By Debasis Mallick (12 min read)
Even the hard core Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar couldn’t believe that the rusty Talibans wearing dusty sandals would be dancing inside the plush President’s palace in Kabul on 15th August, “We have reached a victory that wasn’t expected,” he said. The world witnessed with shock and utter dismay the fall of Kabul in the hands of Taliban within two weeks of their capturing Zaranj in the South-West Afghanistan. The combined forces of USA and NATO could not make Afghanistan Taliban free in spite of camping there for twenty years. Joe Biden’s prophecy, notwithstanding, the strong contingent of army of 300,000 with state of the art weaponry fell like a pack of cards against a Taliban force of only 75,000. Ashraf Ghani fled his palace and country just in time to save his own life, after the Talibans made their triumphant entry in Kabul. Whether Ashraf Ghani had a tacit understanding with the Talibans or the Afghan forces themselves decided to surrender without raising arms will not be known for quite some time, but it is bound to intrigue the political analysts that how after occupying Kabul and other major cities of Afghanistan for twenty years, the Talibans could take control of the entire country even before the complete withdrawal of American troops.
India after investing 3 billion dollars in Afghanistan for various developmental work has now decided to shut their embassy in Kabul. Eyebrows are bound to be raised for this infructuous investment, when in all probability, Indian Government could face the onslaught from Talibans, along with the likes from Al Qaeda, Jaish- e -Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Haqqani network, to name a few. Time will tell if this enormous amount of investment will get due recognition from the new regime.
Be that as it may, India’s foreign policy after the American soldiers took control of Kabul twenty years back was formulated to nurture the peace initiatives in Central Asia and therefore, to join hands with the US and NATO to participate in the nation building of Afghanistan was but natural. That India decided not to send any troop in spite of US pressure had been a prudent diplomatic move. Historically, India share a common understanding and emotional bonding with the Afghan nationals for the last two centuries. Long before the Afghan refugees started to come to India to escape the Taliban atrocities , Afghan businessmen used to flock to India in connection with trade. According to one estimate, there are 15,000 Afghan nationals residing in India. In Kolkata alone there are approximately 7,000 Afghans residing in various Khan kothis.
I remember to have seen the Afghans even travelling to obscure places in West Bengal to sell their products. Afghan people used to be fondly addressed as Kabuliwalas in Bengal, possibly a name derived from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous short story in the same name. I can vividly recollect a kabuliwala, Usman khan who used to come frequently to our house at Suri, a remote town, 150 miles away from Kolkata. In the lazy afternoon during our summer vacation, my Grand mother would be taking a nap after her household chores. We would have our free time to do some bowling practices in the courtyard of our house. Suddenly, the lanes and by lanes of our para (locality) would be reverberated with the Hing chai, hing chai ( Need asafoetida?) sound. My grand mother would immediately get up from her bed and ask me to call Usman. We never had to call him though, as he would invariably knock at our Khirki door (a second door in a Bengali household meant for the informal entry of localites or maids). For the next one hour or so, we all brothers and sisters would be surrounding him to be engrossed in some scintillating stories of his country. My Granny would talk to him in Bengali and Usman khan in Hindi. My Grannie would buy from him her 2 to 3 months quota of Hing which is a very popular spice in Bengali cuisine because of its fragrance.
There are innumerable stories of Bengali girls falling in love with the Afghans. The story of Sushmita Banerjee who had fallen in love for Jaanbaz Khan is known to almost all the Bengalis. Sushmita decided to get married to Jaanbazz Khan in spite of her parents’ vehement objection. She was converted to Islam after her wedding. But to her utter dismay, on reaching Afghanistan, she found that Jaanbaz had another wife and she would have to share the bed with her. Jaanbaz was not from Kabul. He was from a little known place, Paktika which was around 75 miles away from Kabul. This place was more conservative and had tremendous influence of Talibans. Sushmita was a courageous girl not to sit burqua clad in a remote corner of her husband’s house. She started a dispensary to offer medicine to the villagers as there was no facility of treatment in the locality. She had to face the ire of Talibans, because of coming out of her house without a male escort. This was the time when Soviet influence in Afghanistan was dwindling and Taliban movement was taking shape under the leadership of Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar started a militant outfit by collecting fifty students from Madrasas in Pakistan. Sushmita was threatened time and again by the Talibans. She made a few abortive attempts to flee from Afghanistan to be brought back again by her in laws. Finally in 2003 she managed to escape to Kolkata where she could reunite with her husband. They decided to go back to Afghanistan once again. This time, she was brutally killed by the Talibans who emptied 20 bullets on her, some on her life less body; her hair pulled out; her face unrecognizable. It had been such a tragic end to what was more than a love story.
The Talibans are now back and back with a bang. The whole world is blaming Joe Biden for the hasty withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan paving the way for the Talibans to take control of the entire country, but seeds of this hasty withdrawal were sown by none other than Donald Trump during Doha peace talk in February, 2020. Trump acceded to the Taliban demand to release 5,000 hardcore Taliban fighters and set a date, May 1, 2021 as the final withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not only that, the Trump administration reduced the number of US troop from 13,000 to 2,500 by January, 2021 when Joe Biden took over. What is more intriguing is, Ashraf Ghani was not even asked to participate in Doha peace talks. Ghani raised feeble objection (Saying it’s a dangerous ploy of the Talibans, unilaterally accepted by America without consulting him) initially regarding release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners from jail, but Donald Trump refused to pay attention to it. It’s this haughty attitude of condescension to a democratically elected Government by the US leadership, which ultimately costed them the space created in the last twenty years.
