All headlines now are focused on Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul. Most of these are bagged by the quest or conquest of a resurgent Taliban to capture the nation. While they controlled over 80 per cent of rural areas and critical supply lines early on, as the US quietly vacated Bagram Airbase at night, what surprises the analysts and observers is the extraordinary speed at which the Taliban has advanced. Another surprise was the helpless and leaderless fall of Afghan security forces, who are said to be nearly four times in size, with far superior training and high-tech equipment made available or left behind by the Americans over the past two decades.
Ironically, with the fall of the terrain to Taliban, not only a large number of forces have surrendered to the ferocious onslaught of the feared Taliban or fled to neighbouring countries, but this has also provided them with supplies of arms and ammunition, as well as the released Taliban fighters held in jails, thereby restoring and adding to their physical strength.
The Rise and Rise of the Taliban
As the American personnel flee Afghanistan and the country sends 5,000 troops for evacuation, President Biden justifies his hasty exit, which was planned by his predecessor, while maintaining that the Afghans must fight their own battles. The fact remains that the past decades may have served some of the US counter-terrorism objectives, but the effort to create a clonish Afghan army on their own models, in fact, seems to have weakened the Afghan fighting spirit. It increased their dependency on the so-called “superior” US war machine and logistical network managed and guided by US expertise. A surrogate role has just not risen to the occasion. The humanitarian crisis is getting bigger by the day as fearful Afghans, women and minors and minorities look for fragile shelters. No wonder Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, says that Afghanistan is spinning out of control.
Fears over the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan and the country’s regression into medieval fundamentalism as part of the strictest and outdated Sharia-controlled Islamic Emirate sends shivers across the region and the democratic world, if one were to go by their advent and excesses in the 1990s that gave huge wind to terrorism and extremism. Taliban is a history-sheeter and can often be defined by the 5Ts — Terror, Torture, Threats, Triumphalism and Total Control. Today it has also become ‘Tactical’ but unlikely to be ‘Trustworthy’.
Taliban 1.0 was crass with all those elements and support and recognition mainly from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US. But it has now become social media savvy and has successfully created polished narratives — even if those are far from reality.
Today, the Taliban has refurbished its image as it has found legitimacy in its growing relationship with the US, China, Russia, Central Asian nations and other western countries, Iran and Turkey, who all have their own geopolitical ends and calculations.
It has been sitting on the table with the converted. Qatar has been its major interlocutor and has allowed it an embassy/office, protection and an international voice. Umpteen Doha meetings and the Agreement, even as of this week, have provided the Gulf state with a significant leeway compared to its other regional counterparts this time around.
Pakistan’s Support And Diplomatic Heft
Even today, several terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, Daesh (ISIS), Jaish-e- Mohammed, and several others, have a pronounced presence, creating a terror-ridden bridge with their Taliban twins and clones in Pakistan, which are supported by the deep state there. If former Vice-President Amrullah Saleh or the beleaguered and fugitive Afghan President Ghani are to be believed, more than 10,000 terrorists have been injected by Pakistan to beef up Taliban firepower and violence.
The role of Pakistan with regard to the creation and sustenance of the Taliban, a priori, has been circumspect, but it has provided it with a diplomatic heft as a ‘go-to guy’ for the so-called Troika of the first instance of Russia, China and the US of 2019. Whether we like it or not or debate as much as we do, Islamabad and Rawalpindi have always ensured umbilical ties with several Taliban factions like Haqqani and others, which have enabled them to use and encash their nuisance value with all the big powers from the US to Uzbekistan.
Islamabad believes in the zero-sum game as it was not happy with India’s expanding soft power and infra-outreach in Afghanistan through her high-impact projects and citadels of democracy and development in dams and parliament buildings. It wanted India’s presence cut to size and sees that opportunity in a resurgent Taliban. It has made every effort in conjunction with the Chinese and Russians to keep India out of the great game.
But Islamabad may be in for a surprise once the Taliban is in power as the challenges of a civil war will have a direct impact, with refugees and a fledgling economy, let alone the challenges posed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pashtuns across the Durand line might give them a bitter taste as they would look to claim their brotherhood.
