How India should deal with the Taliban

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Afghanistan was always a graveyard for empires and now of reputations. The USA has learnt it the hard way. As has India. Till a couple of years ago, we sat at the head table of nations deciding the future of this turmoil-ridden country. However, a fortnight ago, Delhi was forced to wind up its embassy overnight, with ambassador Rudrendra Tandon and his colleagues using the stealth of night to exit the capital Kabul. The following two weeks continued to be harrowing, as the ministry of external affairs pulled all diplomatic strings to evacuate both Indians and Afghans of Indian origin to safety.

Of course, it was not just India that was caught flat-footed by the speed with which the Ashraf Ghani-headed Afghan government capitulated to the Taliban. The mighty US and a host of western countries who had been negotiating for a more orderly transition of power too were scrambling to get their personnel out. “Everyone was expecting a four-wicket win by the Taliban,” says a senior Indian official. “Who thought they would win by an innings and many days to spare?”

The only one smiling, apart from the Taliban, was Pakistan, a country that has bankrolled and masterminded its return. Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan declared that “the shackles of slavery” had been broken. He may have sounded like it was he who led the charge, but it was the Pakistan army—the power behind the throne—that had engineered the comeback. As a diplomat, twisting an old Prussian quote, wryly put it, “Most countries have an army. But the Pakistan army now has not one but two countries.” If we are not careful, he added, “we may end up with two Terroristans!”

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul on August 19; (AP photo)

The Geopolitical Impact

The geopolitical impact of the Taliban’s return is expected to be far-reaching given its links with major terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. As Asfandyar Ali Mir, a senior expert at the Asia Centre, United States Institute of Peace, said on an NPR programme, “Global jihadists are electrified by the Taliban’s return. This is a big triumph for the Taliban as well as for Al Qaeda. From the Taliban’s perspective, they mounted this effective insurgency. They have expelled a foreign occupier and they have restored the government, which was forcibly taken away from them. And from Al Qaeda’s perspective, it has defeated its main nemesis, which is the United States, by supporting the insurgency of the Taliban.”

Even countries that backed the Taliban insurgency, like Russia, China and Iran, are deeply concerned about the impact its triumph may have on other terror groups inimical to their interests. While these three countries are happy that the Taliban has rubbed America’s nose in the dirt, each of them has sought guarantees from the top Taliban leaders that they will not allow Afghanistan’s territory to foster and nurture such groups (Read: The New Great Game). Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, “Everything now hinges fundamentally on what attitude the Taliban takes in this new incarnation. If they maintain tight control over the threats they pose outside of their country, then no matter how much we despise them for what they may do inside their country, people will hold their nose and learn to live with it. But if they go back to being the Taliban of the 1990s and export jihad, then we are all going to be in real trouble and there will be serious geopolitical implications.”

Evacuees in a US Air Force C-17 military transport en route from Kabul to Qatar on August 15; (AFP photo)

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Twin challenges for India

The return of the Taliban poses a twin challenge for India. As long as the US controlled Afghanistan, we had leverage with the democratically elected regimes that ruled the country. Former Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai and Ghani saw Pakistan as the enemy and encouraged India to be a counterpoise. We had both respect and clout, being among the largest donors for development programmes, having spent $3 billion (Rs 22,000 crore) in the past two decades (Read: India’s goodwill hunting). Now, the tables have turned. Pakistan is in the driver’s seat and India has ended up with a poor hand. It not only has to deal with a resurgent Taliban and all the free radicals that come with it but also a triumphant Pakistan that will now try and channelise its energies to stir trouble in Kashmir.

‘For India, the situation is not of unmitigated despair. It can exploit the tension between the Afghans’ and Pakistan’s objectives’

– Ashley Tellis, Senior fellow, Carnegie endowment for International Peace

Critics point out that the Indian government had made no real effort to engage the Taliban even when the writing was on the wall about the US pullout. They say that India should not have waited for the regime to collapse but worked out ways to shape the outcome so that we wouldn’t have been in the snakepit we find ourselves in now. Rakesh Sood, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, says, “We put all our eggs in one basket. Now the basket has given way and the eggs are broken. The West had the luxury of departure. India is part of the region—where would we go?” Sood’s advice is to formulate a policy to deal with the new dispensation but wait and watch till there is clarity on who is in charge. As he puts it, “You can’t learn swimming by jumping into a river in a flood. Now FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) can’t be used to drive policy.”

