Instead of the neo-Taliban, India's real problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan

23-08-2021 Mon 12:47 IST | IANS | Opinion

New Delhi, Aug 23: In the panic over the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Indian analysts seem to be giving the Pakistan army a free pass. This is unfortunate as it lets the Pakistan army get away with murder, and worse. This is not very different from the US fighting the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan, which was a victim, and not Pakistan, where terrorism not only originated but was sustained. Nothing could of course beat the US decision to fund the Pakistan army that used this money to re-create the Taliban that could then kill US army personnel in Afghanistan.

During the period the Taliban ruled Afghanistan (1996-2001), the Taliban neither said or did anything to harm India. All their violence, which was substantial, was directed at the Afghan people particularly the Shia Hazaras, women and those perceived to be against them. During the two decades they were out of power, they not only regrouped but also changed their orientation within Afghan society.

From being purely a Pashtun outfit, today all ethnic groups are represented in its ranks including small communities like the Badakshi. The neo-Taliban, as the scholar Antonio Guistozzi in his 2007 book, characterised the resurgent movement had moved from the Koran and the Kalashnikov to the Laptop. As early as 2006, there was a growing body of evidence that questioned the American and Afghan government claims that the Taliban was past tense. Instead, he argued then that the neo-Taliban insurgency had put down strong roots in Afghanistan since 2003.

This had two implications, which again analysts seem to have ignored. One, that the Taliban did not need to defeat the Afghan government forces or occupy territory to be able to exercise influence and de-legitimise the government. The result was that other than the leadership which was based in Pakistan, the cadres stayed back in their home villages and towns and picked up the gun, or deliver 'night letters' to pro-government individuals, when required. The rest of the time, they could go on with their daily lives as students, shop workers, taxi drivers or government servants.

The Taliban blitzkrieg that so dazzled the world could be attributed to the presence of the Taliban deep within Afghan society and their ability to exploit the cleavages that an ineffective, corrupt and structurally deficient governance structure offered.

The second, and even more corrosive effect, was that the Taliban could bring down US and Afghan forces by use of local units that could easily plant Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that was the single largest cause of US and NATO casualties. The Taliban also carried out selective assassinations against government functionaries, often in mosques when they were praying, with a view to demoralising government staff and questioning the government's effectiveness in being unable to protect its people and general citizens. Direct attacks by the Taliban were directed at isolated check points and outposts manned by small numbers of Afghan security forces. This meant that in the post-2015 years when the US troops effectively stopped combat duties, the Taliban using shock and awe tactics could occasionally seize cities like Ghazni and Kunduz but could not defend it against sustained action by Afghan security forces backed by air power.

The Pakistan army in the post-Mullah Omar period, inducted the Haqqani network, a terrorist group, into the Taliban and its governing structure in order to exercise greater control over the large and amorphous group that the Taliban had become. Pakistani army personnel were also embedded in the Taliban field units to bring their operations under Pakistani control and direction. It is often forgotten that there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, and that their representation in the army, over 20 per cent, is in excess of their share of the population. Lately, the Pakistani army has also deployed Urdu and Punjabi speakers, as reports from Kabul and Kandahar over the past few days indicate. A myth about the existence of Taliban special forces (313 Badr Brigade) is sought to be created; the reality is that this is the regular Pakistani army, drilled in marching synchronously and operating as disciplined units. The body language of the regular Taliban and these so-called Special Forces is stark, their bearings, body language, weapons and movement are vastly different.

It is this Pakistani element that would work, as it has in the past, to harm Indians and Indian interests. The IC-814 hijacking was planned in Pakistan, executed by Pakistani and the terrorists released were Pakistani. Masood Azhar went from Kandahar to Pakistan to create the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistani army proxy. Omar Sheikh went to Karachi, where he later cruelly executed Daniel Pearl. Yet we blame the Taliban and the Afghans for this national humiliation. All later attacks on Indians in Afghanistan including the ones on Indian nationals, the Embassy and others, were the work of the Pakistani army utilising its proxies, like the Jem, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network. NATO made its assessment quite clear each time.

The Taliban has mentioned India a few times, referring to it as Afghanistan's development partner whose work they value, but advising it not to give security assistance to the Afghan government. On August 5, 2019, as India went about making the momentous constitutional changes in Jammu & Kashmir, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, the garrulous SM Qureshi attacked it and warned that these could jeopardise the fledgling Afghan peace process. The Taliban was quick to criticise this, arguing that there was no link between the developments in Kashmir with Afghanistan. It even said that attempts to link the two would hinder the peace process.

Even as the Taliban would not have been recreated and sustained but for the Pakistani army, links between the two are complex. The extensive Pakistani presence within the Taliban and the failure to form a government even five days after the collapse of the Ghani government is a pointer in the latent tensions. Pakistan has deployed the Haqqani network to control Kabul and it is Anas Haqqani who is negotiating with Karzai, Abdullah and Hekmatyar to bring about a formal transfer of power - clearly legitimacy is an issue this time around unlike the 1996-2001 period when the Taliban shunned the world.

Should India have recalled its Ambassador and its Indian staff? Or should have let them fly the flag as two veteran diplomats, MK Bhadrakumar and Fabian have argued? It has been reported the deputy head of the Doha office, former Taliban deputy interior minister Stanekzai, requested India to stay on, assuring protection. Should not have India taken up this offer. Even though the present author has argued for a long time that India should have opened up communications with the Taliban, it was wise to recall the Ambassador and others. It is not that the Taliban cannot be trusted, though that is seriously questionable, rather it was that the Indian Ambassador would have been a sitting target for the Haqqani network and other Pakistani proxies. Harming the Indian Ambassador would have achieved many purposes. One it would have demonstrated that India could not even protect its own Ambassador. Any such action would be hugely demoralising for India and reduced its stock amongst the Afghans. Two, that India, by instinct would have blamed the Taliban, and the web of suspicion would have strengthened. Three, that it would bring home to the Taliban that it should harbour no illusions about being able to rule their own land.

Having said that, the Taliban have no legitimacy except their military power, and would never be able to win any elections anywhere in Afghanistan. The present calm that prevails in Afghanistan is not because Taliban 2.0 have suddenly become Jeffersonians, new-born democrats wedded to any notion of human rights. It is Pakistan's need for US, and western, economic assistance and release from FATF constraints that is guiding whatever restraint that we see. But we should not be fooled. The real power in Afghanistan is exercised by Pakistan, and it is they who should stand scrutiny and pay the price for sustaining, and using terror as a weapon of choice, even if it has meant large-scale violence as Afghanistan over the past four decades, and which we in India are no strangers too.

By Shakti Sinha
(Shakti Sinha is the Honorary Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, MS University, Vadodara. He is also Distinguished Fellow, India Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal)


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