Wars occur, popular unrests happen, foreign interventions fail, governments fall, regimes change. These are constants of the Third World scene. Hence, there were no real surprises in the recent developments in Afghanistan. Predictably, the United States ran out of political will, the finger pointing over “Who lost Afghanistan” has begun in Washington, Ashraf Ghani got out of harm’s way, and the Afghan National Army disappeared like the two trillion dollars America spent on the “never ending war”. The only surprise was how with a minimum of fuss the Taliban reclaimed Kabul.
Now comes the tricky part for all the countries with a stake in Afghanistan of doing a hard count of gains and losses, and configuring future policies. This requires getting a fix on the prospective Taliban system, and the attitude of the five countries in play — India, Pakistan, China, Russia and the United States.
An emir advised by a guardianship council is the sort of sunni dispensation outlined in two Taliban-sourced documents — the 1998 ‘Dastur Emarat Islami Afghanistan’ drafted by some Islamic scholars at the bidding of the previous emir, Mullah Omar, and the ‘Manshur Emarat Islami Afghanistan’ of 2020 vintage. Both papers reject electoral democracy as lacking sanction of the Shar’ia. The leadership cohort headed by Habaibullah Akhundzada and Abdul Ghani Barader have so far sounded reasonable, promised an inclusive government and amnesty, but armed opposition is nevertheless coalescing.
Because the Taliban are a force of mostly Gilzai tribesmen, other Pashtun tribes could join the Tajiks, Baloch, and the shia Hazaras in making common cause with the former President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy, Amrullah Saleh, and NSA, Hamdullah Mohib, controlling several intact Afghan army units, and the Tajiks loyal to Ahmad Massoud congregating in the Panjshir Valley. With Col. Abdul Dostam mobilizing the Uzbek faction, resistance is firming up, potentially stronger than the Northern Alliance of yore.
India, Pakistan, China and Russia fear that, contrary to its pronouncements, the Taliban could coordinate with the al-Qaeda, Da’esh (Islamic State), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad elements who were part of its victorious sweep through Afghanistan to respectively foment trouble in Kashmir, Talibanize Pakistan (via Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan — TTP), radicalize the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang (by infiltrating armed militants through the Wakhan Corridor), and to spread “terrorist ideology” in the seven Muslim majority enclaves (Tatarstan to Bashkortostan) in Russia’s southern tier. China believes it can buy the cash-strapped Taliban’s compliance with massive credit and infrastructure projects (in return for concessions to mine lithium, gold, and copper, and extract oil and gas Afghanistan is rich in). Russia, publicly pro-Taliban, thinks it can encourage the adjoining Central Asian states to help the Panjshir opposition, which Tajikistan is already doing. Pakistan hopes its ISI can work the Quetta and Peshawar shuras it has hosted since the US initiated the war in 2001 to defang the TTP. All three countries are convinced they need to formally recognize the Taliban regime at the earliest to effectively pursue their separate goals.
India mindlessly followed the US lead and got out. America has reinforced its reputation for unreliability and India, by forsaking a Kabul presence and direct dialogue with the Taliban leadership, has lost the ability to closely manage its interests. Rather than “wait and watch”, India should garner first mover advantage by immediately recognizing the Afghan emirate. As a surprise move in the face of Western efforts to isolate the Taliban regime, India’s interests will be accommodated by the grateful mullahs, also because, TTP aside, it will be a counter-leverage against Pakistan. A diplomatic foothold will consolidate India’s influence and more effectively neutralise anti-India groups, such as the Gulbadin Hekmatyar-led Hizb-e-Islami, active in Kabul. This move, moreover, can draw on the enormous goodwill and popularity India enjoys, courtesy Bollywood musicals, Afghan cricketers in the IPL, etc. with the nearly 30% of the urban population the Taliban need to connect with.
The now experienced firm of Barader and Akhundzada understands that establishing an emirate is one thing. But constituting an “inclusive government” is something else, and that strict implementation of the Sha’ria will deny it the legitimacy it craves in a still West-dominated world. However, association with a democratic India will, to some extent, soften the Afghan emirate’s image, raise its acceptability levels, and incentivise the ruling clique to foster substantive relations with India. New Delhi can offer more development projects and this work has been appreciated by the Taliban for good reason. The India-financed and built Zaranj-Delaram Highway, for instance, has eased the transportation of opium poppy from remote fields to makeshift heroin processing labs on the Iran border, and increased manifold Taliban’s revenues from the illicit drug-trade.
The benefit of such a realist and clear-sighted policy is that it does not prevent India from maintaining its longstanding links with the Panjshir coalition. Indeed, the first mover recognition – the carrot, and the threat to strengthen ties with the resistance – the stick, wielded together will serve India’s strategic interests better than any other option can.
Published in Times of India, August 27, 2021 with the title — “Taliban recognition: India should be a first-mover as it serves our interests” in ‘Face-Off’ arguing for Afghan emirate recognition, with former ambassador to Afghanistan, Gautam Mukhopadhyaya, making the government’s “wait and watch” case, at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/times-face-off-with-the-taliban-takeover-of-kabul-a-thorny-question-confronts-india-should-we-recognise-the-taliban-two-experts-examine-options/articleshow/85675208.cms