India’s eminently successful two–decade–old foreign policy, driven by its soft power and investments worth $3 billion, is getting unravelled in the graveyard of empires — Afghanistan. Having decisively defeated the Taliban and al–Qaeda in 2001-2002, the US and its allies have finally abandoned their failed “nation–building” mission and left Afghanistan to its fate. A bloody civil war is raging between the legitimate government and the Taliban.
Except India, all regional stakeholders — Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia (probably also standing in for Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) — have placed their bets on the Taliban. Turkey, desperate to revive its Ottoman legacy, is pursuing a middle path by trying to gain a foothold through its proposal to provide security for Kabul airport. However, with its duplicitous conduct, inexplicably condoned by the US, only Pakistan, as the original creator, reviver and now active supporter, currently seems to have some direct leverage over the resurgent Taliban.
The future of Afghanistan hinges on the duration and outcome of the civil war and the avatar in which the Taliban manifests itself. There is no certainty that the Taliban will emerge as an outright winner. Even if it manages to topple the current government, a new internecine tribal civil war may commence. The probability of the radical Taliban reforming itself is very low. India will have to take into account these factors to decide its tactical and strategic foreign policy.
Contours of the civil/internecine civil war
Afghanistan is a multi–ethnic and multi–lingual society with very strong tribal loyalties even within the ethnic groups. The main ethnic groups are Pashtun, 42 per cent; Tajik, 27 per cent; Hazara, 9 per cent; Uzbek, 9 per cent; and other smaller groups 13 per cent. The Pashtuns are the major ethnic group in the south and the east, the Tajiks in the northeast. The predominant groups in north-central Afghanistan are the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.
Historically, stable governments/regimes have been Pashtun–led but with a proportional share of power with other groups. The Taliban is predominantly Pashtun and loathes to share power. In the past, it has also targeted the minority 10 per cent, mostly Hazara Shia population. The present elected Afghan government is also multi–ethnic with a Pashtun President.
Officially, the Afghan National Army (ANA) also has a proportional ethic representation but there are reports that after the resurrection of the Taliban, the Tajiks have become predominant. Also, the ANA is composed of a younger population that has witnessed stability and relative prosperity post–2001.
The Taliban has shown no inclination to share power or form a national government. It has been fighting the ANA for the last decade and has been ruthless in its treatment of captured soldiers. The Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan Government is well aware of the fate of former President Najibullah in 1996. The Taliban takes no prisoners.
It is pertinent to recall the civil war in Afghanistan 1989-2001. After the exit of Soviet Union, the unpopular government under Najibullah fought for three years, 1989-92. Thereafter, the Mujahideen groupings under warlords fought amongst themselves for four years. 1995 onwards, the Taliban, actively supported by Pakistan, took another three years to establish control, but the Northern Alliance still held on and finally returned to Kabul in November 2001.
It is my assessment that the civil war is not going to be a cakewalk for the Taliban. The probability of history repeating itself is very high. The Afghan government and the ANA will fight with their backs to the wall to force a reconciliation on the Taliban, failing which, it will fight to the finish. This will give enough time to the non–Pashtun ethnic groups to reorganise themselves and carry on the civil war. All stakeholders, except Pakistan, riding the Taliban bandwagon are under no illusion. China, Russia, Iran and Turkey are only tactically backing the Taliban but strategically keeping their options open. They will not directly assist the Taliban in any manner.
The facade of a reformed Taliban
The suave representatives of the Taliban in Doha have lulled the foreign offices of the world to believe that it is a nationalist organisation, has shed its extremely radical Islamic ideology and will transform Afghanistan, as per my assessment, into a ‘conservative Islamic State’ on the Iran model.
However, its conduct has shown no change. It has reimposed its radical version of the sharia in areas under its control as it had done in 1995-2001. Women’s rights in terms of schooling, dress, movement and jobs no longer exist. There are reports of lists of women above 15 years and widows below 45 being trafficked for marriage with its Talibs. Surrendering soldiers have been ruthlessly killed.
The Taliban has promised the US and China, and also, most likely, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, that it will not allow terrorists operating against them to be based in Afghanistan. It should suffice to mention that in 2001, it accepted destruction and loss of Afghanistan itself rather than handover Osama bin Laden.
In my view, heady with the victory over the US, the Taliban will return in a more radicalised avatar. Its appeal lies in its radicalism. The Taliban is its own master. After the defeat of the ISIS, it will view itself as the chief protector and propagator of Islam. All countries banking on it for not supporting terrorists are in for a surprise and so is Pakistan when Pashtun nationalism comes to the fore.
In India, the strategic community has reduced the debate to whether India should back the beleaguered Afghan government or the odds on favourite, the Taliban. The drivers are to retain our influence in Afghanistan and prevent Pakistan from using the Taliban in Jammu and Kashmir.
Traditionally, India has enjoyed the goodwill of the people of Afghanistan. Almost every Afghan politician has studied in India. Our economic contribution of $3 billion is the second-highest after the US. But our influence in Afghanistan is with an elected government. The biggest gain over the last two decades has been that with active cooperation of the Afghan government, we could conduct covert operations against a common adversary. What influence can we have over the Taliban except to safeguard our embassy?
The fear of the Taliban coming for terrorism in J&K is a figment of imagination. As the Northern Army Commander in 2007-8, I had carried out a study to put an end to wild rumours regarding infiltration by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The conclusion was that let alone the Taliban, no Pashtun, Sindhi or Balochi terrorist had ever been killed or caught in J&K. All foreign terrorists had been from Pakistan Punjab. Moreover, Pakistan will be more worried about Pashtun nationalism, terrorism emanating from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and from across the Durand Line. Also, the road to Srinagar (hearts and minds of the people) runs from Delhi and not from Kabul.
In my view, India should tactically engage with the Taliban to cater for its change of heart to form a national government or a quick victory. Strategically, we should continue with the existing policy, highlighting the need for reconciliation and a national government. As a worst case, India should have the will and patience to shape the history to repeat itself.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)