Decoding what Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may mean for its neighbours – India, Pakistan in particular
Finally, the Taliban, with the withdrawal of the United States (US) and its allies, have taken over the war-torn Afghanistan. The US-backed government collapsed, and its head Ashraf Ghani fled the country. And, the government forces, more than 3 lakh in number, surrendered, ran away, or joined the Taliban, giving them an effortless passage to the capital Kabul.
While the fate of Afghanistan under the new regime hangs in balance, the Taliban victory and chaotic US withdrawal seems to be changing the geo-political scenario around the country. For example, China and Russia — two of America’s staunchest strategic rivals — are believed to be filling the space left open due to the US withdrawal. Similarly, experts say, neighbouring Pakistan now would have a strong leverage in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
India that had during the past 20 years invested huge amount of money and enormous diplomatic and political efforts for some kind of leverage in Afghanistan will now seemingly have the least influence in the country under the Taliban’s regime. New Delhi has already shut down the Kabul embassy and its all consulates located in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Jalalabad, which experts say is a sign of complete disengagement.
To be concise, the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has started drawing its impact and implications on the South Asian region and beyond. What would be these implications? And how would Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours, particularly with India and Pakistan be in near future?
To understand this, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with some experts for their take on it. Read on:
The situation in Afghanistan is still unsettled. And no country in the world appears in a hurry to recognize the Taliban regime. We will have to wait and watch to see how the Taliban settle down in governance and what happens to some other forces, which had resisted the Taliban earlier.
In my personal experience, I have found people in Afghanistan very friendly and pro-India when I went there some years ago. I think any regime in Afghanistan will have to keep the sentiment of Afghanis in mind, before deciding its India policy. Lest we forget, India has done a lot for developing Afghanistan from 2001 onwards, and in their statement, the Taliban have appreciated the developmental work that India has done in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, I don’t agree with those who say India has lost Afghanistan as a friend. No doubt that there is a new regime in Afghanistan now, but its immediate statements are not that unwelcome. However, as I said, we will have to wait to see how this new regime conducts governance matters, and once they settle down, they will realize what is in its national interest.
The new regime has to keep the interests of Afghanistan in mind, rather than the interests of Pakistan. Therefore, there is no reason for India, at this point in time, to be scared. I would also say that I don’t believe that we should necessarily count down on the Taliban regime.
The best thing is that India and the Taliban have already been at the same table in Doha and in touch with each other. I am sure that even after the Taliban takeover, some communication between them and India would be on. It is up to India to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected. For that, India needs to reach an understanding, whether open or a confidential one, with the Taliban. The basic principle of a foreign policy of a country is about protecting its interests. I am totally against domestic factors and considerations overwhelmingly guiding the foreign policy. That should not be allowed to happen. It is our duty to safeguard our interests in Afghanistan. Our domestic politics should not have a bearing on that.
To begin with, let me clarify that there is no ‘Taliban regime’ placed in Afghanistan at this point in time. A legitimate regime in Afghanistan, if there would be any in the future, has to be formed as per the Doha agreement. The Taliban, in Doha, has agreed that the new regime would be inclusive of all the stakeholders and parties. The Taliban cannot run Afghanistan on its own. If it fails to form an inclusive government in the country, then it can be anything but a legitimate regime.
Moreover, the Taliban-led government, without any involvement of other stakeholders, would not be dangerous for Afghanistan only, but it would be posing a great threat to as many as ten other countries as well.
To understand this, we must know about the organizational structure of the Taliban. This is basically an umbrella organization of many militant groups that have their political and religious ideologies varying with each other.
For example, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has been fighting against the interests of Pakistan is also a part of the Taliban. Its head Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud is presently based in Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan. He has waged an open war against the Pakistani state. Similarly, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is also a part of the Taliban. This group fights against the state of Uzbekistan. Then, there are the Tajik militants, presently under the Taliban umbrella, who are the enemies of Tajikistan. One more group under the Taliban is Jundallah. This group basically wants to fight against the Iranian state. Another militant group, presently under the Taliban command is those of the Chechen militants. They want to wage a war against the government in Chechnya. There are some Bengalis also in the Taliban. Though they don’t fight against their own country, they are actually affiliated with Al-Qaeda. They will always fight where Al-Qaeda would want them to. Some Arab militants are also part of the Taliban. They are always ready to fight against the America’s interests at any place.
