The situation in Afghanistan is turning from bad to worse rapidly. The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has unleashed the Taliban, now in full swing. With much of the U.S. withdrawal completed, the Taliban have made steady progress, gaining control of cities and towns one after the other in past week. While there are questions such as who will fill the military vacuum left by the U.S., the more pertinent question is if Kabul can hold on in the immediate timeframe.
There is speculation over whether the Taliban are even interested in continuing with the peace talks in Qatar given that the group has been on a winning spree. The peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, in progress since September 2020, were meant to bring about a relative stable and inclusive government in Kabul. But with the increase in violence and civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the peace talks have been in disarray.
Nevertheless, India took part in peace talks held in Doha on Thursday, along with other regional powers including the United States, Russia, and China. According to Indian media reports, Indian Ambassador in Qatar Deepak Mittal and the joint secretary in charge of Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) are meant to be participating at the talks.
The Taliban are reported to have made impressive gains over the past week, including the capture of a dozen provincial capitals. These include Sar-e-Pol, Sheberghan, Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan, Pul-e-Khumri, Farah, Zaranj, Faizabad, and Ghazni, with news of Herat and Qal-e-Naw falling, too, fresh as this was published.
The capture of Ghazni was confirmed by the Afghan interior ministry on Thursday, with a spokesperson saying that “the enemy took control.” Another media report said that the Taliban had gained control of a main police headquarters in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. Reportedly, the Taliban tweeted that there was no resistance, saying “the enemy fled… Dozens of military vehicles, weapons and ammunition fell into the hands of the Mujahideen.” Hours after the police headquarters fell to Taliban control, media reports now say that the Taliban have seized control of Herat city and that government forces and administration have fled.
Meanwhile, India has urged its citizens to fly out of Afghanistan immediately. A MEA spokesperson said on Thursday that the situation in Afghanistan is “deteriorating and is continuously evolving.” The spokesperson added that India is “concerned about the deteriorating situation. We have asked Indians to return via commercial flights.” The United States has also asked its citizens to fly out of Afghanistan using commercial flights. The U.S. Embassy in a notice said that “Given the security conditions and reduced staffing, the Embassy’s ability to assist US citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul.”
With the loss of a dozen cities to the Taliban, the Afghan government has essentially lost most of northern and western Afghanistan, putting Kabul in a precarious situation. This leaves the government with a weak hand in any peace talks. According to media reports, the Afghan government has offered a proposal to Taliban negotiators for a power-sharing arrangement, while seeking an end to violence in return. Another negotiator at the Qatar talks said that “the Taliban had been given an offer about a ‘government of peace.’” It is unclear what this means and whether and how the Taliban would respond to such bargain when the Taliban have no real incentive to give up on the winning path they are on.
The Afghan government has called for an immediate ceasefire and the extended troika talks involving the U.S., Russia, China, and Pakistan and India have reportedly endorsed the same. Speaking to the extended troika, Abdullah Abdullah, representing Afghanistan at a separate meeting organized by the Qatari government that involved all the Afghanistan stakeholders, emphasized “the need to start meaningful and sincere negotiations to establish an immediate ceasefire and reach a political agreement.”
Even if we were to witness a temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan, it remains unclear how the international community might bring about some semblance of stability thereafter. With the U.S. ready to complete its withdrawal by next month, it is not certain that any one power or even a group of regional powers are ready to get their hands dirty, with the exception of Pakistan. Despite India’s interests in seeing a stable, multi-ethnic Afghanistan, it does not enjoy the geographic proximity that Pakistan has with Afghanistan. This is a significant limitation that will prevent any meaningful Indian action.
Many have explored what role China might play in stabilizing Afghanistan. Can China’s focus on economic development and resource mining change the game in its favor where the U.S. and Russia have failed? Despite China’s interest in extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Beijing has remained exceedingly cautious. China will possibly adopt a wait-and-watch approach and not jump into the extremely violent Afghanistan. China will do nothing to push the button hard on the Taliban because of possible repercussions on the Xinjiang front.
All said, the situation in Afghanistan is only likely to get worse. Whether Pakistan will be emboldened enough by its success in Afghanistan to attempt to reinvigorate its terror networks in Kashmir remains to be seen. India’s harsher response in the last few years to such action suggests that the wider region may also see further instability.