It is the winter of severe discontent in Afghanistan. As many as 23 million people — or 55 per cent of the population — are facing extreme levels of hunger, of which 14 million children are bearing the brunt, and at risk of starvation. The United Nation’s World Food Programme estimates that one million children could die from hunger if not immediately attended to, and this figure dwarfs the number of civilians killed as a direct result of the 20-year-long war between the US-led coalition and the Taliban that began in 2001 after the 9/11 incident.
But there were some smiling faces in Oslo, Norway, last week, as a Taliban delegation met Western officials for the first time since they took Kabul without firing a shot in August last year. The Taliban’s Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi claimed that the talks constituted the first step towards international recognition, and Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store responded by agreeing that the conversation had been “genuine and serious” and demanded the release of $10 billion that has been frozen by Western nations since the fall of Kabul.
Ladder to acceptance
Certainly, the normalisation of the Taliban is on the anvil. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Islamic Emirate’s spokesman, before going to Oslo, said that all schools will open for girl children on Nowruz, 21 March – clearly hoping to win brownie points with equality-conscious Western leaders.
Taliban leaders like Amir Khan Muttaqi are now using medicines and food aid to reach out to regional powers like India and China – the former has sent 5,00,000 doses of Covid vaccines, several tonnes of medicines while 50,000 tons of wheat will soon be transported overland on Afghan trucks via Pakistan in February. China’s vaccines, as a part of its $31 million emergency aid, have begun to arrive.
As for the de-freezing of some of the $10 billion due to Afghanistan since before the fall of Kabul, the Taliban may be in luck – a US judge has given the authorities time till 11 February to decide what to do with the $7 billion since held with the New York Federal Reserve.
If the money flows to Kabul sooner than later, it will surely consolidate the Taliban’s hold on the country. The leadership seems to have learned a few key lessons well from the time they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
The Taliban is ‘here to stay’
The first lesson is to demonstrate your own staying power. The Taliban is believed to have reached out to opposition Afghan leaders who led the resistance, like Ahmad Massoud – son of the legendary Panjshiri leader Ahmad Shah Massoud – former Herat governor Ismail Khan and even, it is rumoured, the bitterly opposed former vice-president Amrullah Saleh.
It is said that Taliban leaders met Massoud and Ismail Khan in Iran, while unconfirmed reports say that the Russians brokered a meeting between Taliban President Abdul Ghani Baradar, Defence Minister Mullah Yaqoob, Saleh, and Massoud in Moscow.
Saleh, who continued to fight the Taliban from his redoubt in the Panjshir valley for a few weeks after the Taliban walked into Kabul, is believed to have soon after moved to safety in Tajikistan next door. It is not known whether he is still in Dushanbe or elsewhere.
New word in Taliban dictionary
The Taliban’s second lesson is to begin talking to resistance leaders at home, like former president Hamid Karzai and former head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Once rivals, Karzai and Abdullah have been staying in the same house in Kabul since the Taliban took power; Karzai was recently allowed to speak to CNN, and he has been trying to reason with the Taliban to urge them to become more inclusive rulers.
This word, ‘inclusivity’, the Taliban have begun to understand and is a key for them to be accepted by the world. After all, the Saudis didn’t allow grown women several privileges until recently — but they have oil. Similarly, Qatar and Oman have large quantities of natural gas and are strategically located in the Gulf, while Dubai and the rest of the UAE have partially modernised themselves so as not to be too abhorrent to the human rights community.
These are potential model Islamic nations for the Taliban to follow, especially since the sale of mineral resources in Mes Aynak and elsewhere can take time.
Going soft for ‘softer’ subjects
Certainly, the Taliban is learning fast. Their third lesson, therefore, is to be perceived to be accommodative on ‘softer subjects’, like health, education, and women’s rights. Hence Zabihullah Mujahid’s announcement that women and girl children will return to school Nowruz onwards – no matter that women activists have been abducted in the heart of Kabul and Mujahid denies any knowledge. Amir Khan Muttaqi has reached out to countries like India – he met Indian diplomat J.P. Singh in Moscow in October — on the margins of the Moscow meeting with the Taliban — seeking food and medicines.
India won’t take any major decisions until after the conclusion of the ongoing assembly elections – for the time being, medicines and wheat consignments will have to do.
Remember that China and Russia have already been at the forefront of the move to normalise the Taliban, having refused to shut down their embassies after the Americans left in a tearing hurry and the Europeans followed in embarrassed suit.
Keep your enemies closer
There is a fourth lesson the Taliban has also learnt well, which is that the motives of even your closest friends should be carefully understood — Pakistan, which has done more than any other country in the world to bring the Taliban to power in Kabul.
So, when Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf travelled to Kabul this weekend, he was given two messages by Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi. First, that Afghanistan will not allow its soil to be used for activities against any other country — certainly, music to India’s ears — and second, key economic projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, as well as World Bank-funded projects like the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission & Trade project (CASA-1000), be completed and implemented as soon as possible.
The Taliban’s India angle is certainly interesting. Apart from the fact that it realises that India is the key market in the region and a hungry consumer for any energy it can buy from anywhere in South Asia – Bhutan, for instance – Taliban leaders know that improving relations with India can buy them potential leverage against other countries.
Moeed Yusuf also came bearing the message that the Afghan Taliban should use its good offices with the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) terrorist group, whose leadership takes shelter inside Afghanistan, from carrying out attacks in Pakistan. The TTP had ended its ‘ceasefire’ against the Pakistani State last November, ostensibly because the latter refused to impose sharia rule in the tribal areas or restore them to their pre-merger status with itself.
But the Taliban is believed not to have made any promises in return. In fact, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer to send trained manpower to fill the vacuum left by thousands of Afghans still fleeing the country has sparked considerable discontent inside Afghanistan.
Address the bigger question
The bigger question, of course, facing the international community today is, should you trust the Taliban to keep its word? The pro-reform (led by Abdul Ghani Baradar) and hardline (led by Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani) factions in the Taliban will always fight for ascendancy, but one thing is clear. While they may agree to bend on issues of women’s rights, education, and health, they aren’t giving up control of strategic portfolios like defence, interior, and foreign policy.
The question then is, is the alleviation of severe hunger that affects half your population a strategic or a ‘soft’ issue?
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)