The US announcement of withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan wars – ostensibly on the ground that terror outfits in these regions, such as the ISIS in Syria, have been neutralized – has come as a rude surprise to various countries. Further, the spectacle of US negotiations with the Taliban to conclude the ‘Afghan peace process’ is deeply unsettling, as it betrays and throws cold water on whatever decisions and actions were taken since 2001, when US became involved in Afghanistan. While in Syria, ISIS has been neutralized and nearly finished in most regions, in Afghanistan, the US policy has been an abject failure.
Not only has the Taliban managed to increase its territory and population under control in Afghanistan – a clear indication of the US failure – but the short-sightedness of the US policy has not been able to do much about the rising ISIS threat in Afghanistan, which has been compounded after the decimation of ISIS in Syria. Despite the warnings by US commanders that ISIS is now capable of using Afghanistan to launch direct attacks on the US – as al-Qaeda had done during 9/11 – the Trump administration’s failed war is no longer compelling it to stay to further destroy these terrorists.
Source: Chughtai (2018)
Besides the increase in territory under Taliban control, which the US has failed in preventing despite its presence in the country since the last 17 years, the western allies have not even been able to cut off the major sources of Taliban’s revenue viz. opium production and trade. Even though estimating that Taliban’s operation of nearly 500 drug labs and collecting a 10% tax on opium production from farmers, have been key to their money supply, nearly 65% of their income, the massive strikes by combined NATO, US and Afghan army forces – nearly 200 since 2017 – have been unable to destroy them (Hennigan, 2019).
Not only this, but the Taliban’s strength is visible from the fact that, over the last few years, it no longer has to illegally transport opium to foreign locations to process into drugs, but has managed to create its own cheap and cost-effective drug labs, mainly in southern Helmland province where the insurgency thrives. ( Taliban operates a $200 million-a-year opium economy, which US has been unable to cut-off despite best efforts. The US has spent nearly $9 billion in counter-narcotics since 2001 (Hennigan, 2019).)
That the US, despite its grand bombing campaigns using its most advanced aircrafts, has not been able to destroy the labs or cut off the Taliban’s opium economy, shows its failures in the country. The spectacle of the most powerful US stealth fighter jets and strategic bombers dropping 250 and 500 pound bombs on cheap and insignificant buildings, is an irony and a powerful reflection of the failure of the 17-year long US war against terror in the region. Towards the last three months of 2018, the Trump administration ceased the campaign and fizzled out the number of bombings – an admission of failure.
Whereas the bombing campaign worked in Syria with ISIS and killed off their black oil market, the same thing failed in Afghanistan, since the drug labs here are cheaper and easier to rebuild, within three days, after they are destroyed, and are a small component of a bigger supply chain that the US has been unable to choke off. At best, the 2017 air strikes on opium factories in which the US boasted of destroying 50 barrels of opium coking at the time and worth millions of dollars, costed the Taliban no more than $2863 (Mansfield, 2018). For the same reason, it is being widely asked why the best US F-22 stealth fighter jets, designed to defeat advanced enemy jets and costing $35,000 per hour for a flight, are being used for cheap and rudimentary opium factories in Afghanistan, and failing even at it (Hennigan, 2019).
According to the latest quarterly report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), only 53.8 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are with the government, covering 63.5 percent of the population, with the rest of the country either controlled or contested by the Taliban (Al Jazeera 2019). It is no wonder than that Taliban is in no hurry to reach a deal with the US, even as the US wants to exit as soon as possible. Out of its 14,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan, the US plans to withdraw 7000 troops in the next few months, while the exit can be complete not before 18 months. Besides the US troops, about 8000 foreign troops are also a part of the mission under NATO.