Government sources deny the charge that India has woken up too late. They point to informal contacts being established with the Taliban top brass. A senior official points out, “The Taliban have made positive assertions that they see Kashmir as a bilateral dispute between Pakistan and India and will not get involved. They have said they will ensure that the minorities are not harmed and indicated that they would like us to continue with the development work we are doing. So, we may not be in, but we are certainly not out either.” In response to criticism from some quarters that India panicked and pulled out their envoy too quickly from Kabul, officials say there was chaos in the capital, and other terror groups could have used the opportunity to take advantage. One of the concerns was a hostage situation, like during the IC-814 hijack at Kandahar in 1999, forcing India to make a concession. The other reason was that India was not in a rush to recognise the regime and give it legitimacy but preferred “to use the card at a judicious time”.

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Taliban 1.0 vs 2.0

Opinion remains divided on whether Taliban 2.0 will behave differently from the drugs and thugs image its 1.0 version had in the 1990s. The leadership and its chain of command have certainly undergone a change even if its ideological moorings haven’t. In its first tenure, the Taliban regime enforced a stringent interpretation of the Islamic dress code and conduct for men and women, and staged public floggings and executions for breaches of its interpretation of Islamic law. It closed cinemas, banned all forms of entertainment and defaced and destroyed numerous cultural artefacts, including two 6th century Buddha statues in Bamiyan. (Read: Flashpoints)

After the Taliban was driven out by the US in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attack, most of its leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, its charismatic Amir al-Momineen (Supreme Leader), went into hiding. Following their defeat, there was major infighting among the various warlords during the first 10 years, tensions that persist to this day. The Rahbari Shura or leadership council, colloquially called the Quetta Shura, was challenged by the Miran Shah Shura controlled by the Haqqani Network which is tied to Pakistan’s ISI. Two other Shuras—the Peshawar Shura and the Mashhad Shura—have lost their prominence in recent years.

Graphic by Nilanjan Das and Tanmoy Chakraborty

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After Mullah Omar died of illness in 2013, his death was kept a secret till 2015 and his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had to quell dissent from both Sirajuddin Haqqani and Omar’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob. Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in 2016 and Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed as amir. While Akhundzada is a respected cleric, he has no serious military experience and the Taliban rules by consensus among the members of the Rahbari Shura. When it comes to military matters, the Haqqani Network is considered to have the best fighters, and has gained dominance.

In recent years, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has grown in prominence and was the chief negotiator of the Doha round of talks with US interlocutors. Pakistan put Baradar in jail for eight years because he was seen as a moderate willing to do business with the Karzai government, but released him in 2018 to conduct negotiations under US pressure. He is now likely to be the head of the council that will control the new Taliban administration.

The Taliban, therefore, is far from a monolithic organization (Infographic: Chain of Command). Instead, it is made up of several factions, has different shades of opinion that are jockeying for supremacy. This should enable India to cultivate the factions less hostile to us. But the key questions, Tellis says, is “whether the claimed leader has the capacity to control the various factions that form the Taliban and what the dominant vision of Afghanistan that will emerge from its government will be”.

Graphic by Nilanjan Das and Tanmoy Chakraborty

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Emirate vs Caliphate

Importantly, most Taliban leaders are seen as nationalists as they advocate an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan rather than a broader pan-Islamic caliphate. Mushahid Hussain, an erudite Pakistan senator and chairman of the Defence Committee, says, “The DNA of the Taliban is not pan-Islamic. It is not Al Qaeda. These are tribal Islamic Pashtuns whose focus does not extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan.” What India and the world are watching is whether the Taliban leadership will stick to its brand of nationalism or begin to see itself as the new driving force of pan-Islamism.

