In the space of a week, Taliban fighters went from terrorist insurgents to taking control of Kabul. Former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, so have many in his cabinet. India closed its Kabul Embassy, bringing back 192 staff and security personnel. US and other NATO embassies have relocated to the Kabul international airport, where a massive evacuation effort is underway for Afghans desperate to leave. At a rare and unprecedented press conference, Taliban representatives rejected democracy, and said they would rule by Sharia law. They also promised all diplomats safety, offered an amnesty to government officials, and agreed that women could work, but on the ground, especially outside Kabul, stories of brutal repressions, actions against women , and identification of execution of Afghan officials and military officers are also coming out.
Here's the latest:
1. Talks about the formation of the next government are underway
- within the Taliban, between its leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, deputy leaders Abdul Ghani Baradar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder who was known as Mullah Omar
- In Doha, between Taliban’s political office and various international envoys- from US, UK, Russia, China etc
- In Kabul, where leaders including Baradar and Ana Haqqani are meeting with the Coordinating council of Afghan leaders who stayed back in Kabul: Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
- There’s also some movement amongst those who will not work with the Taliban- like Mr. Ghani- who has travelled to Oman and the UAE, and said he had to leave to avoid bloodshed in Kabul, and former Vice president Amrullah Saleh who has announced a resistance force from the Panjshir Valley, along with the son of the former Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Both Gen Dostum and Ata Noor, who fought the Taliban unsuccessful in Mazar e Sharif are there too, according to reports.
- While the Taliban has not faced any violent pushback from the people, we have seen protests in some cities, people calling for the Taliban to respect their rights, to respect the Afghan national flag, and to prove that they will not be the same brutal force they were 20 years ago.
In the coming weeks we will know whether Afghanistan would be ruled by a Taliban council, not unlike the regime from 1996-2001, a Transitional Council, that includes other leaders and might be more acceptable internationally, or a chaotic scenario with more fighting.
2. How has the international community reacted to the Taliban takeover?
- The West has said it was taken by surprise, and the US has now made its mission to evacuate as many Afghans who worked with it and are at risk as possible, under a Special Immigrant Visa which has about 35,000 slots. But that’s about half of those who have worked for the US in various roles, and only about 8,000 have been processed or flown out thus far, and Mr. Biden is under fire domestically for abandoning Afghanistan to its fate. Other western countries are doing the same at a smaller scale. What’s significant is that the US State department, British Foreign Office and others maintain that they have diplomatic missions in Kabul and have only relocated them from the city to the airport.
- Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran continue to maintain embassies in the city, and while none of these countries have formally extended any recognition to the Taliban, their presence there indicates they are open to it. Turkey, and some Central Asian countries too, have made positive sounds, but much will depend on what the larger international community will do once a government is put in place.
- The United Nations has asked for a unified approach from the world, and the UN Chief said that the Taliban’s desire for recognition is the UN Security Councils “only leverage” the Security Council's only leverage to press for inclusive government and respect for rights, particularly for women, in Afghanistan. The UN has evacuated some personnel to Kazakhstan, but largely remains in place. The UNSC has held a special meeting on Afghanistan, but the resultant statements have been bland- advising and warning the Taliban to adopt international standards of behaviour, but not on actions to follow.
3. So where does India stand in all of this?
India is a country that built its name in Afghanistan over the past 20 years as a Strategic Partner, through infrastructure projects worth 3 bn, through building the parliament and assisting elections and educating and training thousands of Afghan youth. Today, India has no mission, no personnel, and the government has not given any clarity on how it will approach the new regime in Afghanistan. While hundreds of Afghans have applied for visas to come to India, it is significant that none of Afghanistan’s top generals or leaders have sought asylum here.
India can sit out the next few months, wait for the dust to settle and decide its position, but its choices, if it wishes to have a greater hold of events in the neighbourhood, remain:
1. India could rally the United Nations, and push for a stronger UN role. The mandate of the UNAMA mission comes up for renewal in September, and the future of international engagement must be reviewed. India is still the Chair of the Taliban Sanctions committee….and most Taliban leaders in play are sanctioned…
2. India is already coordinating closely with the US, also other western embassies on whether to engage or work with the new regime, and what are the factors the regime should be judged on and held to account- when it comes to its relationship with terror groups, representation , women’s rights, and the treatment of minorities.
3. India could open channels to those who are in communication with the new Taliban regime, like Russia, China, Iran, as well as leaders like Karzai and Abdullah, who have lived here in the past, to ensure its interests are taking into account as the new government is formed
4. Conversely, India could work with helping the resistance to the Taliban, working with the leaders as India once did with the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban in 2001
5. India could open its doors for refugees, particularly women and minorities, including those Islamic tribes persecuted by the Taliban like the Hazaras. This would also involve extending the visas and stipends of all Afghan students in India and helping them and military cadets training her to bring their families over. This can only happen if the Modi government announces a liberalised visa policy and decides to demonstrate a large heart.
As we had said last week, the first priority is to evacuate all Indians at risk from the Taliban, from terror groups that may proliferate now and from their backers in Pakistan’s establishment and ISI. To that end the Modi government has sent C-17s to bring back all personnel, and now an MEA special cell is working on bringing about 450 Indians still stranded there. But the larger question remains- with no formal presence in the state, does India still have a stake or a say in Afghanistan’s future?
The Long War: The Inside Story of America and Afghanistan Since 9/11 by David Loyn
The Afghanistan File by Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud and Michael Field
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock
Others from the Past:
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid
Taliban: The Story of Afghan's War Lords by Ahmed Rashid
The Taliban at War: 2001 - 2018 by Antonio Giustozzi
Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan by Marcela Grad