As the Taliban announces the formation of a caretaker/interim government with Mullah Hassan Akhund as the prime minister (head of state), and Mullah Baradar andMawlavi Hannafi as his deputies, India should be ready with its Plan A and B.
Mullah Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, is the defence minister, Serajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister, Mawalawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, the foreign minister, and Mulla Hedayatullah Badri, the finance minister. Most of the cabinet is from the old guard that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The prime minister and four ministers – Akhund, Baradar, Yaqoob, and Haqqani – are United Nations designated terrorists and the interior minister has a $10 million bounty placed on him by the US. The cabinet is predominantly Pashtun with only three non-Pashtuns – second deputy prime minister Hanafi, an Uzbek, and chief of army staff Qari Fasihuddin, and minister of economy Qari Deen Hanif, both Tajiks. There are no women or non-Taliban members in the cabinet.
The formation of the interim government came after an internal power struggle between the Quetta Shura, now located at Kandahar, the mother organisation led by the old guard, and Miran Shah/Peshawar Shura dominated by the Haqqani Network, which is favoured by the ISI. The politically savvy and relatively moderate Doha negotiators led by Mullah Baradar enjoying the support of Quetta Shura were challenged by the Haqqani Network. Military commanders led by Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, were also major contenders for political power.
General Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s ISI had rushed to Kabul last Saturday to broker peace after reported clashes between supporters of Mullah Baradar and Haqqani Network, in which the former was allegedly injured. The signature of Pakistan is all over the new Afghanistan cabinet. A comparative lightweight has been appointed as the prime minister, the wings of the Doha negotiators, who led by Mullah Baradar were front runners for top posts, have been clipped and ISI’s sword arm, the Haqqani Network, has got considerable representation including the all-important interior ministry.
The US and its allies have no choice but to remain in ‘wait and watch’ mode as the primary conditions – an inclusive government, respect for human rights, particularly rights of women, and not to allow Afghanistan territory to be used as a base for exporting terrorism – remain unfulfilled or untested/unverified, especially the latter two conditions. The legitimacy of the Taliban government and the economic assistance from Western-dominated institutions essential for its survival as a functional State is contingent on meeting these conditions. However, its supporters China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan may opt for early recognition. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries may follow suit leaving the rest with little choice but to accept fait accompli.
Much has been said about all stakeholders working on Plan A – dealing with a reformed Taliban adhering to international norms – and Plan B – to cater for a failed State embroiled in a complex civil war. Be that as it may, India has broken away from the cacophony of anti-Taliban rhetoric prevailing domestically to engage with the Taliban. I analyse the contours of India’s likely Plan A and Plan B.
New Delhi’s core national interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from being used as a base for exporting/supporting terrorism in India at the behest of Pakistan and/or for ideological reasons.
As a regional power, India does not want geo-strategically important Afghanistan to become a client state of its principal adversaries – China and Pakistan. India wants a stable and inclusive Afghanistan that respects human rights, particularly those of women and minorities. India has invested over $3 billion in development projects apart from the investment in Chabahar port. The bulk of Afghan intelligentsia has been educated in India. India would like to maintain and sustain the goodwill it has earned in Afghanistan.
The pursuit of India’s national interests demands engagement and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. India’s soft power in terms economic aid and assistance in governance, essential for Taliban’s survival as a functional State, will go a long way in neutralising the leverage of Pakistan and China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a bold decision against his party’s ideology and prevalent public opinion to engage with the Taliban. However, the timing for the ‘wait and watch’ policy to end and action to begin will be critical. Doing it too early, would be risky, but doing it too late would not pay desired dividends.
It may be prudent to immediately follow the European Union model of progressive “operational engagement” subject to meeting India-specific conditions. Meeting conditions devoid of independent monitoring must be weighed against national interests. India must immediately announce substantial humanitarian aid and assistance for running civic facilities.
Recognition will require fine judgement. Rather than take a cue from the West, India should focus on what China, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey and Iran intend to do. A bold preemptive decision once conditions are conducive would be to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat to become major player in Afghanistan once again. India must strive to put itself in a position to give rise to Pashtun nationalism.
Realpolitik demands that simultaneously and covertly India should set in motion Plan B to cater for a more sophisticated Taliban with a moderate face playing a double game; a rogue Taliban; an ethnic civil war; an intra Taliban conflict; and a conflict between the Taliban and other terrorist organisations. It goes without saying that Pakistan will play a direct role in all these scenarios. More so when Pashtun nationalism itself may pose a threat to its sovereignty.
The future of Afghanistan lies in a broad-based Taliban-led inclusive government with proportional representation for all ethnicities. Even then it will be an uphill task for the Taliban to create a functional State that has absolute monopoly over violence through an organised army and a police force. Disarming its own cadres and other militias/terrorist organisations is going to be extremely difficult. Given the Afghan way of life, it may never happen. Conflict in Afghanistan is thus inevitable. In my view, the worst-case scenario is a full-blown ethnic civil war with various terrorist organisations taking sides. Plan B should aim at safeguarding India’s national interests and creating a stable and inclusive Afghan government.
With the absolute victory of the Taliban, organised resistance against it in any form, currently, appears to be far-fetched. More so, when all its immediate neighbours – Pakistan, China, Iran, and Tajikistan/Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan through their ally Russia – are supporting it. However, the first signs are already there for the discerning eye.
Tajikistan has taken the first step by posthumously conferring the nation’s highest honour, the order of Ismoili Somoni, on the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, both Afghan Tajiks. The honour is for their contribution to ending the Tajikistan civil war, 1993-1997. The timing of the award indicates that Tajikistan will support Afghan Tajiks in the fight for their rights and is, in all likelihood, already doing so in Panjshir.
Tajikistan could not have done this without the tacit approval of Russia, implying that the latter too has a Plan B. Russia’s support for the Taliban comes with many caveats. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently forcefully reiterated the condition of an inclusive government.
Iran has been critical of the Taliban offensive against the Tajiks in Panjshir and also alluded to Pakistan’s involvement. In my view, even China has a Plan B. America too will come on board with money and material support.
India must begin talks with Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran to start giving shape to our Plan B. Our military cooperation with Tajikistan including upgrading the Gissar airfield must be given further impetus.
Depending upon how the situation develops, India must establish covert contacts with various ethnic groups, factions within the Taliban and other stakeholders. The long-term aim of Plan B should be to neutralise any threat that emanates from Afghanistan against our national security.
As a regional power, it is imperative that India must not allow its adversaries a free run in Afghanistan. India must get off the moral high ground, to accept the reality of an Islamic State based on the Iran model and engage with the Taliban. Plan A based on “operational engagement” without formal recognition is a pragmatic interim option. However, put in motion a Plan B to cater for the worst-case scenario.
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.