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India Missed the Bus in Afghanistan By Not Talking to the Taliban Directly

New Delhi’s refusal to open up to the Taliban has led to it being sidelined in multilateral discussions.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read

The United States decision to send around three thousand troops immediately to Kabul to “safeguard reduction of civilian personnel out of Afghanistan” signals a complete lack of confidence in the ability of Afghan National Security Forces to halt the Taliban’s astonishing military advance in the past week, leave alone reverse it.

On 15 April, US President Joe Biden announced that all US and NATO troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11. Later, that date was brought forward to August 31. However, once the US gave up the Bagram Airbase, it became clear that it would no longer launch any serious airstrikes or take action to stem the Taliban military movement.

Current media reports are naturally focusing on the fall of provincial centres to the Taliban. They are also, again, naturally, paying attention to the collapse and takeover by Taliban forces of Herat and Kandahar. What is escaping notice is the systematic manner in which the Taliban has planned its military movement since Biden’s announcement.

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Taliban’s Moves Weren’t Unplanned

In June and July, Taliban fighters fanned out in the northern and western provinces. These were away from their strongholds in the Pashtun south and eastern parts of the country. They gained control over large areas in Tajik and Uzbek majority provinces. There are significant Pashtun settlements in many of these areas. What was unclear — and remains so — was the extent of Taliban influence on the non-Pashtun people of these provinces.

At this stage of their military moves, the Taliban avoided getting into provincial capitals. This gave rise to the feeling in many military observers, including in India, that the group had only the capacity to gain ground where the Afghan government forces were thinly spread. These observers argued that it would be a different story if the Taliban attempted to take the cities. This was obviously a wrong assessment. It did not take into account the nature of warfighting in Afghanistan.

After getting large swathes of northern, northeastern and western Afghanistan under their control, the Taliban moved to capture the border crossing points with Afghanistan’s neighbours. These ranged from Shir Khan Bandar on the Amu-Darya, which is on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, to the border crossings with Turkmenistan, to Islam Qala on the Iran-Afghan border to Spin Boldak on the country’s border with Pakistan. This gave the Taliban control over the movement of goods and people. It gave them access to revenues, apart from showing to the Afghan people that the government was powerless to defend strategically important places.

The methodical way in which the Taliban was proceeding with its military moves showed the sophistication of its plans. There can be no doubt that a great deal of this thinking would have taken place in the Rawalpindi.

All this while, the US was putting pressure on Pakistan to get the Taliban to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Kabul authorities.

Roping In Old Jihadi Leaders

It is ironic that in the past few weeks, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and members of the Kabul elite, some of whom have at least one foot firmly planted in western countries, called upon the old jihadi leaders to rouse the people of their areas to resist the Taliban.

These same persons had done everything in their power for the past two decades to diminish these leaders by smearing their reputations and calling them ‘warlords’. These people and the US and NATO countries had also ensured that their militias were disbanded. Thus, when the Afghan security forces created by the US are proving incapable of taking on the Taliban, there is simply no one else who can fill the breach.

The Taliban are targeting Mazar-e-Sharif. Ghani went there two days ago to inspire the people to resist them. It remains to be seen if the city under the leadership of Ata Mohammad Noor, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohaqiq can become an island of resistance to the Taliban. It will certainly not be easy for them to throw back the Taliban.

The Taliban have taken Ghazni. They will now close in on Kabul. This will create panic and those with means will seek to flee the city. It is unclear as yet if the Afghan Security Forces will seek to regain some pride and keep the Taliban at bay. They will require great support from the US to do so. As of now though, it seems that the US has all but abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban and Pakistan.

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The Power-Sharing Question

The US and its allies are warning the Taliban against gaining control over the country through military means. They are stating that a government formed through the use of armed force will not gain international legitimacy. The Kabul authorities are also pleading with them to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. They gave them a proposal for power-sharing through Qatar on August 12. The Taliban spokespeople rejected it.

The extended troika group of countries — US, Russia, China and Pakistan — met in Doha on August 11. India has not been a part of this group. Russia said the reason was that India does not have an influence on both parties — the Afghan government and the Taliban. Russia’s implication was obvious, that as India had deliberately decided not to talk openly and directly to the Taliban, it had to be out of diplomatic efforts in important multilateral groups such as the extended troika.

India did take part in a meeting of a larger group of countries, which included Indonesia. It was convened in Doha by Qatar on August 12. This group asked for negotiations between the Taliban and the government. It also underlined that no government formed with the use of military force will gain international recognition. Moves are also afoot at the United Nations Security Council to send out a harsh message to the Taliban to stop their military campaign and negotiate with the Afghan authorities.

But even if all major countries join hands at present to emphasise that a Taliban government formed by force will not be recognised, how long can such solidarity last? The Taliban, too, is playing the diplomatic game with some skill.

India’s current situation in Afghanistan is very difficult. It cannot impact ground realities, and by refusing to directly open up to the Taliban, it has been driven to the margins of international diplomacy on the issue.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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