The takeover of Kabul along with all other prominent centres in Afghanistan by the Taliban has not just deteriorated the global reputation of the United States but has also posed a threat of terror or armed jihad in the region. It's impact on India and similarly placed players might be severe and long lasting.
By ANCA VERMA
America has left the land of Afghanistan and the Taliban has now occupied the Presidential Palace in Kabul. Former president Abdul Ghani has found refuge in the UAE before he could decide his future course. The ripples of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is felt in all corners of the world. Joe Biden is facing criticism from his countrymen who think that the nature of withdrawal and mujahedeen advance has downgraded American supremacy.
Over the past 20 years, the US has poured trillions of dollars into Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regarded by multiple governments and organizations as terrorists. Besides the Panjshir valley, all provinces have fallen to the blitzkrieg of the mujahedeen. The Islamic Emirate has begun its second journey as dictates are out on the conduct of women and also men. Violent suppression of women and minorities like the Hazaras, as well as the restriction of all civil and political rights is already underway.
What the world want to know is that what are the chances of Taliban and its controlled groups inviting foreign jihadist groups that threaten the democratically elected and modern regimes all across the world.
Though Pakistan has not made any official statement on the victory of the Taliban and has not disclosed its plan of recognizing the Taliban regime for the second time, the political leadership is highly ecstatic for they seem to have found the ‘Strategic Depth’ and defeated the Americans. When the Taliban was being chased by the US forces, its key leaders had then fled to Pakistan, where they launched an insurgency against the new Afghan government and US-led NATO forces. After the death of its founder and tallest leader Muhammad Omar in 2013, the group is now being led a few senior and able leaders.
Fall of Kabul is also a reminder to the world community that the violent jihadis are not to be trusted. The Doha Agreement is thrown out of the window.
Can’t Trust Taliban
“Taliban will not take revenge. It will have no personal rancor,” declared the spokesperson just days before shooting down some of the Afghans in Kabul who were marching with their national flag. Same were the words of the militant force when they hanged the president of Afghanistan two decades ago.
The Taliban has once again declared a general amnesty, and asked everyone to show up for work in the morning and prepare to unite behind a Taliban government that will rule according to Islamic law—but perhaps, the group has suggested, not in the harsh manner that made it infamous during its rule from 1996 to 2001. Women are asked to wear hijab, some human rights and some freedoms of speech will be allowed and sharia compliance will be necessary.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military are widely alleged by the international community and the Afghan government to have provided support to the Taliban during the insurgency.
It's an open secret that the very existence of Taliban is attributed to the deep state of Pakistan. The ISI has bankrolled Taliban operations, recruited manpower to serve in Taliban armies and helped to plan and arm offensives. It has also occasionally been involved in direct combat support. Even during the American presence in Afghanistan many of the Taliban leaders and their families were provided shelter and protected by Pakistan. Furthermore, Pakistan does not have a good relationship with other groups in Afghanistan, so it has little choice but to support the Taliban.
The United States has long been frustrated with Pakistan’s persistent acquiescence to safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and its vicious Haqqani branch in Pakistan.
Pakistan Has Reason to Help
The media and intelligentsia of Pakistan propagate the idea that an unstable Afghanistan will become a safe-haven for anti-Pakistan militant groups and a dangerous playground for outside powers.
Pakistan further fears that targeting Afghanistan-oriented militant groups will provoke retaliation in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland. Its long refusal to fully sever support for these groups is a product of Pakistan’s lack of full control over the militant groups it has sponsored, even though it is loath to admit it.
Pakistan was also afraid of a strong Afghan government aligned with India, potentially helping to encircle Pakistan. In 2017, the then US President Donald Trump invoked the India card to pressure Pakistan—calling for a greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan, though cushioning it by mostly endorsing India’s economic engagement there.
Temptations in the Region
The United States had never been able to out the Taliban completely from Afghanistan. American talks with the group that began in 2018 provided a legitimate space for other players in the region to open deliberations with the Taliban. Some have direct talks with the militant group while some have back-channel talks.
Qatar, Russia, China, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran hosted the Taliban or tacitly backed them. Iran’s relationship with Afghanistan, which borders it to the east, is also complicated by regional dynamics and its relationship with the US. As a Shia country, Iran has had long ideological differences with the Taliban.
The situation is different at the present. US relations with Iran are at an all-time low, affecting Iran’s stance on how to deal with the Taliban. Iran’s improved relations with Qatar – home to the Taliban’s political office – have also helped Iran’s relationship with the Taliban.
