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CWA # 536, 18 August 2021

Conflict Weekly 84
Return of the Taliban and the fall of Afghanistan

  IPRI Team

Conflict Weekly #84, 18 August 2021, Vol.2, No.20
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI & KAS-India Office

D Suba Chandran


Afghanistan: After two decades, the Taliban returns with ease, as the political, military and militia leaderships melt without resistance

In the news
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul, entered the Presidential palace. Ashraf Ghani, who was then the President of Afghanistan, fled the country earlier. He was quoted to have said in a social media posting: "The Taliban have won with the judgement of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen…They are now facing a new historical test. Either they will preserve the name and honour of Afghanistan, or they will give priority to other places and networks."

On 17 August, in a news conference in Kabul, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesperson, said: "We don't want Afghanistan to be a battlefield anymore - from today onward, war is over…I would like to assure the international community, including the United States, that nobody will be harmed…We don't want any internal or external enemies." He was also quoted to have committed to the rights of women. Enamullah Samangani, another leader of the Taliban's cultural commission, was quoted to have stated: "The Islamic Emirate doesn't want women to be victims…They should be in government structure according to Shariah law."

On 16 August, US President Biden made a lengthy statement on the current situation in Afghanistan. He said: "Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.  It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland...When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban.  Under his agreement, US forces would be out of Afghanistan by 1 May, 2021 — just a little over three months after I took office." He also stated: "I stand squarely behind my decision…I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me." He also seems to be placing the responsibility on the Afghan leadership, when he said: "After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces...Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision."

On 16 August, Dmitry Zhirnov, Russia's Ambassador to Afghanistan, was quoted to have stated: "I judge by the first day of their control over Kabul. The impressions are good. The situation in Kabul is better now (under Taliban) than it was under Ashraf Ghani." Also on the same day, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "China respects Afghan people's right to decide their own destiny and future, and is willing to continue to develop friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan."

Issues in the background
First, Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan. It all started on 6 August in Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province in southwest Afghanistan. In the next one week, all the major provincial capitals fell one by one – Herat, Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. On 15 August, they captured Jalalabad and Kabul. The surprising element of the rapid takeover was not just the speed but the lack of opposition; the provinces and their capitals fell to the Taliban without any fight. For the Taliban, it was a walkover, contrary to what happened in the 1990s. Between November 1994 and September 1996, it had to fight hard for almost two years to capture Afghanistan. In 2021, it could do it in a week.

Second, the leadership crisis and the fleeing of the President. Ashraf Ghani made a bold statement on 14 August about not surrendering to the Taliban and not allowing the achievements of the previous decades to fall down. However, his fleeing the following day underlines the resolute of his leadership. On 11 August, following the fall of other major cities, Ghani flew to Mazar-e-Sharif to meet with Abdul Rashid Dostum. In retrospect, it appears, Ghani could not build a political consensus amongst the Afghan leaders. Nor he could lead the Afghan security forces effectively. During the middle of the Taliban's rapid advance, he fired the Afghan army chief. While talking about the Taliban's advances, one has to analyze why the Afghan political leadership failed to rise when the country demanded them the most. 

Third, the melting of Afghan security forces. The US and its allies, over the last two decades, have spent billions of dollars on building a modern Afghan security force, which is believed to be more than 300,000. They were trained, equipped and provided with modern weapons and vehicles. Unfortunately, the Afghan security forces disappeared without putting up a fight when the Taliban entered the provincial capitals. Early reports indicate that there were multiple deals between the local commanders of the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. Others report the morale was down ever since US President Biden announced the withdrawal. A comparison with how Ahmad Shah Massoud fought the Taliban during 1994-96, with less external support should be useful. Massoud also finally gave up Kabul, but after putting up a fight.

Fourth, the melting of the militias. Besides the Afghan security forces, there were numerous militias led by warlords in the north, west and east of Afghanistan. Ismail Khan in Herat, and Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor in Mazar-e-Sharif are a few to name, who were known for their military acumen, militia support, and the anti-Taliban sentiment. Ismail Khan was captured by the Taliban in Herat; Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor were reported to have fled Mazar-e-Sharif into Uzbekistan. According to early reports, the Taliban have agreed to Ismail Khan to continue to govern Herat. It appears that the militias that were pro-government until a week earlier, also have entered into tactical deals with the Taliban.

