The US has high-tailed it out of Afghanistan. A pithy, darkly humourous, speculation of what will happen next in America in the wake of its military humiliation by a ragtag Taliban force, was provided by the mountaineer, Joydeep Sircar, who corresponds with me fairly regularly. “By the end of 2021”, he confidently prophecies, “Hollywood will produce multiple movies showing how heroically the Americans fought and defeated the Taliban as a first step towards airbrushing history. By 2025 a large portion of the American public will believe the USA won in Afghanistan. American military thinkers will produce scholarly works showing Afghanistan was a victory because the USA took 20 years to run away whereas the USSR took only 7, and managed a higher Taliban body count. [Indian army officers] deputed to the US War College will come back full of dollars, and praise the US skill in seizing defeat out of the jaws of stalemate.”!!! He could have added by way of a last line that a bored US will then scout the map to see where it can intervene next to change a regime or build a nation.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) the Americans funded and sustained over 20 years simply melted into the countryside, or the urban chaos, Taliban having done an exemplary job of signalling to those wearing military and police uniform that unless they abandoned their posts and all ideas of fighting, when caught they’d be shot like dogs, or hung from the nearest rafter. But how and why did this happen and with such suddenness and finality? Mohan Guruswamy has come up with some revealing statistics that point to the problem. Over the last 20-odd years the US and the West annually poured into Afghanistan grant-in aid worth $60-$70 Billion. The Ashraf Ghani dispensation (and before him Hamid Karzai’s) yearly spent about $11 Billion. The revenue it generated totaled $3 Billion. Simple Math suggests that this left roughly $68-$78 Billion as “loose change” for Hamid Karzai (2001-2014) and Ashraf Ghani (2014-2021) to play around with. This was the scale of corruption — a readily accessible and replenishible trough of hard currency every minister and senior official and military officer liberally helped himself to. It sapped, in the process, the fighting spirit of the army and the police and hollowed out the government. Signs of this were available with the ANA desertion rate of some 9% before Biden’s announcement of full military pullout rising to some 26% after it. The Taliban needed to merely tip over the shell of the Ashraf Ghani regime and of the ANA.
With the Taliban in Kabul and a warning from Washington to not in any way hinder the evecuation of American citizens, the only activity being witnessed is at the Kabul airport where masses of people are seeking desperately to get the hell out, some — as seen in video clips — even clinging to the tyres in the landing systems of giant C-17 transport planes as they took off, being shaken loose as the aircraft gained altitude, and plunging to their death.
This time around though the armed Taliban motorized units in Kabul seem more disciplined, and are doing things differently. They haven’t as yet dynamited the new India-funded and built Parliament building, for instance, as they did the Bamiyan Buddhas during their first stint in power, 1996-2001, under the one-eyed Mullah Omar. In fact, the official directive to the residents of Kabul is to carry on with their lives as usual but to respect the prohibitions on women. Whence, large bill-boards featuring women models selling this or that have been blackened. And the Taliban field commanders holding court in the presidential palace, pending the imminent presence of their leaders, are posing in the grand hall, not tearing it up.
The new Talibani emirate in the offing will be run by a trio. There is Habaibullah Akhundzada who is emerging as the spiritual head, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader the founder, along with Mullah Omar, of the Taliban, heading the negotiations with the interlocuters from various countries, including India, in Doha, and the likely future Emir, and the man in-charge of military operations and controlling the fighting cadres — Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob. It will be interesting to see how the tensions between the stalwart, Barader, and the scion, Yaqoob, get worked out, or don’t and with what results, once the regime starts functioning.
But how do developments affect the neighbouring states and how are they preparing to handle their prospective relations with a Taliban government?
Of all the proximal countries, Pakistan is at once in the most advantageous position and, danger-wise, the most exposed. It has earned leverage with the Taliban owing to hosting and housing the leaders and their families in Quetta and in Peshawar for two decades after they were run out of Kabul by George W Bush’s regime-changing intervention post-26/11 attack on New York in 2001. Both these cities now boast tribal shuras presided over by these leaders comprising Afghans, who to- and fro- and longtime refugees from camps dotting the Pakistani side of the Durand Line in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (KPP) that notionally separates the two countries.
The problem for Pakistan that I alluded to in a previous post on this subject is this, the refugee Taliban element along with the Haqqani Network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani dominating the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in northwestern Pakistan is only tenuously under Barader-Yaqoob’s control. Their ambition could drive them to want their own fief and to fight for an independent Pakhtunistan incorporating the southern Afghanistan belt and KPP. So, even though Taliban Central may feel beholden to ISI, the Taliban in Pakistan who form the bulk of the Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have no such loyalty, and have, in fact, waged a war for many years against the Pakistani state. More recently, some of the TTP foot soldiers have gone across the Durand Line to assist the Taliban mainforce take Kabul, which they didn’t expect to be the child’s play it turned out to be. So, one can readily see how grave a threat TTP poses to Pakistan. The issue for ISI is whether Islamabad can cash in on Taliban gratitude and get it translated into a pacified TTP on the ground.
