Colombo, August 14 (Counterpoint): As the countdown begins for the end of the war in Afghanistan and the establishment of a Taliban government in Kabul in the next few months or even weeks, it is likely that the many international stakeholders in Afghanistan are thinking of the roles they might like to play under a new set-up.
The Taliban are currently sweeping through the Afghan countryside, capturing ten provincial capitals including the historic city of Gazni. And Kandahar is about to fall. But unfazed by the discouraging ground situation in Afghanistan, the international stakeholders met in the Qatari capital of Doha on Wednesday and Thursday with a pious intention to bring unity and peace.
Al Jazeera reported that the Kabul government had indirectly proposed a new power-sharing arrangement at Doha on Thursday. But ahead of the Doha talks, Kabul accused the Taliban of going for a brazenly partisan military solution while mouthing interest in accommodation. According to the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, a political settlement is looking difficult under current conditions. He said that he had tried to persuade the Taliban to reach a negotiated settlement, but they “flatly refused saying that as long as President Ashraf Ghani is there, the Taliban are not going to talk to the Afghan government.”
Although in the process of opting out of Afghanistan, the US warned Taliban that it would continue to aid the government forces militarily. But it gave no hint as to how it planned to do that meaningfully, after the planned troop withdrawal at the end of August. While accusing the Taliban of continuing aggression, regardless of peace efforts, the US itself conducted bombing raids.
The US, which was for long relied on Pakistan to bring a recalcitrant Taliban to the negotiating table in Doha, is now accusing Pakistan of continuing to give the Taliban shelter and bases on its territory. The Pentagon has said that the alleged presence of “terrorist safe havens” along the Pak-Afghan border is causing instability inside Afghanistan. He said that the US is in talks with the Pakistani leadership for “closing down” such sanctuaries.
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said: “We all have a shared sense of importance of closing down those safe havens and not allowing them to be used by the Taliban or other terrorist networks to sow discord. We’re also mindful that Pakistan and the Pakistani people also fall victim to terrorist activities that emanate from that same region.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told the media that the US has begun considering India as its strategic ally in this region and that Pakistan does not matter any longer. He said he made it clear to Washington that Pakistan will not allow the US to launch attacks on Afghanistan from its territory. The Pakistan government has also declared that it will not allow Afghan refugees to enter the country again as these had brought lawlessness and terrorism to Pakistan in the past.
On its part, the US has failed to realize that there is only so much that Pakistan can do to influence the Taliban because the latter have grown enormously. And like other terrorist or radical groups, the Taliban have become a law unto themselves. They have also proved their own independent superiority by routing the US forces and forcing a retreat.
If, after a Taliban-takeover, the US indulges in its old game of destabilizing a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan by arming and funding non-Taliban and non-Pashtun tribal warlords, a massive refugee inflow into Pakistan is bound to take place as it happened when US-supported Islamic groups fought against the Soviets and when the US-led forces fought against the Taliban regime in 2001.
As for Pakistan’s role after a Taliban takeover, it has to find a niche for itself. Thus far, Pakistan has had only intelligence cooperation with the Taliban with little or no involvement in any of the constructive activities of the Kabul government. It could, however, team up with China in development activities even if only as a junior partner and to help the Chinese liaise with the Taliban authorities using its long standing links with the Taliban.
India, which participated in Thursday’s Doha talks, has made it clear that it will neither give air support nor put troops on the ground to help the Kabul regime despite many years of friendship and cooperation with the latter. According to Financial Express India does not want to be caught in the cross-fire between the government and Taliban forces.
But this does not mean that India plans to give political support to the Taliban either. Though India has met the Taliban informally, it has been consistently opposed to their monopolistic tendency. New Delhi sees the Taliban as agents and natural allies of Islamic Pakistan its main rival in South Asia. India has been consistently supporting the elected US-backed governments in Kabul and has so far given them economic assistance to the tune of US$ 3 billion.
It is not clear as to what exactly India would do in the event of a Taliban takeover. In case the Taliban regime becomes anti-India, New Delhi has the option of clandestinely supporting (with American connivance) the anti-Taliban tribal groups to wage war against the Taliban. These non-Taliban tribal groups are not guaranteed to secure justice under a Pashtun-dominated, inflexible, Taliban government.
Alternatively, India could dangle the carrot of development assistance before the Taliban, who are said to be eager to transform Afghanistan from a garrison State to a State geared to economic development and social welfare. The Taliban have maintained public services in areas under their control.
India will have a powerful incentive to continue along the development-assistance path because China is keen on extending its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan. India has immense experience in working in Afghanistan’s developmental sector across a wide range of activities spanning education, capacity building, health, irrigation, water supply and energy. Any sensible Afghan government would use India in the development sphere. Above all, India has long standing cultural ties with Afghanistan.
Russia and China
Russia, which like China, has hosted talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban, will be interested in establishing economic and political ties with the Taliban to safeguard its interests vis-à-vis the US. The Russians would, in all likelihood, work with the Chinese in this regard and the Chinese in turn could bring in their ally Pakistan.
With the US leaning more and more towards India, its partner in the Indo-Pacific “Quad” and also its Strategic partner in South Asia, Russia, China and Pakistan would form a bloc in Afghan affairs. All in all, the world should brace itself to witness, if not a hot war, a cold war fought in Afghanistan between the global and regional powers.
However, much depends on how the Taliban shape up as rulers. If they continue to pursue their stated goal of establishing a rigid, Pashtun-dominated Islamic Caliphate, riding roughshod over all opponents, non-Pashtuns, and critics, Afghanistan will again slide into a hot war with various vested interests fishing in the troubled waters to Afghanistan’s detriment. But if the Taliban choose to be moderate and development oriented, Afghanistan will be leaving behind a long history of devastation.