s ability to provide security for its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects connecting China with Iran and Central Asia. China is already dragging feet on its future financial undertakings in Pakistan, citing security concerns and Pakistan’s diminishing capacity to pay back already owed loans.


Pakistan and the HQN


However, Pakistan’s pony has only one trick – the Haqqani Network. The HQN is ISIS’s insurance against any future Taliban/TTP (Tehreek Taliban Pakistan) blowback against its security forces, and that is always dangled in front of the Chinese as a form of possible insurance against any unfavourable tilt in the civil war. This is true to some extent as long as Haqqanis managed to get along with more moderate Taliban factions, especially the Doha-based political Shura led by Mullah Ghani Baradar. But Baradar, who is well respected in the Taliban and is always seen with suspicion by HQN and some elements of ISIS, had a public gunfight against Haqqanis in the Afghan presidential palace when deciding the cabinet and future dispensation of Taliban. Baradar later retreated to the southern and eastern provinces of Kunar and Hilmand and is believed to be supported by the Akhunzada faction of reportedly deceased Taliban Amir Haibatullah Akhunzada. Ever since, the Haqqani fighters are under attack in Kunar, Hilmand and Jalalabad.


The HQN is ISIS’s insurance against any future Taliban/TTP blowback against its security forces, and that is always dangled in front of the Chinese as a form of possible insurance against any unfavourable tilt in the civil war.

Going forward, if the Haqqanis start losing their influence and firepower, it could leave Pakistan and, by default, China without any real partners inside the arena as Pakistan’s ISIS chief visited Kabul and later handing over of Kabul to Haqqanis as Bradar retreated, means that Pakistan’s has already shown its hand and decided to throw their lot with HQN. Pakistan would be tempted to use HQN firepower as insurance against any TTP incursions against its security forces. One thing that the Pakistani military might have learned by this time is that a balance of terror or its absence in a civil war largely depends on one’s ability to buy influence as loyalties shift quicker than sand in a storm.


One thing that the Pakistani military might have learned by this time is that a balance of terror or its absence in a civil war largely depends on one’s ability to buy influence as loyalties shift quicker than sand in a storm.

 

Mohammed Rizwan is a freelance writer and researcher based in Toronto. He is a former journalist and fellow at The Pragmora Institute. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.

 


[1] “Afghanistan: Deadly blasts, gunfire hit Kabul military hospital,”Al Jazeera, November 02, 2021, last accessed November 05, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/2/two-large-blasts-in-afghanistans-capital-kabul-at-waz.

[2] Frank Gardner, “Afghanistan: Who are Islamic State Khorasan Province militants?,” bbc News, October 11, 2021, last accessed November 05, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58333533.


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