The Taliban was created by assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1993. A quarter-century later, the terrorist group threatens to disrupt the fragile balance of power in Afghanistan.
India has many irons in the Afghan fire. Its quiet developmental work has created enormous goodwill among Afghans. That could be compromised as events move rapidly in Afghanistan.
The US-Taliban “peace” talks leading to an interim deal could bring the Taliban back into mainstream Afghan politics. The biggest losers will be the Afghan people who experienced Taliban rule in 1996-2001.
When United States President Donald Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Envoy to Afghanistan in September 2018, the hope was Khalilzad would be a tough negotiator able to contain the Taliban’s ambition to again run the Afghan government. He has done the exact opposite. After six-day-long talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar recently, the contours of a deal with the terrorist organisation have emerged.
There are several villains in this plot. The biggest, of course, is Pakistan. It not only created the Taliban 26 years ago, but has nurtured it, protected it and used it to terrorise the Afghan people.
The second villain is the United States. It has fought the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2001, but has refused to attack it in its Pakistan-based safe havens. These are protected by the Pakistani Army.
American drones have attacked Taliban targets along the amorphous Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. But apart from assassinating al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad in 2011, it has left Pakistan well alone. Significantly, Washington has not classified the Taliban as a designated terrorist organisation.
Former President Barack Obama set today’s events into motion in 2012 by publicly announcing a withdrawal timetable for US troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban gleefully hunkered down, killing Afghan security forces and civilians at will in the knowledge that, once US troops left, it could, with the help of the rogue Pakistani Army, once again take over the Afghanistan government.
Trump emboldened the Taliban further by tweeting last month that he intends to pull out all remaining US troops from Afghanistan within a short period of time.
Where does this leave India? Taliban representation in a future coalition Afghan government is now increasingly likely. President Ashraf Ghani has put himself up for re-election in the July 2019 elections. The Taliban has ignored him, refusing to talk to him while it deals with Afghanistan’s opposition leaders. India too has been sidelined in the ongoing peace talks.
But the situation is hardly irretrievable. Afghanistan’s northern and central ethnic groups — Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — have long fought the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
Even Pashtun civilians, who have borne the brunt of terror attacks in Afghanistan, are not united behind the Taliban. Pakistan’s terror factory, which spews out terrorists from the LeT and JeM into Kashmir, is looking forward to unleashing the Taliban on the Valley once the terror group increases its hold over Afghanistan and US troops leave.
For Pakistan, the Taliban’s resurgence is a Godsend. But it could be playing with fire. The jihadi culture that washes over the Taliban also creates splinter terror groups that attack Pakistani targets.
In the past, the Tehreek-e-Taliban launched a series of attacks on targets in Pakistan before a massive operation by the Pakistani Army, helped by US drones, killed virtually its entire leadership.
The likelihood of other Taliban breakaway terror groups emerging cannot be ruled out. As former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has (kept) them in the backyard.”
India now has to play its cards carefully. The Russians and Iranians are closely watching the evolving situation in Afghanistan. Russia created the Afghan problem to begin with by invading the country in 1979, causing the US to hire Pakistan as a jihadi recruiter to counter the Soviets. After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, out-of-work jihadis trained by America’s CIA and Pakistan’s ISI turned their attention to Kashmir.
History could repeat itself once US troops, like the Soviets before them, leave Afghanistan to the predations of Pakistan.
Iran has a porous 921-km border with Afghanistan. The worst outcome for Tehran is Taliban-linked groups fomenting trouble at the border.
China too has an interest in curtailing terrorism in Afghanistan. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), already under severe criticism over high-cost loans for inflated infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa, is vulnerable to attacks by splinter terror groups. It will not welcome a Taliban government in Afghanistan without protection guarantees for the BRI.
India’s best option is to double down on its developmental work while keeping a line of communication open with the Taliban. In a coalition government under an interim accord with the US, the Taliban will make a pretence of abandoning terrorism. That will give India a window to strengthen its position in Afghanistan where Pakistan is reviled and India admired.
It won’t be enough and it won’t last. But if peace does break out in Afghanistan, however fleetingly, the Afghan people will receive a well-deserved respite from the violence that has torn their country apart.