The Taliban Resurgence
The article details events of the recent past, which evince that the Taliban is growing from strength to strength in Afghanistan. As the USA seems to be becoming ‘war weary’ both Russia and China are looking at it as a window of opportunity to gain a foothold to further their interests and in this quagmire, India must ensure that its interests are not eroded
The Return of the Taliban
This November, two events took place which underlined the fact that the Taliban are fast emerging as the most dominant force in Afghanistan. The first was at the ‘Moscow Format’, the ambitious peace initiative organized by Russia to find an answer to the unending conflict of Afghanistan. The other took place two days after the summit concluded, when Taliban fighters stormed their way into the town of Jaghori - considered to be the Shangri la of Afghanistan and its most peaceful district. Here they slaughtered 50 elite Army commandos, routed the rest and took over the town with ease. It was a deliberate show of force, designed to show that both in peace and war, it is the Taliban who dominate.
The ‘Moscow Format,’ presided over by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, signaled that Russia was back in the ‘Great Game’ more than 30 years after its ignominious retreat from Afghanistan. Representatives from 12 nations attended, virtually every one with a stake in Afghanistan-USA, India, China, Iran, Pakistan, the UAE and the Central Asian Republics. India sent two retired Ambassadors as observers, though no government representative was present in an official capacity. Significantly, there were no representatives of the Afghan government, and only members of the Afghan High Peace Council attended. The meet itself was dominated by the five member Taliban team which had come over from their political office in Doha.
The two-day meet ended inconclusively, but the fact that it took place at all was itself considered a great success. It was the first time the Taliban had even attended a peace meet at any forum. They refused to have any discussion with the ‘illegitimate’ Afghan Government, insisting only on direct talks with the US with a one point agenda – ‘the removal of occupation troops.’ More than anything else it brought out the fact that it is the Taliban which is increasingly shaping the Afghan narrative and not the Government.
Two days after the meet, the Taliban highlighted their power by the brazen attack at an army base in Baghlan and then struck Jaghori. Both targets were deliberately selected. Baghlan is the largest Army base with a sizeable US presence and Jaghori was an erstwhile haven of peace, which is home to 600000 Shia Hazaras, who have long been persecuted by the Taliban. Jaghori is considered liberal by Afghan standards, with a large number of its girls attending its schools and colleges. The attacks were designed to show their ability to strike at will and enter into any negotiations from a position of strength.
And there is no doubt that the Taliban are already in a position of strength. Their strength has risen from 20000 post 2001 to around 70,000 fighters now. They are in complete control of 14 districts and over 35 % of the area. Their Summer Offensive got them to Ghazni, a large town just 70 kilometers from the capital, which is considered to be the gateway to Kabul. Their continual attacks are now claiming an average of 31 casualties every day and this year has seen the largest toll since 2001. It is increasingly becoming clear that the Afghan army is in no position to stem the onslaught.
A war-weary USA also seems to be concluding that after 17 years of war, 2300 deaths (plus 1100 of other NATO forces) and an estimated $ 2 Trillion in treasure, ($70 Billion annually) it cannot defeat the Taliban militarily. The only solution to its longest and most expensive war is to incorporate some kind of peace initiative, declare ‘Mission Accomplished’ and leave. President Trump has made it clear that his basic instinct is “Let’s get out of Afghanistan”. Although the strength of US forces has been raised to 14,000 troops, that figure is too meagre to do anything but protect its bases. The policy of using air power and even the induction of A -10 ground attack aircraft has proved ineffectual. The Taliban tactic of provoking insider attacks on US soldiers by Afghan Security personnel has raised the clamour for early withdrawal of troops and the preventing of further body-bags. And though the US has fought them for 17 years, it is slowly veering towards negotiating with the ‘Good Taliban’ for some kind of a face-saving deal.
