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Opinion | Return of Taliban: What does it mean for India and the world?

New DelhiWritten By: Achal MalhotraUpdated: Aug 20, 2021, 10:10 AM IST

Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

From India’s perspective, the Taliban victory is a definite setback to its political, economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan where India invested around $3bn to develop much-required infrastructure

What looked difficult some years ago, just probable after the beginning of the withdrawal of the NATO forces from Afghanistan and inevitable in the last few months has finally happened: The Taliban, so far notorious as an ultra-conservative and fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organisation with medieval mindset and scant respect for universal values, has finally taken control of Afghanistan (15th August 2021) after a lapse of 20 years, putting an end to democracy and rule of law in that country. 

The only element of surprise is the swift manner in which the Taliban walked into Kabul without having to face any meaningful resistance from the President Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan Government and Afghan Army; the flip side of the story is that Kabul was spared of the bloodshed witnessed in some other parts of Afghanistan for which President Ghani who was allowed to leave the country is claiming credit.

It is also intriguing that the global players and international community remained a silent spectator and literally did nothing substantial to prevent the takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban. 

 

The key objectives of the continued presence and involvement of the US in Afghanistan beyond May 2011 when their arch enemy Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed, were manifold : On the one hand the Western powers were keen to strengthen the institutions of democracy and rule of law and build the required infrastructure. On the other hand the US presence was needed to counter the resistance from the Taliban and in this context considerable investments were being made in training and equipping the Afghan armed forces to make them capable of countering the Taliban offensive. . 

They have failed for sure in their objective to neutralise Taliban and other terror outfits operating from Afghan soil and Afghan-Pakistan border areas; also the gains made in democratic governance and infusion of liberal thoughts in the Afghan society now face serious threat at the hands of Taliban. 

So who is responsible for the latest Afghan debacle? The US or the Afghan government/ army or both or perhaps the entire international community?

Arguably, the US and its allies could not have stayed on in Afghanistan forever. The US is reported to have spent USD 2.6 trillion on military operations and development assistance in Afghanistan. However, the US cannot escape the criticism over the manner in which they abandoned the Afghan ship midstream in the midst of a devastating storm.

The US intention to ultimately withdraw its forces from Afghanistan was made known even during the tenure of the then US President Barack Obama. His successor, President Trump sealed the decision by entering into a formal agreement with the Taliban on 29th February 2020 and setting 31st May 2021 as the day for the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for the assurances that the Taliban would not target the US interests in Afghanistan. 

The agreement was signed without the involvement of elected government of Afghanistan but provided for an intra-Afghan negotiations to agree upon the future political roadmap for the country.

Two messages emerged loud and clear from the US-Taliban agreement: One, the US had come to the conclusion that it could not fight a sustained war forever against Taliban and it was in America’s interests to exit Afghanistan after negotiating a deal with Taliban. Two, the US did not care anymore as to what would or could be the outcome of the “intra-Afghan” talks, which were imposed on the duly elected government in Afghanistan. 

The Americans also did not consider it necessary to link their withdrawal with progress in peace talks leading to an amicable political resolution.

President Biden who reversed several of the decisions taken by his predecessor Donald Trump, however, chose to adhere to the idea of draw-down from Afghanistan except that he extended the deadline to 11th September, 2021.

He stood indifferent when the Taliban created hurdles in peace talks, did not abandon violence and kept capturing districts after districts and provinces after provinces through violent means. Biden was reportedly vacationing when the Taliban was knocking at the doors of Kabul. He later defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and even held the Afghan leadership for the debacle. He went to the extent of making an erroneous statement that the nation-building in Afghanistan was never a part of the US plans.

Current Scenario

Aware of its poor reputation, the Taliban, in control of most of Afghan territory, is engaged in an exercise of image building to escape international isolation and economic sanctions. On the previous occasion only three countries; Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan; had recognised the Taliban regime. Its spokesperson has made several benign statements to calm the nerves both at home and abroad. All these statements have to be taken with a pinch of salt, considering particularly that the Taliban has made it amply clear that they are in the process of establishing an Islamic State and all human rights will be available within the framework of Sharia. If Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia remains what it was in 1990s, the people of Afghanistan, particularly women and child girls are in for difficult times.

What Next?

The international community failed to prevent the take- over of Afghanistan by the Taliban through the route of bullets rather ballots. The least it can do now is to collectively ensure that the sufferings of the common Afghan people are minimised through humanitarian assistance. In fact the international community must use humanitarian assistance as a leverage to ensure that the Taliban grants human rights to its people in letter and spirit. 

Another important issue on the table is the international acceptance or rejection of the Taliban as legitimate government in Afghanistan. Looking at the trend so far, some of the countries such as Pakistan, China and Russia followed by others may selectively accord diplomatic recognition in near future.

Takeaway for India

From India’s Perspective, the Taliban victory is a definite setback to its political, economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan where India invested around $3bn to develop much-required infrastructure, besides capacity building. As a result, India enjoyed close relations with the elected government and enormous goodwill of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, at no point of time, India was in a position to influence the evolving political roadmap of Afghanistan. 

The position is worse now. 

India is now required to carve some space for itself on a territory that has largely fallen under the influence of its adversaries namely Pakistan and China. Pakistan and Taliban were always in hand-in-glove. 

The latter has been reached out by Taliban on more than one occasion, and has several strategic and economic interests including the use of Taliban to counter radical Uighur Muslims, enormous natural resources of Afghanistan which await to be exploited and finally extension of Belt and Road Initiative project. One of the biggest foreign policy challenge for India is to choose between ideology and pragmatism. Needless to add that it is premature to expect any articulation of its position in black and white in immediate future from the Indian government which has rightly adopted a wait-and–watch policy though sooner or later India will have to take a tough call.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)