A Complicated History
But, as the latest data shows, even the presence of foreign troops working along side the Afghan army has not been able to prevent the Taliban from expanding. The US had started its campaign in Afghanistan after 9/11, by enlisting Pakistan as one of its major allies in the war against terror. Afghanistan has been crucial to the US strategy since 9/11, as it had, during the 1990s, provided a safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda and became the prime location for launching terrorist activity in the US. After the uprooting of Taliban in 2001 and the formation of a democratic government in Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan has been heavily dependent on foreign troops to prevent the Taliban from rebounding. Evidently, these efforts have failed and now the region is nearing a point of crisis.
Afghan army has not been able to develop its independent capabilities during the last 17 years to the point of being able to deal with the Taliban alone. Neighbouring countries like India, Iran and China will not get militarily involved in Afghanistan as the stakes are too high. Iran has had a hot and cold relationship with the Taliban. Both India and Iran fought against Taliban during the 1990s as a part of the Northern Alliance, consisting of non-Pashtun Afghan minorities such as Hazaras and Tajiks as well. (Afghanistan has a complex web of tribal communities and intense political factionalism and rivalries. The Tajiks and Hazaras, while a minority, have occupied important and affluent political and economic positions and cornered benefits, thus making them easy targets of Pashtun Afghan nationalism channelized by the Taliban. Besides communal rivalries, Afghanistan has an immensely fractured polity as well, with continuous making and breaking of political relationships since the 1960s, including within the ranks of Taliban.) The Alliance delivered results once its firepower was supplemented by the entry of NATO after 9/11 and the Taliban was pushed out. However, during the 1990s, Iran suffered heavy casualties inflicted by the Taliban. India, too, continues to suffer the consequences of the IC-814 Air India aircraft hijacking to Kandahar and the resultant liberation of Masood Azhar by India. (Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) traces its origins to the Afghan Taliban.)
Prior to India’s support to the Northern Alliance and the Pakistani support to the Taliban, India did not have a very complicated relationship with the Afghan Taliban or the other mujahideen in Afghanistan. It was India’s support to the Northern Alliance that sowed the seeds of hostility in the formal sense.
China, on the other hand, has strictly kept itself isolated from partisan groupings in the region. In return for the implicit understanding that Taliban would not provide any support to the Chinese Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang province, China has refrained from acting against the Taliban or other Pakistan sponsored terror groups in the region.
Iran, with the establishment of the near-permanent US presence in Afghanistan reversed its 1990s policy of fighting the Sunni Taliban. At present, Iran alternates between periodically supplying support to the Taliban in order to keep the US in check and at the same time, wants the Taliban’s control to remain fragmented, since a powerful Sunni terror group in its backyard would spell disaster for Iran on yet another front. Therefore, it makes sense to it to have a fragmented political system in Afghanistan with power distributed unevenly across multiple power brokers competing with each other.
India, too, would want such an outcome. But whatever shape the final arrangement takes, India will have to accept that Taliban will be a part of it. In Afghanistan, it is not just the unpopular Ghani government that has been isolated from the peace talks between US and Taliban despite repeatedly pleading to be included, but India too is isolating itself.
The Indian approach towards Taliban has been framed by Pakistan. Indian policy towards the Taliban since the 1990s has been guided by Pakistan’s supposed control over the Afghan Taliban. However, in reality, and unofficially known to Indians as well, the picture is more complicated and calls for a much more nuanced approach. India’s refusal to engage with Taliban should be based, not on any calculation, but on the simple fact that it is an Islamist terror network. But it should never view its interests in Afghanistan or dealings with Taliban (if any, in the future) through the bogey of a weak country like Pakistan.
It is undeniable that Taliban, unlike other terror networks, is of such a nature that it espouses two aspects viz. its terrorist nature and roots and, at the same time, its loyalty to the Pashtun political cause and increasing ambition to control state power and gain international acceptability. Its size, shape, stint in running a government and rising sophistication makes its labelling more complicated than other networks like LeT, JeM and others. The Taliban has had a peculiar nature, unlike other terrorist organizations. It is not simply an Islamist terror network sponsored by Pakistan. It is a mix of ethnic Pashtun nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism and emerged very much from within the majority Afghan Pashtun ranks and, due to its independent tribal mentality, has never been fully under the control of Pakistan, much like how Afghans have historically been since centuries.
