There is a flurry of activity between New Delhi and Kabul. The writing on the Hindukush wall is clear. The Taliban are on the ascendant. Where does it leave India?
Should India be heart-broken, jilted that new US President Joe Biden has made such a clinical retreat? Or, are there opportunities in the new turn? Is a relationship of hostility with the Taliban an inevitability? Similarly, do we take it for granted that they will continue to be an Islamic militia controlled by Pakistan?
After George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and co-opted Musharraf’s Pakistan, Washington gifted us that description for the region: Af-Pak. Does India now accept this as a given? Can we de-hyphenate our strategic thinking here? In 2011, I had written this National Interest listing the reasons India should leave ‘Af’ to ‘Pak’. How have we moved on from there?
First, is there evidence that the Taliban, out of dependence or gratitude, will remain a vassal of the Pakistanis forever? An inseparable ally, linked to Pakistan through a friendship “higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean”, to borrow that description often used in the rhetoric of Pakistan-China summits?
Your question could be, why not? Weren’t the Taliban like that with Pakistan in their first innings? But, as statutory warnings with mutual funds advertisements say: Past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance. Would that also work with geostrategic interests?
Nations, societies, whatever their ideological driving force, ultimately work in their self-interest. Is there anything to indicate that the Taliban could be different? Their way of life, interpretation of Islam, view on women, education and civil liberties may be abhorrent to modern societies. But does that necessarily make them enemies of India? Are they likely to launch war on India, or join Pakistan in its war against us? What will there be in it for them? To convert India into an Islamic nation and make it a part of some Caliphate?
Obscurantist, brutal, medieval, anti-women, untrustworthy, the Taliban may be all of these or worse. One thing they are not is stupid or suicidal. Or they would not have survived the fight for two decades and defeated the US.
Unlike the mujahideen of the past, they did not even have the benefit of major powers backing them with arms. Pakistan was the only other power helping them, mostly by stealth.
There is a downside to a strategic vision that looks at India’s west through Pakistanised blinkers. We feel jilted that the Americans are going away, giving the Pakistanis a famous victory. That the Pakistanis now have something they always wanted: Strategic depth. To understand how pyrrhic this victory might be, check out this fine piece by Hussain Haqqani in Foreign Affairs.
One look at the map of the region, the terrain, and you know that it is such a fantasy that only the geniuses in GHQ at Rawalpindi, whose brains are acknowledged to nestle in some part of their anatomy other than the head, began hallucinating on that 1986-87 onwards. Why then? Because General Krishnaswamy Sundarji’s Operation Brasstacks produced the nightmare of thousands of Indian tanks cutting through the narrower parts of Pakistani mainland in blitzkrieg or Warsaw Pact style. Hence the need for strategic depth.
Thirty-five years hence, the world has changed. So has the strategic and tactical military picture. Besides, there are nuclear weapons. If some Pakistani generals still think they can retreat across the Hindukush into Afghanistan or shift any vital strategic assets there, they must be nuts.
They aren’t that bad. Over 75 years, there is one thing the world has learnt about the Pakistani army. It is actually quite brilliant tactically, but equally delusional and reckless strategically. But would it move its nukes, or even two squadrons of precious F-16s, to an Afghan air base under the brotherly Taliban?
With an uncoloured vision, we can make a fairer assessment of who won and who lost in Afghanistan. The Taliban won for sure, and the Americans and their allies lost. But Pakistan? If the Taliban have proved one thing over these two decades, it is that they are way smarter than their big brother. Pakistan has fantasised about using their nation for strategic depth. All these years, they’ve reversed the equation. They’ve used Pakistan for their own strategic depth.
Using that depth, they’ve defeated the United States of America, which checked into our region two decades ago. Biden’s claims of victory, “having achieved our objectives”, are as hollow as George W. Bush’s criticism of this hasty departure. Biden has only accepted a humiliating reality Bush won’t. That Afghanistan isn’t quite Hotel California of the rock band Eagles’ conception, where you can check out but not leave. He is leaving for sure. To be sure, he has also declared that rebuilding a new nation in Afghanistan was never the US objective. In simpler English, that is called use-and-throw.
The Americans leave a vacuum. The Taliban are taking more territory by the day. See where it leaves Pakistan. If the fighting rages on for long, all of its hopes of quick benefits will disappear. The wounded, the homeless, the refugees, will all walk across the Durand Line. Even if the Taliban are able to finish this off quickly, through defections and deals with warlords, how much control will they cede to the Pakistanis? Especially when they no longer need their strategic depth?
You can say that they will be caught in a hopeless pincer between China and Pakistan and therefore have no future but to be a client state forever. There isn’t much in Afghan history to suggest that. In any case, what is to suggest that it will be fine by other interested powers in the region, including Iran and Russia.
This argument runs the risk of being painted as a Taliban apologist. But the fact is that India is already talking with them, and not bashfully so. Chances that the Ghani government will decisively defeat the Taliban militarily are near-zero. The most it can ensure is a violent stalemate around key, garrisoned cities. The best outcome for India might still be a realistic negotiated settlement that brings peace and a sharing of power with minimal blood-letting. India has some leverage there, but very little to influence the course of the military confrontation. Both geography and geopolitics come in the way.
Strategically, that is the most prudent way forward. The Taliban have no need or compulsion to fight India. They’d definitely not be fighting Pakistan’s war against us. They neither want to, nor have the resources to, radicalise India’s Muslims. Plus, they will continue to have problems of their own in a broken, unstable country seeing a massive flight of talent and capital.
For India to set this course, however, the Modi government will need to remove another set of blinkers. That is, seeing a political force as hostile just because it is conservatively Islamic. We know that it is central to their electoral proposition. They can’t win without polarisation. But the world around India has changed. They need to make adjustments too.
The coercive flexibility vis-a-vis Pakistan has vanished for now. At least until the Chinese sit in dharna in Ladakh. What is on their mind? I wish we could ask Xi Jinping why he suddenly made his first visit to Tibet this week. The Modi government has also reached out to Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Sunni conservatism in the world. As also the UAE, following the dictum of seeking friendship with the enemy’s friend. In the best of all worlds, Afghanistan won’t become the kind of Islamic emirate that the Taliban propose. But if it does, could India see it as a Saudi Arabia without oil? Another force to befriend, not despite, but particularly because it is the enemy’s friend?
It is possible, and pragmatic. It’s just that it calls for a big reset in the BJP’s domestic politics. Their challenge then would be to find a formula beyond plain Hindu-Muslim polarisation.