Taliban’s spokesperson Mohammad Suhail Shaheen recently told an Indian audience that it wants to build ties with India, and is even willing to enact a law against terror groups using Afghan soil against any other country.
The US Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, also made a desperate visit to New Delhi, ostensibly to seek India’s constructive role in Afghanistan. He would have probably sought New Delhi’s mediation in resolving the Afghan internal political strife which is hampering the intra-Afghan talks from moving ahead.
Which means that both the US and the Taliban now acknowledge India’s legitimate role in the country, even after an inclusive government is formed in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad’s desperate visit and Taliban’s posturing should be viewed as positive development — New Delhi should simply grab it as a strategic opportunity to move forward.
Why Pakistan Will Try to Come Between Taliban & New Delhi’s Talks
Should India take the Taliban coming to power seriously? Probably yes, for India’s stakes in Afghanistan are colossal. Even if Pakistan sways 100 percent control over the Taliban, the mollifying of the aggrieved Afghan actor by India must start now, provided that India’s legitimate security concerns are regaled by the new regime.
Surely, it has to move cautiously, considering that the ground realities have not changed completely.
First, the peculiar feature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region – as a hub of Islamic fundamentalism and breeding grounds for terrorism – still remains intact.
Second, make no mistake that the US will continue to plonk for Pakistan as the subedar of these extremist brigades. Pakistan too will continue playing its duplicitous role to profit from exploiting the situation — except the largesse may have relatively dried up now.
A killjoy Pakistan will try to prevent Taliban’s contact with New Delhi, for the fear of their protégés escaping from the cage would be now causing nightmares in Rawalpindi.
Third, the ISI has mastered the art of manipulating the Afghans by splitting them along tribal warlord structures — a methodology that worked well when 28 groups fought jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it surreptitiously created dissensions among Mujahid factions. This time, Pakistan could cause dissent within the Taliban should it disobey ISI’s dictate.
Will the Taliban Make Or Break the ‘Chain of Jihad’?
Fourth, the Haqqani network (HQN) remains a contingency plan. Islamabad is pressing for the inclusion of Sirajuddin in the next dispensation to ensure a) the Taliban do not control all the levers of power; b) Indian influence does not grow; and c) to use as a vital asset to target Indian interests in Afghanistan.
Alongside, ISI has nurtured numerous small independent groups in the Pashtun heartlands as reserves should the Taliban become obdurate and defy ISI.
Fifth, Taliban’s ascendancy makes Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) more ambitious. They have been gasping for their last breath after the FATF tightened up Pakistan, but the US-Taliban deal could throw a spanner in the works — we don’t fully know what the next American agenda is.
An additional source of concern is Taliban’s entangled links with al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K), and HQN.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS’ Ansar Ghazwa’tul Hind have had footings in Kashmir since 2017.
Clearly, the situation at this stage remains complex and contradictory. We can’t be sure whether the Taliban, as a ‘legitimate’ ruler of Afghanistan, will make or break the entire chain of the (diverse) jihadist network.
Killing of a Popular Pashtun Leader: New Turn in Pakistan-Afghanistan Ties
The Doha Deal makes no mention of shutting down multiple Pakistani terror groups and affiliates paying allegiance to al-Qaeda or ISIS.
The Taliban may have learnt a lot of lessons after paying a heavy prize for harbouring foreign terrorists — hence, it is less likely to repeat it.
But, it would be rather naïve to assume that it would be able to extricate itself from the kingpin — the ISI. The Taliban also needs to worry about the growing presence of IS-K in eastern Afghanistan that could potentially derail its own future plans.
Whether to support the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) or quell them, poses yet another dilemma. Supporting the ‘good Taliban’ created by ISI to counter the growing Pashtunistan secessionist movement around the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) would put the Taliban in a quandary. The recent killing of a popular Pashtun leader, Arif Wazir, in Pakistan – ostensibly by the Pakistani Army – opens up a new turn in Pakistan-Afghanistan ties, especially at a time when the Taliban is coming to power in Kabul. India should be fully exploiting the political outburst against Pakistan establishment in the FATA and South Waziristan.
US Has Already Made Distinction Between Terrorism & Jihad
The Taliban’s relationships with Iran, Russia and others have considerably improved over the years. But ties with Iran will not be without tensions, especially over Tehran’s interest in protecting the Persian-speaking Afghans and the Shiites. To appease the ethnic community, the Taliban has appointed a local Hazara leader, Mawlawi Mahdi, as the Governor of Balkhab district in Saree-Pul Province.
The Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum is certain to be appointed as the Field Marshal by the Taliban government.
The Taliban has to decide on its links with the host of regional terror groups which are on the UNSC’s proscribed list, which also includes the Haqqani network, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), JeM, the Chechen fighters, among others. The continuing links with them would risk Taliban spoiling its ties with China, Russia and other regional countries.
On the flip side, should Taliban distance itself from all the terror groups, then the scale of international pressure on Pakistan would be eased considerably, which in turn would justify the ISI to singularly focus on jihad against India?
The Americans have already, through the deal, made a distinction between terrorism and jihad.
Why Islamabad Wants ‘Orderly and Responsible’ US Exit From Afghanistan
On the positive side, there are visible signs of change in Taliban’s behavioral pattern. For example, during the recent crisis of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Taliban awareness campaigns and restriction imposed on social and religious gatherings at mosques, outmatched Pakistan and India. They were seen helping health workers instead of attacking or killing them, as in the past.
Islamabad hopes to be the sole guarantor of Afghan security. But it seems tactically lying low now, waiting for the early American troops’ withdrawal, before there is any change in the US decision.
It wants an ‘orderly and responsible’ US withdrawal so that the transition is smooth. Pakistan can no longer take high-risk adventurism after the Osama bin Laden episode. The economic constraints apart, the US pressure, China’s sane advice, and the fear of Russian anger restrain Islamabad. However, it might leverage the Taliban to get itself off the FATF grey list. India needs to ensure that the Afghans are not manipulated further.
(P Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, is an expert on Eurasian affairs. He authored the volume (book) ‘The Afghan Conflict’ 1998. He tweets @pstobdan. This is an opinions piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)