Containing Pashtun nationalism – antipathic towards Pakistan – is one of the major objectives of Pakistan, in which the country has not been successful in bending the Afghan Taliban to its will, despite having established a strong rapport with it.
Taliban emerged out of the mutual, competing rivalries that broke out between various mujahideen factions of Afghanistan, who had together fought to expel the Soviets during the 1980s, thereby ending the Soviet rule which lasted from 1979 to 1989. In the process, the Cold War alignments ensured that these multiple Afghan tribal mujahideen factions received support from the US and its Western allies as well as from US’s ally Pakistan.
However, once the victory was achieved and the puppet Soviet-installed Afghan President, Mohammed Najibullah, was removed, there broke out a power struggle between various ethnic groups and mujahideen factions of Afghanistan. The US was also no longer active. Ahmed Shah Massoud – who would later lead the Northern Alliance against the Taliban – emerged as a powerful figure and had played a key role in ousting the Soviets.
However, in this early power struggle and mutual bloodshed, one of the Afghan mujahideen leaders, Mullah Omar led a band of students and formed the Taliban, which commenced an armed struggle to capture power and finally succeeded in capturing Kabul and establishing their rule in 1996. The Taliban has received moral and material support from Pakistan. However, Pakistan has not, especially, during the later years, been able to bend the Afghan Taliban to its will.
Over the years, the relationship between Taliban and Pakistan has become even more fractured and complicated as has the nature of Taliban itself. Not only are internal factions of Taliban battling within themselves for supremacy and there are fundamental disagreements on policy between Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but even Pakistani forces alternate between battles and reconciliation between various factions of Taliban. The TTP – operating in Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan under the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – has launched persistent attacks on the Pakistani army and forces.
Source: Agha et al (2010)
The supposed motive of TTP was to wage jihad in Pakistan against its alliance with the US. But the reality is much more than that. Under a scenario, where even if a peace deal is reached in Afghanistan, leading to a withdrawal of US and NATO forces, it is unlikely that the TTP will merge with Afghan Taliban and try to stake claim for positions in the Afghan power structure. Rather, the TTP – going by its current hostile relationship with Pakistan – will be emboldened to pursue a strategy similar to what the Afghan Taliban pursued in Afghanistan viz. pressurizing the Pakistani state to share power with its members.
Significantly, the Afghan Taliban – in its immediate current form – does not have enmity with either India or Pakistan and continues to make the Afghan power struggle its focal point. The recent case in point would be Pakistan’s threat that Afghan peace talks would be derailed in case India retaliates against the Pulwama attack. The Taliban denounced this and refused to take sides, maintaining that peace talks would go on, regardless of what happens between India and Pakistan.
Therefore, the TTP attacks on Pakistani forces have happened over the last decade despite the Afghan Taliban’s disapproval, even as several key leaders of the TTP have, in the past, vocally proclaimed their allegiance to the mentorship of Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Omar. Within its own ranks, the TTP leaders are constantly fighting over territory disputes, while battling the Pakistani forces.
Thus, it has been clear, for more than a decade now, that progressively, Pakistani intelligence forces have lost control over Afghan Taliban. This is especially so as, over time, Taliban has become more sophisticated and strategic and wants international recognition and a stake in power. Recent statements by Taliban emphasize that, unlike the Stone Age they had made of Afghanistan during their rule from 1996-2001, they are now open to issues like women’s rights and rights of minorities like Tajiks and Hazaras.
More than these signals, from India’s point of view, the Taliban has clearly indicated its position that it has no hostility with India, does not act at Pakistan’s behest and is not seeking India’s ouster from Afghanistan. Its problems with India have centered around India’s support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, later, to the Western forces in Afghanistan, and the perception that India is not simply undertaking development projects in the region but taking sides (unlike China which has remained neutral), thereby, making Indian embassy and agents targets for the Taliban on Afghan soil.