‘Taliban’s DNA is not pan-Islamic. It is not Al Qaeda. These are tribal Islamic Pashtuns whose focus does not extend beyond Afghanistan borders’

– Mushahid Hussain, Pak senator; chairman, Defence Committee

While its leaders may remain committed to an extreme religious ideology and establishing an authoritarian political system, any persistence in their relationship with other militant groups is likely to be met with hostility by even countries that support it now, whether Russia, Iran, China or Pakistan. The Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, for instance, are China’s soft underbelly, and it will come down heavily on the Taliban if it is seen to be fostering militancy there. However, it will be difficult for the Taliban to dissociate easily from its compatriots who help it with insurgency. Amar Sinha, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, says, “The Taliban leaders can’t tell these boys from other groups that the job is done and you pack up and go. There is a system of pledging allegiance which all these major groups have done with the Taliban and those links will remain.” Sinha also points out that the Taliban’s foot-soldiers are a new generation of fighters between 18 and 25 who are better equipped and may not be easy to control.

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The Islamic world, particularly the Gulf and Central Asian countries where fundamentalists pose a threat to their regimes, is apprehensive of the Taliban’s return. Even Pakistan is concerned about the double game Taliban has played, by backing the anti-Pakistan Tehreek e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group (Read: Islamist terror groups linked to Taliban). Hussain says, “Our biggest concern are the 6,500 TTP terrorists holed up in Afghanistan who are under the influence of the Taliban—they need to quell them. If the Taliban went back to its ways of the 1990s, it will be a recipe for disaster for them.” For India, the tension on the TTP front and the need for the Taliban to not be seen as a puppet of the ISI are something it could work on to downgrade the ace that Pakistan holds. The dispute over the Durand Line remains unresolved, though Pakistan has moved to fence the border separating the two countries. Also, if the new regime gets financially stronger, its dependence on Pakistan will decrease and its potential for rivalry with Islamabad will increase. As Tellis says, “For India, the situation is not one of unmitigated despair. It can exploit the potential tension that exists between the Afghans’ national objectives and Pakistan’s objectives. Let’s not forget the fights that Baradar has had with the ISI in the past decade. It is important for India to realise that if it treats Taliban-governed Afghanistan as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pakistan, it will end up making it one even if it isn’t.”

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Graphic by Nilanjan Das and Tanmoy Chakraborty

A Different Afghanistan

What is also clear is that the Afghanistan that the Taliban had to flee from in 2001 is a vastly different country today. Having enjoyed democratic dispensations for two decades, and flush with funds from the US, which pumped in $2 trillion in these years, and other donor nations, major cities in Afghanistan have experienced a modicum of development and freedom.

Enrolment in schools and colleges shot up and literacy rates of both men and women saw a 43 per cent increase. Health indicators, particularly infant mortality, improved. As did road connectivity and power availability. The GDP in the first 10 years of American intervention grew by an annual average of 9 per cent, but dropped to an average of 2 per cent with uncertainty setting in during the past five years. Worse, a credible survey reported that the poverty rate had risen from 38 per cent in 2011-12 to 55 per cent in 2016-17. The deteriorating security situation is only one of the reasons. The major problem is the rampant corruption in the government and the lack of accountability that set in during the Karzai and Ghani regimes. It was the reason why the resistance against the Taliban’s return diminished, particularly in rural Afghanistan.

Graphic by Nilanjan Das and Tanmoy Chakraborty

Despite these shortcomings, the Taliban is inheriting a functional government and will have to deal with the aspirations of people who have tasted freedom and enjoyed their rights, particularly women. But ethnic rivalries and loyalties remain. The Taliban are primarily Pashtuns, who account for 42 per cent of the 38 million population. Tajiks, who form 27 per cent of the population, and the Hazaras and Uzbeks, who make up 9 per cent each, form sizeable minority groups. The new regime has to be truly inclusive if it has to hold together. (Infographic: A boiling pot of ethnicities)

The Taliban is also mindful of the warlords who control the various ethnic groups and provinces. It was able to subdue some of the big ones—Mohammad Ismail Khan, the ‘lion’ of Herat, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor of Balkh, and Abdul Ghani Alipur of Maidan Wardak. But the Tajiks under the leadership of the deposed vice president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, have retreated to the Panjshir Valley, its stronghold, and said they are forming a National Resistance Front to fight the onslaught of the Taliban. India was one of the main backers of the Northern Alliance that included the Tajiks when they formed a resistance group against Taliban 1.0. Saleh’s resistance is still small but it’s a card India can play in the future if the Taliban doesn’t form an inclusive government and remains hostile to India and its interests.