For China the Taliban takeover is a double-edged sword. They have the monies to simply bribe the Taliban into complying with their objectives. These are to (1) keep Islamic extremists — al-Qaeda and Islamic State (Da’esh), in the main, nesting in Afghanistan, from staging armed infiltrations into the Muslim Uyghur province of Xinjiang through the strategic Wakhan Corridor and stirring up that pot — a prospect Beijing is paranoid about, and (2) facilitate the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) of which CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is flagship venture, and other rail-road, and oil-pipeline connectivity projects in Central Asia. China will also offer its trademark infrastructure buildup programme and as a financial fallback option for the Taliban who in government will be strapped for cash because of two things. Firstly, Afghanistan government’s financial holdings (some $9.4 Billion) are held in US treasury bonds, etc., and the Biden Administration has announced Talibani Kabul will not be allowed access it. And, secondly, Taliban generates most of its independent revenues — which helped it finance its war — from growing poppy and converting it into heroin for mostly the US and West European markets, and amounts to a whopping $8-$10 Billion annually. Should Washington also further constrict this latter illicit trade with more world-wide policing, Taliban will be in trouble. This is the reason why the Taliban have been fairly well behaved to-date. But China would not care to have this drug trade directed to its mainland, and will be just as apprehensive of that possibilty. Beijing will, of course, be happy to fork over oodles of monies as also millions of dollars worth military hardware of all kinds, to prevent this from happening. But for all these considerations Beijing, as is its wont when dealing with Third World states it wants to have transition into clients, will extract a steep price. In Afghanistan’s case, it is its extraordinary natural resources and mineral wealth. Soon we will be hearing about Kabul approving generous concessions to Chinese companies to tap into Afghanistan’s oil and natural gas reserves, and to mine coal, iron ore, gold, copper, lead, and zinc.
Does China ever not come out on top?
Russia’s concerns are different. It wants to minimize the role of the US and the West in Afghanistan and Central Asia at-large. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has asked the Chinese government to coordinate its Afghanistan-related policies with Russia, and together to build up an anti-US front in Eurasia, which goal President Xi Jinping will be extremely enthused by. At the same time, though Moscow will strive to keep the Central Asian ‘stans from being tempted by Beijing’s economic promises and gravitating militarily towards China. It wants a return of the Soviet-era sphere of influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan is a key player for some of the same reasons that China perceives it — it does not want the Islam of al-Qaeda and Da’esh to spread to Central Asia or to its own smaller provinces around the Caspian Sea.
India has a few things going for it that other countries don’t. Barader and his leadership team in Doha have let it be known publicly that the Taliban appreciate the good development work India has done and the projects it has invested in in their country and, short of interfering militarily in Afghanistan’s internal affairs — something he warned Delhi against doing, have no interest whatsoever in diverting excess fighting manpower from their country to Kashmir or any such external cause. The Afghan cultural goodwill for India, moreover, transcends the Taliban-nonTaliban divide. Everybody there loves Bollywood films and cricket (especially after the success of several local boys in IPL). So much so that it was said during the Soviet occupation period that the Russians found an easy way to round up the Taliban in the cities and towns: Raid cinema theatres mid-show of Bollywood blockbusters where the bearded AK47-toting cadres, otherwise of severe mien, would be found dancing in the aisles and singing along in the song sequences! How strategists underestimate the power of Bollywood naach-gaana!
The trouble for India is not from the Taliban or the TTP. But from the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) fighters who too went north to help the Taliban establish the emirate and, having done their bit, will now feel free with ISI encouragement to turn their attention to Jammu & Kashmir. Taking on these war-seasoned LeT and JeM fighters will not additionally tax the Indian army, which has become expert in tackling them. Rather the core problem for India is how to preempt China from putting down strong roots in Afghanistan?
Offering more development aid and infrastructure assistance and generally building on Afghan goodwill is one way. But how can Delhi ensure China does not corner all the Mining concessions in Afghanistan and, by other means, enhance its strategic presence in that country? There’s only one way — and I’ll stress this: IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZE THE TALIBAN GOVERNMENT IN KABUL before eveyone else does. The first-mover advantage will impress Barader and Co. no end and incline them, pari passu, to give weightage to Indian proposals in contestation with China in economically developing that country, once we also offer military goods at “friendship prices” and our diplomats emphasize and keep propagandizing China’s inhumane treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
Such formal recognition will require a 180 degree turnaround from the position the Modi government has so far adopted — more, it seems, to please the Biden White House than to serve India’s national interest, of not recognizing the Taliban government owing to its bad human rights record and its plonking for a manifestly undemocratic system — which’s in line with the US policy. I am not sure how it helps India’s cause for its government to be a thekedar (guardian) of democracy in the region.
A former ISI chief, retired Pakistan army Lieutenant General Assad Durrani has, perhaps, mischievously suggested that India buy the Taliban government’s compliance on various issues, pointing out that even the US military that was supposedly fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan paid them $150 million annually to enable smooth passage of American truck convoys carrying supplies sustaining the American military operations in Afghanistan. Such payouts are actually a reasonable and realistic way around such Talibani intransigence as might be encountered!