Afghanistan: A Flailing State on the Brink

By: Manthan Pandit and Riya Jhaveri, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law

Edited by The Editorial Board of SAIL.


Afghanistan emerged as a significant U.S. policy concern at the turn of the century after the dastardly terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. In response to that, the U.S. led military operations against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban Government. After the recent announcement by President Joe Biden that the United States and its international partners would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 09/11 unveiled the tenuous fault-lines of the region. The U.S. exit would not only affect Afghanistan but various ancillary regional stakeholders like India, Pakistan, China and Russia.

Afghanistan in colloquial parlance has earned the sobriquet of being a “graveyard of empires”. The present article for the sake of brevity restricts itself to analysing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its implications on the social fabric of Afghanistan, and subsequently, the military action by NATO forces and the ultimate failure to bring stability and peace in Afghanistan.

The Social Evolution of Taliban

The Mujahedeen lacked any central command structure, obviating the possibility of any diplomatic resolution. They resorted to guerrilla warfare, and would tactically retreat to the rugged mountains out of the reach of Soviet tanks. Consequently, the Mujahedeen would have a tactical advantage in the countryside while the Soviets commanded the major Afghani provinces.

To worsen the Soviet woes, there was no way of distinguishing the ordinary peasants and farmers in the countryside from the Mujahedeen figters. In fact, majority of the fighters resumed their agrarian practices whenever fighting stopped. In hopes of forcing the rural tribal populace to the urban centres that it controlled and weakening the guerrillas, the

Soviets adopted the doctrine of treating the entire populace in the countryside as a monolith. In other words, any person that the Soviets encountered in the countryside was assumed to be a Mujahedeen fighter. Furthermore, the Soviets used the PFM-1 landmines which got the moniker of being a “toy mine” The peculiar shape and bright colour of the mine attracted kids who often mistook it for a toy. The mine was designed to merely maim the children and not be fatal. The rationale was simple- inflicting psychological damage to the families, and desecrating their morale. As expected, this led to a rapid efflux of the rural populace, especially women and children. The population of Kabul trebled. A sizeable number of people also emigrated to the neighbouring nation of Pakistan, where they were stationed in the city of Peshawar in refugee camps.

This did little to deter the Mujahedeen fighters, who, in the absence of women and children became increasingly brutal in their fight against the Soviets- a sociological aspect of the invasion that is often overlooked. In the face of such relentless resistance and ever depreciating public opinion back in St. Petersburg for the Afghan war, the Soviet pullout was imminent.

With the tacit aid of the Americans, the Mujahedeen acquired stinger missiles from the CIA allowing them to neutralise the remaining aerial threat from the Soviets. This tilted the war in the favour of Mujahedeen’s from an economic standpoint. A stinger missile was worth $40,000, whereas, an Mi-24 helicopter was worth $10,000,000. Managing to down a couple of such helicopters daily, the war in Afghanistan became fiscally untenable for the Soviets who left their Afghani allies in Kabul to their own devices.

The power vacuum in Kabul was filled by the Mujahedeen. However, after assuming power, there was infighting amongst the Mujahedeen began. This percolated to other provinces of Afghanistan as well. Thus, despite the Soviet invasion coming to an end, there was no political stability and the civil war raged on. This led to the genesis of various warlords scattered across the entirety of Afghanistan. Consequently, “mini sovereign domains” emerged. During the time, the displaced students who had been relegated to the intense squalor of refugee camps in Pakistan returned to Afghanistan.

These children while growing up had been taken under the tutelage of various Madrasa’s in Pakistan, wherein, they were indoctrinated in the revivalist Islamic jurisprudence of Wahabism, having elements of radicalism and militancy. These madrasas had the were buttressed by Pakistan’s intelligence agency- Inter-services Intelligence (hereinafter ‘ISI’).

In the hopes of gaining American financial aid through ISI, these madrasas inculcated greater radicalism in their syllabi to show their sincerity for the cause of Afghanistan. These young graduates formed an ultraconservative political and religious faction called Taliban. The word is Pashto for “students”. The Taliban took its name from its membership, which consisted largely of students trained inmadrasasas adverted earlier. The Taliban expeditiously wrestled away power from the various warlords that had sprung up, steadily gaining greater territory. As Taliban started gaining political currency, they started imposing Sharia law which had to be observed in the strictest sense. Taliban’s social policies—including the near- total exclusion ofwomenfrom public life (including employment and education), the systematic destruction of non-Islamic artistic relics (as occurred in the town of Bamiyan), and the implementation of harsh criminal punishments led to the establishment of a totalitarian regime. The Western policymakers, who were content with warding off the Soviet influence, did not care to undertake steps for capacity building of Afghanistan’s body politic. This blissful ignorance of the Western powers was suddenly vitiated in 1998 when a holy war was declared against the West and Israel by a fatwa issued by Osama Bin Laden himself.

