India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was on a frantic mission to several countries in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan in a last-minute effort to make sure that history does not repeat itself in that country. "The future of Afghanistan cannot be its past", he said, referring to the previous takeover of the country by Taliban in 1996 when the Soviets withdrew. He also added that the world must not let the new generation of Afghans down. But this may be a pious wish whose time has not come. The stars do not foretell a stable, peaceful, negotiated settlement to install an inclusive, independent Afghanistan. In fact, Taliban has already occupied 85% of the country, without honouring any of the agreements which may have been reached with the United States.
History repeats itself in Afghanistan more often than in other countries. Nobody has conquered that country and one super power after another met their Waterloo in Afghanistan. The tribal chiefs and warlords battled for supremacy and influence and the Soviet Union intervened when the regional peace was disturbed. The mighty Soviet forces temporarily disabled the various factions and exercised control of the country with the cooperation of their favourites. After a few years, the arrangements collapsed and the nationalist forces drove the interventionist power out of Afghanistan with the help of the international community. Chaos ensued and terrorists attacked the United States itself.
War on terror, then the long one
After the US had driven the Soviet Union out and armed the Mujahideen, the US gave no attention to Afghanistan till the bombings of 9/11. A war on terror was launched and the Taliban Government was removed, but the US got bogged down in an endless war for twenty years at great cost to itself and its allies. The US realized soon enough that precious American lives should not be wasted on Afghanistan and successive Presidents planned various exit strategies after having maintained an Afghan Government, which was being undermined by the Taliban. Finally, the US decided to leave even if it meant loss of face for it and set several deadlines to withdraw, but negotiations for withdrawal dragged on.
Upper hand for Taliban
The long months of negotiations, involving the United Nations, big powers, regional countries and others, were not from a position of strength as the Taliban knew that victory was at hand for it and that it would be a matter of time before they would get the upper hand. President Joe Biden set the deadline of September 11, but the US quietly handed over the Bagram airbase to the Afghan Government in July itself, knowing well that Taliban will inherit the booty left behind. Within no time, Taliban has captured 13 districts in the periphery of Kabul and more will fall into their hands in the next few days. The American withdrawal was reminiscent of Vietnam and Iraq where the US did not have any alibi to make their action appear honourable.
No US strategy in sight
To prevent such a catastrophe, the United States should have had a strategy to keep the Afghan Government in power as long as possible to prevent a rapid take over by the Taliban. The details of such a strategy, including substantial financial assistance should have been announced to let it be known that the dreams of Taliban and their masters, Pakistan, to make Afghanistan fall into their laps in a hurry are distant. It should be remembered that even after the Soviet forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Najibullah Government remained in control with Soviet assistance. The Taliban takeover took place only after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in Vietnam, some arrangements were made to make the transition less tumultuous.
Many western strategists believe that the US has a responsibility to support the democratic forces in Afghanistan. The fact that President Ashraf Ghani and his colleagues were received in Washington by President Biden and his Congressional colleagues gave some hope in this regard. Ghani is expecting that he will have substantial financial support. But western intelligence is predicting that the present Government will fall to the Taliban in a year at the most. Without US financial support, it may fall even before, leaving the country to the mercy of Taliban and other extremists. China is waiting in the wings to enter Afghanistan in a big way for reconstruction in exchange for Islamic elements closing their eyes to Chinese repression of Islamic minorities in China. The Chinese intervention in Afghanistan is another danger to peace in Afghanistan. Will the fate of the Chinese be the same as those of the former Soviet Union and the United States?
What is at stake for India
India has always been in the periphery of the negotiations, but we have made considerable investments in Afghanistan for reconstruction and development. Our experience of the Taliban Government was a nightmare and so we were hoping that some US presence would prevent a collapse. The US had tried to involve India in the Afghanistan negotiations, but it did not work out because of Pakistan.
Now that the Taliban takeover is imminent, the countries that EAM Jaishankar visited or contacted in other group meetings, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to hold consultations on Afghanistan had no concrete plans to prevent a Taliban takeover. In Moscow, he expressed concern over the developments in Afghanistan and stated that the consensus of 1990s about Afghanistan remained valid. But there have been no indications of joint action so far. "The world is against seizure of power by violence and force. It will not legitimize such actions," said Jaishankar, but there was no finality about this in other statements.
Only the Afghan President Ghani was confident that the Taliban takeover will not be instant. He said he would continue the Doha negotiations, though he criticized Pakistan for allowing the Jihadis to enter Afghanistan. The Special Envoy of the US, Zalmay Khalizad did not promise anything more than non-recognition of any state established by the Taliban. The other countries expressed concern over the repercussions on them, but none of them had any action plan.
For India, the situation is grave as a Taliban Government would be controlled by Pakistan, with even additional support of China directly or indirectly. That is a sure recipe for disaster for our relationship with Afghanistan and the investments we have made in that country. An Indian national has already lost his life in the aftermath of the change. Anti-Indian activities have already been unleashed by Taliban elements. Perhaps, the backchannel diplomacy taking place between India and Pakistan may provide an opportunity for exchange of ideas. But Pakistan will not miss any opportunity to pursue its interests in Jammu and Kashmir. The change in Afghanistan is likely to multiply India’s challenges, already complicated by the recent Chinese provocations.