Kabul airport explosion couldn't have taken place without Taliban's knowledge: Jovitta Thomas


Jovitta Thomas is a development expert from India, who specialised in working in fragile and conflict-ridden states. She has lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2004 till date, including as senior advisor for development projects in various Afghan Government ministries.

Excerpts:

Q: How is the situation in Afghanistan as of now?

A: It seems that there is a "relatively" peaceful situation in the country as none of the usual nationwide rioting and violence that usually erupts immediately after a government's overthrow or coup has happened in Afghanistan. The Taliban officials have insisted that the period since 15th August 2021 when Kabul officially "fell" into their hands to date has been free of any violence and the country has seen peace!

However, the realities on the ground have been very alarming for the average Afghan who does not have the connections or links to the international community to be evacuated quickly or assured of safety within Afghanistan. An average urban Afghan citizen, especially those who worked with international NGOs, the UN community, the international embassies, their projects or their military, is terrified.

They are terrified for their lives; they are terrified for their families and they are terrified for their properties. There have been confirmed reports of the local Taliban militia going door to door, supposedly for a survey. However, they are not going to every home, they are going intentionally to such staff who are considered high risk to remain in Afghanistan.

Interestingly they asked the male staff to return to work and asked the women staff to remain at home supposedly for their own safety, as they want their own Taliban fighters to be informed on how to deal with women before women return to work. These women government staff who took great pains to get an education and then get employed now wonder if they will ever have the right to work again. This is especially terrifying for those women who are heads of their households and others who are the sole breadwinners for large families.

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When it comes to schools and university, the Taliban's proposed minister or the head of the educational council has announced that all universities should open but girl students and boy students cannot sit in the same classrooms. Women university students can be taught only by women teachers which means that a lot of women will have to rely on studying courses like nursing or midwifery and will be denied the opportunity to pursue education or careers in fields dominated by male teachers, which in Afghanistan's universities amount to most courses!

Interestingly, even after the government was overthrown, friends in all 6 major cities of Afghanistan have informed me that all common groceries and essential food items are available but at much higher prices, and middle class and poorer households are finding it difficult to meet the expenses.

More changes are visible in the cities than in the rural parts of the country. Cities with previously frequent and large presence of women outdoors, such as Kabul, Mazar and Herat are seeing far fewer women venturing outside, and a lot more of them opting to wear the burkha even when the Taliban have not made it mandatory so far. In rural Afghanistan, especially in the South and South-Eastern states, there has not been any change in the lives of women in the more remote districts even in the past 20 years, and for them, the return of the Taliban makes little or no difference!

Q: Will the Taliban form an inclusive government?

A: The Taliban will at least make obvious attempts to form an inclusive government for the first time around as refusal or inability to do will seriously undermine how long they can last as the government and of their government's acceptance or at least recognition by the international community. My assumption is that the initial government would have at least symbolic presence of former leaders of the Afghan governments from 2001 till date.

There may be people from both Karzai's and Ghani's governments, there may be at least some token presence of former Mujahideen commanders including from the former Northern Alliance and even representatives from the Hindu and Sikh communities. It is important for the Taliban to be accepted by the international community and not be viewed as the pariah state it was between 1996 to 2001 with only acceptance from Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia. Now they are on better ground with Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran already recognising them to some extent.

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In recent press conferences, the Taliban spokesperson also specifically mentioned Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and India as neighbouring countries that the Taliban was keen to work with and have friendly relationships with. So, the government plan wants to seem inclusive within the country and as a friendly neighbour externally.

How far this image of a friendly inclusive government will remain, if and after the Taliban government is recognised by more international partners and the IMF withheld state reserves are released to them, remains to be seen! I do not see this "inclusive government" being anyway effective… I believe it will be more symbolic and will break apart within a year or less!

Q: As an international who worked in Afghanistan for long, what is your opinion of the people of Afghanistan?

