By Amb Anil Trigunayat
Eleven days changed the fate of Afghanistan much faster than expected as the US withdrawal date seemed to have been advanced by a month instead of 9/11 – the 20th anniversary of the Twin towers demolition by Al Qaeda terrorists. A cryptic social media comment “If you ever feel useless …Just remember USA took 4 Presidents, Thousands of Lives, Trillions of Dollars & 20 years to replace the Taliban with Taliban” appears to sum up the whole conundrum. Fate of Afghan government and forces was sealed the day the Doha Agreement was signed without considering the concerns of the Afghan government that had become so heavily dependent for their survival on US presence, hand holding and financial support.
As President Biden justified his exit as there is a never a good time his claim to credit and fame on counter terrorism fell short when he proved USA to be an interventionist hyper power alone and not present for nation building in a war-torn country made worse over years by the superpowers themselves. In this backdrop shouting for women’s freedom and emancipation and empowerment and holding Taliban accountable sounds hollow. Taliban’s religious philosophy and a chequered past apart, it has been legitimised by the array of superpowers as well as regional satraps. Now it has become a reality why lament their onslaught. Hypocrisy of the international community is there to see even for a blind man.
Countries and Afghan people hope that Taliban may be more accommodating as it consolidates its hold on this- not such an inhospitable terrain and many a hostile tribes. Hence, efforts for an inclusive government that might temper some of the major humanitarian concerns for women and minority rights etc. Terrorism by many Pak based ultra-extremist groups already present or converging in Afghanistan celebrating the victory of the Islamic Emirate will expand even if not so monolithic Taliban overtly or covertly tries to contain them as a political entity. Besides a large number of them have just been released from the jails by Taliban along with their own fighters. As such a UN report had mentioned that Al Qaeda operates out of 15 provinces. Only relief is that Taliban has actually fought against the ISIS and even executed Abu Omar Khorasani who was said to be the head of IS in South Asia after taking him out of the prison. It tried to assure its disdain for foreign Jihadists to the international community. However, even though Taliban may reiterate that it will not allow its land to be used for such actions against any country it will have limited control since to achieve its rule it will need them and has been helped by thousands of fighters from these extremist groups to achieve the current victory with the help of Pakistani deep state.
Amidst this churn in Afghanistan, the striking image makeover of Taliban’s image and uncanny capability to consistently create narratives addressing the concerns of the international community can be attributed to the changing global dynamic and its own dealings and exposures with the western mind set for over three years in Doha. It is also possible that it has a good deal of fighters who are educated and possibly want to emulate the rich Gulf Kingdoms and their politico-religious tenets not at variance with the essence of the Talibani Emirate that has become a reality on the 102nd Independence Day. They may not want to hand out another pretext for impositions of fresh sanctions and possible but limited external intervention. As it is as a pressure tactics and to keep the new regime in focus, the Americans have frozen $9.5 bn owed to Afghan Central bank and likewise the IMF has held back its loan facility. If there is an inclusive and representative government with Taliban in the driving seat and Taliban adheres to some of its positive pronouncements, the West might shift the riders so that they do not help perpetuate the humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, even if Taliban has taken over the country rather swiftly holding on it to it will be a major challenge in this tribal land with many independent war lords who are as sanguine about their identity as is Taliban. Even former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a big critic of Taliban, Pakistan and now even of his fugitive boss Ashraf Ghani, has invoked the Constitution to proclaim himself as the interim President. He is vowing to fight back in Panjshir and hold out the flame of opposition with the help of some war lords like Dostum, but it will be a rough ride given the speed at which events unfolded. Several countries will be watching that development. Even the Taliban were surprised by their swift victory and Mullah Baradar- the leader echoed “We reached a situation which came swiftly”. Blame game in the US and Afghanistan and elsewhere will continue for quite some time for this military and political and intelligence debacle of the Biden Administration.
Taliban is triumphant not because it has defeated yet another superpower but because in the geo-politics and geo-economics of our times it has gained new and possibly more reliable friends in China, Russia and Iran and even a Turkey adding to its already excellent relationships with Qatar and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and UAE may also not be opposing the Taliban even though Ashraf Ghani has been given refuge in Abu Dhabi on humanitarian considerations. Central Asian countries especially Afghanistan’s neighbours will also avoid any conflict with the Taliban regime to avert any negative fallout. As such they have many of their own ethnic tribes in Afghanistan. No wonder, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan refused permission for fleeing Ghani to avoid getting caught in the cross fires.
China and Russia will do their bit to support and stand up for the new Afghan regime and might even temper some of the socio-pathetic traits of the erstwhile Taliban while ensuring that their own geo-economic and political interests are served to the hilt. One of the key spoilers for them will be the revival of directed terrorism since Russians have seen it in Chechnya and the Chinese are fearing the same on account of Uyghurs and Turkestan Islamic Movement out of Afghanistan and its borders with Xinjiang province. Taliban promises aside it is an open-ended question. To ensure its long-term economic interests China would even be willing to bail them out against the unilateral sanctions or financial restraints placed by the west beyond a point. Afghanistan could become another addition to the CRIPTQ (China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Qatar) matrix. And out of these India can only count on Russia and Iran and Qatar to some extent. Countering the Sino-Pak designs will be her biggest challenge in another theatre. Keeping Pakistan out of UNSC meetings in Afghanistan was rightly the quid pro quo to Islamabad’s vicious undermining efforts against Indian interests in Afghanistan. The colours have already been shown in the demolition of statues of Maharaja Ranjit singh in Pakistan and Hazara warrior in Bamian.
All these developments do not augur well for India’s strategic interests. It holds few cards as far as Taliban is concerned due to absence of overt engagement with them in the last two years. But India is in the UNSC and can leverage that to moderate the negativity which surely Taliban would be looking forward to. Secondly, in the transition government still there may be some friendly faces apart from groundswell of grass root level affection for India which might come handy. Moreover, Taliban does appreciate India’s infrastructure and capacity building assistance of over $ 3 bn and has urged India to complete the ongoing 400 odd high impact community development initiatives and projects. Even though some reports are coming in of the restrictions on trade with India, likely to be temporary due to logistical bottlenecks, India will do well to partake in humanitarian assistance efforts for the Afghan people.
India has done well not to mention Taliban in its UN statements and a heightened and irresponsible commentary in the Indian media and political circles will only give a supercilious advantage to Pakistani handlers as we try to secure our people and interests apart from enhancing radicalisation in India itself. Taliban is showing some understanding on issues of India’s concerns in J&K calling them once again as a bilateral matter between New Delhi and Islamabad and if it can also contain the spread of terrorist links against India from its terrain a real concern may be assuaged. As Indian PR said at the last meeting of UNSC “If there is a zero tolerance for terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and it is ensured that the territory of Afghanistan is not used by terrorist groups to threaten or attack any other country, then Afghanistan’s neighbours and the region would feel safer”. Besides, we need to be agile to convert the ground reality to our advantage and avoid being the last man standing.
The article was originally published (https://www.vifindia.org/2021/august/20/lost-in-afghanistan) on the portal of Vivekananda International Foundation
-The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and a commentator on Foreign Policy issues