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India backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan, and has gone into a strategic sulk now

India’s actions in Afghanistan stem more out of pique for the triumph of radical Taliban and its mentor Pakistan, and less due to the lack of strategic options.

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The battle for Afghanistan has been won by the Taliban on 15 August. Whether they win the war – international legitimacy and lasting peace based on reconciliation in a multiethnic country – will depend upon the avatar in which the group manifests itself. The speed and absolute victory of the Taliban has caught the world and even its mentors by surprise.

Given the Taliban’s horrendous past, the international community is on ‘watch and wait to decide its next moves. Even the smug triumphalism of Pakistan – the creator of the Taliban – and its principal supporters – China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey – has given way to sober realism.

The return of the Taliban progressively became inevitable after the US began the peace talks in Doha in July 2018. A draft agreement was prepared by 26 January 2019, and the final agreement was signed on 29 February 2020, with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar behind the back of the elected Afghanistan government. America accepted defeat and literally plotted the return of the Taliban for a safe exit. However, the Taliban made sure to humiliate it with a repeat of the ‘Saigon moment’ at the Kabul airport.

Since 2018, all major international/regional states have engaged with the Taliban to safeguard their interests. Despite the three-year notice and with complete disregard for realpolitiks, India’s attempts at engagement were half-hearted. Now, having backed the wrong horse, it seems to have gone into a strategic sulk and hastily withdrawn from the scene complete with its diplomatic corps. India’s actions stem more out of pique for the triumph of radical Taliban and its mentor, Pakistan, and less due to lack of strategic options.

Also read: A civil war in Afghanistan won’t be a cakewalk for Taliban. That’s opportunity India

Likely contours of Taliban’s strategy

Sporadic battles notwithstanding, since President Joe Biden’s 14 April announcement of complete withdrawal of the US forces by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban brought about the defeat of the Afghan government and its army through psychological paralysis without much bloodshed. The state structure is largely intact and the organs of the state remain functional. Internet is functioning and so far, foreign/Afghan media is still operating.  Unlike the war-ravaged country it took over in 1996, the Taliban have inherited a functional state including a parliament building made by India and a large US military arsenal which is being shared with Pakistan.

Taliban 1 lacked legitimacy in the comity of nations and merely survived on Arab dole and drug trade as a failed anarchical state. Taliban 2 seems to have categorically rejected Wahabi Islam and Saudi Arabia, and its Arab allies have become non-players. Even the group’s committed supporters – Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran,  and to some extent Turkey – would not be able to do much for an unreformed Taliban. Thus, Taliban 2 has gone out of its way to assure the world that they would adhere to acceptable norms of behaviour subject to limitations imposed by their ideology and the sharia code much like Arab countries, Iran, Pakistan and other Islamic regimes. In my view, the closest model it would like to project is Iran.

It is too short a time to judge the actions of the Taliban. There have been reports of reprisals against collaborators and also excesses related to imposition of the sharia, particularly on women. International media has exaggerated these reports due to preconceived image of Taliban 1. My view is that so far, it has been one of the mildest regime changes brought about by force of arms in recent history. The Taliban have granted “general amnesty” to all those who fought or collaborated against them. If Taliban 2 can avoid violence/reprisals and ensure safety and evacuation of diplomats and foreign citizens, then they would have won the first round. The group is well within its rights to prevent Afghan citizens from fleeing abroad fearing reprisals or for just seeking a better life. A benign attitude in this regard would also go in its favour.

Taliban 2 is holding talks with former government officials and other stakeholders to form an “inclusive government”. Apart from its violent radicalism, the failure of Taliban 1 was due to not forming an inclusive government. Notwithstanding the rumblings of armed resistance from Panjshir Valley, there is virtually no opposition to the Taliban 2. Everyone is keen to strike a deal with the victor and so may the Panjshir dispensation.

An inclusive government is an absolute condition that the Taliban must fulfil even for Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey and Iran to recognise it. As per my assessment, an inclusive government will be formed in the near future.

