The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has drastically changed the global power dynamic. India could turn out to be the biggest potential victim of this change.
In a nutshell, Pakistan has won Afghanistan. Some key players, including acting President Amrullah Saleh, are resisting the Taliban from the Panjshir valley in the north, but some in India’s security set-up are not confident that they will be able to successfully pull together. One must hope they will, for a fully empowered Taliban could be disastrous, for both Afghan citizens and India.
A phalanx of powers backs Pakistan’s play. China, Russia, and Iran seemed to be on board, and Qatar facilitated it. Russia seems to have reservations now, but these powerful countries apparently helped Pakistan’s agents to orchestrate the fall of province after district, probably with a fine-tuned combination of bribes, threats, blandishments, and promises.
The United States was apparently fooled about what would happen after its troops withdrew. NATO and other smaller partners had zero decision-making roles. But there are signs that the UK, which has played Pakistan’s game on Jammu and Kashmir since 1947, is also covertly backing Pakistan’s bold play in Afghanistan.
UK Army Chief's Comment Raised Eyebrows
Perhaps the UK is smarting at being neglected by the US, as political commentator Andrew Rawnsley suggested in The Guardian. The UK army chief’s statement expressing trust in the Taliban raised several eyebrows, but that was not the only giveaway straw in the wind.
That succinct voice of the British establishment, The Economist, even ran a strap line saying "A humiliation for India is a victory for Pakistan", without explaining convincingly how India had been humiliated. Perhaps some major Indian TV 'news' channels are not the only media that voice an official line.
The US has lost face hugely, since its major rivals among world powers are ranged more or less behind the Taliban. Yet, intriguingly, the US appears to have opted to lump it.
This has diminished its role in Asia, if not the world. China, Russia, and Iran have emerged as the power troika, with Pakistan bang in the centre, Turkey somewhere on the edges, and the UK perhaps lurking in the shadows of this powerful alignment.
India is out in the cold.
Working With the Enemy's Enemy
If some US strategists calculated that a revitalised Taliban would make things difficult for Iran, and possibly China and Russia, that strategy has been turned on its head. At least for the moment, the troika appears to have pretty cordial relations with Afghanistan’s new rulers.
All three would have been eager to help Pakistan humiliate the US. Perhaps only the US was blind to what former ISI chief Hamid Gul said on TV in 2014, that history would record that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union with US help, and then defeated the US with US help.
Of course, Russia, and more so Iran, basically dislike the Taliban but seem to have been persuaded to work with their enemy’s enemy. Since the US’s negotiations over the past decade made it obvious that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan, both seem to have made tactical alliances in order to prevent the Taliban from turning on their areas of influence.
The ease with which the Taliban took over Shia-dominated places such as Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Bamiyan, almost without resistance, makes one wonder whether Iran influenced incumbent local authorities to let it happen. If so, the Taliban must have promised not to attack Iran, or commit genocide against Afghan Shia communities.
China is likewise determined to keep the Taliban away from Xinjiang. And all three powers (Russia most of all) don’t want the Taliban to turn towards the Central Asian republics.
India a Consensus Target?
Since all three basically want to divert the resurgent Taliban from their areas of influence, it would suit them if Pakistan diverts elements of the Taliban towards India.
I have shown in The Story of Kashmir that the ISI gave clearance in December 1992 for the largely Afghan Harkat-ul Mujahideen to fight in Kashmir. Pakistan-backed mujahideen, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had taken over Kabul in April that year.
Given the sharp focus on Kashmiri rights after the constitutional changes two years ago, and viral pictures of Muslims being lynched in other parts of India, it would be easy to mobilise Taliban fighters in this direction once they control Afghanistan.
If that happens, the increasingly insular US may not help India in a substantial way. Indeed, the Democrats now in power might accept talk of “resolving the Kashmir issue”. In case of war, India may get little more than naval support from its Quad allies such as Japan.
Taliban Plays the Magnet
Russia has long sought to align with China and Iran against the US. That alignment is now firmly in place, with the Taliban playing magnet. It’s worth recalling that Russia initially proposed in the 1990s that India and China join it in such a line-up, but Indian policymakers have been enamoured of the US since at least Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
While all three are on board as much to protect their own flanks from the resurgent Taliban as to snub the US, China may have a more decisive influence on the Pak-Taliban set-up.
Pakistan’s pet terror outfits have already warmed to China. I had noted in a 2017 article that the spokespersons of both Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed publicly praised China, and valorised its role in South Asia.
It is no surprise that the ISI fooled the US about what would follow its troops’ departure. It has fooled the US ever since the West invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack.
Even Hamid Karzai, who the US installed as Afghan President 20 years ago, accommodated the Pak-Taliban axis to an extent, and continues to help coordinate the transition.
In the first few weeks after the invasion in November 2001, the US allowed Pakistan to evacuate the Taliban along with Pakistani trainers. Pakistan has protected, trained, and provided logistics for the Afghan Taliban since then, and diverted to the Taliban some of the arms the US sent for use against the Taliban.
Turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s duplicity — even after US academics, activists, and military leaders pointed it out — has cost the US hugely. Not only have trillions of dollars and thousands of US lives been wasted, but its reputation is also in tatters.
But Is This Line-Up Stable?
Some analysts predict that the Taliban will turn on Pakistan just as Pakistan fooled the US. That’s possible, but the counter-argument is stronger: the Taliban will appreciate the smoothness with which Pakistan arranged their takeover.
It’s also possible that the Taliban could, over time, turn on one or more of the troika that worked with Pakistan to arrange this. Iran will fear for largely Shia ethnic Afghan minorities, such as Hazaras. China, too, will remain wary about Taliban support to Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
That, of course, is one more reason — alongside China’s basic desire to weaken India before it might become a strong competitor — for China as well as Iran to go along with any Pakistani plan to mobilise elements of the Taliban against India.
Uneasy times may lie ahead.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)