That the US backed Afghan Government meekly surrendered without a fight contrary to the popular belief of the American leadership that this would not happen has raised a lot of questions on the effectiveness of military intelligence network of USA. Even if we set aside the wrong assessment of American leadership about the timing of take over of Kabul by the Talibans, the fact remains that the US wanted to get rid of Taliban without fulfillment of its objective , or for that matter, they never had any objective other than teaching a lesson to the ferocious Al Qaeda. After Osama Bin Laden’s death and dismantling of Al Qaeda group, America was in the search for an escape route from Afghanistan. Henri Kissinger has pointed out in The Economist (25th August), America has lost sight of both the strategic objective as well as political- “strategic, to make clear the circumstances for which we fight; political, to define the governing framework to sustain the outcome both within the country concerned and internationally.” As the US decided to accede to all the Taliban demands in Doha which resulted in their hasty exit, two of its most significant fallout are quite evident today: one, USA’s 22 billion dollars (According to a conservative estimate) worth of arms and ammunition are now in possession of the Talibans; two, the huge contingent of Taliban soldiers have suddenly found themselves unemployed. What will the Talibans do with this state of the art equipment left behind as gift by the Americans? They are certainly not going to decorate their houses or put these up for exhibition. The Talibans, throughout their life, have only been indoctrinated to fight a war. So these unemployed soldiers with a huge inventory of arms will become a headache for the Taliban political leaders. They are required to be gainfully deployed in fighting wars in others’ territory, if Afghanistan has to remain peaceful internally. America has created more problems in respect of cross border terrorism in central Asia rather than than solving an iota of it.
American leadership has virtually given the Chinese everything on a platter without their asking for it. The geopolitical scenario in central Asia is going to be rewritten now under the hegemony of China. We will not be surprised to see a new power axis being created in Central Asia, consisting of China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. China has declared a friendly and co-operative relationship with the Talibans, internally to get them by their side in their mission to indoctrinate a million Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang to the cultural milieu of main land China and internationally to drive the Americans away from Central Asia. Iran and Russia, on the other hand, once hostile to Talibans, now relish the defeat of their common enemy, USA in the hand of Talibans. What China and Russia couldn’t achieve, the Talibans did and did it with style, that too without much of bloodshed.
Where does India stand in this new geopolitical axis? India’s survival will depend on how India battles it out to create a balance of power in this region. It has dawned quite late to the Indian external policy specialists that US cannot be trusted as a dependable ally. Even as the former Defence Minister of Taiwan, Andrew Yang says, “This (American retreat) is a lesson to learn and Taiwan should depend on its own self-defences in stead of US support,” our former Defence Secretary Nirupama Rao says, “It has devalued the worth and credibility of American power in the region.” This gives an enormous scope to India to become a dominant force and act as a balancing power in this region. It’s a tough ask, no doubt about that, as India will have to draw up a contingency plan in the short run to thwart the likely fallout of American withdrawal discussed in the preceding paragraphs and in the long run, to reach out possibly to Israel and Japan, the two other dominant forces of Asia. Having said that, India will have to keep America in the fray also to take advantage of their veto power in UN security council. Not only that, it’s also expected from Biden Administration to take Quad more seriously and keep the Chinese busy with constant deployment of their naval out fit in South China Sea. India, of late, has started taking active interest in Quad which was not given due importance initially by New Delhi.
Should India recognize Afghanistan? India didn’t in 1996. Taliban’s assurance of maintaining peace can never be taken on the face value. A section of Indians are of the strong view to recognize the Taliban Government even before Pakistan and China do it, as if to get some sort of early bird concession. Before taking any decision, we have to keep in mind that the Talibans have already announced that their land is not suitable for democracy. China, Russia, Iran who have supported the Taliban take over of Kabul are itching to recognize their Government. All these countries have totalitarian Government as a result of which recognition of another totalitarian Government is not a big deal for them. Pakistan, in spite of having an elected Government, is controlled by a strong military set up nurturing cross border terrorism as part of their foreign policy. The Taliban movement started from Pakistan and during the last twenty years when they were chased down to their hide outs by the US force, it was Pakistan’s ISI which stood rock-solid by their side. So it’s not expected that foreign policy adopted by the new Government will be independent, devoid of Pakistan’s interest. Moreover, by recognizing the Taliban Government, we will put our stamp of approval to the sinister design of Pakistan to perpetrate cross border terrorism. If, in their totalitarian approach, the Talibans decide to form an inclusive Government by way of representation of major ethnic groups, such as, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks etc. India could consider recognizing them. However, establishing an inclusive Government by Talibans is easier said than done, as infighting among the various ethnic groups in this country never allows the system to reach a steady state of equilibrium. India, in the mean time, is required to consolidate its position on the North-Western front to stop insurgency across the border and keep a close watch to monitor and counter the impact of any euphoria created among the jihadis of Kashmir valley.