Keep distance from Taliban : The Tribune India

Keep distance from Taliban

The Modi government has rightly ignored the calls for ‘talks’

Keep distance from Taliban

Duplicitous: The Taliban are, and will remain, tools of the ISI. Reuters

G Parthasarathy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

There is an erroneous perception in India that Afghanistan is a monolithic country, where the Taliban represents the majority of the country. The Taliban is made up almost exclusively of Pashtuns, who constitute around 45% of Afghanistan’s population. The Taliban’s leaders and its cadres returned to Afghanistan from their hideouts in Pakistan, just as the occupying Soviet Forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan in February 1989. Having been trained and ideologically indoctrinated in some of the most fundamentalist madrasas, the Taliban sought to fill the political and security vacuum after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The Taliban let loose a reign of terror and oppression in Afghanistan, which was quite unique.

The Taliban faced armed opposition from virtually every other Afghan ethnic grouping. This resistance was spearheaded by the Tajiks, who constitute around 35% of Afghanistan’s population. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan and soon became a safe haven for radical Islamist terrorist groups from across the world. American intervention in Afghanistan commenced in 2003, after the 9/11 terrorist strikes. Driven out of Afghanistan, the Taliban operated from Pakistan. Strangely, the Americans accepted Pakistani claims of innocence, despite the ISI’s obvious support for Taliban’s terrorism. Washington provided Pakistan all economic and military aid it could absorb. The Taliban, however, retained close links with terrorist groups, like the JeM and LeT, while colluding with the ISI.

The US presence in Afghanistan did not deter, or prevent the Taliban from strengthening its ties with radical Islamic groups across the world, while hosting these radicals in Afghanistan. These groups included the Al Qaeda, the IS, the Tehriq-e-Taliban (Pakistan), and the East Turkistan Independence Movement, which operated in China’s Xinjiang province. China received assurances from the Taliban that they would cease support for insurrection, and seek peace with the Afghan government. That has not happened. Pakistan had led the US up the garden path by providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden, who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

The Taliban leadership has made it clear how it will rule Afghanistan. Its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently announced that they would rule according to the Sharia, which will be enforced ‘rigorously’. He asserted that elections did not yield positive results in Islamic countries. Women would not be permitted to sing, and can work only in some areas. They would have to be accompanied by a male ‘for their protection’ whenever they leave the house. Men, in turn, are barred from wearing western clothes, and would have to grow a beard. They believe that war as an option is not ruled out, and that jihad will continue.

The Taliban are giving high attention to capturing Kandahar, located close to the borders with Pakistan. Kandahar is equivalent of another Mecca for the people of Afghanistan. The then ruler of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Abdali, received a cloak, said to have been worn by the Prophet, during his visit to Bokhara (now in Uzbekistan), from the kingdom’s ruler, Amir Murad Beg. The cloak is now placed in a mosque near Abdali’s tomb. The normally reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar shot to fame when he emerged from the mosque, with the cloak, in 1996.

There are fears that the Taliban will overrun the Afghan forces. The impression also prevails that the Afghan army lacks the sagacity to overcome the Taliban challenge, as there are areas in southern and western Afghanistan, near the country’s borders with Iran and Tajikistan, which are presently under Taliban control. Pakistani involvement is evident, as large numbers of Pakistani terrorists are now fighting alongside the Taliban. Russia has concerns about the conflict crossing into the territory of its erstwhile Central Asian republics like Tajikistan. Iran has similar concerns about Taliban attacks on its allies, the Shia Hazaras, living just across its borders in Afghanistan. Future Russian and Iranian involvement on the western borders of Afghanistan cannot, therefore, be ruled out.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has held wide-ranging talks with the US, Russia, and virtually all of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, both bilaterally and in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. His unprecedented meeting with Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran was of particular significance. Iran has already warned of serious consequences if the Taliban should cause any harm to its Shia Hazara brethren. Iran was New Delhi’s close regional ally, when India, Iran and Russia backed groups in the Northern Alliance, drawn from the non-Pashtun majority in Afghanistan, even before the US intervention.

While Taliban successes in an estimated 200 of the 424 districts across Afghanistan have received substantial attention, the Taliban are finding it hard to take over a provincial capital in even one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The US left the Afghan army ill equipped, with hardly any tanks and artillery. The Afghan air force has an estimated 200 aircraft, which include 69 light attack helicopters. Washington would have to substantially strengthen Afghanistan’s armed forces. It remains to be seen if Pakistan provides the Taliban with Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

There are calls for ‘talks’ with the Taliban, which the Modi government has rightly ignored. The Taliban are, and will remain, tools of the ISI. While contacts can be maintained with Taliban leaders like Mullah Baradar in Qatar, there is no need to follow the Chinese example, with moves like formally inviting Taliban leaders to New Delhi. The Taliban colluded with the hijackers of IC 814 and maintained close ties with ISI-backed terrorist groups. Pakistan, in turn, needs a weak and internationally discredited Afghanistan to constitute its ‘strategic depth’ against India.

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