With less than two months to go for the US to withdraw its last soldier from Afghanistan, political instability looms large over the land-locked nation. The question that comes to the fore is whether President Ashraf Ghani’s government will be able to survive the US withdrawal, which will be complete by September 11. There are indeed doubts, given the increasing land mass directly controlled by the Taliban.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that the Taliban in 2021 is far stronger than it was in 2001, when the US forces invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Kabul watchers believe that once the Americans leave, it will not be long before the Taliban capture power. Needless to say, this will have far-reaching implications for not only India but the whole world.
US President Joe Biden has said that it was never America’s desire to have any particular type of government in Afghanistan. His country had done everything possible to strengthen the police and the military there, little knowing that the strengthening was not sufficient to take on the might of the Taliban.
It looks like the west has changed its equation with the Taliban. For instance, British Defence Minister Ben Wallace has stated that Britain would not have any problem in dealing with the Taliban if they came to power, provided they functioned within certain international parameters. What is clear is that the world is getting used to the idea that it will have to, sooner than later, deal with the Taliban. There is also a growing realisation that the west had wasted its resources over two decades in its bid to democratise the Afghan society.
Much will, of course, depend on how the Taliban behave once they capture power. Will they behave in a responsible manner or will they be playing into the hands of such outfits as the al-Qaeda? India, too, will have to reconcile itself to breaking bread with the Taliban. It has made huge investments, worth at least $3 billion, in information technology, education, irrigation and power sectors.
Afghanistan was one of the first countries to receive the anti-Covid-19 vaccine India had produced, even before it was distributed in the home country. However, there is a threat to the Indian presence there, owing mainly to the influence Pakistan has on the Taliban. Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton was not wide off the mark when he said that Pakistan was solely responsible for the Taliban returning to the centre-stage of Afghan politics. It provided safe sanctuaries when the US forces were pounding the Taliban.
The return of the Taliban has greater implications for India than the US which is thousands of miles away. Pakistan is quite capable of using them to wage a proxy war with India. They can also create problems in Kashmir. What’s worse, the future of the Indian investments in Afghanistan is at stake. The Biden administration is not interested in investing in West Asia as it is more interested in containing China, which today has a greater Navy than the US. It wants to fortify its position in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where the Chinese are determined to retain their number one position. Under such circumstances, India cannot expect much from the US. In other words, India will have to adopt a cautious approach vi’s-a-vis the Taliban.
While a few sections of the Pakistani society are thrilled by the possible return of the Taliban, it poses a threat to its own security. It is the militant sections which are enthused by the new turnaround in Afghanistan. A collaboration between them and the Taliban could prove dangerous for democracy in Pakistan. The Pakistani system of government may not be perfect but what the Taliban would like to suggest as an alternative is worse. Unlike other Islamic countries, Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, which is what should worry the whole world.
If the Taliban are able to destabilise the Pakistani government with the support of the militants in the name of political Islam, the world will face a threat which is indescribable at present. So, the return of the Taliban is not something in the interest of Pakistan’s own survival. Twenty years of fighting would have enabled the Taliban leadership to adopt a more sophisticated world view, under which women’s education and tolerance of other faiths and their practices are viewed differently. India must not be caught unawares if and when the Taliban begin controlling Kabul. All this calls for delicate diplomacy.