These facts were highlighted during a published interview with Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, in 2010. When asked whether Afghan Taliban and the Pak-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) were attacking India at Pakistan’s behest, Mujahid stated that, “The Lashkar has no presence in Afghanistan and we have no links with it. Unlike the Lashkar which is focused on Jammu and Kashmir, the Afghan Taliban concentrate on Afghanistan. We have never taken part in any attack in India, nor do we attack anyone at Pakistan’s behest” (Outlook 2010).
He further stated that, “We favour neither India nor Pakistan. We can’t ignore Pakistan as it is a neighbouring Islamic country and gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of displaced Afghans. Pakistan was on good terms with us when we were in power. India, on the other hand, backed the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance (NA) and refused to do business with our government…We are not saying that India should get out of Afghanistan. Nor can India be completely expelled from Afghanistan. The Taliban aren’t in any direct conflict with India. India troops aren’t part of NATO forces, they haven’t occupied Afghanistan. India and Afghanistan have had historic ties. If the Taliban returns to power, we would like to maintain normal relations with all countries including India. It’s possible for the Taliban and India to reconcile with each other. Our complaint is that India backed the NA, and is now supporting the Karzai government” (Outlook 2010).
This was the case even at the peak of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, prior to 2001, and when Pakistan had much closer relations with the then Taliban government in Afghanistan.
In an interview in 2001, Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Zaeef, had articulated the desire to have “normal relations” with India based on “non-interference” and to cultivate “diplomatic and commercial ties”. He had also maintained, at the time, that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan’s close relations with Pakistan “is never an obstacle to having good relations with anyone else” and that adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan “will not have an impact on Indo-Afghan ties” (Chandra 2009).
Similarly, in 2009, the earlier Taliban government’s former foreign minister, Muttawakil, had stated that, “India should look at Afghanistan through its own lens, not through the Pakistani lens…one of India’s biggest mistakes was to support the puppet Soviet regime in Kabul because the mujahideen were based in Pakistan…India’s second mistake was not to recognize the Taliban…the Indian government should accept the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and support the peace process. After all, the Taliban are a part of Afghan society” (Chandra 2009).
Exorcising the Pakistan Bogey
From these utterances of various Taliban leaders, during their rule as well as later, and from the complicated relationship between Pakistan and Taliban, what should be India’s response to Taliban? At the outset, the misplaced idea that Pakistan is somehow able to exercise control over Taliban needs to be abandoned. India immediately needs to delink its engagements in Afghanistan from whatever Pakistan says or does, giving it an action-based response if at all Indian assets are targeted by Pak-based terrorists.
The next question is should India engage with Taliban, in the light of the latter’s wish to have relations of practicality with India? This is not at all necessary. It is true that most other countries, including the US, are engaging with Taliban, and Russia, China and Iran have adopted a purely transactional approach.
Even though Russia and Iran were a part of the Northern Alliance that was fighting against the Taliban, over the years, and presently, they have maintained considerable flexibility in their approach towards Afghanistan. India, on the other hand, till as recently as few months back, reiterated its position that it will support only an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process and has refused to share the table with Taliban. Even when India finally capitulated and sent its retired diplomats to a conference in Moscow where talks with Taliban were convened recently, it declared that they were there only as silent partners and that India would ‘not talk to Taliban’.
