Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August 2021. On 18 August, Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmed Shah Massoud, appealed to the West for help from Panjshir – “No matter what happens, my mujahideen fighters and I will defend Panjshir as the last bastion of Afghan freedom. Our morale is intact. We know from experience what awaits us. But we need is more weapons, more ammunition, and more supplies. America and its democratic allies do not just have to fight against terrorism in common with Afghans. We now have a long history made up of shared ideals and struggles. There is still much that you can do to aid the cause of freedom. You are our only remaining hope.”
The appeal has been met with silence from the officialdom of concerned countries. Counterterrorism in Afghanistan seems to be beggared. However, neither the Soviets nor the Taliban during its earlier stint has been able to control Panjshir. This time around, the challenge is greater but the resistance forces in Afghanistan rely on their grit, history and geography. Reports indicate that some elements of the Afghan Armed Forces including its Special Forces have joined the Panjshiris. The offensive on Panjshir is ongoing and indicate that the Taliban has captured major parts of Panjshir without much resistance. But with the Taliban capture of Panjshir, they will find it difficult to retain control as the Panjshiris could rely on guerilla tactics and terrain to raise the costs for the Taliban. The lack of resistance to the Taliban offensive is indicative of this possibility. The defenders have not surrendered but may have disappeared to fight another day.
In the report quoted earlier, Ahmed Massoud has called for resistance and said, “the Taliban has attacked Panjshir with foreign forces”. Several religious scholars from different parts of the country gathered in Kabul and called the war in Kabul illegitimate and asked both sides to stop fighting. Iran has called for an investigation of any involvement of a foreign country in Panjshir.
There are also other reports of involvement of Pakistan’s Special Forces backed by tanks, infantry combat vehicles, armed helicopters, artillery, engineers, UAVs, et al. Ironically, most of the equipment being used is of American origin. According to a report, the deal supposedly extracted from the Taliban by Pakistan is of providing fighters to launch a reinvigorated campaign in Kashmir that is considered ripe for exploitation due to the alienation of the populace resulting from the revocation of Article 370 and the state’s relegation to the Union Territory status.
The first vice president of the Ashraf Ghani government and Panjshiri leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF), Amrullah Saleh has claimed that in the absence of Ghani, he is constitutionally the president of Afghanistan – this has also received no traction unlike the support garnered by Ahmed Shah Massoud in the 1990s. The only resistance to the Taliban has been orphaned by the delusion of the stakeholders that the Taliban can be relied upon to lead the fight against terrorism. China’s statement at the UN Security Council is indicative of the directions of the geopolitical wind – “To achieve fundamental changes, it is vital to work with the Taliban and provide them with guidance to help maintain stability.”
Not a different Taliban
The Taliban, however, is still desperately searching for legitimacy and economic relief. It is yet to form the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. A theocracy modelled on Iran is expected to take charge. Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah are now basically bedfellows and may be utilised by the Taliban to indicate legitimacy. The Taliban have also, as part of a publicity offensive directed at world powers and a frightful population, maintained that they will respect women’s rights as long as it adheres to Sharia laws and cultural values. Both elements are open to wide interpretation. Women have been protesting in Kabul and several regions of Afghanistan for their rights after the Taliban takeover. The Taliban have also assured that they will forgive opponents and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists. Not surprisingly, reports indicate that there is a major gulf between words and deeds.
The United States has eased restrictions to support humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan on 31 August, including the delivery of food and medicine, despite US sanctions on the Taliban. With Afghanistan’s desperate economic situation and Taliban’s search for legitimacy, world powers could use it as leverage to keep the Taliban in line and succeed in tactical terms. But the long-term strategic threat of the Taliban is rooted in an extremist ideology that could surface over some time and reveal its true colours while playing within the spaces of regional and global geopolitical friction. The gamble is, therefore, based on the notion that this variant of the Taliban is different. India must disagree and shape its policy moves accordingly.
India must stand up now
India must be clear that the Taliban are a clone of Pakistan and any attempts at seeking a reconciliation must be transactional and tactical. If and when the Taliban gain legitimacy and economic stability, there is a possibility of the Pathan-Punjabi fault line getting activated and wrecking that relationship. India must actively play the long game and look away from the prevalent popular notion that we must wait and watch. India should take a principled stand that supports the constitutional legitimacy of Amrullah Saleh’s claim and provide political support to the National Resistance Front. It must refrain from harbouring the notion of the Taliban ever becoming the forefront for counterterrorism and protection of human rights.
India must seek to delegitimise the Taliban for their violation of the covenants of the United Nations, according to which the group remains designated as a terrorist organisation. As part of the UNSC, it should push for condemning the illegitimate use of force to overthrow a government that had been legitimately elected. It must highlight Pakistan’s role and call for sanctions against it. None of these moves is likely to succeed, but it will matter where the real war will be fought in the long run – in the minds of the Afghan people.
Disturbingly, India’s stance of providing humanitarian assistance to people seeking refuge here has used religion as a discriminator. It emanates from the ideological disposition of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but it certainly violates India’s constitutional spirit. It is not too late to retract that atrocious policy as a precursor to the rolling out of our new Afghan policy.
It would be natural to question the type of support that India and other agencies can provide to the NRF. After all, they are surrounded and cut off and their strength lies in their fighting spirit and the tactical advantages that geography confers. They have sought military hardware that India cannot provide due to issues of access. However, access is contingent on people’s support that leverages the Tajik connection and is boosted by human agency desperately seeking survival and aided by mountainous terrain that makes sealing Panjshir a challenge.
Inspiring the Afghan people
What India can provide lies in the power of galvanising democracies to support the legitimate government of Afghanistan. There is then a bright possibility that the Afghans who are now terrified of the Taliban find the strength to move away from accommodation of Islamic extremists to join the resistance in whatever manner feasible. The youthful demographic and changed cultural profile of Afghanistan lend themselves to this possibility. At the very least, there is more than a fighting chance.
The Afghan resistance to the Taliban must be psychologically lit by India’s voice that commences with the announcement of our political support to NRF. The Taliban cannot retain power unless they maintain its authoritarian disposition. This runs counter to the aspirations of most Afghans, and the Taliban have to seek legitimacy internally and externally. India must lead the charge on both fronts, and it is well equipped to do so as it requires mainly the crafting of narratives that resonates with the Afghans and the global community fighting the scourge of extremism. India’s foreign policy choices must uphold the principles of international law and refuse to acknowledge that might is always right, and, more importantly, it is encumbered by a shelf life. Within three centuries, the Afghans have seen off the British, Russians and the Americans.
The Taliban have declared China as their close ally. They are hopeful that they will build the infrastructure that will make Afghanistan a trading hub by utilising its geographic potential to connect West, Central and South Asia. The Taliban have announced their willingness to be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The group has also indicated that China can help in extraction of Afghanistan’s considerable and untapped resources of rare metals, especially copper. China might use Pakistan as a proxy for these ventures. So, in some unknown timeframe, Pakistan could suffer the fate of the British, Russians and Americans. China would be aware of the possibility, and time will tell the scale of risks it is willing to take. After all, this project is part of its greater Chinese dream of being the number one global power.
For India, recognising the minds of the Afghan populace as the actual battleground should be the beacon light for its approach to the Afghan issue.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He is from the 40th NDA Course. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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