Misreading Afghan situation

The Taliban momentum needs to be broken by shoring up Kabul government

Misreading Afghan situation

No respite: Violence is unlikely to ebb in Afghanistan with a free run for the Taliban. AP

Shyam Saran

Former foreign secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

THERE seems to be an unholy rush in several countries, including India, to already concede Afghanistan to the marauding Taliban forces. The implications of what a Taliban takeover may mean for the hapless people of the blighted country, in particular for its women and children, as an obscurantist and intolerant version of Islam is given free rein once again, seem to be no more than collateral damage. Suddenly, this is now for the Afghan people to decide as if the choice lies in their hands. There are already reports coming in that in areas that have fallen under Taliban control, there has been swift and even ruthless imposition of the strict dictates of the Sharia, or at least how the Taliban interpret it. To describe such people as merely conservative but actually very smart and sophisticated political operators is a cosmetic makeover that says more about the commentators than about the Taliban themselves. It suits them to be painted in gentler hues since they may go about their violent impositions without meddling foreigners to distract them. Nothing detracts more from President Biden’s passionate urging about freedom and democracy and respect for human rights, than this unseemly abandonment of a people staring at the loss of even the limited freedoms that they had begun to enjoy despite a fragmented, but nevertheless democratically elected government.

There also appears a vain hope that the Taliban are nationalistic after all as if the current Kabul government is not. If the Ghani government relied heavily on American support, the Taliban, the creation of Pakistan, have survived and flourished because of Pakistani support. Americans lost the plot because they failed to battle the real enemy — the manipulative handlers sitting in Islamabad. One may rubbish Pakistani calculations on Afghanistan being its indispensable “strategic depth”; or to predict that Pakistan may itself come a cropper once the Taliban are entrenched in Afghanistan and begin to pursue their own “interests”. That may well be the case, but in the meantime, Pakistan’s quiet satisfaction at having seen off another superpower into ignominious defeat is patent.

That Pakistan is gaining renewed strategic relevance because it now controls the levers of influence over the dangerous new force that may soon be presiding over turbulent Afghanistan, is apparent from the overtures being made to Islamabad by the cluster of neighbouring countries. Even some Indian commentators are urging Pakistan to please see a convergent interest in a “peaceful and stable” Afghanistan. In urging New Delhi not to perceive the Taliban as a Pakistani instrument, to engage with it so that it may resist Pakistani efforts to use it to harm Indian interests, is a flight from reality staring us in the face. The Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad armed cadres are fighting alongside the Taliban. Could they be doing so without Pakistani encouragement if not direction? Do we really believe that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will not once again become a base for renewed and intensified cross-border terrorism against India? Pakistan is posing as a guarantor against similar activities against China, Russia and perhaps even Iran. If their concerns can be assuaged at least initially, would there be any support if India is targeted?

I believe that eventually, Pakistan may not be able to control other extremist forces such as al-Qaeda or ISIL, being able to find bases and sanctuaries in Afghanistan. We know that they are already active in some areas of the country. But that may be of little consolation. As the Chinese are beginning to discover, they cannot depend upon Pakistan to protect its personnel working in the country. Will they be able to do so in Afghanistan? But it’s too late now for them to reverse course. All they can do is to hope for the best.

What may be the best or the least bad option for India at this difficult juncture? The best course lies in shoring up the Kabul government and helping it to prevent a complete takeover by the Taliban. If the ongoing civil war can grind to a stalemate, that might be the best outcome in the short run. The Taliban momentum needs to be broken.

The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) deliberations on the Afghan situation may be a pointer to forging a regional consensus on preventing a Taliban takeover and supporting a power sharing dispensation. There may be room for enhanced political and material support for the Kabul government and India could certainly lead the way in this regard. If Turkey is to take on responsibility for guarding Bagram airport, then here is an interlocutor that India needs to engage with. The Taliban have been swift to warn Turkey on its taking on this role from the Americans.

It may be tactically wise to engage with the Taliban and India has been doing so. It should not, however, give in to demands that India should stop assisting the Ghani government, including with arms supplies. Short of putting boots on the ground, India should put its full weight behind the Ghani government despite its many infirmities.

The bottom line is this: a military stalemate in Afghanistan, even a protracted civil war, may be a better outcome from India’s standpoint than a Taliban takeover. One may not be able to contribute to the Taliban’s defeat. We may, however, be able to prevent its victory and that would be a more prudent choice.

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