Unlike China, Iran and Russia – none of who have sent troops to Afghanistan – India’s opposition to Taliban is purely ideological and justified, especially since it has direct implications for India’s own approach towards terrorism. Previous Indian governments have already committed a folly by giving recognition and legitimacy to Pak-sponsored terrorists, who torment Kashmir and other parts of the country. Bound by its misplaced sense of secularism and morality, previous Indian governments have sought to engage and negotiate with these terrorists and their funders in Pakistan. How can India do the same with the Taliban in Afghanistan, no matter how amenable the Taliban becomes towards India? At a time when the Modi government has radically shifted the country’s Pakistan policy to signal zero tolerance towards terrorism, it would not at all be apt for India to officially open its channels with the Taliban. Unofficial and deft handling is enough to ensure that Taliban does not cause any damage to India in Afghanistan, especially since it is already favourably disposed towards India. The US is officially talking to Taliban out of compulsion, while China, Iran and Russia are adopting a purely transactional approach which neither sits well with the Indian vision nor with the current government’s policy towards terrorism.
The work done by India in Afghanistan, in terms of civilian reconstruction and financial aid, has been immense, second to none and most appreciated by the Afghans, more so than the self-interested and mercenary approach taken by the Western allies. India should build on that, while ensuring that no troubles come on the Taliban front. No official contact with the Taliban is needed for that. But the bogey of Pakistan can be completely abandoned from the India-Afghan situation at this stage.
While Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda, there is certainly scarce evidence of al-Qaeda or Taliban or other West Asian or Central Asian terrorist groups intervening in Kashmir, least of all at Pakistan’s behest. To imply so would be giving Pakistan the kind of power it has never actually possessed, even in the Islamic world. Therefore, India neither needs Taliban nor needs to give attention to Pakistan in its new chapter in Afghanistan. It can ensure reasonable security without having to negotiate with the terrorists.
The Present Prospects of Peace
From the history of India-Taliban equation, it is clear that reconciliation, excluding Pakistan, is not difficult. Since Taliban does not, officially, consider India as its enemy, India does not need to officially engage with the terror outfit for any reason and should keep a safe distance from it. Thus, any future peace settlement between US and Taliban in Afghanistan should not pose a major threat to India, even after the US troop withdrawal from the region.
India will have to adopt a nuanced policy of balancing out its interests in Afghanistan, instead of handing it over to Pakistan on a silver platter. By looking at the region solely through the Pakistani lens, India is closing off its own doors of expansion in the region and, via Afghanistan, to Central Asian republics as well.
Moreover, once the US troop withdrawal is effected, a number of other factors will come into play to supplement Indian interests and ensure peace and stability in the region. These include the changing dynamics within Taliban and its general openness towards India, the rising presence of Moscow in the region, the critical Chinese investment projects and the need of Iran to maintain a balance of power in the region to safeguard itself.
Russia is expanding its influence once again in Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, since the last several years. It mediates conflicts between the bordering states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and has built a military base in Kazakhstan and plans to build another one, besides economic relations with these countries. This Russian presence will provide a degree of stability in the region and it would be in Russia’s interests to avoid a lawless Afghanistan.
More crucially, for Russia, Iran and India, the operationalization of the 7200 km International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is of utmost importance, opening up lucrative trade routes between Russia and India via Iran. For India, the INSTC completely bypasses Pakistan and provides an alternative to China’s BRI, giving India access to Central Asia and Russia through ship, rail and road networks along the route. Afghanistan is crucial to these links. It is India’s gateway to Central Asia and beyond.
Source: Tehran Times (2018)
Ensuring stability in Afghanistan becomes critical to the stability of these developing trade routes and investment projects, be it the India-led INSTC or the China-led BRI. Much like the INSTC, even more important for India has been the operationalization of the Chabahar port since 2017, when the first shipment of wheat was exported from India to Afghanistan via Iran, completely bypassing Pakistan.
Recently, Afghanistan dispatched, for export, truck loads of items, consisting of dry fruits, carpets, textiles, mineral products etc., with 23 trucks consisting of 57 tonnes of items – the first time Afghan-India trade has been facilitated by completely bypassing Pakistan. Not only does it offer a direct trade route between India and Afghanistan without Pakistani obstructionism, but is also 800 km closer to Afghanistan than the port of Karachi. Indian companies have already acquired mining rights in resource rich regions of Afghanistan, which earlier could not be realized into trade outcomes, since Pakistan did not allow India transit through its territory, but has now been made possible. Indian business activity around Chabahar and in Afghanistan is already picking up pace.
