On September 20, 2001, as he fired the ‘War on Terror’ salvo, President George W Bush, in his address to the US Congress, said: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
Twenty years on, not only has the so-called war on terror wreaked havoc in the Middle-East, but has also led to an uncertain security situation in South Asia and its neighbourhood, as the US has all but completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As we see it today, the ‘War on Terror’ has given Iran, America’s arch enemy in the Middle-East, an extensive leverage in the region, especially across what has come to be known as the ‘Shia Crescent’. This is something that the Ayatollahs couldn’t even have dreamt of with Saddam Hussein in power.
In Afghanistan, the US ended up getting into protracted negotiations and a ‘settlement’ with the enemy that it bombed out of power in 2001. As President Joe Biden announced, the exit of the US-led coalition forces would conclude by August 31 rather than the September 11 deadline that was earlier set after the deal.
The coalition forces emptied the sprawling Bagram airbase that was a symbol of its military might in Afghanistan, and infamous for its torture centres, in the dead of night without giving the Kabul government even a sniff of it. The Afghan forces came to know about it many hours later. The US has said that it would leave behind one thousand troops to guard the diplomatic missions and not to engage with Taliban.
Taliban has warned that “no foreign forces, including military contractors, should remain in Kabul after September 11”. Taliban has also warned Turkey over continuing with its control of the Kabul Airport security post-withdrawal.
Capturing large swathes of territory with lightning speed, Taliban claims that it controls 85 per cent of Afghanistan. The claim may be exaggerated but the way the Afghan forces, with no air cover to support them, have been surrendering and putting up little or no resistance, the target should be very much in sight for the Talibs.
The Taliban’s spectacular gains over the last few weeks and even before that underscores both its strategic brilliance as well as diplomatic prowess, The fact that Taliban, slowly but steadily, consolidated its position in the northern provinces, shows that the militia has a clear roadmap. It wants to check any potential resistance arising from these areas which were the bastion of its nemesis, the Northern Alliance, when Taliban ran the Islamic emirate from Kandhahar. The Talibs have also captured strategic exit points on the borders with Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which, apart from strategic advantage, is also a source of revenue generation.
The Taliban leadership has come of age from being a bunch of unsophisticated, ignorant mullahs that ruled the emirate from 1996-2001. Needless to mention the resilience that the militia showed in the last two decades against the world’s most powerful military alliance to emerge as the prime stakeholder in the war-torn country.
Credit goes to Taliban and its backers that from being an international pariah, the group has emerged into a respectable force with whom China, Russia and Iran built a working rapport.
Taliban now refers to China as its friend, asking it to invest in reconstruction work in Afghanistan. It has assured China that it won’t give Uyghur militants any shelter and promised it would ensure the safety of Chinese investors and workers. Taliban delegations have made several trips to Beijing over the last couple of years.
After hurting American interests in Syria, an emboldened Russia has been active in Afghanistan and has built a sturdy strategic relationship with Taliban. Russia’s logistic support and funding to Taliban is hardly any secret. Russia is wary of the potential spread of violent extremism into Central Asia spearheaded by ISKP. The key to scotch any such eventuality is Taliban. Russian and Iranian interests are as much at risk as those of Pakistan and China as a result of chaos and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.
Iran and Taliban were embroiled in a sectarian rivalry after the emergence of the militia in the 1990s that continued post-9/11. But, that has changed now. The last few years have witnessed a rapprochement between the two sides that has developed into a ‘strategic alliance’. The sectarian mistrust between Iran and Taliban is rapidly vanishing and a relationship based on ‘Political Islam’ is making its way. It’s developing into something similar between Iran and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Taliban has also been cosying up to the pro-Iran ethnic minority, the Shia Hazaras. Last year, Taliban appointed a Hazara leader as governor of one of the districts under its control in the north.
No country benefits as much from a peaceful Afghanistan as Pakistan and no country is as susceptible as Pakistan if chaos and violence isn’t brought to an end. Though Pakistan’s security scenario has drastically improved over the last few years, it can’t afford to be complacent and write off a spillover of violence into its own territory. Pakistan had to close the Chaman border after Taliban captured the strategic Spin Boldak crossing on July 14.
Amid all the developments, India seems to be clueless and dazed. After an investment of $3 billion in the last 20 years and sharing a very strong bond with the Afghan government, India sees its role shrinking very fast. It tried to engage Iran and Russia, but nothing seems to have come of it. By the looks of it, India’s future in Afghanistan is going to get only grimmer with China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran on the same page, and its ally, the US, solely interested in getting out of there, at least as of now.
India’s concerns have also been compounded by the fear of an upsurge in militancy in Kashmir as Taliban gets stronger by the day. The BJP regime’s fixation with its ideological moorings hasn’t helped India’s cause either. Contrary to BJP’s lofty claims, New Delhi is ruling Kashmir through force, gags and draconian laws in order to project normalcy, which, unsurprisingly, has no buyers outside of India.
Rather than trying to entangle itself in Afghanistan, a much better bet for India would be to initiate a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan. The Kashmir issue won’t be resolved overnight but a beginning could be made. It would also be an opportunity to ease tension with China that has never been as vociferous on Kashmir as it has been after the revocation of Articles 370 and 35-A.
The Taliban’s image rebranding notwithstanding, it will have to do more to prove that it has learnt from the hindsight. It has said that it would present a written peace deal to the Ashraf Ghani-led government when delegations from the two sides meet in Doha next month. Any kind of a durable peace deal between Taliban and the Kabul government will have the backing of the China-Russia-Pakistan troika. How the Kabul delegation responds to the agreement could decide whether or not peace will prevail anytime soon.
Shabir Hussain is a Delhi based freelancer. He writes for many national and international publications.