India may have to open dialogue with Taliban, say observers

Outfit has re-emerged as the core of a new, yet unfinished, constellation of power

May 14, 2020 10:35 am | Updated 10:43 am IST

 A file photo of Taliban militants at the Pul-e-Charkhi Jail in Kabul.

A file photo of Taliban militants at the Pul-e-Charkhi Jail in Kabul.

There is little doubt that after a gap of nearly two decades, Afghanistan is undergoing another major power overhaul. Taliban, ousted by the post-9/11 U.S.- led military campaign, has re-emerged as the core of a new, yet unfinished, constellation of power.

Unlike its previous avatar in the mid-nineties, when it was birthed by Pakistan and nurtured by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with covert support from the United States, Taliban 2.0 is manifestly different.

Also read: India should talk directly to Taliban, says U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad

Except India, former heavyweight supporters of the Northern Alliance — a non-Pashtun coalition of ethnic groups that took over from Taliban — chiefly Iran and Russia, have significantly invested in the rebranded Taliban. This has eminently suited the Taliban, which is yearning for recognition as a symbol of Afghan nationalism, rather than a safehouse of international terror groups, including Al-Qaeda, the architect of the bombing of the twin-towers in New York.

There is strong evidence that the Taliban of 2020, unlike the past, is enmeshing Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities in the new power coalition emerging in Kabul, rather than relying mostly on the majority Pashtuns.

Regional influencers

To impart a more composite and pluralistic image, the Taliban is relying significant on regional influencers — particularly Iran, Russia and Uzbekistan, signalling that the era of Pakistan’s virtual monopoly in running the pre-2001 show in Kabul is over. Yet, Islamabad, leveraging its deep assets, continues to exercise considerable influence in the Af-Pak badlands, despite the Taliban’s attempt to bond with regional powers.

Also read: We will build ties in the neighbourhood: Taliban

The Taliban is dependent on Iran to gain influence among ethnic Hazaras, who have shared deep historical and cultural ties with Tehran. Geographically, the Hazaras, who share Iran’s Shiite bonds, mainly reside among the Koh-i-Baba mountains on the western fringe of the Hindukush range in central Afghanistan.

Besides, Iran exercises leverage over Afghanistan because of Chabahar port. In the future, it is unlikely that any new dispensation in landlocked but resource-rich Afghanistan would like to forego the option of using Chabahar — a port on the Indian Ocean — for its international trade, despite the attraction of Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar, the starting point of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The Hindu reported earlier that in an April 22 Taliban video which features the group’s newly appointed northern district Governor Mawlawi Mahdi Mujahid, the Hazara Shia cleric incites his brethren to fight against the “Jewish and Christian invaders” alongside the Taliba n . The video also directly addresses the “Shia brothers and religious scholars in Qom” — a reference to the Shia seminary city, 140 km south of Tehran.

Iran, on its part, has been regularly engaging with the Taliban. An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement earlier this month detailed a telephonic conversation between Iran’s special representative on Afghanistan Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian with the Taliban’s political leaders regarding the ongoing political deadlock in Afghanistan between President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. “The two sides also exchanged views on future developments in inter-Afghan negotiations and comprehensive efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Afghanistan,” the statement added.

Diplomatic sources told The Hindu that the Taliban is now well on its way to appointing Rashid Dostum as “field marshal” in the new dispensation that is yet to emerge but taking shape behind the scenes. A former Vice-President, Gen. Dostum, is an ethnic Uzbek with a stronghold in northern Afghanistan, not far from the Amu Darya on the border with Uzbekistan. Recently, he publicly opposed President Ghani following the controversial national elections.

International legitimacy

Diplomatic sources point out that it is only a matter of time before Taliban gains international legitimacy. “The five permanent members would first like to ensure that the Taliban, on the ground, rejects presence of international terror groups, such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, in Afghanistan. That can follow the removal of UN sanctions and the eventual mainstreaming of the group,” a diplomat told The Hindu . Major global powers are also concerned about the presence of Haqqani network, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Chechen fighters, among many others.

Observers say that while remaining vigilant, India may have no option but to consider a conditional engagement with the Taliban. “India’s Taliban policy can’t narrowly focus on baulking Pakistan alone. Like other powers, the underlying motive should be to view from a wider regional and global perspective — fostering connectivity, trade, protecting environment and countering terrorism,” says P. Stobdan, former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, in a conversation with The Hindu . He acknowledged that “we can’t be sure whether the Taliban, as a legitimate ruler of Afghanistan, will make or break the entire chain of multiple Jihadist network created by Al-Qaeda and IS”.

The former diplomat pointed out that both Al-Qaeda and IS’s Ansar Ghazwa’tul Hind have footings in Kashmir since 2017. “The Haqanni Network is another source of concern, especially as Pakistan may try to position Sirajuddin Haqqani, its strategic asset, in a Taliban-led government in Kabul.”

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