Events in Afghanistan are moving faster than the speed of analysis - as the Taliban claims more than 14 of 34 Afghan provinces, and cities including Lashkar Gah, Ghazni, Herat and even Kandahar.
The claims are questionable - because in most areas Taliban soldiers are simply filmed walking in to the city centres, with no pushback or fighting required. This could mean that they may not be able to hold these areas, if Afghan forces make a strong push to reclaim them, but for the moment that counter attack has not come. Many now wonder if Kabul will be next, and how soon that might happen.
Several factors explain the sudden and dramatic gains by the Taliban:
- The Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) led by President Ashraf Ghani still lack training, ammunition, supplies, and most of all – a fully equipped airforce with trained pilots.
- Morale in the ANDSF has dropped over the US decision to pullout, which while it was expected over time, came much quicker than anticipated, even before the August 31 deadline. The pull-out from the US ‘s biggest Bagram airbase happened practically overnight, with reports that American commanders didn’t even wait to hand over to the Afghan forces.
- Taliban takeovers have been quicker because in many places, local governments, warlords and officials have withdrawn from defending territories, either cutting a deal with the Taliban or leaving quietly before Taliban militia arrive. Some exceptions, like Mazar e Sharif, however, where the Taliban has been held off by commanders like Mohammad Ata Noor and Dostum. What stands out is the absence of the Northern Alliance commanders of the past, who were able to fight the Taliban in 2001.
- Unlike governments and responsible actors, the Taliban, as a terrorist organisation, has had no problem saying one thing through its negotiators in Doha and doing another thing on the ground. As a result, despite its promises in the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 to work on a permanent ceasefire, to cut links with groups like Al Qaeda, IS and Lashkar e Toiba, to ensure that released Taliban prisoners don’t rejoin the war, and to hold intra-afghan negotiations in earnest. About the only commitment it kept was the one not to attack US soldiers and civilians, which now appears tactical, so that the US would complete its pull out.
- The worries have been heightened by the actions of the United States that has announced it will send in 3,000 extra troops in order to evacuate its remaining 3,000 personnel from Afghanistan, indicating that the US doesn’t even trust the Taliban will allow Americans, including the Embassy staff to leave safely now.
Let’s turn to where India’s concerns are at present:
- In the past year, since it became clear that the US troops would leave, India has pared down its presence in Afghanistan. In April 2020, the government flew home all Indian staff at its missions in Herat and Jalalabad, effectively closing operations at the consulates. While the ostensible reason was Covid, security was believed to be the bigger worry. On July 10, the government shut down the Kandahar consulate, and in August the Mazar e Sharif consulate was shut as well. In addition, the embassy has put out stern advisories telling all Indian citizens to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible on still running commercial flights.
- MEA has said that in addition, India is watching the situation for Sikh and Hindu minorities in Afghanistan and will facilitate their travel to India. However, the MEA has said nothing about other Afghans who might seek refuge in India. Since the 1980s, thousands of Afghans had taken shelter in India including senior officials and their families like former President Hamid Karzai and former CEO and Peace negotiator Abdullah Abdullah and others. However, with the Modi government making a push for the Citizenship Amendment Act that speaks of only a few religious minorities, it is unclear whether New Delhi will welcome all Afghans as it did before.
India is also bracing for the impact of the Taliban in power in much of Afghanistan in other ways:
- Taliban rule is expected to bring back the brutality of the past, summary executions, mistreatment of women and minorities in particular, and that will be a worry. A Taliban regime will also fewer international partners, and development and democracy will both deteriorate.
- Taliban militia have been fighting and training alongside anti-Indian groups like Lashkar e Toiba and Jaish e Mohammad, who also have bases in Afghanistan, and the space for them to carry out attacks against India will grow.
- The Taliban in power effectively gives Pakistan’s military and intelligence control over the country. It will also possibly open Afghanistan trade routes for central asia with Pakistan, and not pursue the alternate route through Chabahar to India.
- The Taliban has already threatened many of the Indian-built infrastructure investments – including the Zaranj Delaram Highway, Salma Dam, and others may come under threat as well. When asked, the MEA said that these are Afghanistan’s property, and therefore not within its remit.
- Finally there is the threat of growing radicalisation, and the impact on the region of a terror group in power in India’s neighbourhood. This was the impact seen in the aftermath of the last pullout by foreign troops in Afghanistan, when US backed mujahideen defeated the Soviets, but also the rise of Al Qaeda and IS after the US wars in Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and then pullout in 2011.
Given all of this, what are India’s options at present?
- India could stick to its principles, continue to back the Ghani government politically and with humanitarian support, but that may not have much longer staying power.
- India could go one step further and supply the ANDSF military support, possibly via the Iranian route- of weapons, ammunition and even airpower- but risk Taliban reprisals
- India could accelerate contacts with the Taliban, especially if there is a power sharing arrangement that allows the Taliban into government in Kabul, but it would be the last regional/partner country to do so
- India could simply wait and watch- take part in the regional conferences on Afghanistan, but otherwise do nothing until the chaos of conflict reveals a winning side. This brings with it the risk of irrelevance in international talks on Afghanistan.
Put plainly, there are no easy options, as Afghanistan appears to be an unending unwinnable war, as long as Pakistan continues to help the Taliban with supplies, safe havens and support, and now more so, if countries like Russia, China, Iran make peace with a Taliban regime. What equally seems clear is that by pursuing this manner of exit, the US has done India no favours, leaving a looming threat to its Western frontier, even as it seeks to broaden the US-China conflict to its east.
(Soon to be released) The US and NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Stagnation of Afghanistan's State Institutions, Pakistan, Iran, India, Taliban, the ISIS Terrorist Caliphate and the CIA War Crimes: Musa Khan Jalalzai
Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Steve Coll
The Wrong Enemy: American in Afghanistan 2001-2014: Carlotta Gall
Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan To A More Dangerous World: Christina Lamb
The Favoured Daughter, and Letters to my daughters: Fawzia Koofi
My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story
Afghanistan-Pakistan-India: Shaida Abdali