The Taliban acknowledges India’s role in Afghanistan while Pakistan warns of another 9/11
In South Asia, the realignment of the equations that the new dispensation in Afghanistan has already indicated, even at this very early stage, that it will opt for with India and Pakistan will not only be watched with great interest but will also be laden with the possibility of a few unexpected turns that may surprises many pundits. After all, these are the two South Asian nations that have historically had the closest ties with Afghanistan, and a lot is at stake for both as the situation in Kabul remains uncertain. Shadowboxing over the formation of a new Afghan government continues, and this cannot be an easy task as the Taliban’s natural inclination for maximizing the spoils of victory in a hard fought and decades-long war clashes with the need for it to at least give the impression of having formed an inclusive government, without which prospects for any meaningful international recognition will be very dim. Meanwhile, the lack of clarity on what shape the new dispensation in Kabul will take, who the people in the new cabinet will be, and what policies these people will adopt for the future of the Afghans and the security of the wider world is still keeping all and sundry on the tenterhooks.
The Taliban recognizes that while it can get along with the support of a few as it had done the last time around, it seems to genuinely believe that it’s promised slightly more liberal avatar merits wider acknowledgement. The Taliban also knows that having the recognition of a handful of countries like Pakistan and China, both not very well regarded in the international domain for their own specific transgressions and failings, does not carry much weight. The Taliban is also wide awake to the danger that such a scenario will leave it even more vulnerable to Pakistani domineering and blackmail and to China’s exploitation and debt-trap diplomacy. Through the years of being compelled to pander to Pakistan’s whims and demands as a price for sheltering on Pakistani soil and receiving support from Pakistani intelligence agencies, the Taliban has had the opportunity to witness the substantial humanitarian work in fields such as health care that Indian doctors and nurses had been doing in camps across Afghanistan despite the ever-present threat of an attack by the Taliban themselves looming large. It has also seen the dams, the roads, the buildings and the educational institutions that Indian assistance programs had erected across the Afghan landmass for the benefit of the common Afghan. The Taliban appears also to have felt the pulse of the tremendous goodwill for India that existed among the vast majority of the Afghans. Above all, the Taliban realized in their time out of power that India, as the largest democracy in the world, carried a certain weight in the international arena, and recognition by India, or at the very least a dialogue and business-like engagement, would be a very strong endorsement from within the region for the international community.
Recent statements by the Taliban and the tenor of its deliberations during engagements with Indian diplomats seem to reflect this. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an interview last week that India was an important country in the region and assured that the new regime in Afghanistan will not be a threat to it. Recounting India’s historical good relations with Afghanistan, he added that the new government formed under the Taliban would want good relations with India. Responding to reports that suggested that the Taliban would side with Pakistan against India, Mujahid described such reports as baseless. He stressed that “The Taliban won’t allow any other country to be endangered by us. We assure India that our side will not be a threat to them”. Earlier, another Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen had said that the group had been opposed to India’s support to the Ashraf Ghani government, but it had no issues with India’s ongoing development project in Afghanistan. Lauding India’s investments in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, Shaheen called for Indian projects that were under construction to be completed for the benefit of Afghans.
Perhaps the most significant comments on the sort of relationship that the Taliban desired with India came from the deputy head of the group’s political office in Doha, Sher Muhammad Stanikzai, who recently averred that the Taliban wanted a relationship with India that was just like the ones the previous Afghan governments in the last twenty years had. Stanikzai was quoted as saying that the Taliban attached great importance to cultural and political ties with India. He spoke in favour of enhanced trade and economic ties, and importantly even proposed trade with India via Pakistan, something that the latter has been blocking for its own narrow interests and in total disregard for the welfare of the Afghan people. Stanikzai also conveyed support for the Chabahar port in Iran that has been developed with India’s assistance.
Although India’s outreach to the Taliban still comes across as very hesitant and lacking in conviction due to its past unpleasant experiences in dealing with the Taliban when compelled to do so after the 1999 hijacking of an Indian aircraft to Kandahar, the bigger imponderable for India at the moment is the degree to which the Taliban intends to remain wrapped around Pakistan’s finger. For the sake of peace in its own country, as also in the rest of the world, India would hope that the Taliban will be able to wriggle itself free of the Pakistani clutches. While some statements by the Taliban do indicate that it will take its own decisions free of Pakistani interference, India would like to witness that actually happen on the ground before it considers any real change of outlook towards the Taliban. In the interim, India is likely to hold its horses till the fluid situation in Afghanistan moves towards a greater degree of clarity, and like all other countries it will look to utilize the dialogue it has begun with the Taliban to get its vulnerable citizens out of the country.
India, which has always considered the Taliban to be a terrorist organization, will also be keen to assess the degree to which the moderation that the Taliban have been hinting at actually translates on the ground. There is wisdom in adopting such a wait and watch approach as it is highly likely that the severely limited and superfluous freedoms and rights that the Taliban will end up offering the Afghan people will not meet even the basic minimum standards expected by the international rule based order. Some recent articulations by Taliban leaders have given enough indication that this is going to be the case. Stanikzai, for example, said that women working at lower levels in the Afghan government could resume work, a notable departure from the past, but in the same breath asserted that women would not be considered for inclusion in the Cabinet that the Taliban puts together. The repeated assertion that the Shariat would be the basis on which governance would be carried out leaves a lot of ambiguity, but the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of the Shariat is not something that the world is unaware of having witnessed it with horror at the turn of the century. As for the Taliban’s claim that it would ensure security, it is indeed highly likely that the outfit will keep a keen and coldblooded eye on maintaining law and order. But a sense of security comes as much from the protection of personal rights and freedoms as it does from preventing robberies and murders. Whether the orthodoxy and the radicalism of the Taliban will allow it to accord this sense of security or whether it will once again run a barbaric, archaic regime that terrorizes the people it is supposed to protect also remains moot.
Even as India adopts a watchful and patient approach to dealing with the Taliban, Pakistan appears to be getting the jitters rather quickly at the prospect of India – Taliban parleys morphing into more meaningful cooperation. This when India held its very first formal meeting with the Taliban just this week, something the rest of the world has been doing for months, some even years. The crux of Pakistan’s hypocrisy whereby it wants the rest of the world to engage with the Taliban and recognize it as legitimate, but it at the same time terms engagement between India and the Taliban as “shameless”, underlines not only its own insecurities but also its wiliness and guile. Having cultivated the Taliban, and more particularly the Haqqani network, as assets for decades, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been seething with heartburn after seeing Stanikzai and the Ambassador of arch enemy India sit amicably across the table and discuss coordination and cooperation. In the ISI’s scheme of things, the Taliban was not supposed to sip coffee with India, it was supposed to be stoking terror and violence against India. If it hasn’t already been delivered, the Taliban may well be in for a painful rap on the knuckles shortly on this count.
While Pakistan viewed India’s engagement with the Taliban as “shameless”, it remarkably warned the United States (US) that its failure to recognize the Taliban would result in another 9/11. An interview of Pakistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Moeed Yusuf with Christina Lamb appeared in the British newspaper The Sunday Times. It read, “Risk a second 9/11 if you don’t recognise Afghanistan’s new leaders, Pakistan’s national security adviser warns”. Herein lies the guile alluded to above. The Taliban have been sheltered, nurtured and strengthened by Pakistan for all these years with the singular objective of getting them back in power in Kabul after ousting the US. Not content with fulfilling this objective, Pakistan has found new forms of deceit to resort to. It now wants the West to fund its asset, which all right thinking individuals still believe to be a terrorist organization. Pakistan has been propagating the line that an economic crisis will consume Afghanistan in the absence of adequate funding to the Taliban, which in turn will cause great misery to the US and its allies. What Pakistan is basically seeking to do is to run Afghanistan through a Taliban funded and sustained by the West. Threats of terror attacks have been a favoured tool of Pakistan, as it usually worked after the scare of 9/11. More often than not the motives for highlighting such threats have been ulterior.
One of the most critical shortcomings that contributed majorly to the US defeat in Afghanistan was its inability to see through the smokescreens that Pakistan built around its support for terror and its betrayal of the US. Even when it did open its eyes, its own compulsions and interests inhibited the US from acting firmly and effectively against Pakistan’s duplicity. President George. W. Bush, in his first address to the nation after 9/11, had made the firm and sensible pledge to treat harbourers of terrorists as terrorists. The US, unfortunately, could not translate this pledge into concrete action on the ground. Throughout the US’ 20-year war in Afghanistan, top US leaders and Generals repeatedly called the Haqqani network a veritable arm of the ISI. The ISI, however, was never treated as terrorist as Bush had pledged to do. The US also kept bumping off one terrorist leader after another on Pakistani soil in drone strikes and ground operations. Pakistan was never called a terrorist State despite all these terrorists being harboured on its territory. The recognition that the bigger problem than the Taliban was its benefactor, Pakistan, ought to have come and been acted upon at some stage of the US’ long stay in Afghanistan. It sadly never did. Pakistan did all that it did to support, sponsor and sustain terrorism only because it was allowed to do so.
President Joe Biden, at least at the moment, seems to be firm on correcting a mistake that several of his predecessors ought to have done. His refusal to call Prime Minister Imran Khan over the phone despite Khan’s trusted official literally pleading for it is a welcome change. With the US out of Afghanistan, Biden has been freed of the burden of the safety and security of US troops in Afghanistan, a weight his predecessors had to carry. If Biden does indeed hold out and thereby sends the clear message to Pakistan that its days of deceitful fleecing were over, he would basically be telling Pakistan that the double game of gobbling up US money while being a client State of China had ended. He would also be conveying that the US had not forgotten the pain of the death of thousands of US troops and officials at the hands of the Taliban and the Haqqani network, both Pakistani assets, while the Pakistani Prime Ministers and Generals repeatedly looked very senior US government representatives straight in the eye and glibly told them that their country was fully with the US in the war against terror so long as a large sum of greenbacks periodically kept flowing in. Biden would also be saying that the US had not forgotten, but had only chosen to ignore for a while, the ultimate disrespect and indignity of the Abbottabad saga of Osama Bin Laden.
One of the enduring lessons of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan must be that if those who harboured terrorists had indeed been taken to task right at the outset with the same conviction that Bush had articulated, the Taliban would never have made a triumphant return to Kabul and the US would not have had to suffer the ignominy of bowing before a fundamentalist terrorist organization.