In Afghanistan, back to the future

Notwithstanding President Hamid Karzai’s anger and the deep resentment in Kabul at the Taliban conduct during the opening of their Doha office on June 18 and the statement issued by them on that occasion, there is little doubt that talks between the United States and the Taliban will take place sooner rather than later. When tempers cool, Mr. Karzai will also realise that he cannot defy the U.S. beyond a point for, where will he turn for funds, if nothing else, to keep the administration such as it is and the Afghan security forces going? In any event, the initiative is now with the Taliban and its friend and mentor Pakistan and they stand to gain even if the talks do not get off the ground for some unforeseen reason.

The U.S. has already gone to great lengths to accommodate the Taliban and Pakistan. Such is the measure of its strategic desperation that contrary to its earlier position, it has accepted the Taliban’s vague assurances regarding Afghan territory not being used to foment violence outside the country. Also, for many months the U.S. and its European partners had almost given up on the reconciliation process and the focus was on a credible Afghan presidential election so that an effective and cohesive political leadership, post-2014 and post-Karzai , could take on the Taliban insurgency. No statement or comment since June 18 mentions the political process as mandated by the Afghan Constitution at all.

U.S. approach

In order to assess how far the U.S. will go in this direction and how much pressure it will bring to bear on Mr. Karzai, it would be instructive to turn to its approaches towards the Taliban in the 1990s.

The Taliban effectively captured Kabul on September 26, 1996. That evening in Islamabad, at a dinner hosted by our High Commissioner, at which this writer was present, a senior U.S. diplomat was one of the guests. He was obviously following the success of the Taliban in Kabul with a sense of satisfaction. He was completely unfazed by the nature of the Taliban, including its theological orientations.

Two months later, the U.N. Secretary General called a meeting of countries with “interest and influence in Afghanistan” in New York. At that meeting the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel, called the Taliban “a significant factor in the Afghan equation and one that will not disappear anytime soon.” In a pointed message to those who considered the Taliban creatures of Pakistan, she said, “... they are Afghan; they are indigenous; they have demonstrated staying power”. Notwithstanding the disquiet expressed by many influential U.S. women groups on Taliban attitudes on gender issues Ms Raphel stated “the real source of their power has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade the unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with severe social restrictions.” It is especially noteworthy that the Taliban record on human rights was characterised thus. Why? U.S. officials at that time were particularly focussed on evacuating Central Asian hydrocarbons through pipelines across Afghanistan and Pakistan, and clearly felt that only the Taliban could create stable conditions in Afghanistan to make this possible. Human rights then as now have never come in the way of hard national interest.

Ms Raphel also advised all countries to engage with the Taliban and put that suggestion in practice a month later when a Taliban team led by Mullah Muttawakil visited Washington ostensibly at the invitation of a U.S. oil company. The State Department strongly lobbied with many embassies, including our own, to receive the Taliban team. The Taliban team was received by a middle level diplomat. They said that they should be considered Afghans. They also said that they were not against India. This was at a time when they were hosting training camps where members of terrorist groups operating against India were also being trained.

The U.S. attitude towards the Taliban changed in 1998. Why?

Osama-bin-Laden reached Afghanistan from Sudan a few months before the Taliban captured Kabul. He developed a close nexus with the Taliban leadership, especially Mullah Omar. In 1998, the al Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and it became apparent that Osama was using Afghanistan as a base to plan his attacks on western targets. It was only then that the U.S. began to be unhappy with the Taliban and, even then, its ire was not against the Taliban per se but against their connection with the al Qaeda.

Prior to 9/11, the U.S. gave the Taliban every opportunity to give up the al Qaeda and make peace. Following 9/11, the U.S. allowed the Pakistanis to virtually nurture the Taliban provided they handed over members of the al Qaeda. The Pakistanis obliged and hundreds of low level al Qaeda operatives were given by them to the U.S. In return, Pakistan got strategic space and more than $11billion.

By 2004 the Taliban, with Pakistani assistance, had gained sufficient strength to begin operations in Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency had begun. It was allowed to gain strength because deep down some influential sections in Washington subscribed to the Raphel Taliban Doctrine. An exhausted U.S., after the elimination of Osama, is essentially attempting to revert to that doctrine.

Karzai’s challenge

In the 1990s, the Taliban and Pakistan could not fully achieve their objectives largely because of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Mr. Karzai is no Massoud but he can meet the current challenge even now if he abandons the narrow politics he has pursued since 2001. More than ever, he needs the skills of the Panjsheri leaders, Abdullah and Qanooni, the analytical capacities of the former Intelligence Chief, Amrullah Saleh, the courage of the Hazara leader, Mohaqiq, and the tenacity of the Uzbek leader, Dostum. Along with them he needs to travel, with all its risks, especially to Pashtun areas to warn against the long-term dangers the Taliban represent to Afghanistan’s future. Perhaps this is too much to ask of Mr. Karzai.

The Afghan situation will certainly figure prominently in Secretary of State Kerry’s discussions in Delhi. The Indian leadership cannot confine itself to the pious principles contained in the government’s statement of June 21. It must forthrightly inform Mr. Kerry of India’s misgivings about the Taliban and that India will act to protect its interests in Afghanistan, along with like-minded countries. We must especially underline that India will not allow itself to be excluded from international diplomacy over Afghanistan, as was the case in the 1990s. Following the Kerry visit, India must urgently hold consultations with Russia, Iran and the Central Asian states on developments in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are part of the Afghan landscape but their vision of the country’s future is flawed for it is exclusionary, not inclusive of Afghanistan’s diversities. Our diplomacy while remaining realistic and flexible must not be oblivious of this basic aspect.

As for the U.S.: Faustian bargains cost lives and much more. But that is mainly for the U.S. public to consider. On their part, U.S. policymakers will have to ponder over the reasons for the strategic reverses, if not defeat, of their country in Afghanistan. Is it because of a continuing ambivalence on Pakistan and the lack of a clear, specific and sustained Pakistan policy or are the reasons Afghanistan specific? The Af-Pak concept has clearly failed.

Meanwhile the Taliban are out of the shadows and Pakistan is back at the centre of international diplomacy on Afghanistan.

(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan)

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