For Iran, Chabahar is important since it is a better option than the Bandar Abbas port which currently handles 85% of Iran’s trade, but, not being a deep water port, is unable to handle cargo ships of 250,000 tonnage and above, with such ships having to dock at UAE first and then transfer their cargo in smaller shipments to Iran. Chabahar removes these problems, due to its wide capacities. At a time when Iran’s relations with the Arab countries are at their worst and it has been hit with US sanctions, the country is looking to get its revenues in terms of trade and transit fees through the Chabahar port.
For India, the opening of these new trade routes are not simply an economic investment, but of immense geopolitical importance. Corridors like INSTC accord India a historic opportunity to accelerate its engagement with the Central Asian landlocked countries and Afghanistan to ever greater heights not seen before, thanks to Pakistan’s persistent barrier. Even though, over the years, India has risen in position and stature in the world, various obstructions have kept it tied down to South Asia. The latest developments, centering around Afghanistan accord India an opportunity to expand its footprint and influence and have engagement even further.
Power fragmentation between multiple actors in Afghanistan would suit China, India and others the best. Till now, US was a convenient buffer, while Afghanistan’s neighbours like India and China did not have to deploy military or take sides. With the US gone and in the event that no peace deal is sustained, the resultant terrorism and lawlessness will directly threaten China’s borders near its restive Xinjiang province, which houses its Uighur Muslim population. It will also threaten China’s immense BRI investments in Afghanistan and in the region as a whole.
As China is worried about Xinjiang, so India is contemplating the consequences of US withdrawal from Afghanistan for Kashmir. India calculates that with the US gone and with peace returning to Afghanistan, Pakistan will be able to remove its human terror resources from that country and unleash them comfortably in Kashmir. It does not even need the support of the Afghan Taliban – which is no longer a stooge of Pakistan – to do that. This is, in fact, India’s biggest concern – bigger even than Taliban coming back to power – in Afghanistan.
However, there are other factors to ensure that the likelihood of a diversion of Pak-based terrorists from Afghanistan to India remains dim. For one, the current stalemate in the US-Taliban peace talks is mainly because of the fact that none of the involved powers – US, Russia, China or India – would countenance handing over a strategic and important country like Afghanistan on a platter to the Taliban, where it could make the US vulnerable again or launch terrorist activity. Therefore, the final arrangement in Afghanistan will have multiple layers of power and Pakistan may not have that easy a relationship as to divert all its terrorists to Kashmir. If in 2001 – at the peak of Taliban power and close relations with Pakistan – the Taliban government could send feelers to India to communicate, then in 2020, the situation would be much better and much more different.
India’s Position in the World
The most unfortunate aspect of the Afghan peace talks, from India’s perspective, is that India has, over the last so many decades, undermined itself to the extent of forgetting its own rightful place and role in the region and the wider world. It is tragic that India is viewing itself as a country with no stakes in Afghanistan, beyond the Pakistan problem. As a neighbour and a great power, India should have a say and an active participation in its affairs.
Centuries ago, India was the thriving centre of trade and cultural exchange in the region, with Arabs, Central Asian countries, Persia, China and Indian Ocean island nationalities – until the gradual incursions of Dutch, Portuguese and English began to monopolize this trade, create exclusions and ultimately impoverish India.
That a country like India should have no presence or deeper linkages in the wider Asian region is an anomaly that India should rectify, at a time when even China is positively doing so through the BRI. For India to allow Pakistan to become such an insurmountable obstruction as to influence its relationships with countries beyond it would be a weakness and selfish politics on part of India. India cannot sacrifice national interest at the altar of superficial diplomacy.
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