Fifth, the chaos and calm in Afghanistan, following the Taliban takeover. The international media focussed on what happened in the Kabul airport following the takeover, with multiple videos showing people wanting to get out of Afghanistan by clinging into aircrafts that are leaving Kabul. In few cities, there were reports about protests against the Taliban. For example, the protests in Jalalabad. The Taliban came down ruthlessly on these protestors. On the other hand, there are also reports on how the cities including Kabul, are getting ready for the Taliban rule.

Sixth, the Taliban promises. While it has promised women's rights and even asked them to get back to work, there are suspicions. According to initial reports and statements, there is a difference between how the senior Taliban leaders have made statements on women rights and how reports and interviews of the Taliban commanders on the ground reflect a different position. The majority responses to the Taliban's promises so far has been cynical, keeping the old record, and the differences between the Taliban leaders and its commanders.

Seventh, local opposition to the Taliban. When the Taliban was capturing city after city without any resistance, the citizens mobilized in Kabul to vent out their anger against it. As could be seen from what happened in Jalalabad, there was a protest against the Taliban's return. However, as of now, they seem to be isolated events, than a common sentiment against the Taliban amongst the population. Will they come to the streets to protest against the Taliban remains to be seen.

Eighth, Biden's resolve to complete the withdrawal. His statement on 16 August underlines the following: taking responsibility for the decision to withdraw; its finality; his decision as a follow up to the previous administration's deal with the Taliban in 2020; the objectives of the US in Afghanistan having met, following the disruption of al Qaeda; and the inability of the Afghan leadership to come together and build a new Afghanistan.

Ninth, the Chinese and Russian resolve to stay in Afghanistan, along with Pakistan and Iran. While all other embassies in Kabul are either leaving the city or reducing their footprints, China and Russia are doing the opposite. During the recent months/years, Moscow and Beijing, along with Islamabad, have engaged with the Taliban. In recent months, perhaps, both China and Russia were also getting ready for the Taliban's return in Afghanistan.

In perspective
First, the facts. Taliban has returned to Kabul after two decades. The Afghan government has failed to respond. The Afghan security forces have melted without a fight. The much-famed militias have decided to strike deals. Clearly, the Taliban has recaptured Afghanistan without any resistance. Second, the US and the other countries that have invested billions of dollars and sacrificed hundreds of their soldiers have decided to cut their losses and get out of Afghanistan. Third, both the above mean that the Afghans have been left to fend for themselves after so many promises. Two generations of Afghans would be facing the wrath of the Taliban now. Fourth, the nation-building process, and the idea of a liberal, moderate, democratic and inclusive Afghanistan are in tatters, as the Islamic Emirate returns.

The Taliban should pick up from where it left two decades ago; the rest of the world should hang its heads in shame of what it had failed to build in Afghanistan during the last two decades. Still, there are lessons to learn, if there is a willingness. Else, one could go along with the narrative of the Taliban's old and new international friends, that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would be different this time. It would be wishful thinking. Taliban would not change its colours.


Also from around the World
By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
 
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia
Hong Kong: Four students arrested for "advocating terrorism"
On 18 August, the Hong Kong police arrested four students for allegedly "advocating terrorism" when their student union mourned the death of a 50-year-old who stabbed a policeman and later killed himself in July. The Hong Kong University's student union had issued a motion lauding the man's "sacrifice" but later withdrew it; the union leaders also resigned after apologizing for their "inappropriate" motion. A Senior Superintendent said the motion "tried to rationalize and glorify terrorism" and "encouraged people to attempt suicide" which reportedly does not adhere to their "moral standards."
 