Take another example of Ilyas Kashmiri’s group. Ilyas, who belonged to Kotli of “Azad Kashmir” (Pakistan-administered Kashmir), himself died in a drone attack some time ago. However, his group known as 313 is still indulged in anti-Pakistan activities. Similarly, the man who was recently made in-charge of as many as five provinces in northern Afghanistan by the Taliban is actually a Tajik national. He is a threat to his own country.
Precisely, I would say there are 8‐10 countries vulnerable and threatened due to the various militant groups under the umbrella of the Taliban. Therefore, I think the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is a complex problem that needs to be addressed.
Furthermore, let me also clarify that Pakistan has no leverage on the Taliban. If that would have been the case, then Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the head of TTP, and one of the top leaders of the Taliban would not have been threatening Pakistan. Also, some of the militants including Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, a TTP commander, who recently overran after jailbreak, are wanted in Pakistan. But Pakistan is unable to get them from the Taliban.
To conclude, I would also say that the assumption that Pakistan might use some of the Taliban militants against India in Kashmir is baseless. I say this because we see a new Taliban now. It is not the same as it used to be some 20 years ago. At that time, the Taliban as an organization was a friend of Pakistan. But now it is neither friend nor a foe to Pakistan.
The broadest and most important impact of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan would be the withdrawal of the American army and China’s interest in filling the power vacuum. If the latter succeeds, then there will be a new equation of power politics in South Asia, which is an unpredictable arena.
As far as India’s interests in Afghanistan are concerned, I am not an expert on Delhi’s motivations, its strategies and its tactics in Afghanistan. But even I have learned that Delhi has been addressing the Afghanistan situation from the prism of opposing Pakistan and curbing its influence there. But it is now discovering, seemingly, that Pakistan’s role has been more as “facilitator” than real “player” in Afghanistan in the last two decades. To me, that seems a serious oversight to have made. Now India has very little options in the changing scenario of Afghanistan. But whatever that is, it must begin with a self-assessment of India’s own role in South Asia. To my mind, India’s options in South Asian politics have decreased dramatically, even been neutralized, in the last twenty years, and especially so in the last seven. The first question that Delhi should be asking is: why is that the case?
Meanwhile, it will take Taliban six months to settle down and three to six months for New Delhi to be able to determine what are forward-going policies for it in Afghanistan. The best thing to do about it is to take a deep breath and sit back to wait and watch how things unfold in future.
The opinion that Pakistan might use Taliban militants to bother India in Kashmir is an old argument but a rather outdated one. The world has not stood still in the last twenty years when we last saw the Taliban in power — nor have the Taliban, or analysts and or we in Kashmir. A simple exercise would answer that question: ‘How many of the analysts have had a conversation with the Taliban? How many of them have had a conversation with Kashmiris to gauge their interest in having the Taliban here?’
Taliban’s win in Afghanistan is strategically a setback to India. India had invested quite a bit in the previous regime in that country and developed good relations over the years. Now there is a new regime with which India is yet to establish its relations. The advantages India enjoyed earlier in Afghanistan have now been compromised.
On the other hand, Pakistan, which was not in the good books of the previous Afghan dispensation and Western alliance, might now enjoy an advantage because of its proximity to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Secondly, China and Russia will be getting into Afghanistan replacing the Western alliance there. Iran, which had a kind of hostility with the Taliban earlier, mostly because of the Shia-Sunni factor, also might be closer to the Taliban government now. The hostility between Iranians and the Taliban in the 1990s had brought India and Iran closer to each other. Current Taliban are much more accommodative. And, Iranians are also optimistic about the Taliban now because they have seen them defeating America. That is why they have already developed certain communications with the Taliban. For sure, Iranian’s response to the Taliban will not be as same as it was in the 90s.
This changing scenario might have an indirect impact on India’s Kashmir policy as well because India has lost some strategic advantages in the region. India also has to deal with the Chinese who are on the LAC now. Also, there is greater proximity between China and Pakistan. To my understanding, India’s recent Kashmir policy has not paid off. It has created more problems.
Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is a result of a new power game in the region. It will impact the whole region adversely. The prevailing insecurity in Afghanistan means insecurity in neighbouring countries as well. I say this because, in the past, we have seen that the presence of the Taliban caused the emergence of more terror groups, increase in drug cultivation, and human trafficking. I also fear that the Taliban’s presence will affect Afghanistan’s relations with India and Pakistan.
