Reengaging The Enemy
A few weeks back a process of taking over of Afghanistan by the Taliban began is now almost complete with only the exception of Panjsheer area remaining free. All those who worked for a democratic Afghanistan for the last 20 years under the tutelage of the United States are going to face a major setback. This includes not just NATO allies of the US, but also India. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see that today’s strategic environment surrounding Afghanistan is very different from the 1990s and 2001. In all probability, the Taliban are ready to rein in Afghanistan with full recognition from major powers, including the US, China, Russia and the European Union.
The way they have swept Afghanistan in a matter of days, one cannot fathom that there will be any chance of an imminent civil war. On August 15th, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and his top official fled the country and the last fort of Kabul also went into the hands of the Taliban. With this the Taliban has control of virtually the whole of Afghanistan, and all the border crossings. The way the Afghan National Forces have crumbled along with negotiated deals with local leadership, the country has avoided major destruction so far.
What was the rush US?
In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the mighty United States of America was reduced to seeking the Taliban’s support in evacuating its nationals and the vulnerable Afghans who had supported the American mission, out of the country. As of now, an estimated 10,000 Americans and 60,000 Afghans are yet to be flown out to safety. Here many alarming question arises. After being invested in Afghanistan for 20 years, why was the US in such a hurry to cut and run? While Pakistan’s agenda in Afghanistan is well known, why has China too thrown its hat in the ring? Are the Talibs, seen sweating out in the presidential Palace gym in Kabul, a moderate and mellower version of their earlier 1995-2001 avatar, as claimed by some of their leaders and supporters? Former Ambassador Vishnu Prakash correctly describes the situation, while writing for News 18. He says “The completely avoidable Afghanistan tragedy had been scripted by an indifferent United States, jihadi Pakistan, opportunistic China and a corrupt Afghan leadership. Expediency, side deals, coercion, disinformation, deceit, tribal royalties, inducements and much more have gone into installing Taliban in Kabul once again. They were virtually handed over the keys of Kabul when the US announced its decision on February 29, 2020, to quit Afghanistan by May 30, 2021, provided the Taliban did not attack the US forces in the interim. The elected Afghan government was kept out of the negotiations and completely undermined in the process. The countdown thus began for the Taliban and their minders in Rawalpindi.” He further berates US and says “ after a two-decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, which cost the US dearly in human lives and treasure, it was ready to declare “mission accomplished” and pull out of the highly unpopular “forever war”.
Washington kept shifting the goalposts but eventually settled for elimination of the terrorist threat to their country from Afghan soil as their principal objective. Nobody is to ask why they did not quit in 2003 when the Taliban were on the run. Realising that the Taliban were steadily gaining ground, at the expense of the Afghan National Army, President Joe Biden decided on an abrupt pull-out, believing that there would be a respectable gap before Kabul fell to the Islamic zealots. That barely had the US forces quit, when on August 15 President Ashraf Ghani was seen welcoming and embracing Taliban fighters in the Presidential Palace, stunned the world. It also meant that the American intelligence had failed miserably. As the allies bit their tongue and the widespread refrain of ‘told you so’ gained currency, the American credibility as a reliable partner is once again being called into question.”
Afghans have broken the “shackles of slavery”, pronounced Imran Khan, the ‘noble’ Prime Minister of Pakistan, shamelessly while women and children along with elderly were being tortured by the Talibs. It was no surprise that Rawalpindi and Beijing are seen celebrating the swift capture of power by the Taliban after twenty years in the wilderness. But the pertinent question which arises here is thst would the Taliban actually abide by the norms of the world? What is the real agenda of the Taliban 2.0?
Experts are not even clear on one thing that who actually calls the shots and whether Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, said to be the Taliban’s third supreme commander, has the de facto authority? Through the press conference done by the Taliban after the capture of Kabul, the Taliban leaders were seen telling the world that they are different; that excesses will not be committed; that women will be allowed to work and study; that they will not be revengeful and that while Afghanistan will not be a democracy, the application of Sharia laws will be humane. Is it possible to trust them? Can they rein in their cadres who have gone on a rampage in some areas under their occupation? Can a leopard change its spots? The honest answer is that nothing can be ruled in or ruled out at this point of time. This leads to a crucial questions that where does India, the most popular country in Afghanistan, figure in the new scheme of things? New Delhi had kept the Taliban at an arm’s length but for back-channel contacts in recent months. Reportedly, they had requested the Indian mission to continue in Kabul and had assured its safety. Given their track record, and that two of India’s shuttered consulates were reportedly overrun by them recently, it was not possible for India to take anything at face value. Indian personnel in Kabul, in the prevailing circumstances, would have been hostage to the Taliban’s whims and fancies.
History of Mistrust
India has always looked at the Taliban as a group that was brought to power with the active support of its archrival Pakistan in 1996. India’s no-engagement policy with the Taliban was first tested during the hijacking of an Indian aircraft in 1999. New Delhi accused a Pakistan-based jihadi group of orchestrating it. The plane was taken to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and was quickly surrounded by Taliban fighters.
“The aircraft thereupon came within the control of the Taliban authorities, whom we do not recognize and with whom we have no official contact. This, however, was not permitted to stand in the way of our dealing with them,” Jaswant Singh, India’s external affairs minister at the time, said in a statement.
According to reports, the Taliban became mediators between the hijackers and India in a bid to draw media attention. The negotiations ended with India exchanging three militants in its custody for the plane passengers.
India, which remained close to the Soviet Union while the former superpower had a military presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s, saw its influence dwindle in the country during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s. It had almost no influence in Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
The Road Ahead
Now as per the experts, the situation in Afghanistan could potentially set off a domino effect in the Indian subcontinent. As Kabul falls down to Taliban, India needs to be closely looking at how Afghanistan’s relationship evolves with Pakistan. For one, history suggests that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has contributed to militancy and conflict in Kashmir. As per a report in Quartz India, the nexus between the Taliban and Pakistan’s “anti-India militant” training camps has been chronicled in a series of declassified US government documents. “With China being a close ally of Pakistan; it could soon get “ugly” for India, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the US-based Wilson Center. “This means that India faces the reality of not only a Taliban government in Afghanistan, but also its two biggest rivals deepening their footprints in a country where India has many equities, investments, and close ties with non-Taliban political leaders,” he says.”
But it is also likely that India foresaw the Taliban taking on a key role in Afghanistan once US troops exited. According to a report in <The Hindu>, Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani claimed that in June Taliban representatives were hosted by India in Doha. India neither confirmed nor denied this meeting. As India threw its weight behind a democratic order in Afghanistan, it fell behind on engaging with the Taliban. It would have taken its cue in the matter from the US itself, which refused to directly talk with the militants for most of its time in the country, changing its approach only in 2018. Thereafter, the speed with which US first signed the peace accord with the Taliban, in 2020, and then went ahead with pulling back its troops from the country meant India had little time to make a policy pivot to face the new ground realities. “This is why the Narendra Modi government’s decision to formally reach out to the Taliban was such a game-changer,” Kugelman says. “And it ended up becoming more important than India could have imagined, given the Taliban’s rapid rise to power.”
India’s best bet is to allow the dust to settle down, and then make an informed decision. This may take weeks or even months. We have little or no leverage with the Taliban. However, if they walk the talk, there is no reason for India to shun them. Engaging with the Taliban does not necessarily mean an endorsement of their philosophy or behaviour; it is just a recognition that they are in effective control.
By Nilabh Krishna