Afghanistan is Burning — the UNSC’s Helpless Pleas Won’t Sway the Taliban
The last time around, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate didn’t care about ‘acceptability’ or ‘legitimacy’.
Indian-Afghanistan watchers, whose numbers will go up during the next T20 World Cup cricket tournament in the UAE, where that country’s plucky team may all be de facto refugees, must have been taken aback, as everyone else was, by the dizzying collapse of the Kabul government this week.
When US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by 11 September — 9/11, the date chosen to remind his voters of why the US was in Afghanistan at all — U.S. intelligence officials began to warn that Kabul could fall within six to 12 months after the US departure.
By 11 August, they said the capital could fall as soon as within a month.
It happened even sooner. By 15 August, Kabul was in the hands of the Taliban, and President Ashraf Ghani, the author of a book titled ‘Fixing Failed States’, had fled the country with his close aides. His own experiment in state-building had failed spectacularly.
A Bloody ‘Common Ground’
Ghani had been let down by his friends in the US — not just President Biden, but by former US President Donald Trump, who had squeezed the Afghans into negotiating away their freedom in a series of talks in Doha, Qatar, and elsewhere, releasing Taliban prisoners and agreeing on a “road map for peace” which was, in fact, a recipe for surrender.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, who orchestrated this craven policy, liked to congratulate the negotiators from the two sides “for finding common ground”.
But even while they were meeting in Doha, the “common ground” both sides lay claim to — the soil of Afghanistan — was being soaked in blood from the relentless attacks of the Taliban, who even rejected a ceasefire for Id, the traditional Muslim holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Taliban onslaughts since 2001 had killed between 1.5 million and 2 million Afghans already, before the current battle.
Winston Churchill may have argued that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”, but the Taliban perfected the art of practising jaw-jaw while relentlessly pursuing war-war. They made no secret of their desire to restore their Islamic Emirate, which ruled and brutalised Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, till it collapsed under a hailstorm of US bombs in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A Regime Known For its Grisly Fanaticism
With that successful assault on the bloodthirsty regime in Kabul, the US proceeded to inherit the problems the Russians had spent over ten years trying to grapple with, during their disastrous occupation of Afghanistan from 1978 to 1989.
With Russia’s departure, years of civil war and fratricidal killings culminated in the Taliban’s fundamentalist takeover. The Taliban instituted strict Islamic law, including frequent resort to executions, amputations and stoning to death.
Girls were denied schooling and women confined behind the veil; they could not so much as venture out of their homes without an accompanying male guardian, even to go to a hospital. Women not covered from head to toe, or travelling alone, were flogged mercilessly.
Cinema and television were abolished. Under the tutelage of the Pakistani military, Taliban tyranny brought peace to Afghanistan, but it was the peace of the graveyard.
After 9/11, a US-led NATO expeditionary force destroyed the Taliban government in 2001 under the banner of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. But neither the US nor the freedom it touted in Afghanistan has endured.
For the Taliban regrouped, undoubtedly with significant assistance from their erstwhile patrons across the border in Pakistan, and embarked on a well-armed campaign to take back their country from the occupiers. Today, amid scenes of chaos at Kabul airport as desperate Afghans try to flee along with departing foreigners, they have done so.
India Is Understandably Alarmed
At the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on 16 August, the “international community” called rather forlornly for talks again to create a new government in Afghanistan. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling” Taliban curbs on human rights and mounting violations against women and girls, the Council, under India’s chairmanship, demanded an end to fighting and mistreatment of civilians.
“We cannot and must not abandon the people of Afghanistan,” Guterres told the Security Council. India, Afghanistan’s second-largest aid donor after the United States, could be forgiven for greeting such words with scepticism.
New Delhi has watched the unravelling of the Kabul government and the return of the Taliban with concern. The Islamic Emirate was involved in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar in 1999, resulting in the loss of Indian lives and even greater loss of prestige, as the Indian government acceded to the terrorists’ demand for the release of three Pakistani terrorists from Indian jails.
The return of an Islamist Taliban regime in our neighbourhood would definitely give Pakistan-backed terrorists a base for attacks on India, as well as a source of ready recruits for the purpose. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has already hailed the Taliban for “breaking the shackles of slavery”.
Though his complacency may be premature — Islamists once applauded by Islamabad have also turned against their masters for being insufficiently Islamist themselves — New Delhi’s alarm is understandable.
Encouraged by the security imposed by the international coalition forces, we had invested more than $2 billion dollars in Afghanistan, building the country’s largest hospital for women and children, erecting schools, constructing the Salma Dam, carving the Zaranj-Delaram highway across south-western Afghanistan (to open trade routes to the West), assuring 24/7 electricity in Kabul, and even building the new Afghan Parliament.
India has ongoing development projects in all 34 Afghan provinces in vital areas such as power and water supply, road connectivity and healthcare. In all this, India’s objective has been to stabilise Afghan democracy and strengthen its civil society, so that Afghans are better able to take control of their own destiny.
Instead, all these assets are now in the hands of a regime implacably hostile to everything we stand for.
Stuff of Nightmares
The UN Security Council statement asked Afghanistan to ensure other countries were not threatened or attacked by terrorists, called for an immediate cessation of all hostilities and the establishment, through inclusive negotiations, of a new government that should include women. The odds of this happening seem on par with that of the #MeToo movement succeeding in Kabul.
Pious bromides are often stock-in-trade at the United Nations. More dismaying to New Delhi must be the fact that the Ambassadors of Russia and China indicated a greater willingness to engage with the Taliban. China is already talking to the Taliban about protecting its interests in the region and helping it handle its restless Uyghur Muslim minority. A China-Afghan-Pakistan axis is the stuff Indian nightmares are made of.
India’s UN Ambassador, TS Tirumurti, calling for respecting the rights of Afghan women, children and minorities, declared that a “broader representation” would give a new Afghan government “more acceptability and legitimacy”.
“If there is a zero tolerance for terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” he added, “and it is ensured that the territory of Afghanistan is not used by terrorist groups to threaten or attack any other country, then Afghanistan’s neighbours and the region would feel safer”.
Last time around, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate did not care about “acceptability and legitimacy”. Will things be different now? The next few days will reveal whether we see a return to the horrors of 1996-2001, or a Taliban 2.0, craving recognition from the world.
India will have its doubts. We have provided a home to Afghanistan’s national cricket team, which is unable to play international matches in its strife-torn homeland. As cricket-obsessed India watches, in admiration, Afghan players
demonstrating their excellence at the coming World Cup, the fear is that this glorious blossoming of sporting talent, made possible by the relative calm of the last few years, might also succumb to the bloodthirsty zeal of the Taliban. The last time they ruled, the Taliban banned cricket, too.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’ (Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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