Living with the Taliban Next-Door: The Indian Dilemna

The rapid takeover of Kabul by the Taliban after two decades of political exile signifies a total failure of the American experiment in installing democracy and western-style institutions in a seventh century feudalistic and Islamic society. This experiment cost the American government over two trillion dollars, two thousand five hundred American and NATO lives, and loss of face and identity as the world’s greatest superpower.

The vacuum created by the departure of American forces from Afghanistan was quickly filled up by the advancing fighters of the Taliban leading to schadenfreude in Beijing, Islamabad and Moscow. There were even scenes of celebration and bursting of crackers all over Pakistan accompanying the end of the American moment in Afghanistan. No matter how we look at it, the present situation is a source of extreme jubilation and satisfaction for Pakistan as it signifies the defeat of American intervention in Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan-aided Taliban.

Pakistan has reaped enormous benefits by agreeing to be a partner to America in its global war on terror after 9/11, and earlier throughout the eighties as a conduit to the Mujahedin and for training other militant groups on Pakistani soil to fight the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. To milk the American cow, Pakistan adopted the strategy of "running with the hares and hunting with the hounds". When it started to become clear that Pakistan was actually sabotaging the American war on terror by withholding vital information about the Taliban and its leader Osama bin Laden, it began to play the victim card by claiming that so many numbers of Pakistanis had lost their lives due to the ongoing war on terror.

It has been estimated that Pakistan siphoned off at least twenty billion dollars over the years by pretending to be a partner to America in its global war on terror, while the terror groups were all being nurtured and trained on Pakistani soil.

The deception of America by Pakistan still continues by using new tricks and traps. The success of the Taliban in capturing Kabul and other large cities within a matter of nine days, is due largely to the help and material support provided by the Pakistani establishment to the Taliban.

The war in Afghanistan began in 2001 after the Taliban (which was in power in Kabul at that time) refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States for planning the attack on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon on September 11, costing at least three thousand lives. It was supposed to be a swift operation to eliminate Osama and his Al Qaeda, but morphed into a nation-building exercise against all odds, in a moment of irrational exuberance.

It is not easy to predict what the revived Taliban’s behavior will be in its second avatar, but we can draw some conclusions based on past actions and present pronouncements (whatever they may be worth). The first Taliban rule during 1996-2001 was brutal and full of Islamic rhetoric. Sharia was the pivot on which rested crime and punishment. Reprisals and punishments were swift and cruel, and unimaginable in today’s world. Thieves who were caught stealing would have their hands chopped off, women who were accused (not proven guilty as yet) of adultery faced the death penalty by stoning.

Although the Taliban spokesmen have been saying recently that they will declare amnesty for all, and that they seek no vengeance against anybody, including Afghans who worked for the American forces such as translators and those who worked for the Afghan army, it is doubtful if they will keep their word.

As regards the equality of women, the Taliban spokesmen have been saying that women in Afghanistan will have rights “within Islamic law”, girls can go to girls’ school, and women can do jobs such as teaching girls, etc. At the same time, their spokesmen have also clarified that women will have to wear the burqa which covers their face completely. They will also not be allowed to come out of their homes without a male member of the family, such as their father or brother. Gender equality, eh?

Old proverbs and ageless quotations have the habit and strength to survive through good times and bad. The American withdrawal has led to the validation of an old cliché which describes Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. The Americans forgot this old saying even though the Soviet Union had already suffered a similar fate back in 1988 after being in Afghanistan for ten years. In a way, Americans took over where the Soviets had left, after a gap of thirteen years.

The new Taliban regime means different things for different countries in the region. For China, Afghanistan’s fall is proof of American hubris. But the Taliban’s return to power raises the risk of extremist threats on its own doorstep. The Uighur minority in the South-west of China, and only a few hundred kilometers north of Afghanistan, might be emboldened by the Taliban’s return to power.

For Pakistan, the return of Taliban is a matter of extreme pride. It has visions of becoming a regional power in South Asia and dreams of bringing Afghanistan under its own sphere of influence through the Afghani Taliban, and with the active support and connivance of its all-weather ally, China. But it forgets that the Pakistani Taliban could derive strength from their Afghani counterparts and pose a serious threat to the government in Islamabad. Which way the Taliban will move—Pakistani government or Pakistani Taliban—is anybody’s guess. Moreover, Pakistan would like to use the Taliban to create disturbance and instability in Kashmir.

The country which has the most to worry from the Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan is India. It now has three enemies forming an “Axis of Evil” from the West to North-East. There can be no convergence of interests and warmth between a radical Islamic Taliban and a nationalist BJP government in India. Despite the great PR offensive launched by the Taliban to seek acceptance from the community of nations in the last few days, there is no doubt among governments that this is just an eyewash, and that the Taliban would go back to its old ways of fomenting unrest and terror. A moderate Taliban is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

India has been able to invest in Afghanistan’s future partially because of the presence of U.S.-led troops and the relative stability it brought. With that stability now gone and Taliban back in power, India needs to urgently reposition its priorities. Indian assets in Afghanistan have been targeted by the Haqqani group, a major Taliban faction in the past and there is no assurance that it would not happen again.

In my opinion, the Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. Nevertheless, the cost to India of remaining distant from the new dispensation in Kabul would likely be much higher than the cost of engaging with them. Being more involved in international negotiations, and even agreeing to talk to certain sections of the Taliban as part of a broader diplomatic initiative, are options that India can no longer afford to disregard.

In conclusion, we can be sure that the Taliban coming back into power will definitely energize and embolden the hundreds of Islamic terror groups from Indonesia to Kashmir, and Somalia to Nigeria, even if the new regime in Kabul does not get involved directly in international terrorist activities for the time being.