Can resistance in Herat check Taliban’s march?

The cultural hub of Afghanistan, unlikely to easily succumb to a group that is rooted in the south and the east

Rustam Shah Mohmand August 11, 2021
The writer is a former chief secretary K-P and former ambassador

The resistance by people of Herat to Taliban onslaught was not entirely unexpected. Herat, ethnically and culturally, has not much affinity with the predominantly Pashtoon movement with its base in Kandahar. Herat, the cultural hub of Afghanistan, is unlikely to easily succumb to a group that is rooted in the south and the east of the country.

The last few days have shown exactly this facet of the people of Herat who would not be intimidated into submission so quickly. If the Taliban are pushed back, it will be a blow to their aura of invincibility, and could trigger more initiatives aimed at reversing the Taliban momentum.

Even in their former strongholds of Kandahar and Lashkargah, Taliban have not been able to overcome the stout resistance offered by the Afghan National Army. One reason for the inability of Taliban to push forward and take control of the three cities is the heavy bombardment by the American and Afghan aircraft which has also caused many civilian casualties, providing a propaganda weapon for the Ashraf Ghani government against Taliban. The other reason is that the Afghan army has so far remained intact despite defections. If and when the soldiers will begin to show signs of fatigue and leave their regiments remains to be seen. But the indications for that happening soon are there. So far more than 25,000 soldiers have surrendered in more than 200 districts that have fallen to Taliban.

That momentum is under a serious threat in Herat, Kandahar and Lashkargah. In that sense these are crucial and decisive battles for control of the major cities and indeed the country. Kandahar is the birth place of Taliban movement and victory there would reinvigorate the volunteers. On the contrary any setback would cost the Taliban heavily, as their supporters across the country would no longer be so certain of an inevitable triumph.

The Kabul government has now thrown everything in their armour to cause a Taliban retreat on some fronts in order to demotivate their volunteers. They are also relying on raising ethnic militias to locally engage the Taliban supporters and check their rapid advance. Such ethnic militias are being encouraged to create an environment for a long stalemate. Warlords like Rashid Dostam have also joined the resistance in order to boost the morale of these militias. It appears the country is in for a long haul of infighting.

For now the Doha peace talks are not showing any signs of progress. And unless a miracle happens, hopes for a breakthrough are nix.

The belligerence of the Ghani government has caused deep disappointment amongst those who were hoping for a thaw in the frightening deadlock that now grips the country. As the battlefield news becomes more ominous and fatalities rise, people have begun to move to ‘safer’ locations. While there are more than 3.5 million IDPs already, about 1,000 to 1,500 people are reportedly crossing into Iran on a daily basis. Most would try to go beyond to Turkey and to some destinations in Europe. This is scary because neither Turkey nor Europe would be willing to accept more refugees. As poverty takes hold and more people cross the threshold below the poverty line anxiety grows of widespread physical and mental health problems. An impoverished people now face starvation, danger of diseases like TB and Covid, with children and women being the worst sufferers.

Countries like China and Turkey could still play a role. There is need to convene a loya jirga to pave the way for peace and install a transitional government to be led by Taliban but also include all other stakeholders. For that to happen, Ghani’s government will have to be sidelined which is by no means easy. But given the country’s descent into anarchy, such a course is not only desirable but inevitable.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2021.

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