On August 15, 2021, as India marked its 74th Independence Day, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Like the British Empire almost 75 years ago, America preponed the inevitable, leading to a power vacuum and a bloodbath. Nobody denies that foreign powers had to leave Afghanistan. The debate is more on the timing, and the way the transfer of power was done. As the Taliban tightens its grip on Afghanistan, the world in general and the neighbourhood – including India – in particular, are going to face the brutal backlash of American haste.
Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, there are a few dangerous signals that portend a rocky and violent future. The first was a devastating bombing of Kabul airport that killed around 200 people, including American servicemen helping with the evacuation and members of the Taliban. The suicide bomber was from an ISIS affiliate called the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. The Taliban is confronted with even more hard-line Sunni Muslim groups in Afghanistan, all of whom are threatening to up the body count and the instability in the region.
Couple this with the chairman of the Pakistan TTP saying, “the Taliban say they’re with us and they will come and liberate Kashmir for us”. This does not bode well for peace or security in Kashmir and India has to be twice as watchful as Pakistan ups the ante on terror. And finally, there is the acknowledgement by the United Nations Security Council in normalising the Taliban as a legitimate state actor.
Nest of terror
In 2001, when the Americans attacked Afghanistan, it was primarily because the Taliban-run Afghanistan was providing a safe haven for a variety of lethal terror groups, including the Al Qaeda. These terror groups could attack their ‘enemies’ with impunity, because they had a safe haven, a state-backed sponsor. The great fear is that a Taliban-run Afghanistan will not just become the nest of viperous terrorists, but also that it will embolden other terror organisations that follow extremely violent forms of Wahhabism and Salafism.
After all, the Taliban and their allies have defeated two great powers – the Soviet Union, and the United States. And this becomes a beacon for all the extreme Islamist groups that are fighting battles in different lands. The impact of the Taliban victory will go beyond the borders of Afghanistan and resonate in the rest of the world. Twenty years and trillions of dollars later – the United States and their allies seem to have replaced one nest of vipers with another.
The main winner, apart from the Taliban, in all this – is Pakistan. From the time of the Soviet Invasion Pakistan has positioned itself as all that stands between the world and some great evil - Communism in the 80s, and Islamist terror since the departure of the Soviets. It has received trillions in aid to back the resistance against the Soviets, and then to keep at bay the groups it created to fight the Soviets.
In full view of the world, it has used this money to foment further trouble – keeping the terror pot boiling in the region. Even now, it is unclear whether the Taliban would have come this far in the last two decades without the support of Pakistan. The Taliban and the terror networks in the region are Pakistan’s business model. A peaceful Afghanistan is not in Pakistan’s self-interest, because it will turn off the tap of aid.
India in peril
Now, with the Taliban back in at the helm in Afghanistan, and Pakistan as the chief influencer, and with the ISIS and Al Qaeda back in play – India is in the crosshairs of some of the worst terror organisations in the world. And this is going to impact our security and peace. With more powers and groupings indicating that they will negotiate with the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, India too will have to do the same.
On the face of it, the Taliban is making the right noises – about good relations with India and continuing trade relations. How far they can be trusted is completely another matter. India has already poured over $3 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan. There is a certain amount of goodwill that has been built up with the people.
The big question is whether we put up the barricades and completely cut out Afghanistan, allowing Pakistan and China to have a bigger say in the region, or whether we recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and try and see if we can exert some degree of influence on the situation. With a Pakistan-China-Taliban axis, India cannot afford to sit this one out. At the same time, we cannot get involved too deeply. We need to stay out of the quicksand that is Afghanistan.
The novel ‘Trinity’ by Leon Uris is based around the Irish independence movement. The book ends with a poignant line: “In Ireland, there is no future, only the past happening over and over”. The same can be said of the history of Afghanistan. A violent history repeated over and over again, that tends to exhaust any power that is involved. And this is what India needs to remember.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker
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