A: As an Indian working in Afghanistan, I have always felt extremely welcome by Afghans to their country! I lived there from 2004 to mid-2016, and from then and until the Covid-19 lockdowns, I was in and out of the country 2 to 3 weeks every month. I have travelled extensively in Afghanistan, to 29 of the 34 provinces and not just to the provincial centres. Unlike most expats who never leave their secured compounds in one of the main cities of the country, I have been lucky to visit villages from the Wakhan corridor in the North East to the Chakansur district of Nimroz in the South West, from the Taliban "heartland" provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul to the Uzbek dominated provinces up both and Hazara dominated provinces of Daikundi and Bamyan. I have always been warmly welcomed everywhere I went. I have had Afghan friends and colleagues and house staff who have risked their lives to protect mine! Afghans are the most hospitable and generous people I know! They are a proud, hardworking, resilient people, brought to their knees through 40 years of conflict and war! For me, Afghanistan will always remain my "heart home" and one I long to go back to!

Q: After the completion of US evacuation by August 31, what will be the position of aid workers and other Afghans who are associated with US and other NATO troops?

A: At the time of this interview, there remain only a few hours for the deadline to expire. Already, evacuation flights have dwindled to a minimum. Let me first stress the need to distinguish between aid workers and the military, both international and national. While international troops and the Afghan army have been seen as involved in humanitarian and development activities, it is important to distinguish between the two, also to ensure the safety of the humanitarian workers remaining in the country!

Between 15th and 30th August, various agencies and international governments have evacuated a large majority of their international staff from Afghanistan, and have tried to evacuate the Afghan nationals who worked for them. Around 120,000 Afghan nationals were evacuated in this short period. There are still hundreds of thousands of people who live in Afghanistan who have worked closely with Western country donors, their project implementing NGOs, the fallen Afghan Government etc. The more senior and well-known of this group who remain behind are definitely in grave danger.

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There has been significant venting on social media over international organisations who evacuated only their international staff. There has been one much-publicised incident where an international animal rights activist was evacuated with a large number of pets, while his national staff has been left behind! I know a lot of these organisations are aware of the possible risks and threats to their staff and have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to evacuate them!

However, it should also be noted that at least some, if not all the UN agencies present in Afghanistan prior to 15th August, and very many aid and humanitarian agencies in the country, will opt to remain in Afghanistan, to ensure that a humanitarian crisis that is quickly evolving can be averted or mitigated to the maximum. There will be immense need for a humanitarian presence and large supplies of food aid to the country in the immediate future. Even prior to this Taliban take over, the country was reeling under an economic downfall resulting in around 93% of the population living under or close to the poverty line! The Covid 19 and the emerging drought, together with millions displaced internally due to the continued conflicts, have all exaggerated the looming crises, and the international aid community is very much needed in the country in the upcoming year!

Q: How will the Taliban treat women once they form the government and settle down?

A: The Taliban is trying to tell the world that it is a different entity from the one that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 to 2001, with a very stringent take on Sharia Law that allows women's rights. However, there is very little on the ground to support this claim! From 2018 when the first "peace deal negotiations" began between the Taliban and the US Government, the Taliban's response to the international press on what would be their stance on women's education and work has been very consistent: "We will allow women all rights under the framework of the Islamic/Sharia Law"! Neither the US Government negotiators nor the international press nor the various global gender experts chose to press them to define what that meant. The Sharia Law is variedly interpreted by different experts, with some allowing women considerable freedom and access to education and work as in Iran and parts of Indonesia, and a very conservative, stringent interpretation as implemented by the former Taliban regime.

Since various provinces of the country fell to the Taliban from early August, we are already hearing of girls' schools closed or with no attendance of teenage girls; the Taliban advising women government staff not to report to work, women university students to study in separate classrooms, etc. In a few documented cases, women have also been beaten for not dressing properly. Music and movies have already been banned in some places and sports facilities have been asked not to include women.

Large numbers of women sportspersons, athletes, musicians, politicians (including MPs), and journalists have fled the country already. The world-famous Afghan teenager girls' robotic team and the Afghan National Women's Football teams have both been evacuated. The urban educated working women remaining in the country live in fear of what their future will be like, despite all the reassurances!