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In their public statements, the Taliban leaders have adopted a conciliatory tone. Baradar has said that the militant group believes in “an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination and live harmoniously with each other in an atmosphere of brotherhood”. Haqqani in February 2020 wrote that the group is “building an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of the women that are granted by Islam—from the right to education to the right to work—are protected”. This is certainly an improvement on their medieval back-to-the-caves approach of the ’90s but far from being conducive to building a Dubai-like emirate.

Of course, these statements will be put to the test once the Taliban assumes full charge. India has a history of grievances against the group, including its involvement in the Kandahar hijacking and the bomb blast outside the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 that killed 56 people along with two Indian officials. It has no reason to believe that the current dispensation will not return to its bad old ways. One section believes that India should not engage with the Taliban as it is a fount of terror, the same reason it cites for refusing to have a dialogue with Pakistan. But T.C.A. Raghavan, a former high commissioner to Pakistan, cautions, “We should not get bound by playing committed strokes or judge them by what we thought of them in the past or through the prism of Pakistan. We should tell them that we will deal with them as an independent nation and that we are willing to deal with them if our concerns of not interfering with our borders are met. And we should not be in a tearing hurry to recognise the new set-up but instead wait for them to do all the heavy lifting.”

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Quest For Legitimacy

Where India and other countries have a hold over Taliban is in its quest for legitimacy. In their first tenure, only three countries recognised the regime: Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. While Russia, Iran and China have extended support to the Taliban in forcing the Americans to exit, they have held back on giving it recognition in return for guarantees that it would protect their interests (Read: The New Great Game). The US has used the leverage of freezing $7 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves in the New York Federal Bank and pushed it to set up an inclusive government that protects women’s rights and minorities and stops fostering terror. The IMF has withheld $400 million worth of special drawing rights it had given to Afghanistan. European countries are withholding their pledge of $3 billion worth of aid for the next four years till they are convinced the Taliban government will behave appropriately.

Graphic by Nilanjan Das and Tanmoy Chakraborty

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The Taliban needs foreign funds desperately if it has to make a government with a difference and to meet the massive humanitarian crisis that is sure to overwhelm it given the breakdown of government. As an insurgency, it collected $1.6 billion annually through illicit drugs, clandestine mining, extortion and foreign donations (Infographic: The Taliban bankroll). However, to run a government now, it will need over $6 billion annually to meet its budgetary requirements. India’s development assistance will be much sought-after, too, a leverage New Delhi can employ at an appropriate time.

Even China will be unwilling to bankroll the regime if it goes back to becoming a hub of terror. As Sharat Sabharwal, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, says, “The world is vastly different from when it ruled in the 1990s. Today, there is a global consensus against terrorism, and nations will come down hard on them if they spread mayhem.” India’s other advantage is that it is the current chair­man of the UN Security Council and the UN sanctions committee and will be in the UNSC till December 2023. It will make the Taliban more amenable to engaging with Indians and finding common ground.

Meanwhile, India should raise its guard in Kashmir and move towards establishing a political process and full statehood at the earliest to prevent Pakistan and jihadi elements from stirring up fresh rebellion. Sinha says, “My hunch is Pakistan will overplay its hand in terms of meddling with Taliban and pushing its own interests. We need to have patience and slowly regain our influence in Afghanistan.” Veteran diplomat Satinder Lambah believes it is time for India to follow an independent position on Afghanistan. “We shouldn’t be seen holding anyone’s apron strings but must act with pragmatism and independence while dealing with the new regime,” he says. Sound advice for the tough haul India faces to overcome the setbacks in its relations with Afghanistan.

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