The fast-moving developments in Afghanistan continue to capture public attention in India. The picture of the only Sikh Cabinet minister in the BJP-NDA government carrying one of the three Sikh holy books brought back from Kabul on his head sums up the dilemma. India is in a rescue and recovery mode.
The debate amongst America and its allies was whether to keep troops beyond the August 31 deadline. There are still thousands of their citizens and Afghan associates to be lifted to safety, so Britain and France wanted an extended stay till the evacuation was over. But President Joe Biden, despite the crescendo of domestic criticism on the botched withdrawal, finally said there would be no extension beyond August 31. Whether he sticks to this after the deaths of US soldiers in Thursday night’s attacks is another uncertain factor.
A related issue was the Taliban ploy that they’ll only form a government after all foreign troops had left. This may be just optics, or for pressure on remnants of the Ashraf Ghani government as they negotiate the next government’s composition. The nature of the next government is critical as even China’s foreign ministry, perhaps paying lip service, sought an “inclusive and widely representative government”, with moderate domestic and foreign policies.
Three nations that didn’t withdraw diplomatic missions from Kabul are Pakistan, China and Russia. Pakistan is in the driver’s seat for now as its close ally Khalil Haqqani is not only near the top of the Taliban hierarchy but his group is actually in charge of Kabul’s security. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence chief was photographed in Kandahar, in uniform, praying alongside Taliban leaders. Bruce Riedel argues in an article that Pakistan’s military and ISI were embedded with the Taliban and were responsible for the Afghan National Army’s quick unravelling.
Pakistan’s primary objective is to be the main foreign influence in Kabul.
They would have asked the Taliban to sever links with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that is said to have 6,000 active fighters which helped depose the Ghani government. Similarly, the Chinese want that Uyghur fighters of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) be ejected from their Afghan havens. The question is whether the Taliban have the will or the capacity to do it.
In the Taliban pecking order, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sits on top, with Mullah Mohammad Yakub, son of founder Mullah Omar, coming next. Then comes the Haqqani scion. There is some speculation that Baradar isn’t happy about Haqqani physically controlling the capital. Friction may not surface yet as unity is badly needed to enable the Taliban to negotiate from a position of strength. It’s surmised that the inclusiveness of the next regime may be in name only.
It’s also being speculated that if Afghanistan falls into China’s lap, then Beijing will have a strategic grip over the entire salient to India’s west which links Central Asia to the Gulf and the Arabian Sea. But it is moving with calculated deliberation. It eyes the copper mines at Mes Aynak, that holds deposits worth an estimated $50 billion. There are also supposedly huge deposits of rare earths. What is of real concern to China, however, is the unstable state of Afghanistan. The Taliban may have won the war, but battles may yet loom over the horizon.
Of immediate concern to the Taliban will be the Tajiks under the son of renowned warrior Ahmad Shah Massoud, gathered with heavy weapons in the impregnable 150-km Panjshir Valley, surrounded by mountains on three sides. They apparently have been able to fly some operational helicopters there. The Taliban, on the other hand, have no air assets as the few helicopters they found were damaged by the US before leaving.
China would strategically want to tie in the whole area linking Central Asia and the Gulf and Arabian Sea with its Belt and Road Initiative. The worry is that if the Taliban doesn’t accommodate other ethnicities like Tajiks and Uzbeks in the next government, it may impact China’s Belt and Road network in the region. The Chinese have already seen attacks mounting on their personnel in Balochistan. Russia also doesn’t want instability to flow north out of Afghanistan.
A related matter is what the Taliban plan to do about the narcotics trade.
Afghanistan produces 80 per cent of the world’s opium and heroin. The UN Security Council has said the Taliban made $460 million from taxes on the drug trade last year. Drugs have become a lethal menace in India’s border states like Punjab. The Taliban are discovering that the Afghan central bank’s reserves of $9.5 billion have been frozen by the United States. The IMF has also cancelled $460 million in credit, including relief for Covid-19.
This leaves India in a real pickle. Its allies from the old battle against the Taliban in the mid-1990s, using the Northern Alliance, may not be there now as Iran and Russia are busy appeasing the Taliban. It’s possible that if the relatively less militant mask of the new Taliban begins to slip, Iran will be forced to review its neutrality. Reports from the hinterland also indicate that the Taliban are quietly undertaking a selective and deathly purge of former members of the security forces. The airport shootout on Monday indicated the fragility of the ceasefire.
India, like the rest of the world, has to wait and watch and take one step at a time. China is likely to use the vacuum created by the absence of all other powers. But it also senses that Afghanistan is not Iran and that any engagement with an entity like the Taliban may come at a cost. India’s agencies must be closely watching how to engage Ahmad Massoud and keep the morale of his band intact in Panjshir. Tajikistan’s clear red lines on what kind of government it expects in Kabul will be seen as a positive. Unlike the 1990s, though, the Taliban have cut off all land connectivity between Panjshir and Tajikistan.
Thursday night’s deadly blasts/attacks at Kabul airport, leading to the deaths of at least 60 Afghans and over a dozen US servicemen, for which an ISIS affiliate has claimed responsibility, is an added complication, with President Joe Biden vowing revenge. Was it meant to warn Western nations to not stay beyond the August 31 deadline? It’s possible the bombing was the result of intra-Taliban jostling between the Haqqani group, infamous for suicide bombings, and moderate factions perhaps led by Mullah Baradar. If anything, it shows how complicated any future path will be.