North Korea: Committee asks Japan to apologize for colonial crimes
On 15 August, the Korean Committee on Measures for the Sexual Slavery for Japanese Army and Drafting Victims called on Japan to apologize and make amends for the atrocities the colonial power committed on the Korean Peninsula during 1910-1945. The Korea Herald quoted the Committee: "Far from making apology and repentance of the crimes against humanity committed by the Japanese imperialists, Japan has adopted mean hostile policy toward the DPRK, has extended sanctions against it year after year." It opined that Japan's policy towards North Korea indicated that it has "no guilty conscience for its past history of aggression, and instead it has become all the more reckless to return to its position in the past when it professed the 'leader of Asia.'"
 
South Korea-Japan: Seoul rejects Tokyo's claims to Dokdo island
On 18 August, South Korea snubbed Japan's reservations against a South Korean opposition lawmaker's visit to the Dokdo island. A South Korean Foreign Ministry official said: "Dokdo is clearly our inherent territory historically, geographically and by international law. We cannot accept any unreasonable demand or claims from Japan regarding our territorial sovereignty." The official added, "In accordance with our position, we dismissed the unreasonable demand and claims Japan has made through diplomatic channels."
 
The Philippines: Soldiers kill 16 communist rebels in raid 
On 16 August, the army said that soldiers had killed 16 communist rebels during a raid in the central Philippines; high-powered firearms were recovered from the suspected guerrilla hideout. An army spokesperson said they had received intelligence about the alleged "terrorists in their bomb-making hideout." The development comes after President Rodrigo Duterte, in March, asked the police and army to "ignore human rights" and kill the communist rebels.
 
Thailand: Protests demanding PM's resignation intensify 
On 17 August, Reuters reported that following the record 239 COVID-19 deaths on that day, protesters gathered in central Bangkok demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. However, the police responded with water cannons; an activist said: "We are out here protesting but in return we get tear gas and rubber bullets and a violent crackdown." The development comes a day after a protester, reportedly aged 15, was left in coma due to a gunshot on 16 August; six others were injured in the clashes.
 
Myanmar: AAPP records over 1,000 deaths following coup 
On 17 August, the death toll following the February coup and the military's subsequent crackdown was recorded at 1,001, the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group claimed. However, the AAPP secretary said that the actual casualties could be higher. Previously, the military said the AAPP figures were exaggerated and also maintained that several security forces had also been killed but were not included in the AAPP figures.  
 
Peace and Conflict from South Asia
Bangladesh: Over 27 Rohingya refugees missing after boat sinks 
On 14 August, over 27 Rohingya refugees have been missing after a boat capsized approximately 10 kilometres southeast of Bhashan Char. According to the authorities, the small fishing boat sank with 41 Rohingya during an attempt to escape a Bangladeshi island camp. After the incident, the United Nations refugee agency said it "remains concerned about reports of refugees being arrested and detained for attempting to leave Bhashan Char." This comes as the Rohingyas have complained that they have been coerced into relocating, while thousands protested against living conditions on the island.
 
Sri Lanka: Government files charges against 25 Easter bombing suspects
On 11 August, the President's office announced that Sri Lanka has filed 23,270 charges against 25 people in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks on churches and hotels. The charges that have been filed under the anti-terror law include conspiring to murder, aiding and abetting, collecting arms and ammunition, and attempted murder. Additionally, the attorney general also asked the chief justice to appoint a special three-member high court bench to hear the cases.
 
India: Meghalaya Home Minister quits after mob violence
On 15 August, Meghalaya Home Minister Lakhmen Rymbui resigned after mob violence and arson in Shillong on Independence Day, calling for a judicial probe "to bring out the truth." Following the violence, the local authorities enforce a curfew and suspend Internet services for 48 hours in four districts. Previously, on 13 August, the killing of former extremist leader Cheristerfield Thangkhiew by the police triggered the unruly situation that escalated during his burial on 15 August.
 
India: Assam-Mizoram border tension escalates over fresh firing incident
On 17 August, tensions along the Assam-Mizoram border escalated over a firing incident. While Mizoram alleged that the Assam Police opened fire on three Mizo civilians on the boundary along Hailakandi (Assam)-Kolasib (Mizoram) districts, Assam claimed miscreants from the other side fired first, after which Assam Police retaliated. This incident comes amid high tensions following violent clashes at the disputed inter-state boundary in July which left seven persons dead.
 
