Peel by peel, like an onion, the Talibs/Afghans will in conjunction reveal themselves, as Afghan women and men did the other day, demonstrating against Pakistani interference. That such a demonstration took place shows a degree of confidence that people can come out without too much fear. Far from being settled, Afghanistan is perilously poised. False flag action by one agent provocateur will invite a hundred dark analyses.
Some clarity may emerge when a regional summit is held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, on September 16-17 hosted by the SCO.
New Delhi, which placed all its eggs in Ashraf Ghani’s basket in Kabul under American supervision, is now seeking new hatcheries. Some have spotted in the new situation a chance to lessen New Delhi’s dependence on Washington. The narrative the US has promoted, with Islamabad as a dominant player in Kabul, unsettles South Block. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has done well to touch base with Tehran, which independent sources say had a hand in strategising for the Taliban. The slain Quds commander, Qasim Soleimani, had apparently tasked Esmail Ghani, his successor, to liaise with the Taliban. “If you the south will win, then with the north first begin.” This was the Taliban’s strategy behind its recent victory.
Reaching out to the Taliban or countries bordering Afghanistan entails some internal adjustments for New Delhi: toning down jingoism, a tricky proposition ahead of the 2022 Uttar Pradesh polls or the 2024 general election. That is the Narendra Modi government’s problem. To meet current contingencies, this must be on two tracks - talk to the Taliban but encourage the media to curse them. That will help keep the saffron elements satisfied.
For the US, there never was any restoration of the American élan after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008-09. It has been downhill since despite the town criers who were allotted the facility of the global media.
This media will continue to pester Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. The optics must be horrible for a people who were never aware of the untold destruction of some of the world’s oldest civilisations. It will make your hair stand if you realise the callousness of those who looted the Baghdad Museum, watched Palmyra bombed and the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed. The last was done by a Taliban in the present Cabinet. He, like others, were reared in the madrasas on the Pakistani side of the border, financed by Saudis, trained by the ISI and armed by the US. Never forget Zbigniew Brzezinski’s words: “We were not worried about some stirred-up Muslims,” he said. “Our purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union.” That mission was achieved, but in the process were created the Mujahideen/Taliban.
President Biden’s speech on the Afghan withdrawal should be read in full. He has already set into motion the mother of all debates on foreign policy. “Foreign policy that emphasises military restraint and diplomatic engagement and cooperation with other nations will serve American interests and values better than policies that prioritise the maintenance of global dominance through military means.” The new debate initiated by the Quincy Institute is on these lines.
The focus, Mr Biden said, will be on “competition” with China and Russia. “And there is nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more… than the US bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”
He spelt it out: “It’s not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Mr Biden’s figures weren’t new, but his breakup was an eye-opener. $300 million per day for 20 years? 20,774 American servicemen/women injured and 2,461 killed. “We’ve been a nation too long at war; if you’re 20 today, you’ve never known an America at peace.”
He cites what he rightly calls a “shocking and stunning statistic” for those who believe wars can be low risk or low cost: “18 veterans, on an average, die by suicide every single day in America.”
If Mr Biden’s statement is a sincere departure from recent US foreign excesses, America may well be on a path when it will recover its stature as a nation to be admired, not feared. But those prone to dreaming such dreams too willingly must know how circumscribed a President’s power is. Barack Obama came to office swearing he would shut Guantanamo Bay as an “un-American” facility. Today, it still flourishes. An “eyes only” file placed on the President’s desk at the Oval Office by the intelligence agencies will pulverize any President.
There is a Persian expression “Sahle mantane”, which means incomprehensible in its simplicity. That is the kind of puzzle Afghanistan is today. On August 15, the Taliban enter Kabul, which is touted as a great victory over the US. On August 24, CIA director William J. Burns is welcomed by the Taliban’s Abdul Ghani Baradar at “secret talks”. What on earth is going on? The existence of ISIS-K was known for years, why does military action take place only after 175 people, including US servicemen, were killed by a suicide bomber outside Kabul airport?
Russia’s UN envoy Vassily Nebenzia was livid with the United States, Britain, France and India for not accommodating his concerns on the “mass brain drain” facilitated by the US airlift, and freezing of Afghan assets. Is a scorched earth policy being pursued? Russia and China abstained from voting on the Afghanistan resolution adopted by the UN Security Council.
Will the West squeeze the Taliban until the pips squeak? Another Great Game may well have begun at a time when President Biden is singing an entirely different tune.