The US entered in to direct talks with the Taliban for the first time in July 2018, when its Special Adviser Zalmay Khalilzad met Taliban leaders without even looping in the Afghan government. They even orchestrated the release of senior Taliban leader Ghani Baradar, from Pakistani jails, in an effort to facilitate peace talks. The Ghani government had not been consulted on these efforts and only received information via the media - a direct contravention of the policy that any Afghan settlement must be led and owned by the Afghan government. The progressive weakening of the US stance means that by merely continuing their attritional tactics the Taliban can extract recognition and concessions and perhaps force a US withdrawal – even if it is at the expense of the Government.
The ineffectuality of the Afghan government has not helped either. The Taliban consolidated itself in the ten years of the Karzai regime, and the present government- mired by the power sharing agreement between President Mohammed Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah – has been unable to develop an effective security apparatus. One major province after another- Ghazni, Faryab, Baghlam, Kunduz and Helmand-has fallen as the Taliban nibbled their way towards the interiors. The only respite has been the three day Id ceasefire which Ghani had proposed and which the Taliban accepted. It is a measure of the iron control that the Taliban has over their cadres that not a single violation was reported in the period.
Ghani’s call for a truce after the ceasefire, was refused as the Taliban resumed their Autumn offensive. His offer of unconditional talks was similarly rebuffed. In a last ditch effort, he recognized the Taliban as a legitimate political entity in a move that is fraught with risk. This could give them an opening to participate in the Presidential elections of 2019, where they could muscle their way back to political power. That would mean the country goes back to its pre-2001 days. The Taliban strategy is simple. Sensing a weakness in the US resolve to stay and of the Afghan government to hold, they are pushing ahead - both militarily and politically - so that they call the shots in any future Afghan settlement.
India’s Afghanistan Policy - Time for Relook
The resurgence of the Taliban is not good news for India. Relations between India and the Taliban have been traditionally hostile, going back to our support to the Northern Alliance and their role in the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC - 814 to Kandahar. The attacks conducted by them on Indian interests in Afghanistan too have left scars in the relationship.
India has traditionally supported the legitimately elected Afghan government and has stood by the premise that any peace process should be under government aegis. Its support to Afghanistan has been purely in the form of developmental and humanitarian assistance and wisely we have refused any form of direct intervention. Over the past 20 years or so, India has invested over $ 14 Billion in development projects ranging from the construction of the Parliament building, the development of the Kabul electrical station, roads, highways and schools. Today itself, India is engaged in 116 developmental projects in 31 provinces of the nation. All this has created a vast reservoir of goodwill, which can be exploited.
These projects and Indian interests in Afghanistan will be ruthlessly targeted should the Pak-sponsored Taliban regain ascendency. The connectivity links which have been so assiduously developed ranging from Chabahar port, the Zaranj - Delaram highway and the two air corridors will stagnate and deny us much needed access to Central Asia. In their attempt to regain ‘strategic depth’ Pakistan will ensure that Indian influence is slowly eroded.
At the moment, there are too many players with vested interests who are willing to support the Taliban resurgence. Pakistan, of course, has cultivated them for decades. They will indirectly help Russia and China in their attempts to get a foothold in this strategically vital piece of turf once the US withdraws. Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects also depend heavily on Afghanistan to give it the connectivity towards Central Asia and Europe and they would be keen to make it an extension of the CPEC. Pakistan could be the willing proxy for these initiatives. Worse still, any Afghan settlement in which the Taliban re-emerges into power, will set the ground to funnel its fighters into Kashmir and restart a front there.
India has to continue supporting the Ghani government in every form, and impress upon the USA to continue its course, at least for another two years or so. Realistically though, US presence is unlikely to continue beyond 2019 at most and we have to cater for the post withdrawal scenario. We must have a greater engagement in the Peace Process along with the US, Russia, Iran and China and perhaps we too need to engage the Taliban so as to cover all our bases. We are now at a very dangerous bend in our Afghan policy. While we should extend complete support to the Afghan government, we need to tweak our policy so that our long-term interests are preserved, irrespective of the changes and turmoil taking place in that beleaguered nation.