There has been no dearth of Ts and Qs — the Trilaterals and Quartets — in various permutations and combinations, with Islamabad as the only cog in the wheel. The most recent Quad was after the Central Asia meet, floated by the US, yet again including the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, and not India, even though Secretary Blinken would call India a credible partner who will continue to make vital contributions in Afghanistan. As such, the vacuum created by US exit has given an opportunity to its strategic rivals China and Russia to fish in the troubled waters by choice or by compulsion.
Opportunities for China And Russia
China quickly invited the high-level Taliban delegation to firm up the artificial great wall on its border at Xinjiang with Afghanistan to prevent Uyghurs and Turkestan Islamists from brewing more trouble in China. Of course, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), geo-economic strategies and quest for rare earths and minerals demand a favourable regime in Afghanistan. By all accounts, the Taliban is likely to call the shots, so an early bird is looking for its prey. The Taliban is also happy as it gets legitimised by the second-biggest economic power, which might help in modern infrastructure in exchange for the assurance that it will not allow terror activities against its partners from the Afghan land. Well, a free advice to our northern frenemy: if you trust this wolf in wolf’s clothing, even your wolf warrior diplomacy will only ensure a place in the “Graveyard of Empires”, the last one being that of Uncle Sam, who might even be happy with the company.
Russia, with its Troikas, has its own interests in strategic central Asian space, bitter historical memories, and drug laundering concerns as well as standard geo-political objectives in its Eurasian backyard. It hosted Moscow talks and its special envoy Zamir Kabulov remains heavily invested with Kabul and Islamabad and can be credited for increased Russian interactions with Pakistan. He must have pleased his friends in Pakistan when he mentioned (July 20) in the context of expanded Troika Talks in Doha (August 10-12) that the format of the ‘Extended Troika’ with the participation of Russia, along with the US, China and Pakistan is convened exclusively to facilitate the launch of the intra-Afghan talks leading to a national accord. “Only countries that have an unequivocal influence on both sides [of the conflict] participate… as the two [India and Pakistan] suffer from the bilateral contradictions in Afghanistan plaguing their houses,” he added, not discounting India’s role in the post-conflict reconstruction phase.
Where Does India Stand?
It has become quite fashionable to denude the Indian foreign policy as inadequate with a lack of foresight since India did not abandon its value-based policy with regard to the Taliban in particular and Afghanistan in general seeing the writing on the wall. They would rather like it to begin with a Tabula Rasa and completely forget what the Taliban stood for in the 1990s , what it propagates and whose stooge it has been and what it intends to achieve.
Foreign policy is never static and even though there has been no open acknowledgement, some efforts and direct and indirect contacts with the Taliban are
necessary and understandable, including Indian presence at Doha Agreement, unofficial presence at Moscow talks, and, most recently in Doha, at the expanded talks with some other countries pursuant to the visit of Special Qatari envoy to Delhi .
The Taliban narrative with regard to India has also undergone some change at least on the surface. It values the Indian contribution to Afghanistan’s nation-building efforts and would rather keep out of the Jammu & Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. It wants India not to take sides in the ongoing dispute. But India is also heavily invested in the welfare of Afghanistan. Being in the UNSC, it could be a useful conduit for the Taliban’s recognition, but if it grabs power by the gun that route might not be open. Meanwhile, New Delhi seems to be keeping its options open as it has been mending fences with Tehran, engaging in closer consultations with Moscow, Washington, and in the multilateral institutions, be it at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Even though it may not have all the Kings or the Aces, or a joker, in hand, it will move the queen on the chess board to secure her national interest that serve the Afghans as well.
All is not lost as India continues to be a favourite for most Afghans at the grassroot level. However, with Taliban well ensconced, by default, India should try to secure her people and her interests and should not be the last one to accept the changed reality .
The situation is evolving dramatically as the Taliban has entered the capital through its strategic momentum. If it has become any smarter, it will prefer a 'power-sharing' arrangement made easier from its vantage position and not become a 'pariah state' at odds with the international community once again. It has tried the power transfer to look ‘peaceful‘ for the international consumption and for enabling its interlocutors to quickly recognise their legitimacy. Whatever be the immediate outcome, the long road is not paved well, at least for the ordinary Afghans.
(Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian envoy to Jordan, Libya and Malta. He is a regular commentator on international politics and foreign policy. 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.)