Pakistan: Woman files complaint against hundreds for assaulting her on Independence Day
On 17 August, the Lahore police filed a case against 300 to 400 unidentified people after a female TikToker complained that she, along with her friends, were harassed by these people near Minar-e-Pakistan during Independence Day celebrations on 14 August. She said that she and her companions were filming a video when a mob started attacking them. She added, that they made a lot of effort to escape from the crowd "however, the crowd was huge and people were scaling the enclosure and coming towards us. People were pushing and pulling me to the extent that they tore my clothes. Several people tried to help me but the crowd was too huge and they kept throwing me in the air."
 
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa
Armenia- Azerbaijan: Tensions along the border leaves Armenian soldier wounded 
On 17 August, the Armenia Defense Ministry states that an Armenian soldier was wounded in a skirmish along the border with Azerbaijan. According to the ministry, the soldier was injured when Azerbaijani forces opened fire on Armenian positions in the Sotk area in eastern Gegharkunik Province, adding that one Azerbaijani was killed and one was wounded "as a result of the counteractions carried out by the Armenian side." However, Baku has denied suffering any military casualties. Previously, two Armenian soldiers were killed due to tensions along the border. However, in response the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said that Armenian armed forces periodically fired on Azerbaijani Army positions in the Sadarak region of the Naxcivan exclave where the two soldier were killed.
 
Egypt: ISIL claims responsibility for bomb attack that killed eight troops 
On 13 August, Al Jazeera reported eight security force members were killed and six injured in a roadside bomb explosion in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Al Jazeera quoted officials who said that the bomb exploded when the troops were riding an armoured vehicle; ISIL has claimed responsibility for the same. This attack comes after at least five security force members were killed and six injured in an ambush by ISIL fighters in July. Meanwhile, on 12 August, the Egypt armed forces' spokesperson said that they had killed 13 ISIL fighters and recovered 15 automatic rifles and ammunition in northern and central Sinai.
 
Iraq: Five security forces members killed in IS attack
On 17 August, a provincial police source in Diyala province said that five soldiers and paramilitary fighters were killed in two attacks by Islamic State militants. Of this, three soldiers were killed when the IS opened fire at an army base in Maqdadiyah; earlier in the day, two paramilitary tribal fighters were killed in a roadside bomb explosion.
 
Lebanon: 28 killed, 79 injured in fuel tank explosion
On 15 August, 28 people were killed and 79 injured in a fuel tank explosion in northern Lebanon. However, the hospital reportedly had to turn away those arriving with wounds as it did not have the capacity to treat severe burns. Military and security sources reportedly told Reuters that the explosion took place when a scuffle broke out between local residents who had gathered around as "the Lebanese army was distributing gasoline from a hidden fuel storage tanker it had confiscated." The development comes amid Lebanon's fuel shortage crisis.
 
Israel: Wildfires near Jerusalem fully doused after 52 hours
On 17 August, the National Fire and Rescue chief said that wildfires near Jerusalem had been fully contained after a 52-hours battle with the flames. The fire has been reported to have been the worst in years as it burned over 4,200 acres of land. No casualties were reported. Meanwhile, trucks from the Palestinian Authority also helped fight the wildfires which started on 15 August. The Israel Defense Minister said: "I would like to thank PA Chairman [Mahmoud] Abbas for his initiative to send the firefighters who came to assist Israel today. Mutual care and saving human lives are common interests to us all."
 
Israel-Palestine: Rocket fired from Gaza Strip, says Israeli military
On 16 August, the Israeli military said that a rocket had been fired from the Gaza strip, for the first time since the escalation of tensions in May. The rocket fire reportedly took place after four Palestinians were killed in a raid by the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank; two others were arrested during the raid at the Jenin refugee camp. However, no one has claimed responsibility for the rocket attack.
 
Yemen: Houthis organize camps to brainwash children 
On 17 August, Arab News reported that the Houthis were organizing a graduation ceremony for children who had taken part in their summer camp, where they were "educated, trained and 'immunized from false cultures'" for 45 days. The Houthis have garnered criticism for organizing such camps and ceremonies where children are seen anti-US and anti-Israel slogans. The director of SEYAJ Organization for the Protection of Children said: "These camps prepare children and adolescents to be part of the war machine." Some parents said that the rebels blacklist families who refuse to send their children to the camp.
 
