Afghanistan has been slipping out of India’s grasp since Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan by President Donald Trump on September 5, 2018. By the time the US-Taliban peace deal was done in February 2020, most of the earlier preconditions like a ceasefire, a peace deal with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, etc had been dropped. US President Joe Biden, by retaining Mr Khalilzad, signalled, if anything, that he was even keener to cut and run than his predecessor. The Taliban’s policy of talk-and-fight had by the beginning of last summer positioned them to catapult themselves into power.
New Delhi’s diplomacy faced a huge challenge to safeguard Indian interests as its allies of the 1990s like Russia and Iran were no longer on the same page. Thus, the Indian government has little to be surprised at how events have unfolded. The United States was looking for the smallest fig leaf to extricate their personnel safely and thus declared the exit deadline of August 31, 2021. Once the US began withdrawing their military assets at the start of this summer, the Taliban knew that the door was ajar for them to push hard. The vacation of the main airbase at Bagram, when the US still retains airbases in Iraq, can at one level be seen as complicity in the Taliban’s capture of Kabul. Alternatively, it is very poor military planning for an orderly exit.
Lurking unseen has been Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which was planning and guiding the Taliban advance. The sudden collapse of the well-equipped and trained Afghan National Army (ANA) could have been anticipated once the US advisers providing air cover and intelligence left virtually overnight. In fact, Pentagon sources have been quoted in the media that they had warned all the four Presidents since the US intervention in 2001 that any sudden withdrawal would kick in precisely this kind of military collapse. The active Pakistani support by providing military officers and foot soldiers from jihadi outfits made the Taliban’s second coming quick and lethal. The Afghan National Army was always known for its high attrition through desertions. Now that turned into a flood. In addition, the Taliban kept acquiring surrendered US arms and vehicles. The momentum once built on the battlefield became a tidal wave as the morale of even the vaunted Afghan special forces collapsed.
The US kept holding aloft the hope that the need for legitimacy and international recognition would ensure that the Taliban would remain moderate and avoid any draconian application of the Sharia or revenge killings. The composition of the interim Cabinet puts that to rest. Mullah Mohammed Hassan Akhund, one of the movement’s founders, who is on a UN blacklist, is leading it. The interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is a FBI-wanted worthy belonging to the Haqqani Network, notorious for its terror attacks on Indian missions and posts in Afghanistan as well its proximity to the ISI. The supreme leader is Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who remains unseen but has apparently issued a statement that the government must uphold the Sharia and ensure good relations with “our neighbours and all other countries” are based on mutual respect, besides being in conformity with “Islamic law and the country’s values”.
Two moderate voices - Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai - only landed jobs of deputies to the Prime Minister and foreign minister respectively. The overall consensus among analysts is that this is largely old wine in Pakistani Army water-containers. The presence simultaneously in New Delhi of William Burns, the head of the CIA, and Nikolai Patrushev, secretary-general of Russia’s Security Council, indicates that even the major powers are in a wait and discuss mode.
Separately, US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said that the UN Security Council resolutions will stand till the Taliban’s behaviour is seen as moderate and inclusive. The Cabinet is clearly non-inclusive and dominated by Pakistan-friendly elements like the new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has reiterated hackneyed phrases like the Taliban following “prudent domestic and foreign policies”. He also simultaneously welcomed the new government because it brought an “end to anarchy”. The Afghan embassy in New Delhi issued a defiant statement dubbing the transition in Kabul as unacceptable. This would be seen as done at South Block’s prompting. The Russian visitor was given access to the Prime Minister, signalling an attempt to draw Russia closer to the Indian stand that the new Kabul setup is a proxy run by Pakistan’s ISI. That may turn out to be so or not but the presence of Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister complicates the return of Indian diplomats to the Kabul embassy and perhaps even less so to outlying posts in Jalalabad, Kandahar, etc. Questions will be asked how India can do business with a government which has persons holding high posts who have Indian blood on their hands. That is the kind of query India will have to address in the coming months.
India is, however, holding a few cards that the Taliban is aware of. One, Afghanistan’s economy is in shambles and a huge airlift of US aligned persons will have emptied out the governance structure. A brain drain, despite the new education minister’s bluff that masters’ degrees are of little interest, will stare the new rulers in the face. India’s development assistance would be needed even more so now.
Two, India sits in the UN Security Council and thus, despite not having a veto, can influence the debate on lifting sanctions. Three, India could be critical for shifting the debate among neighbours, other than Pakistan, for or against the Taliban. Four, India-Iran-Russia can again create a check on the Taliban’s immoderation, drug smuggling and terror sponsorship. The US seems happy to work from an offshore position to keep up pressure via the IMF and monetary freezing.
After the initial euphoria, the Pakistan-Taliban marriage will see its wrangles. Already there are reports of Pakistani mortar fire into some areas of northeast Afghanistan. The ISIS-K and TTP will also be waiting and watching to rework their sanctuaries and alliances. But India needs peace at home to counter any mischief by Pakistan using Afghan assets. Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have adopted a dangerous path by praising the Taliban. It may be only to get the BJP’s attention. But there is no denying that restoring statehood and reviving the political process in Jammu and Kashmir is an immediate need. Otherwise, the errors of the 1990s shall be upon us again.