Taliban’s military gains have accelerated rather rapidly following the quick withdrawal of US troop in the beginning of July, apparently without notifying the Afghan military. This was done well ahead of the September 11 deadline set by US President Joe Biden.
Clearly, the US is depending on words of Taliban, with whom they finalised a deal in Doha on February 29, 2020. But that deal lays emphasis on US troop withdrawal, Taliban ensuring that Afghan soil is not used by forces inimical to US etc.
There is just a cursory sentence about intra-Afghan dialogue to settle the future of Afghanistan.
Support of Pakistani military
Taliban, with tacit support of their sponsors in Pakistani military, went through the motions of dialogue with incumbent Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani while awaiting the US troops and air-cover to disappear.
It is thus, hardly surprising that following the exit, Taliban stepped on the peddle to capture maximum territory, to deplete the negotiating position of Afghan government. According to reports, Taliban are using Pakistani volunteers and disparate groups of militant elements from Central Asia and China to be the vanguard.
They simply move in once Afghan national forces have surrendered or vacated their positions or simply, in some cases, fled across the northern frontier into Tajikistan etc. Even over last weekend talks were being conducted in Qatar between Afghan government representatives and Taliban.
Taliban have been known in the past also to go from frenetic military action to talks to allow them to regroup. In fact, Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada has just reiterated his desire for a peaceful settlement. This could also be a ploy to appear reasonable when in fact the cease-fire is normal at the time of Islamic festivals, like next week’s Eid al-Adha. Two regional conferences were held in Dushanbe, where foreign ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation including India met, and Tashkent, where a regional connectivity proposal was discussed. At Tashkent, President Ghani confronted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on their failure to control Taliban and have them discuss issues peacefully.
Iran, Russia abandon India
In one sense, history is repeating itself as Taliban appear again to be in the driver’s seat as they were post their capture of Kabul in 1996. However, there are differences for the region and India. One, India despite investment of over two billion dollars in Afghan infrastructure and institutions is now isolated as it had leveraged its entire
Afghan policy on US, which has withdrawn militarily from the region. Unfortunately, US has also again depended on Pakistani promises when the failure of US’ Afghan policy is mainly due to Pakistan constantly undercutting US by protecting and arming the Taliban.
Two, belatedly India is reaching out to Russia and Iran. Again, unlike in the 1990s, both those nations have own geo-strategic priorities outside the region, of which India is not a part. Russia wants to stabilise its western frontier with NATO and retain its leverage in Ukraine and the Black Sea. Iran wants its nuclear stand-off with US settled and finds China a more reliable friend than India, which in past two decades has been more US compliant on India-Iran relations.
Surprisingly, China, so far happy to use Pakistani good offices to protect its interests in Afghanistan, is worried over Taliban’s sudden gains, post-US troop withdrawal. In particular, Taliban’s advance in Northern Afghanistan and their capture of Badakhshan, close to the Wakhan Corridor and Chinese border, has got China worried. Uyghurs, are reported to be amongst the Central Asian volunteers thick in the fighting alongside Taliban. Even post US intervention in 2001, 22 Uyghurs were detained by US at Guantanamo. The recent terrorist attack on a bus in Pakistan in which nine Chinese workers died has conveyed to China the perils of a destabilised region, threatening China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in the region.
India’s diminished options are a consequence of years of dovetailing Indian approach to US priorities. Iranian interest in Afghanistan is limited to the Taliban not targeting Shias.
In return Taliban get an alternative exit to the Gulf, in case Pakistani demands are too onerous. Reports so far indicate that Taliban may get smarter diplomatically, but their socio-religious hard-line Islam has not changed. Such an Islamic emirate shall always be destabilising for Jammu and Kashmir, especially when Hindutva is the domestic counter-point.
Wisdom demands that majoritarian politics is scaled back and inclusive politics promoted, to protect India from likely toxicity of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Pakistan may be harmed by the same but may not mind as long as India suffers.
(KC Singh is an Indian Civil servant and was the Indian ambassador to Iran and UAE.)