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Afghanistan on the boil

India must avoid getting sucked into the Pak-Taliban-US ‘Bermuda triangle’

Afghanistan on the boil

Embroiled: Facing an economic crisis, Pakistan will have to tread warily. Reuters



MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

John Maynard Keynes, the great British economist, once said: ‘When I get new information, I change my opinions. What, sir, do you do with new information?’ But there is no new information to estimate that the IMF’s fire-fighting in Pakistan with the tools of ‘market fundamentalism’ is going to work any differently than in Russia’s transition from communism or in the severely impoverished countries of Africa and Latin America. As Joseph Stiglitz once wrote, the IMF staff, like the pilots of ‘modern high-tech warfare’ drop ‘bombs from 50,000 feet’ with no feelings for the people whose lives are affected by their policies.

A dangerous scenario is also building up in Pakistan, as the Taliban ideology spreads to the heartland and militant groups are joining hands.

The government in Islamabad lacks a mandate to impose IMF’s harsh prescriptions on the nation. The challenges are going to be no different from Sri Lanka’s. The international economic environment remains adverse. And social and political discontent may coalesce. A dangerous scenario is also building up in Pakistan, as the Taliban ideology spreads to the heartland and militant groups are joining hands.

The emergent scenario is potentially far more explosive than Pakistan’s break-up 50 years ago. Hopefully, at the policymaking level in Delhi, there is farsightedness to anticipate that, as the ancient Roman poet Horace wrote, ‘It is your concern when your neighbour’s wall is on fire.’

Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan casts its shadows on Pakistan. The Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) is steadily positioning itself as the primary rival to the Taliban. The ISK’s DNA remains a mystery. In the Russian-Iranian-Chinese estimation — as also of various Afghan leaders such as Hamid Karzai as well as the Taliban and Afghan public opinion — the ISK is a creation of the US. The notion among Indian analysts is that it is another progeny of Pakistan’s ISI. Some others see it as a breakaway group of Taliban cadres. There must be some element of truth in all these beliefs.

The recent report of the UN Secretary-General on the Islamic State dated February 1 highlighted that the ISK seeks to undermine the relationship between the Taliban and the regional countries by threatening to launch terrorist attacks against the embassies of China, India and Iran in Kabul. The ISK has already carried out this threat against the Russian and Pakistani missions.

Russia, Pakistan, China, India and Iran — what do they have in common? Well, Moscow lately proposed a so-called G5 cloud comprising precisely these five countries to steer a process to engage with the Taliban authorities aimed at stabilising the Afghan situation. Now, who’s afraid of the G5? Some clue is available: Islamabad stayed away from the recent meeting in Moscow of the top security tzars of regional states lest it annoyed Washington and jeopardised Pakistan’s ongoing negotiations with the IMF.

Meanwhile, another process is underway. The western intelligence is fuelling divisions within the Taliban. In the current western lore, the famously radical Taliban leaders Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob are deemed ‘moderates’. Supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada is the villain of the piece. There is some talk already in the Beltway on how to get rid of Akhundzada, which of course will require Islamabad’s help, so as to clear the pathway for the return of the US intelligence presence in Afghanistan that would enhance Pentagon’s ‘over-the-horizon’ capabilities in the surrounding regions, which include Iran, Russia, Central Asia and Xinjiang.

Thus, 2023 may witness another regime change in Kabul. A tell-tale sign is that Radio Azadi, the Dari- and Pashto-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, last month doubled its programming to Afghanistan. Henceforth, RFERL, which specialises in ‘information war’ and regime change, will dispense with the Taliban government’s retransmission networks and switch to its own medium wave channel and shortwave bands. According to RFE/RL president and CEO Jamie Fly, ‘Azadi will now be available for Afghans day and night to give them hope for a better future.’

Again, the release of Bashir Noorzai from US prison in September must be understood. Bashir is described as a convicted Afghan drug lord, but in reality, he’s CIA’s finished product from Guantanamo Bay and the catalyst to stir up the Taliban pot since he has a large standing in the same important tribal networks as Akhundzada. Having been the earliest financier of the Taliban in the 1990s, Bashir — dubbed fondly as ‘Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan’ — is an old friend of Pakistani generals and political elite.

Delhi should expect an ‘internal putsch’ in Kabul in a renewed projection of Pakistani power. Pakistan is desperately seeking to collar the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan but there has been a total breakdown of Afghan Taliban’s trust with the Pakistani generals following the ouster of Imran Khan. This is all General Bajwa’s legacy, with tacit US encouragement, and signifies a US-Pakistani convergence to install a pliant regime of ‘moderate Taliban’ in Kabul. Yet, Siraj remains the Pakistani Generals’ principal Afghan asset.

This US-Pakistani intervention will be severely contested and another round of fratricidal strife may erupt, with the ISK jumping into the fray. There are also three other opposition groups on the prowl — the feeble National Resistance Front based in Tajikistan, the ‘Ankara Group’ of warlords and the vestiges of Ghani government. The tragedy is that the Taliban government has acquitted itself rather well in establishing its control and improving the economic conditions against heavy odds.

India should avoid getting sucked into the Pakistan-Taliban-US ‘Bermuda triangle’. No matter the US-Pakistani intervention, Indian policy should be to engage with the authorities in Kabul. As NSC Ajit Doval said at the Moscow conference, India was and shall remain a stakeholder in Afghanistan.


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