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India, Pak should together engage Taliban

The Taliban must address three genuine concerns of India and the rest of the international community. First, the Taliban must not allow any terrorist group to have a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Second, they must ensure the safety, dignity and rights of Hindus, Sikhs, Hazaras and other minorities, and respect the rights of Afghan women. Third, after having seized power, they must move towards an inclusive new government wedded to reconciliation and reconstruction.

India, Pak should together engage Taliban

Realistic: The mainstream Talibani leadership appears moderate, wanting to concentrate on governance and building the economy. Reuters



Sudheendra Kulkarni

Former close aide to ex-PM AB Vajpayee & Founder, Forum for a New South Asia

In the end, it came down to this. On the day we Indians celebrated the 74th anniversary of the end of foreign rule, the proud and patriotic people of another country in our South Asian region finally ended the “forever war” waged by a mighty foreign power, and also ended the corrupt and inept rule of a puppet government propped up by that superpower. Jai Ho, Afghanistan!

For the United States, it was another ‘Saigon’ moment, reminiscent of its ignominious exit in 1975 from Vietnam, where too, it had waged a long, destructive and self-destructive war of aggression. Just about a month ago, on July 8, American President Joe Biden was asked at a press conference: “Is the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?” The commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful army replied: “No, it is not. Because you have 300,000 Afghan troops, who are well-equipped and as good as any army in the world.” Another reporter asked him: “Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government is likely to collapse.” Biden replied, “That’s not true.” The world saw an altogether different truth on August 15. The so-called ‘Afghan Army’, to which the US gave fancy weapons, simply surrendered to the Taliban’s guerrilla warriors without a semblance of a fight. Afghanistan’s former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Biden’s words are going to haunt him for the rest of his presidency. But America’s defeat in Afghanistan has highlighted two other truths. One, it is a superpower in rapid decline. Its global reputation is in tatters after being forced to leave without achieving any of the objectives for which it spent over a trillion dollars, sacrificed the lives of several thousand of its own and its allies’ soldiers, and caused the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians. The second truth is this: neither the lethal power of weapons, nor the economic power of their supplier, guarantees victory in a war. The Taliban had no air force and no regular army. Yet, they emerged victorious against both America and its stooge in Kabul. Why? Because their fighters had the power of love for their country.

Unless we recognise the Taliban as Islam-inspired Afghan patriots, notwithstanding their many crimes in the past which cannot be condoned or overlooked, we simply cannot understand the dramatic developments in Afghanistan in their true light. The first test of patriotism is that when a country is invaded, it is the duty of its patriots to fight the aggressor to the last drop of their blood and drive him back. The Taliban and other non-Taliban Afghan patriots like Ahmad Shah Massoud did so when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After 10 years of a futile and suicidal war, the mighty Soviet army went back, defeated and humiliated. I witnessed the departure of the last contingent of Soviet soldiers from Kabul on February 15, 1989, when I covered that event as a correspondent for the now extinct Sunday Observer newspaper. When the United States, learning no lesson from the Soviet debacle, invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and waged the longest war in its history, the Taliban defended their country’s sovereignty yet again and forced the invader to leave.

Whether anyone likes it or not, a Taliban-led government in Kabul is now a reality. New Delhi will have no option but to recognise it in due course, simply because many capitals around the world are going to do so. However, just because the Taliban have gained power does not mean they have already gained complete legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people or the international community. The world has not forgotten their many atrocities, committed under the influence of a fanatical and extremist interpretation of Islam. Women were robbed of their rights and freedoms. Non-Muslims were reduced to the status of second-class citizens, made to feel unsafe and were even forced to leave their own homeland. The destruction of the Bamyan Buddha, which belonged to the common heritage of humanity, will forever remain a black spot in the history of the Taliban. Therefore, the world expects the Taliban leadership to express genuine remorse for all their offences in the past and move along the path of self-reform.

Specifically, the Taliban must address three genuine concerns of India and the rest of the international community. First, the Taliban must not allow any terrorist group to have a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Second, they must ensure the safety, dignity and rights of Hindus, Sikhs, Hazaras and other minorities, and respect the rights of Afghan women. Third, after having seized power, they must move towards an inclusive new government wedded to national reconciliation and national reconstruction.

Neither the present realities of Afghanistan (where the Taliban is by no means the only socio-political force), nor the regional and global environment will allow it to go back to its old ways. For example, China and Russia, its two principal backers, will surely not like it to export terrorism and Islamist extremism. Even Pakistan, which tried to coerce, manipulate and use the Taliban for its own myopic objectives in the past will be wary. After all, Pakistan itself has been a huge victim of terrorism and Islamic radicalism since 1980s. On its part, Iran will not want a fanatic Sunni government in Kabul.

Most importantly, the mainstream Talibani leadership itself appears to have become moderate and pragmatic, wanting to concentrate on the task of governance and rebuilding its war-torn economy. Suhail Shaheen, its articulate spokesperson, has said, “The Taliban won’t allow anyone to use Afghanistan’s soil against any other country.” Mullah Khirullah Wali Khairkhwa, a senior Taliban leader (he was one of the prisoners the US kept in its dreaded Guantanamo jail), has made a startling affirmation: “We don’t want Wahabbism in Afghanistan.” All these are sufficient reasons for India to establish a constructive dialogue with the Taliban. Mature and self-confident nations do not remain prisoners of the past. Rather, they look to the future with hope, and act boldly to create a better future for themselves and the world.

If there is no external interference, Afghanistan will become a miracle nation in the decades ahead, just as Vietnam did after it regained its sovereignty and unity. India and Pakistan, in the spirit of South Asian solidarity, have a moral responsibility to collaboratively assist our great civilisational neighbour in achieving this transition.



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