In an informative interaction in CPR this morning, the youngish and well-spoken Muqaddessa Yourish, until recently Deputy Commerce Minister of Afghanistan and former civil servant who headed her country’s civil service reforms commission, provided several insights into the unfolding Afghan political scene. Having lived in India (she graduated from Pune University) and loving the freedom and openness she experienced here, she was certain, for instance, that India would best serve Afghanistan’s interests by by primarily marshaling and deploying its “soft power” — Bollywood films and music, and by continuing with its policy of assisting in the processes of “reconstruction and reconciliation” in her country.
This did not mean, she said, pointedly, that India should end the presence of its Intelligence agencies but ruled out Indian military boots on the ground. She further opined that rather than designing a future post-reconciliation democratic setup in Afghanistan in Western terms, Kabul should try and replicate the Indian political system where even the smallest ideologically dissenting groups and religious and ethnic minorities have a say. The Taliban, she felt, may come around to accepting such a system because its cadres are drawn to “modern” life in Kabul and other major Afghan cities and towns that are not disconnected from tradition or even religious activity. She revealed that during the recent ceasefire, many of the youthful Taliban fighters swarming into Kabul were amazed to find modestly dressed women covering their hair and mosques in the city, something they had not expected. Indeed, this experience, Ms. Yourish said, led the Taliban chieftains to conclude that ceasefires hurt their cause by demotivating their fighters and denuding the ranks off them. Ceasefire offers the young Taliban, they fear, the opportunity to escape the fighting altogether — a big lure in light of the relatively modern amenities of the city which the frontline fighters cannot seem to resist when compared to the harsh life and the vicissitudes of fighting the Afghan National Army (ANA). The officers and JCOs of ANA, incidentally, are trained in Indian Army institutions, which programme along with “equipment support”, she hoped, the Indian government would continue.
Being candid, she did not dispute the fact that Taliban controlled much of the Afghan territory — some observers aver the Abdul Ghani regime’s writ runs and then sporadically over at most 10% of the country. But, she explained, that “control” did not mean hard and permanent grip by either side, because depending on the way the fighting goes in any area the control too shifts virtually every few hours, in other words, that the situation is fluid.
The former Minister Yourish did not hold out much hope for the so-called “peace talks” being conducted by the US representative Zalmay Khalilzad, whose sole aim is to get the US forces out of Afghanistan fast by persuading the Taliban to not target the withdrawing American military units. Significantly and correctly she called the peace talks — “US-Taliban talks”, one that has left the Ghani government out of the negotiating loop.
This then is the Afghan context Delhi is faced with. When America finally cuts and runs, and the Ghani crew and the Taliban sit down to hammer out a mutually acceptable compromise — very feasible because the Taliban’s initial max position of re-imposing an “emirate” with all the Islamic extremist frills — sharia law, women in bondage, modernism rejected in all its aspects, as Muqaddessa asserted, will during the negotiations itself erode owing to the exposure the Taliban fighters have had to the attractions of Kabul. And so Mullah Baradar — the chief Taliban negotiator, may end up signing a deal reflecting an albeit, water-downed liberal order in Afghanistan acceptable to all parties.
Because of its reconstruction work — building of dams, highways, Parliament house, etc, India has won grudging respect from the Taliban. Delhi can increase India’s acceptability by encouraging the friendly sections to give some to get a lot. But, India should expect the worst and keep its powder dry as the saying goes by strengthening India’s old links to the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. It will also help now that Ahmad Masood, the son of the “Lion of Panjshir” the late Ahmad Shah ‘engineer’ Masood, assasinated by al-Qaeda agents in 2001, has entered the arena. (“Engineer” because he was studying to be a civil engineer at a polytechnique before picking up the gun against the Russians). Masood made life miserable for the Soviet occupation troops and was a real thorn in the side of the one-eyed Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime. Reflecting his great father’s philosophy, the well-read Masood Junior (Sandhurst, BA from King’s College, MA from the City University of London) says this: “That’s the real fear [that] we are legitimizing terrorist groups across the world” by rewarding the Taliban with the chance to rule even though they sport “very extreme mentality and very extreme ideology”. (See his short interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6PaLdZaPV8 ). The son has encapsulated the reasons why his father vehemently opposed the Taliban.
Besides the Uzbek Col. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Northern Alliance, Delhi should invest in Ahmad Masood, who thinks like his father and is insurance against the Taliban turning rogue on India’s interests in Afghanistan at any time. That’s the best bet because the truth is India cannot do without Afghanistan as a comrade-in-arms in our part of the world that’s going slowly akilter.