During the Doha negotiations, the women negotiators from the Afghan government side were largely ignored by the Taliban and the Taliban spokespersons had difficulty in talking to them and addressing them directly. The reservation or quota for women in parliament, which was ensured in the Afghan constitution of 2004, will most likely become null and void. All the dreams and hopes of the young urban educated Afghan women are likely to amount to nothing! But for many Afghan women in the rural parts of the South and South East, this Taliban take over will actually be welcome… their lives won't change for themselves but it will end the active presence of international or national troops or fighting in their districts.

Q: Two blasts took place in Kabul airport killing 180 people and injuring scores more. Would that have happened without the knowledge of Taliban?

A: The latest information is that it was not two but one suicide bomber and some gunfire and over 180 people were killed and many more injured. We do believe that the fatality count may go up. The Taliban has been quick to state that they had not formed the Government yet and that the Kabul airport security was the responsibility of the US army when it happened. They have also tried hard to distinguish themselves from the IS-Khorasan faction (since reported as the perpetrators of the attack). But several regional defence experts and former US military commanders familiar with Afghanistan has been quick to point out that there is a very thin line differentiating between these various groups! Long-time expats and Afghan friends who work in intelligence, defence, and related fields all tell me that the IS-Khorasan is a very small group of between 500 to 2000 members, more likely around 1,200 members only. They would not have the resources, strategic or operational capacity to pull off such a major attack without the support of far more established groups, most specifically but not exclusively the Haqqani network, part of the Taliban itself.

Irrespective of what the Taliban says, they were responsible for the security outside the Kabul airport. Warnings of an immediate and high-profile attack had been issued 24 hours prior to the actual attack by a number of sources. And the fact that this attack was not prevented shows one, at worst that the attack was in coordination with the Taliban, or at best, that the Taliban is not capable of securing even a small part of the Afghan territory from insurgents or terror groups! The Kabul airport attack also killed 13 US troops and it proved the single most deadly attack with the highest death toll for the US since 2011. However, it should be noted that there has not been a single attack against the US or the US military since the "Peace Deal" (I hate that label by the way, as it was more a "Sell Out Deal" not a peace deal) was signed. The fact that it came a few days before the ultimate deadline by the US for troop withdrawal seems ominously for many of us as a final warning by the Taliban to the US of what would happen if they had even considered extending the deadline for withdrawal as they were being pressed to do by various NATO Allies! We have to wait and watch whether the Taliban will actually stick to its pledge to the US that no insurgent faction or terrorist network will be allowed to nurture on Afghan soil. For me, it seems inevitable that at least some parts of the country will be active terror training camps in the future, once the international media spotlight is removed!

Q: India, as part of soft power and soft diplomacy, invested more than INR 20,000 crore or 3 billion US dollars in Afghanistan. Will the goodwill remain and will the Taliban allow India to continue working in Afghanistan?

A: I have been hearing this 3 billion USD being quoted extensively in the Indian media for the past few weeks. A lot of European nations, UK, USA, Japan, and Australia have invested a lot more than what we have invested in that country. So let me be very clear, the amount of money invested alone can NOT bring India any goodwill. India genuinely enjoys extensive goodwill among the common Afghans and by parts of the previous Governments of Afghanistan. India has cultivated this goodwill by taking a neutral military stand at least obviously, and instead investing in very large and visible development projects, including the Afghan Parliament house, large dams etc. But it should be noted by Indians in general, and especially the Indian Government, that a large part of the goodwill that Afghans have for India came a long time before those funds were donated and those projects completed.

As the saying goes: "An enemy of an enemy is a friend!" and Afghans view Pakistan as an enemy of both India and Afghanistan. To be very honest, a large part of the goodwill of ordinary Afghans stems from this fact! In addition to the Indian Government's large development projects in the country, Indians have served as advisors at very senior levels in the Afghan Government, and have been warmly received. Indian nationals were also predominant in the fledging banking sector of the country in the past 20 years, with almost all major commercial banks employing Indian banking experts and chartered accountants.

Officially, the Taliban have also asked the Indian government to continue with its development initiatives and have expressly stated that they would like to keep the "air-corridor" trade route between India and Afghanistan active and operational in future too! This is definitely a positive sign of goodwill from their side! It remains to be seen what India's official response would be, which will of course not be forthcoming until they see what the new government will be like, and its global acceptance!