At this juncture, the short-term strategy of the Taliban is to endeavour to meet all preconditions for international legitimacy: bringing violence to an end; not resorting to reprisals; adherence to an acceptable version of sharia law; safety of diplomats and foreign citizens; and not allowing their territory to be used as a base for exporting terrorism.

Currently, it is difficult to predict the Taliban’s long-term strategy. Radical Islam all over the world has got a fresh impetus.  Heady with its divine victory over the US, the group will view itself as the leader of the Islamic Umma and the temptation will be very strong to pursue its radical ideology in the long run. However, as the leaders of an impoverished nation, if the Taliban do that, then history will repeat itself.

In my view, after political and economic stability, the Taliban will pursue their radical ideology in the long term albeit in a covert and more sophisticated manner on the lines of the oil-rich Arab countries, Iran and Pakistan. However, their internal power struggle between the extreme and not-so-extreme factions, and their co-terrorist fighters – Al-Qaeda, ISIS (Daesh/ Khorasan), Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), East Turkestan Liberation Organization (Uyghurs), and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan among others – may queer the pitch.  This is the dilemma of the international and the regional community and all stakeholders will work on devising Plan A and Plan B to cater for the best and the worst scenarios.

Also read: On Kabul, India need not hurry. Let Russia, China, Iran see Pakistan’s control of Taliban

India’s options

Currently, India has tied itself in knots. It failed to engage with the Taliban to become a player in Afghanistan. New Delhi’s entire strategy was based on America’s continuous presence and longevity of the Afghan government. There has been a monumental intelligence failure. India failed to appreciate the real intent of America, the strength of the Taliban and the weakness of the corrupt elected government. It went out of its way to support a government that was busy striking deals with the Taliban and engineering the collapse of its own army. Even the erstwhile leaders of the Northern Alliance, on whom we were relying to stand up to the Taliban, went to Pakistan and did not come to us to safeguard their interests once the Taliban marched in.

If that was not enough, we post-haste withdrew our embassy on 17 August when hundreds of citizens are still stranded in Afghanistan. Intelligence of impending terrorist attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Haqqani Network has been cited as the primary reason. The Taliban had reached out to India requesting not to withdraw its embassy, assuring protection. An attack on any embassy would have signalled the end of the legitimacy of Taliban 2 even before it could take shape.

We could have negotiated better security from the Taliban. The presence of our embassy would have not only helped in mending fences with the Taliban but also safeguarding the interests of our citizens, Hindu and Sikh Afghan citizens and Afghan friends seeking asylum. We should have left behind a diplomatic team at the Kabul airport, which is under US forces, to coordinate the evacuation.  Foreign minister S. Jaishankar compounded the problem by publicly announcing that priority would be given to evacuation of Hindu and Sikh Afghan citizens. We lost the goodwill of our Afghan friends and the Taliban stopped 72 Afghan Hindu and Sikh citizens from leaving the country. The evacuation has since resumed through the Taliban and US goodwill.

Despite having very seasoned diplomats, India flouted all tenets of realpolitik, which is driven by national interests and not ideologies of other nations or our own, in dealing with the Taliban. More so, when we have no qualms in dealing with Islamic Arab states, Pakistan and Iran who also follow their own version of the sharia law. We continue to deal with dictatorships and Communist regimes whose record on human rights do not measure up to international norms. Even our own record in dealing with minorities and on human rights has been put on notice by the international community.

In my view, the ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the perceived feeling of humiliation due to radical Islam and our adversaries – Pakistan and China – having got the better of us in Afghanistan have brought about our foreign policy paralysis. Sadly, the BJP did not miss the opportunity to exploit the situation for domestic politics. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Somnath may be a coincidence, but indirectly alluding to Mahmud of Ghazni, at this juncture, was hardly in order.

There is an urgent requirement to make amends and make our presence felt in Afghanistan. Subject to the Taliban forming an “inclusive government” and living up to its promised moderate avatar with respect to terrorism and human rights, as Plan A we must engage with the Taliban and in due course recognise them after a decent interval. Out of the box, we could immediately promise substantial aid and gain advantage of the first mover by being one of the first to recognise the Taliban.

As Plan B, if Taliban 2 regress back to Taliban 1, I must repeat what I said earlier, “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. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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