Taliban’s spokesperson Mohammad Suhail Shaheen recently told to an Indian audience through a webinar speech that it wants to build ties with India and even willing to enact a law against foreign terror groups conducting operations against any other country.
Should India take the Taliban seriously? No doubt, the Taliban was created by Benazir Bhutto and her Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar in 1992 when they decided to revamp General Zia’s and Hamid Gul’s Afghan policy by abandoning the old Afghan Mujahideen networks. They did it with the patronage of traditional Jamaat-ul-Ulema-Islam (JUI) led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman.
When the Rabbani regime refused to toe Islamabad’s line, the ISI, CIA and Saudi General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) militarily worked to get the Taliban to power in October 1996.
Incidentally, Taliban was raised by ISI in the year when the Durand Line Treaty of 12 November 1893 was set to run out its 100-year validity in 1993. As per the treaty, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was to be returned to Afghanistan on the lines of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Delhi strangely kept mum on it!
It was also said to have been created to thwart the Sarakh (Turkmenistan) with Tajan (Iran) railway line financed by India to connect Central Asia for the first time with the Persian Gulf in 1994.
Benazir then quickly signed a deal with the UNACOL and Saudi Delta to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the current US special envoy, had negotiated with the Taliban for UNACOL.
The biggest impediment was the pro-India Rabbani government which preferred the Argentinean Company, Bridas.
Pakistan gave birth to Taliban is a fact, but they were reared with full American military and Saudi financial supports—something we have conveniently overlooked for a long time.
Be that as it may and let’s assess the Taliban as a stand-alone body without bundling it with Pakistan.
Taliban is certainly rooted in Islamic thoughts, but thus far it remained quintessentially an Afghan phenomenon—ideologically inclined more towards rejection of modernism rather than espousing export of radicalism outside. Never had it crossed the Afghan borders, instead fought fierce battle against the Mujahids for being corrupt and driven them out of power.
Taliban inaptly used radical means to unite a severely ethnic nation and committed mammoth atrocities for which it has been adequately punished. It has also paid a heavy prize for harboring foreign terrorists on the Afghan soil.
It is naïve to assume at this stage they would publicly denounce links with Al-Qaeda, it is less probable that they would repeat those errors.
Taliban is entirely an ISI’s progeny may not be the whole picture. Its resilience all these years couldn’t have been sustained by Pakistan alone. The Afghan problems mostly stem from within. The country’s chronic ethnic complexity, tribal dynamism, poor governance, corruption, nepotism et al have been beyond the deliverances of any government.
The presumptions of Taliban’s complete dependency on Pakistan are also rebuttable, not supported by all the facts. If the past is any indication, the axis between the two also spelled problem to their disadvantages.
No doubt, the Taliban will depend on Pakistan for many things. But no Afghan will like to remain a pawn in Pakistan’s hands forever. Knowing Pakistan’s constant quest for ‘strategic depth’, Kabul will look to New Delhi to safeguard its sovereignty.
For one, ideology shouldn’t be a factor. Delhi has dealt in the past with monarchs, communists, fundamentalists, Islamists, Jihadists and recently with the US proxies. Taliban adhering to fundamentalism is of no consequence so long as they follow norms of international law. Radicals in India such as the Tablighi Jamaat too grossly deified recent lockdown in Delhi to battle Covid-19.
There are several visible indicators of Taliban’s changed behavior noticed during the recent Covid-19 outbreak. Their awareness campaigns to stop the spread of virus and restriction on mosques gatherings even outmatched Pakistan and India—a change from the past when they killed health workers.
Clearly, then Suhail Shaheen’s statement on Taliban’s keenness to build ties with India needs a fair scrutiny. In fact, for the last couple of months, Taliban has been seeking opportunities to mend fences with India, introspecting on their past misdemeanors and now willing to enact a law against foreign terror groups attacking any other country, if it comes to power. Earlier, its statement on Kashmir that rejected the Pakistani stand was unprecedented.
These are positive signs and if the Taliban’s intentions are good, India should also step forward to recognise the changed reality and pragmatically engage with the Taliban regardless of their past adversarial attitudes towards India.
By any standard, the Taliban or any other Afghan faction will never find adequate ground to pursue the Pakistani-style hatred against India. Iran is a case in point. It will be in India’s interest to mainstream the Taliban through its resources and means.
This is an opportune time to engage with Taliban and also to quietly revert to embracing India’s traditional guiding principle of restraint and deal with whoever comes to sway power in Kabul.
While India’s constructive engagement with Afghanistan is largely appreciated, there have been misgivings about the raison d'être other than undercutting Pakistan by proxy. For, example, India'snon-acquiesce to Taliban was mainly for it being a Pakistani proxy. This aspect needs careful analysis and treatment. It can be rectified by bringing some rationality, especially, stop looking everything through the Pakistani lens.
Instead, India should be advancing its own legitimate security and economic interests.
While the quick solution is to remain guarded against infiltrations from across the border, enhancing surveillance, intelligence monitoring and ability to target launch pads, which the Indian Army is fully capable of. But concurrently, we need to view the Taliban differently now at least in the security context. One of the ways is to engage the Taliban within Afghanistan so as to ward off its regional spilling over.
Incidentally, Taliban’s absorption within Afghanistan in post-1996 period had proved not so much to India’s disadvantage. After all, there was a corresponding relationship between the rise of the Taliban and the decline in the Afghan foray into Kashmir.
India’s Taliban engagement also can’t narrowly focus on balking Pakistan alone. The underlying motive like those of other powers is to link with its wider regional and global vision—fostering connectivity, trade, protecting environment and countering terrorism et al. The US is admittedly exploiting the Taliban’s skills to contain the growing IS-K threat.
Beyond the security agenda, India has to take forwards its $3 billion worth investments in economic and social projects besides the need for retaining the enormous amount goodwill it enjoys among vast Afghan majority.
(The writer is an expert on Eurasian Affairs. He has authored the book ‘The Afghan Conflict & India’ – 1998. Views expressed are personal.)