On 10 June, responding to a specific question about whether India has opened talks with the Taliban, the Ministry of External Affairs stated, ambiguously, “we are in contact with various stakeholders” in Afghanistan.
With US troops set to withdraw fully from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021—and the Afghan Taliban already in control of large tracts—some media channels are warning that Pakistan could exploit the security void in Afghanistan to funnel foreign militants into Kashmir. It is important that India make its strategic move in the region without wasting any time.
Which Taliban Should India Talk To?
India is the largest regional donor, and enjoys immense goodwill among Afghans including the Pashtuns—and it’s imperative India secure its interests. But the fragmented nature of the Taliban means that India will have to talk to multiple entities. In any case, Afghanistan has generally been ruled by local forces, with ‘Afghan solutions to Afghan problems’, meaning that outsiders often have to reach separate deals/agreements with local leaders.
Broadly, the Taliban can be divided into three main groups:
- the Afghan Taliban, fighting in Afghanistan;
- Haqqani Network (HN), the Afghan Taliban’s regional command in eastern Afghanistan and
- Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), fighting against Pakistan.
In addition were a number of smaller groups (usually, ‘guns for hire’) and fighters of all stripes, including foreigners waging transnational jihad against various nations, local groups with local grievances, and criminals, all of who use the Taliban name for convenience.
The HN, led by the Haqqanis, is the most organised and dangerous group. They were a powerful force well before the Taliban rose to power, being a key beneficiary of the CIA’s largesse under "Operation Cyclone" during the Soviet-Afghan War. Although the Haqqanis have consistently pledged allegiance to the Taliban, they have maintained a large degree of operational and financial autonomy – and their links to Al-Qaeda and LeT are well-documented.
The Quetta Shura under Mullah Omar had provided the nucleus for running the Taliban. But after his death in 2013 was revealed by the Taliban leadership in mid-2015, divisions within the Taliban exacerbated and the hierarchical structure got partly decentralised. The HN, too, is a major impediment to negotiations on account of the strong rivalry between its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani (who prefers a military solution) and Taliban’s leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, a jurist.
Pashtunistan Movement Before the Taliban Took Over
The Durand Line was established in November 1896, to delineate the British and Afghan territories after two unsuccessful Anglo-Afghan wars. This Line, which Afghanistan doesn’t recognise, also divided the Pashtun (and Baluch) populations into the Afghan kingdom and British India.
Pre-1947, the Pashtuns didn’t want to join Pakistan. Abdul Ghaffār Khan a.k.a Frontier Gandhi—a Pashtun—founded the "Khudai Khidmatgar" movement for an independent state of ‘Pashtunistan’ astride the Durand Line. Their struggle failed, and the Partition split the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Since then, despite ethnic, linguistic, and religious commonalities, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have been largely characterised by mutual mistrust. Afghanistan continued its efforts to integrate the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. After Pakistan allied with the USA during the Cold War, Afghanistan and USSR fuelled the Pashtunistan movement.
In the 1970s, Afghanistan’s communist and Islamic movements escalated support for Pashtunistan - and Pakistan began nurturing militants to divert the Pashtuns’ attention from ethnonationalism.
After the USSR sent troops into Afghanistan in December 1979, the US’s CIA, along with the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate and China, bankrolled the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan through Pakistan. The Soviets withdrew in February 1989, and after President Najibullah’s regime fell in 1992, the seven “mujahedin” parties took over Afghanistan.
Formation of the Taliban in 1993-94
Many Afghan Islamic clerics/students/erstwhile mujahideen, mostly Pashtuns, saw this “mujahedin” government as fractured, weak, corrupt, and anti-Pashtun. So, in 1993-94, they formed the Taliban under Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Pakistan, looking for access to Central Asia and to stymie Indian influence, actively supported the Taliban, which took over Afghanistan in 1996. Shunned by the international community, the Taliban played host to Al-Qaeda that conducted the 9/11 attacks. Post-9/11 US military action ended the Taliban’s rule, and the command structures and many cadres of the Taliban fled to safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas, viz, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (former NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Frontier Regions, and the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas.
Pakistan was able to control the Afghan Taliban because the insurgents, as well as their logistics, were now at the complete mercy of Pakistan.
Pashtuns Matter in Pakistan & Afghanistan, India Must Reach Out
In Afghanistan, at over 42% (~16.8 mn) of the populace, Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group; next are Tajiks at 27%; followed by Uzbeks at 9%, and Hazaras at 9%.
In Pakistan, they are the second-largest ethnic group – about 27.2 mn live in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Taliban is predominantly a Pashtun movement – and the Pakistan Army has about 14% Pashtuns. However, neither the Pashtuns nor the Taliban are monolithic.
Approximately two-thirds of Afghan Pashtuns belong to the Ghilzai and Durrani confederations and the balance to other smaller confederations including Karlanri and Zadran.
Historically, the Durranis have provided political leaders, and the Ghilzais, the fighters. Almost all of Afghanistan’s rulers have been from the Durrani tribe. However, post-9/11 Afghanistan saw strange groupings - Durrani fighters under a Ghilzai (Mullah Omar), fighting against the Afghan government led by a Durrani (former president Hamid Karzai), whose military had a sizable Tajik component.
In Pakistan, Pashtuns in the Army and the Frontier Corps participated in operations against the Taliban.
Can Pakistan Use Afghan Fighters to Cause Trouble in Kashmir?
Pakistan has festering border disputes with Afghanistan and India, but cannot fight on two fronts. It is also perceived that if Afghanistan is hostile, Pakistan would have to raise additional forces as the current strength of the Pakistani military is India specific. Hence its quest for ‘Strategic Space’ in Afghanistan. The situations in Afghanistan and Kashmir are also linked: whenever Afghanistan is in turmoil, Pakistan foments trouble in Kashmir (eg USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan); and when relations with Kabul turn nasty, Pakistan seeks to improve ties with India.
However, five factors now work against Pakistan’s ability to leverage foreign fighters in Kashmir:
(a) The USA’s consistent targeting since October 2001 of militants/terrorists of all stripes in the Af-Pak region has denuded it of most. US drones are expected to continue.
(b) Post-9/11, Pakistan’s internal situation has undergone a radical change. Pre-9/11, the Taliban were purely an Afghan phenomenon. But after it was coerced (2003) into taking action against insurgent safe-havens in Pakistan, anti-Pakistan Taliban factions have risen. Pakistan apprehends that these factions could receive a major boost from their Afghan counterparts post-troop withdrawal.
(c) In Feb 2021, the Taliban’s so-called military commission ordered its members not to harbour “foreign” fighters in their ranks. This order, at least in words, seeks to comply with a major condition of the February 2020 peace deal—that Afghanistan not serve as a sanctuary for transnational jihadis.
(d) Given the dire state of Afghanistan’s economy and post-9/11 controls on covert money transfers, drug-running, etc, the Taliban need international recognition for continued funding/aid. And India could provide that vital link to the international community.
(e) India’s vastly improved intelligence-security grid, and the incremental elimination of terrorists, their leaders and support structures in the past decade.
(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. 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.)