Iran’s media is batting for the Taliban. Iranian official Ali Shamkhani has even put out positive statements about Iran’s role in future Afghanistan. Tehran has substantial security interests in Afghanistan and has fought Islamic State Khorasan Province there by sending the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which has recruited Afghan Shia fighters in the past. Iran is expected to maintain its access to the Afghan market, promote Shia ideology there, and address transnational threats such as militancy, drug trafficking, and insurgency.
With the US troop withdrawal, Iran will have more direct influence in Afghanistan and will aim to protect its interests by building alliances with regional powers, particularly China and Russia. A deal signed between Iran and China promising $400 billion in Chinese investment is the second Chinese partnership in the region after China’s collaboration with Russia. Though the China-Iran relationship is growing, Beijing will be careful to not allow that partnership to risk its relationships with oil-rich Gulf Arab states.
Qatar is believed to have a role in Taliban’s blitz takeover of Kabul. Al Jazeera was on hand to showcase the Taliban taking the presidential palace in Kabul.
Qatar has a large US military base but it has always backed religious extremists, including Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban. While Qatar and Turkey benefit because of their links to Islamist groups and general backing for far-right Islamic movements, Iran benefits from seeing the US leave its doorstep. Turkey will be working with Russia and Iran in Syria to try to get the US to leave. All these countries agree that they want America gone from the region. Iran has the same desires for Iraq.
Russia hosted Taliban delegations in recent months as Moscow wants to have open channels with the Taliban whether or not they recognize the new government. With backing from Russia, the Taliban can get the international clout they need and eventually obtain wider recognition. Russia is mostly concerned with preventing instability at its border with Afghanistan and also keeping Afghanistan free of US influence.
Russia has even declared that it will not evacuate its embassy in Kabul and its ambassador quickly met with a Taliban delegation. In the fight to defeat IS in Afghanistan, Russia saw the Taliban’s interests coincide with its own. China and Russia are just looking at different combinations in the region that may benefit them on the world stage.
For now, the Afghanistan debacle is a major setback for the US globally in terms of image and the perception that US-backed systems tend to be as weak and temporary as the grass that greens with the spring and withers in the fall. Biden has much to answer for the moment back at home.
With the Taliban back in charge of Afghanistan, it is virtually certain that Al-Qaeda is expected to reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan in near future. Reports have begun to surface that weapons have been seized from the defeated Afghan army, with fighters freed from prison and many of the terror groups reassembling in the interiors.
The United States’ intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan will be severely degraded. With no military or diplomatic presence on the ground, it will be far more difficult to monitor al-Qaeda as it reconstitutes itself, trains, and plans attacks. Drones and fighters based hundreds of miles away in the Gulf or Central Asian republics cannot take out hiding terrorists unless there is credible intelligence from the ground.
India’s Involvement in Afghanistan
India’s relationship with Afghanistan in the future remains unknown but External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has held that our investment in Afghanistan reflects its historic relations with the Afghan people and that relationship will continue. India has not decried the fall of Kabut.
India has only asserted that it will not recognise a government forced on Afghanistan, in which a grey area is left to say that Kabul fell to the Taliban without bloodshed. Over the past two decades, since the US-NATO forces entered Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, India has helped rebuild civic infrastructure.
India has spent around $3 billion in Afghanistan’s infrastructure, which includes over 400 projects across all provinces in the country. These projects are largely around infrastructure, human resource development and capacity building, humanitarian assistance, community development, and enhancing trade through air and land connectivity.
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Parliament building, which was built at an estimated cost of $90 million. Then there is Zaranj-Delaram highway which is 218-km long built with an estimated cost of around $150 million. It is built by India’s Border Roads Organisation near Afghanistan’s border with Iran. The highway holds strategic importance for India as it provides an alternative route into Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port after Pakistan denied India overland access to trade with Afghanistan.
Stor Palace has been revamped by India. Salma Dam is also known as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam project in Herat province was completed against all odds including several attacks from the Taliban and was inaugurated in 2016. With an estimated cost of around $275 million, this is one of the most expensive infrastructure projects by India in the region.
Besides, just a year back at the Geneva conference, India announced an additional 100 community development projects worth $80 million along with the construction of the Shahtoot Dam in the Kabul district to provide safe drinking water to 2 million residents.
The trade with Afghanistan was on rise. Even the wheat, which Afghanistan used to import from Pakistan, had begun to be supplied by India now. As part of the trade agreement, Afghanistan got duty-free access to the Indian market. The trade stood at around $1.5 billion a year back.
But now, these new developments have got Indian businesses worried. For instance, the Taliban has reportedly sealed a couple of Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan, which are the only land routes used for trade activities from India to Afghanistan. The geo-political conditions of the region will change fast as Afghanistan is a story which is still unfolding.
This article appeared in 22nd August 2021, Print issue