The Taliban captured Kabul on 27 September 1996. The previous day Ahmed Shah Massoud, the greatest leader of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union’s ingress into Afghanistan, retreated from Kabul. He withdrew his forces through the Shomali Plain into his stronghold of the Panjshir Valley. With the Afghan capital in its possession, the group declared the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, culminating a process that began two years earlier with its taking Kandahar.
Through these two years, Western countries, including the United States (US), considered the Taliban merely as one of the parties to the Afghan civil conflict. They were not concerned about its ideology. They considered its practices representative of the conservative traditions of the Pashtuns. The US also overlooked the clear nexus that had developed between Pakistan and the Taliban.
A Non-Inclusive Government
After taking over Kabul, the Taliban held a press conference. At this media event, its spokesman asked the two women journalists present, one of whom was CNN’s Anita Pratap, to leave. He said that the presence of women in such settings was against the Taliban’s Islamic tenets. This attracted immediate and worldwide criticism. It also threw a spotlight on the Taliban’s regressive thinking and harsh practices, which ensured that no country, excluding Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would give it diplomatic recognition. At the same time, except for India, Russia and Iran, no country was willing to meaningfully act against it.
Almost 25 years later, the Taliban is again the master of Kabul and Afghanistan. But, unlike in the 1990s, it has decimated the opposition. Despite demonstrations by some brave women in the Afghan capital, for the time being, the likelihood of a popular uprising by the non-Pashtuns against it is remote. However, at this advantageous time, like in 1996, its spokesmen are scoring self-goals, especially on gender issues. This is well illustrated by what Sayed Zekrullah Hashimi, one of its spokesmen, told TOLOnews on 9 September.
He said, “A woman can’t be a minister; it is like you put something on her neck which she can’t carry. They should give birth and raise children according to Islamic ethics. Women protesters cannot represent all women in Afghanistan.”
The US and its Western allies have emphasised that they will not accord the Taliban diplomatic recognition. They are unhappy that the Taliban’s caretaker government is not “inclusive”. This is apart from their objections to the Taliban’s comments and actions on women.
However, China is more tolerant of both the Taliban government and its social attitudes. It is engaging it and has announced a small assistance package. Russia seems to be getting a little wary of the Taliban government but is likely to continue its engagement with it.
Wide Chasm on Afghanistan During BRICS Summit
The differences on the Taliban in the international community were played out in the BRICS virtual summit convened by India on 9 September. The top leaders of the five countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – participated. The careful formulation on Afghanistan contained in paragraph 23 of the joint statement, which was issued after the summit, clearly establishes the wide chasm on Afghanistan.
Such joint statements are the product of careful and detailed diplomatic negotiations. An attempt is always made to find – what in diplomatic parlance is referred to as “language” – formulations that are acceptable to all participants. Such formulations are meant to obfuscate differences so that a statement can be adopted. This is because the absence of a joint statement often denotes that a summit meeting has failed. Apart from the host country – which in this case was India – few member countries of a group want a summit to fail.
Paragraph 23 of the BRICS joint statement begins with the sentence, “We follow with concern the latest developments in Afghanistan.” The Taliban announced their caretaker government on 7 September, that is, two days before the summit. That was the latest development in Afghanistan, but though the joint statement used the adjective ‘latest’ to define developments, it simply ignores the caretaker government. That can only be because India, China and Russia had such large differences over the government that no language could be found to even refer to it.
Vague Words With No Meaning
Paragraph 23 also notes, “We stress the need to fostering an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue so as to ensure stability, civil peace, law and order in the country.” It is noteworthy that the BRICS leaders did not find common ground to agree to call for an “inclusive government”. That is what the US, its Western allies and India too have been calling for. Clearly, such a demand would be a thumbs down for the Taliban’s caretaker government. China would have no doubt been unwilling for that. Hence, instead of “inclusive government”, a compromise was found with the words “fostering an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue…”
The problem is once the Taliban has formed the government, why would it agree to an “intra-Afghan dialogue”? Earlier, the entire purpose of such a dialogue was to form an “inclusive government”. The Taliban’s military victory put paid to the idea of an “intra-Afghan” dialogue. Yet it finds mention in the joint statement except not for the purpose of forming a government but for “stability, civil peace, law and order”.
These words are vague, and because they are so, all BRICS countries have agreed to them. In effect, they mean nothing.
Thus, China could not prevail in getting India to even take note of the caretaker government. In turn, India could not get China to even exhort the Taliban to follow inclusive and forward-looking policies, leave alone call on the group to make its government inclusive. Meanwhile, the Taliban has created facts on the ground. At the end of the day, facts on the ground matter.
The Taliban are vulnerable on account of a precarious economic situation. The extent to which the US and the West would be willing to exploit it, remains to be seen. This is because they are fearful that a full meltdown in Afghanistan would lead to chaos, providing space for international terrorist groups to gain strength, something that no country wants.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)