Western policymakers scampered and persuaded Pakistan to look into the matter- a futile exercise, since it had lost the earlier sway over Taliban that it enjoyed. Per contra, the national interest of Pakistan was endangered itself on account of the rising Pashtun chauvinism since the Afghan regime does not recognise the Durand line. What followed were coordinated attacks by Taliban on various embassies and culminating in the tragic attack on Twin Towers.

The War on Terror and “Exporting Democracy”

The Taliban regime turned down the demands of the Bush administration and declined to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, who had shepherded the dastardly attacks. The Taliban claimed lack of “convincing evidence” of his involvement. A military intervention thus became inevitable. Inside Afghanistan, the NATO coalition, largely spearheaded by the United State quickly dislodged the Taliban regime and established a transitional government. Al-Qaeda’s leaders and key operatives fled to safe havens in Pakistan. Subsequently, the western powers endeavoured to build a centralised democratic system in Afghanistan on western lines. Fostering democracy, they hoped, would usher in political stability that had eluded Afghan soil for the preceding decades. However, the present rapid advancements of Taliban and the rapidly deteriorating situation makes one wonder as to why the American dreams of “exporting democracy” have failed.

Problems Blighting the Afghan Body Politics

The most serious problems at present include widespread insecurity, corruption, administrative unsustainably, drugs and resource management. The problem is not dearth of finances for reconstruction projects rather too much of it. It can be said that there has been too much money, dumped too quickly with nugatory oversight in an economy of Afghanistan’s size. The key areas of focus thus become anticorruption, counternarcotics, health, education, gender justice, rule of law and water.

It is disconcerting to note the sheer quantum of corruption. Even the rank and file members of the Afghan army and police force have been found guilty of siphoning off ammunition, fuel and weapons and illicitly send them to Taliban. In effect, Americans are arming the very people who are killing their family members and friends.

The United Nations reported that the land under drug production in Afghanistan was up 10 percent in 2016 over the year before. Opium production jumped 43 percent over 2015, and that may underestimate total output, since farmers may be making more than one harvest a year. Moreover, the UN was unable to survey every province because of security problems. The total value of opium produced increased 57 percent. The number of poppy-free provinces dropped. Eradication, always a tiny share of production, was down an astonishing 91 percent last year, coming in the lowest in a decade.

In the areas under the control of Taliban, girls have been forbidden from attending any educational institutes. There have even been reports of bombing o primary education centres attended by females.

As the Western powers leave and Afghanistan descends into further chaos, the much needed oversight seems increasingly elusive on account of increasing violence. At the time of writing this, there have been reports of rocket propelled grenades being launched in the official residence of the serving Afghan President, casting aspersions on the competence of the present government to act as an institutional check against nefarious elements and illicit practices blighting the Afghani body politic. It is evident that there is nugatory institutional capacity to ward off the designs of Taliban.

Shockwave for Afghan Government

Beyond the immediate effects on Afghan forces and their capabilities, a full U.S. military withdrawal may have second- or third-order effects on the fragile Afghan state, especially when it comes to local perceptions of U.S. intentions and of the impact of U.S. withdrawal on Afghan forces. Some Afghans, recalling the complex, multi-sided civil war of the 1990s, have suggested that their communities (and, often, their associated militias) may pursue more independent courses of action if the Afghan government is unable to provide security in the context of the U.S withdrawal. Some Afghan leaders have suggested that continued infighting among Afghan elites may pose as much of a threat to the Afghan political system as the Taliban.

Regional Dynamics: Russia, China & Iran

Instability in Afghanistan would be detrimental to China, as it might jeopardise the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. A Taliban-led government in Afghanistan might spark instability in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which is home to the Uyghur minority. In contrast, as a Pakistani alliance, it may be able to play a larger role in Afghanistan. Increasing turmoil in bordering regions of Baluchistan can also jeopardise the safety of Chinese infrastructural assets.