Q: Former Vice president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh has declared himself as President of the country and said he and the Northern Alliance would defeat Taliban. Your comment?

A: There is a correction to this question. The faction led by Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Masood in Panjshir province is not the Northern Alliance…it is called the National Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan. The common features between the Northern Alliance and the NRF is that they are both headquartered in the Panjshir province, and the former was founded and led by Ahmad Shah Masood (known as the "Lion of Panjshir") while the latter is co-founded by his son, Ahmad Masood.

The Northern Alliance was an extensive network stretching from Kabul all the way to the North and West, while the NRF is currently limited to just the tiny province of Panjshir. The former had considerable international intelligence and weaponry support from various international partners, but the latter has yet to be formally recognised by any. The Northern Alliance was led by a set of seasoned well-known commanders experienced in guerilla warfare over decades, first against the Communists and then against the Taliban.

The NRF is a very small faction with young people with both Saleh and Masood too young to have experienced active warfare. Essentially the Taliban has surrounded Panjshir already and cut off the NRF, forcing them into negotiations or a siege-like situation that is gradually choking the valley. Already internet and telecommunications have been largely cut off by the Taliban for the province, disrupting the lives of the residents there.

So, while there is a token resistance sufficient to have attracted some parts of the Afghan former army to join, there is no hope for this resistance lasting much longer. However, this stand off may result in the key individuals and/or their allies being included in the future transitional government, or at least for becoming better known as politicians among their own population!

Q: Khalida Popal, former captain of Afghan football team has called upon women footballers to burn their jerseys and to remove all identities of their playing days to save their lives. Will Taliban not allow any game for women?

A: I have to first state that, as of two days ago, most Afghan national women football players and lot of athletes (including men and women) have been evacuated from Afghanistan to Australia and other countries. Afghans have memories of the former Taliban regime where most sports were banned and hence, they themselves felt unsafe remaining in the country, though there had not been a specific stated threat against them, or any Taliban official statement banning these sports, at the time of their evacuation.

Whether this Taliban would allow any sport or games I don't know. If their interpretation of what they call the framework of the Sharia law or the Islamic law is the same as they had in their first regime, there would be no room for international sports. Incidentally, two Afghan Paralympians have reached Tokyo and it was a very emotional moment for them as they were representing a nation that may not allow them to actually play/ compete representing it anymore.

Q: China and Pakistan are turning into a major axis in Afghanistan and both the countries are continuing with their embassies in Kabul Will this axis be a threat to India from the soil of Afghanistan?

A: Four major regional players seem to be giving a lot of credibility to the Afghan government … they are Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan. India has had serious border skirmishes with both China and Pakistan for decades, and the political development and geo-political positioning of these 4 nations vis-à-vis Afghanistan will have impact on India and these border disputes too. China's interests in Afghanistan until recently, like in most countries with China's large-scale investments, were very much economic. China's real interests in Afghanistan include both mining and trade access routes to Central and South Asia. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan have historically been pro-Taliban and anti-India. Now with the new nexus of China and Pakistan, India could be reduced to a minor player in terms of political clout in the region. This is where it is important that India uses the well-established goodwill of the Afghans towards India, and of the soft power India holds both in the region and especially in Afghanistan for the good of both the Afghan common man and Indians too!

One way to keep this soft power is to continue engaging in visible and cost-effective development projects in the country. Another way to go it is to be careful not to buy into any international sanctions or embargos placed on Afghanistan that involve food, medical supplies and fuel. Any such sanctions, as proved in a number of other conflict zones, will not impact so much on the government being punished but will bring an already oppressed broken people, especially the poor of the country, to their knees! India should also be careful in not seemingly allowing only Hindu and Sikh Afghan refugees, but in taking in Afghan refugees who would be prone to most risk if they stayed behind!

The Taliban has already welcomed India's involvement and continued partnership. How India translates this into reality, retaining the goodwill of the Afghans and the soft power in the region, is being watched by many.

Q: When will you be able to go back and resume your work in Afghanistan?

A: As of today, I am still working for Afghanistan but from remote. Whether I am going back any time soon is not clear right now and will depend a lot on what emerges in the country in the coming 2 months.