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Climbing on to the Afghan roller-coaster

Early last week, Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan was closed after the Taliban overran Shirkhan Bandar, a border crossing in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. In a sobering report, the Long War Journal (LWJ) said Taliban have taken over more than 50 districts since May 1.

On Friday, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and CEO Dr Abdullah Abdullah met US President Joe Biden to reaffirm a security and development relationship that now faces an uncertain future. “We’re gonna stick with you,” said Biden, adding, “the senseless violence has to stop.” The Taliban haven’t got the memo.

Meanwhile, as talks swirl about India reaching out to the Taliban through quiet engagement, two questions need to be answered — what is the end-game India envisages in Afghanistan and how will India protect its interests?

Top level sources, who are engaged in the exercise reckon that while the Taliban are in the ascendant at this point in time, a military upper hand may not automatically translate into the Taliban stepping into the portals of official power in Kabul. Civil war in Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months are a distinct possibility. India’s “outreach” to the Taliban is predicated on this understanding by the security system of the government.

The reports from Afghanistan are consistently disheartening. According to reporters, the Taliban are taking over areas “without a shot being fired” against them, and more than one report talks about Afghan soldiers abandoning their posts to the incoming Taliban.

In northern Afghanistan, LWJ says the Taliban is in control of six out of seven districts in Kunduz. In Uruzgan, the Taliban reportedly control five of six districts, even the capital is now a contested space. Nine of 11 districts in Farah province have fallen to the Taliban, with the capital city also under threat. “The security situation in other provinces, such as Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Takhar, and Zabul is equally dire.”

The Taliban has seized control of 61 districts since the US announced in mid-April it would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The Afghan military has only been able to retake five of the districts, according to LWJ reports.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani replaced his Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid with General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a Northern Alliance veteran, and appointed General Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal as interior minister. But at the local level, reports abound of deals being struck with the Taliban. Ghani also tried to shepherd his cabinet to a “consensus” before meeting Biden on Friday.

For the time being, the US has stated it will not recognise a Taliban government that takes over by force. No government will. Frankly, apart from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan, no country had recognised the previous Taliban government either. The Taliban reckons, like Pakistan has done for decades, that they have leverage because they control the bad guys. In an op-ed in the Washington Post this week, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said Islamabad would not recognise a forcibly installed Taliban government in Kabul either (though there are powerful forces inside Pakistan that may tilt in the other direction).

As the Taliban smell victory, donations to the group are increasing. Quetta, home of the Rahbari Shura, has reported an uptick in local donations to the Afghan Taliban, particularly after Friday prayers.

The US State Department spokesperson on Tuesday echoed India, openly blaming the Taliban for the ongoing violence. Harsh Shringla, India’s Foreign Secretary, did not mince his words when he said that the “targeted assassinations” and “territorial aggression” by the Taliban in recent weeks have added to the uncertainty. “I think the levels of violence and the fact that despite talks going on in Qatar and other places, their relentless pursuit of power through violence has made it an uncertain environment in any sense,” Shringla said. “Many of those talks are on, but as I said the situation is fluid and uncertain and at this point of time, it’s very difficult to say how things would work out,” he said.

As it stands now, it is pretty clear that the Afghan forces may not be able to defend themselves against the advancing Taliban in the absence of US military support. The Taliban are clear that an extreme version of Islamic society is what they’re looking to reinstall in Afghanistan.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban co-founder, who’s is heading the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, said on Sunday: “We understand that the world and Afghans have queries and questions about the form of the system to be established following the withdrawal of foreign troops. A genuine Islamic system is the best means for a solution of all issues of the Afghans,” he said. “We take it on ourselves as a commitment to accommodate all rights of citizens of our country, whether they are male or female, in the light of the rules of the glorious religion of Islam and the noble traditions of the Afghan society.”

It doesn’t need intelligence agency analyses to predict that democracy, women and minorities would have a very hard time in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Afghan government may still control a large part of the country, but what their chances are against an ideologically committed, fully weaponised Taliban is anybody’s guess.

For all those projecting Taliban as “nationalists” — read Russia — as opposed to Islamic State or Al Qaeda, this concept is understood differently in Afghanistan, which has, for centuries stood at the crossroads of civilisations. The Taliban want the US out of their country, but the same treatment will not be advocated for the Arab fighters from Islamic State or Al Qaeda, Chechens, Iraqis or Uyghurs, or even Pakistani Taliban fighters. India should be prepared for more terror out of Afghanistan.

As the Taliban gain primacy, India will perforce have to reduce its footprint in that country. However, with a development presence in all 34 provinces of that country, India is no longer an insignificant player. To that extent, it is important to engage the Taliban. It will not mean that India will recognise a Taliban government in Kabul — but it wants to aim to influence its behaviour, both vis-a-vis India and Pakistan. The security establishment here believes that engaging different factions of the Taliban increases India’s manouvering space — that is frankly the most that India can hope for at this stage.

China could welcome US withdrawal. but is unlikely to be able to take its place as the premier security provider in Afghanistan. One, China is too close to Pakistan, which becomes a problem. Second, China really wants to limit Islamic extremism at the borders of Afghanistan — which would be difficult as China becomes the external face for the Taliban. But India will have to factor in a greater Chinese presence in Afghanistan and move to neutralise or minimise it.

New Delhi will have to be mindful of the fact that there continues to be different power centres within the Taliban — Baradar to Akhundzada to Haqqani — and these are only the ones we know. According to the most recent UN assessment, he Taliban is closely allied with Al Qaeda’s Jabhat-al-Nusra wing, which has developed close links with Al Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent. Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda supremo, may also be in Afghanistan and calling some shots at least. To top it all, Pakistan’s ISI, which has played the role of the master puppeteer for these jihadi groups and, has no plans of stopping.

There is one difference —earlier Pakistan used the US’ dependence on it for logistics support, like bases and transit and aid and political assistance, particularly vis-a-vis India. Now, Pakistan will be dependent on China, while the Taliban retains the ability to disrupt Pakistan from within. Neither of these two players wants Pakistan to open itself to the US at all. That will limit Pakistan’s ability to leverage its geographical advantage.

Nevertheless, India is looking at a very challenging future in the neighbourhood in the near future. Along with engaging the Taliban, India will have to invest deeply in building capacities against it.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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