For Russia, the US retreat completes a cycle that began three decades ago with Soviet defeat at the hands of US-backed Mujahideen and exit from Afghanistan. Russia has taken on the role of a mediator in Afghanistan in recent years. However, both the Taliban and the Afghan government have expressed reservations about its operations. Following a summit in March attended by representatives from Russia, the United States, China, and Pakistan, as well as Taliban and Afghan delegations, the four principles issued a joint statement saying they did not endorse the construction of an Islamic Emirate, enraging Taliban. Russia’s increasing ties with Pakistan could lead to Moscow taking on a post-US influence in Afghanistan.

Pakistan: A direct consequence

In Islamabad, this is a time of both vindication and anxiety. The Taliban are a product of Pakistan’s security apparatus. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, they relocated to Pakistani territory, where the Taliban High Council functioned out of Quetta, Balochistan. Pakistan was one of the nations that influenced the Taliban to reach an agreement with the Trump administration. A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would finally put a friendly entity in power in Kabul after 20 years, according to the Pakistani Army, which has long viewed Afghanistan as having “strategic depth” in its eternal animosity with India. India will be reduced in size, despite its great connections with the Karzai and Ghani regimes.

However, if the US exits, Pakistan will be responsible for the full turmoil that analysts forecast. Civil war is not ruled out, and with it, a new influx of migrants into Pakistan, which is already dealing with the aftermath of the first Afghan war. All of this is happening at a time when Pakistan’s economy is in free fall and the country is relying on an IMF loan with stringent conditions to stay afloat. Furthermore, the Taliban are not a homogeneous group, and have recently demonstrated some independence from Pakistan. It must prevent the turmoil in Afghanistan from spreading across the border. Although Pakistan’s eastern border with India is quiet at the present, it remains a source of anxiety for the Pakistan Army.

India: time to be wary

The US withdrawal would worry New Delhi, which had hoped to be a part of the Blinken mission. India was on the periphery of Trump’s withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan, which resulted in the Doha Accord, and was a hesitant supporter of the Taliban-Afghan government’s “intra-Afghan discussions.” India hoped for a US reset when the Biden Administration took office. The Blinken mission recognised India as a regional stakeholder, but it appears that this concept has no future. The ISI-backed Haqqani network would play a key role in any Taliban rule. India-focused insurgents such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e- Mohammed, which the Indian intelligence community believes have already shifted in considerable numbers to Afghanistan, would be another source of concern.

New Delhi, pragmatically and alive to the contingencies panning out on the ground has hinted on backchannel talks with Taliban. Officially, however, such reports were patently dismissed by the External Affairs minister Mr. Jaishankar as “mischievous” It remains to be seen how India manoeuvres in the foreseeable future, India has to protect its national interest not only against the eventuality of radical outfits using Afghani soil for their operations but also it’s infrastructure projects in Afghanistan to the tune of $ 3 billion.


Taliban today might have some disapprobation but it enjoys greater legitimacy than it did two decades ago. The governments of powerful nations like People’s Republic of China and Russia and ultimately the United States of America- their adversary have actively engaged with them through diplomatic means. Thus, it is in best interest that Taliban seeks to build on this legitimacy and relinquishes violence. A political solution and gradual capacity building of administrative and governmental institutions is indispensible for a long term solution.

Notes and References

For further understanding on sociological aspects of terrorism, read:

A. Hudson, R., 2021. THE SOCIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF TERRORISM: WHO BECOMES A TERRORIST AND WHY?. [online] Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Available at: <; [Accessed 21 July 2021].

For further reading on child mines used by the Soviets

Jarret, M., 2021. Soviet Child Mines — Forgotten History. [online] Forgotten History. Available at: <; [Accessed 21 July 2021].

For further reading on the American attempt at nation building in Afghanistan, read:

Bandow, D., 2021. The Nation-Building Experiment That Failed: Time For U.S. To Leave Afghanistan. [online] Forbes. Available at: < that-failed-time-for-u-s-to-leave-afghanistan/?sh=7e9c497265b2> [Accessed 21 July 2021].

To get an appraisal of the latest happenings in Afghanistan, read-

Haider, S., 2021. What lies ahead for Afghanistan after U.S. exit?. [online] The Hindu. Available at: < exit/article35125897.ece> [Accessed 21 July 2021].

Khattak, A., 2021. US Withdrawal From Afghanistan Means India, China and Russia Need To Cooperate. [online] The Wire. Available at: < india-china-russia> [Accessed 21 July 2021].

The Indian Express. 2021.Explained: What after US exit from Afghanistan?. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 21 July 2021].

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