Last week, Indian journalism lost one of its most honest practitioners. Danish Siddiqui, whose photographs captured the extent of trauma caused by the second wave of Covid in India, was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Reviled by a few whose incompetency and heartlessness he revealed and admired by the rest who saw the unvarnished truth revealed by his images, Danish Siddiqui died in action, documenting the truth about war, from a war zone.
The killing of Siddiqui by the Taliban has its roots in events from another era. In the late 1970s, Afghanistan’s leftist parties were in power and unleashing a massive programme of land reform and modernisation. They were opposed by a large part of the population - those who owned the land and those who were religious. The various groups fighting against the ‘infidel government’ were collectively called the Mujahideen – those fighting for Jihad. Like most disorganised civil conflicts against an organised government, they too were doomed to failure. But then, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Seeds of ruin
The invasion had in it the seeds of ruination that would not just see the Soviet Union disintegrate within a decade, but the creation of a fundamentalist, medieval, Islamist organisation, that would up-end geopolitics. The Taliban, celebrated as freedom fighters by the Americans, were funded to take on the might of the Red Army. They and offshoots like the Al Qaeda unleashed war on the Soviets, and medievalism on the people of Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. People had no rights. And those who violated the diktats of the Taliban and associated splinter groups met with a painful end. Afghanistan saw its brightest and best escape to countries that would offer them refuge.
Pakistan capitalised on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It positioned itself as the bulwark between Islamist terror and civilisational values. And the Americans, in their utter naivety, fell for this narrative. Monies poured into Pakistan to help them lead the war against terror. It is estimated that over a 100,000 Afghans were trained by the Pakistani ISI, including Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban. And Pakistan’s ISI, one of the nodal agencies in this battle, used, usurped, and siphoned off funds to spread their global reach, and create mischief.
When the Soviets withdrew their troops in 1989, after installing an interim government, it seemed that there would be a chance at normalcy. But that came crumbling down, with the Mujahideen pushing back. Competing warlords fought for the control of Afghanistan. Amidst all this chaos and civil war, arose the Taliban – and for much of the 1990s, they controlled most of Afghanistan. Imposing their version of Islam with an iron hand on the people of the country.
Pakistan, a key player
Pakistan’s role as a conduit between the western world in general, and the USA and the brutal Islamist state once again became important. With 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, the USA invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban was driven out. But the role of Pakistan in the affairs of Afghanistan, or its role in nurturing the Taliban did not diminish. America kept funding this.
Now, 20 years after invading Afghanistan, the Americans have called it quits. President Trump began negotiations with the Taliban and the Doha accord laid out the terms of international troop withdrawal and talks amongst the various groups in Afghanistan. The Taliban also promised they would not allow other terrorist organisations to operate on Afghan soil. The war was over for America and they are about to leave, devastating yet another people with their obsession with reimagining the world in their own image.
And now the Taliban is coming back, with full brute force. They have already ordered girls over 15 and single women under 45 to be forcibly married off to their ‘warriors’, in the regions under their control. They have put an end to music, and films, and culture as Afghans know it. And, along with the Taliban, multiple militias and their warlords are back.
India under pressure
In this mess, the pressure on India to get involved is huge. While the Indian Government and military have been steadfast in their refusal of military involvement, the expectation is that India will do more. As the USA plans complete withdrawal of its troops by August this year, and as the Taliban advances, there are murmurs of Indian troops in Afghanistan helping maintain the peace. There are opinion pieces galore from those who know – on why India must take its rightful place in the world, by getting its hands dirty in Afghanistan. And while theoretically it may sound great, in practice, it will be a recipe for disaster. We have nothing to gain, and much to lose.
At best, India can play an honest broker – working closely with the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) to send in contingents to keep the peace. Each of these nations of the OIC have much to lose if the radical form of political Islam espoused by the Taliban spreads to their nations. It is in their interest to see Afghanistan transition to peace, and the modernity that the rest of the Islamic world takes for granted. India can help, as it always has, with socio-economic development. But we must resist the temptation to intervene. Throughout history, Afghanistan has remained the graveyard for empires and India would be foolish to not heed lessons from history.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker