Changing Equations in Afghanistan

Anil Trigunayat

Afghanistan is mired in uncertainty and remains in a flux as the Taliban-led government asserts its rule over most parts of the country.

Some pockets of resistance remain especially in Panjshir where former Vice President Saleh calls himself Caretaker President in accordance with Article 67 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He is supported by Ahmed Masoud whose legendary father had given a run to the Taliban 1.0.

Tribalism and loyalty is the underlying theme and must be respected and understood. Capturing territory is one thing but ruling and governance and keeping it is a bigger challenge for the 12 Member Governing Council and several ministers in charge whose professional and educational capabilities are being questioned.

Hence, discussions with tribal and militia leaders are going on. Mere imposing the Sharia law in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will not be able to keep the lid for too long. A generation has tasted the alternate model and freedoms and may not like to be subjugated to hardships and regressive ideologies unless their wants, needs and aspirations are taken care of by the new dispensation.

Time for that is running fast. The Taliban will be facing the crisis of domestic expectations of an impatient youth and an equally demanding international community.

If the western nations like the recently held meeting of G7 and institutions like IMF and World Bank and other humanitarian organisations take conditional and selective approaches on good behaviour of the Taliban, ordinary Afghans may be in for very difficult times ahead.

After exiting Afghanistan and consigning “the US to the Graveyard of Empires “in ignominy, US President Biden reiterated that “He will judge them (Taliban) by their actions.”

The whole world is hoping that the Talibani suave leadership can contain their grassroot guerrillas and come clean on what they promise to the world. Their capability to have a single somewhat modified narrative across their rank and file and to ensure that they will not cross the expected redlines is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Same is the problem with their promise of not allowing terrorism and extremism against other countries from their soil. How much of a control will they have over the celebrating companions in Al Qaeda and Pakistan based terrorist groups as well as the strengthening of the Daesh (ISIS-K) is anybody’s guess.

But any evidence of emanating terrorism or extremists would hold the Taliban accountable. Hence, the Taliban leadership unlike in the 1990s, are hedging their bets and spreading their risks by cultivating other major competing powers with the help of their progenitor – Islamic State of Pakistan.

While Islamabad remained a constant factor for refuge and sustenance during the last two decades, the Taliban have continued to fight and collaborate with the Americans while also branching out their outreach to China, Russia and Iran reading the geo-political dynamic.

Even if one were to cast aside the geo-political great game the geo economic reality especially for China has been a major fulcrum for their brotherhood with the Taliban and was clearly evident during the visit of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar with a high level delegation to China.

Apart from eyeing the Afghan-Central Asia bridge for BRI and CPEC and access to a trove of trillion dollar rare earths and minerals, Beijing is theoretically assured that the Uighurs and the Turkestan Islamic Movement will not be allowed to operate and create trouble in Xinjiang.

Also, on the plight of Uighurs, Kabul becomes another Muslim nation to consider it as an internal matter of China. Hence, early on not only China has retained its embassy secured by the Taliban fighters in Kabul but has also assured of financial assistance to the Taliban government as the western outfit will play the “carrot and stick “policy.

Russia has been engaged with the Taliban directly and through Pakistan for nearly a decade, forgetting the past humiliation in the context of its regional geo-political interests and looks to assert its role by filling the security vacuum created by the US departure. Central Asia is its strategic backyard and Moscow would rather not see the radical fall out.

Moreover, the Balkan route of the opium trade has created a narcotic disaster for the Russian youth. China’s increasing heft and footprint might not be as benign as presumed and hence need to reassert its claims and interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Without Russian and Iranian help the nascent resistance movement’s feet this time round at Panjshir may not be “Angadised”.

Moreover, as per Zhirnov Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, the Taliban want them to develop their resource deposits thereby offering the pie to another potential benefactor creating an inherent balance between Beijing and Moscow.

Russia will also have to remove the Taliban from its 2003 sanctions list even if it is not in a hurry to recognise them. Iran has also already started supplying oil and gas at the Taliban’s request and is hoping for an inclusive government which will honour its Shia interests as well.

Pakistan is rather keen to let things settle down quickly before its own bluff of remaining relevant is called out. Islamabad’s ride is also not going to be easy as threat of Talibanization of Pakistan might be destabilising for them apart from emboldening the TTP (Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan) whose avowed antagonism to “Taliban” Khan’s government is pretty clear.

Seeing Islamabad’s limitations in handling security issues to its projects along CPEC, Beijing is hoping the Taliban proper to tame its errant partners which will reduce their dependence on Pakistani security outfits.

Pakistan’s elation due to the Taliban victory perceived as inimical to India might have its own security repercussions for Pakistan as India’s challenges increase. But across the Durand Divide Islamabad may face new challenges steeped in history.

India believes that ending terror sanctuaries and safe havens operating across Durand line is necessary for enduring peace in Afghanistan. The current Taliban leadership may not want to completely dissociate from the Americans as they have worked on a certain modus vivendi with them in retreat.

As for India, the Taliban per se do not seem to have any direct conflict of interest with New Delhi and do not want to steer their policies in the Pakistani gear. They also recognise India’s benign presence and capacity and infrastructure projects across 34 provinces with $ 3 bn in investments and nation building and would want them to restart those quickly which should be considered in phases without inordinate delay.

As India focuses on generic concerns including safe evacuation of citizens and others and with the real issues at the UNSC it should also remain a stakeholder in the stability in Afghanistan. And in keeping with its reputation as a first responder New Delhi should provide humanitarian assistance on priority. If as Dr Jaishankar said India will remain invested in Afghan people, it could retrieve its lost advantage, even if not easy.

Stability in Afghanistan will depend on the way its new friends in China and Russia will play out the dice of collaboration. The Taliban are seeking international legitimacy (even if they presume de facto recognition due to ongoing dialogue with all major powers) through their apparently innocuous statements of intent with regard to rights of women and action against terrorism.

The US and the West will have to take a call if they would like to enforce “in a digital mode” what they could not achieve with their two decades of physical presence. Folly of choices could make a comedy of errors but tragedy for the hapless Afghans, if the Taliban enforce their archaic contours of governance.

First Published in India News Network Changing equations in Afghanistan on August 27, 2021

About the Author

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Anil Trigunayat, former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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