Sadly, even in this prevailing uncertainty in Afghanistan, every country tries to find its own interests in the country. Most of the politicians and people in Afghanistan believe that the Taliban was always being supported by Pakistan, which means the distrust of our neighbouring country. Pakistan’s objectionable policies and its hosting of Taliban leaders have reinforced the anti-Pakistani view in our country. Pakistan-India rivalry through Afghanistan has never been a secret in our country. The view that the previous government had better relations with India gave Pakistan the will to maintain relations with the Taliban despite the fact that the Taliban was not willing to participate in Afghan peace talks.
I would say that the Taliban’s takeover is like a painful nightmare coming true. The arrival of the Taliban to Kabul has shocked and scared us all. All this happened because of the corruption and internal weakness of the Afghan government. I say this because the situation, in terms of governance, in our country was not good in recent years.
That said, I can assure you that the Taliban has no legitimacy in our country. The mass migration of people also confirms that the anti-Taliban spirit exists in Afghanistan on a large scale. I want to also emphasize that the people of Afghanistan will always remember those who accompanied them and those who remained silent when our country was grappling with the worst situation.
To conclude, I would say that we Afghans still have a chance to change the situation, and we can bring lasting peace to the country. But for that, our politicians need to work vigorously. I would also say that we are tired of conflict in our country. We will not allow India and Pakistan to play their war games on our soil; rather, we would advise them to put their power games aside and talk to each other to end their animosity. We are tired of war and insecurity and the consequences of war. Afghanistan needs peace now.
The present situation in Afghanistan is grave. This speed of debacle and the total capture of power by the Taliban was not expected either by the Afghans or the international community. Though the writing was on the wall for quite some time, the manner and speed with which the takeover occurred caught everyone by surprise; more importantly, it led to a sense of fear and panic among the urban-educated Afghans. Sadly, the country descended into chaos with the US’ precipitous withdrawal and the Afghan troops were demoralized when they didn’t get enough reinforcements in time and at the end saw their president flee. Presently, the situation in the country is quite fluid and worrisome, and no one has a clue of how we will deal with the evolving scenarios. It is a challenge not only for India, but also for the international community as well.
This change in power structure in Afghanistan would alter the nature of India’s engagement with that country. For example, India, during the past two decades, through its development assistance policy had accrued lot of goodwill among the Afghans. But now there is a danger of reversal of gains. The rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan has left India in a difficult situation and almost no contact with the Taliban regime. Thus, India’s influence in Afghanistan has been reduced considerably, and the evacuation of its embassy staff from Afghanistan means disengagement from the country.
At the same time, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is construed as a victory to Pakistan because the country has nurtured the Taliban to regain its strategic depth in Afghanistan. And they seem to have got that space now.
Additionally, China has got more engaged in Afghanistan in the space left by the US. It has established contacts with the Taliban, and thereby we see the strengthening China-Pakistan nexus in Afghanistan which will have implications for India and the US.
India indeed still has some leverage in that country, but it depends on whether New Delhi will be able to use it and recalibrate its strategy. India has a lot of goodwill in Afghanistan because of its development assistance of the people of the country. Those Afghans are still there who are involved in Indian projects and will need assistance to continue those projects.
Secondly, in some provinces, there has been broad acceptance of India’s aid and development policy even among the Taliban. There is a difference between the Taliban in the provinces of Afghanistan and the Taliban leadership who are in Kabul. In Kabul, Taliban leadership is closely aligned with the Haqqani network and other international terrorist groups which might not be amenable to relationship with India.
However, it would be pragmatic for India to find ways to engage with the Taliban regime without granting recognition. Also, India needs to continue its aid policy for Afghanistan to prevent a humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis. We must establish some communication links in that country to moderate the extremist movements’ ideology and protect the rights of women and the minorities. India needs to explore all options carefully and act as a rising power with the seat it now has in the UN Security Council. Afghanistan will be a test case of India’s great power aspirations. More importantly, it cannot renege on the commitment it had made to Afghanistan through its Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2011.
(Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza has spent more than a decade working in the governmental and non-governmental sector in various provinces of Afghanistan)