Niger: 37 massacred by suspected rebels
On 17 August, the government declared a two-day national mourning for the 37 people who had been massacred by suspected rebels on 16 August. The attack took place in Darey-Daye; the casualties included 13 children and four women. Darey-Daye is located in the Tillaberi region where 66 people were massacred in a similar attack by gunmen in March.  
 
Democratic Republic of the Congo: UN worried about accounts of mass rape by amred groups
On 13 August, The Guardian reported that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had expressed its concerns over "widespread, systematic sexual violence by armed groups in the country. The UNHRC spokesperson said: "In just the past two weeks, humanitarian partners in the Kongolo and Mbulula health zones have recorded 243 incidents of rape, 48 of which involved minors, in 12 different villages." The spokesperson further explained: "The attacks are reportedly being carried out by rival armed groups competing to maintain control over mining areas – especially goldmines – and as retaliation against government-led military operations."
 
Cameroon-Chad: Thousands of Cameroonians flee to Chad amid clashes 
On 18 August, Nation reported that at least 11,000 people had fled to Chad following intercommunal clashes in Cameroon. The UNHCR and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations said the Cameroonians had arrived over 14 and 15 August, after 20 people were killed in clashes between herders and fishermen in Cameroon's Far North region on 10 August, over water holes that had been dug by the latter. The Far North Governor, however, said that such clashes are rare in Cameroon.
 
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
Wildfires: Devastating fires across France and California 
On 16 August, a large forest fire that broke out near the French Riviera forced over 6,000 residents and tourists to evacuate homes and accommodations. Additionally, the fire which ignited during an intense heatwave has been intensified by strong winds as well as dry and hot conditions, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius. Mayor of La-Garde-Freinet village states, "We've never seen it spread with such speed, it was three or four times the usual." Meanwhile, the wildfires in northern California have nearly doubled in size overnight, due to the wind and dry conditions. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 2.4 million acres have been burned in 104 large fires and complexes in 12 states. It adds, as of 18 August, all the large fires in California were active; the Caldor Fire burned more than 20,000 acres and the Dixie Fire made another significant run of nearly 48,000 acres. Fires in Oregon and Washington remained active.
 
Russia: Moscow Police visit homes of leaked addresses of Navalny supporters
On 18 August, Moscow Times quoting a media report said that the police have begun visiting addresses of Alexei Navalny's supporters that had been leaked online. According to the report, a supporter of Navalny was asked to file a statement against the opposition leader over the illegal collection of personal data days after authorities filed a new criminal charge against him on the "infringement on the rights of citizens." Additionally, the police have visited at least 30 Moscow residents' addresses that were leaked online.
 
Peru: Controversial foreign minister resigns only three weeks into the new government
On 17 August, Peru's Foreign Minister Hector Bejar handed in his resignation to President Pedro Castillo, which was accepted. His resignation comes less than three weeks after he and President Castillo assumed office. Bejar's push to resign came after his statements about terrorism and the Peruvian Navy, which not only unleashed criticism from the opposition in Congress but also caused the Navy's Directorate of Information of Navy to "categorically" reject his claims. Additionally, videos emerged in which he claimed that Shining Path, the Maoist group that terrorized Peru in the 1970s and 1980s, was "largely a product of the services of the CIA" also acted as a trigger for his resignation.
 
Venezuela: Opposition politician released two days after talks between Maduro and opposition began in Mexico
On 15 August, Venezuelan opposition leader Freddy Guevara was released from prison. This comes a month after his arrest and days after the start of talks in Mexico City between the opposition and the government of President Nicolas Maduro. After his release, Guevara states that he had been held in isolation and therefore had no information about whether he would be allowed to join the opposition negotiating team in Mexico, however, he is expected to form part of the opposition's negotiating team. Meanwhile, Guevara's release is thought to be the first concession made by the Maduro government since entering into fresh negotiations with the opposition.



About the authors
D Suba Chandran is Professor and Dean of the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS; Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Research Associates in NIAS.

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