Very few, if any, might have been surprised when the Taliban unleashed violence to take over territories in Afghanistan. What has surprised many is the pace at which the Taliban pushed their lines and replaced the Afghan state. The Doha peace deal with the United States and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s warm welcome to a Talibani delegation in Tianjin , in July, reflect the diplomatic successes of the Taliban at the international level. Almost all regional stakeholders at this point are engaging with the Taliban, openly or behind closed doors. The Special Envoy of the State of Qatar for Counterterrorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolution, Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani, in June, confirmed India’s outreach to the Taliban . Now that the Afghan state has failed, the Taliban is the most powerful political entity. But the Afghan people are the most important stakeholders and India must resist engaging with the Taliban.
Issue of legitimacy
Where is ‘the good Taliban’? In the past, leaders and analysts have used the terms ‘Taliban 2.0’, or ‘the good Taliban’, to create an environment conducive to negotiate with them. The Taliban’s unleashing of war to secure power has put an end to those arguments. The claim that the Taliban shall have to reform to secure international legitimacy is exaggerated. The conclusion of an agreement with the U.S. while excluding the Afghan government, and talks with China, have already accorded the required legitimacy to the Taliban, internationally. On the domestic front, if the Taliban cared for legitimacy from the Afghan people they would have contested elections instead of capturing territory through force.
Several reports that have emerged over the last couple of months have confirmed that violence and oppression are the Taliban’s modus operandi . Women, as expected, have been hit the worst. Female students and employees have been let off. News of the Taliban forcing women to marry its soldiers or else assaulting them has increased. The already dwindling Afghan Sikh community is leaving the country. The progress made during the fragile peace in the last two decades has been undone in a matter of weeks. As the struggle for power with and within the Taliban gains momentum, ethnic divisions will accentuate, and the minorities will become more and more vulnerable.
Sadly, the Afghans who are leaving their homes today will not be returning to their homes anytime soon, if at all. Historically India has been one of the preferred refuges for Afghans beyond their immediate neighbourhood. First, nations must see refugees as their responsibility rather than a burden. This shall involve rapid processing of visa applications and ensuring safe routes to commute. Second, there should be an effort to develop a regional, and potentially an international, coalition to address the needs of Afghan refugees. An active policy to provide shelter, education, vaccination, and employment opportunities instead of sending them to congested, unhygienic, and then ignored refugee camps is needed. The policy must look beyond an immediate fix, and instead towards a long-term settlement strategy.
Looking beyond the Taliban
Many have argued that India must negotiate with the Taliban. The argument that India can engage with certain segments of a heterogenous Taliban overestimates India’s capacity to begin and fruitfully engage with such elements and also underestimates the capacities of elements such as Inter-Services Intelligence and the Haqqani network to disrupt such negotiations. Even China and Pakistan, which are deeply engaged with the Taliban, will be reluctant to completely rely on them in the future. U.S. President Joe Biden, while addressing the drawdown from Afghanistan based on the deal with the Taliban, stated that he does not trust them. Therefore, the claim that India — so far a peripheral party — can plan its Afghan policy or security in Kashmir based on Taliban assurances is not sound. As far as terrorism in Kashmir is concerned, professor Rajesh Rajagopalan rightly argues, we don’t have a Taliban problem but a Pakistan problem. The domestic efforts to reconcile differences with the local Kashmiris shall go a longer way than relying on the Taliban.
Irrespective of that, we must remember that a Pakistan-controlled and a Taliban-led Islamic Emirate is against the interests of a Shia-dominated Iran. The prospect of Afghanistan turning into a breeding ground for terrorist outfits is an issue for India but a bigger issue for Iran, the Central Asian States, China, Russia and even Pakistan. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (or the Pakistani Taliban) is expected to strengthen if instability in Afghanistan continues. Therefore, there is an area for convergence amongst the parties if they seek to work together. Further, it is naive to believe that the other regional states would be comfortable with Pakistan having complete control over the future of Afghanistan. Taliban may itself seek greater autonomy from Rawalpindi as its grip over Afghanistan tightens.
Then and now
The overwhelming narrative to engage with the Taliban reflects the hegemony that men and realists hold in security analysis. There is a need to diversify the discourse, this will automatically lead to the budding of new policy options in Afghanistan. A policy that is ignorant or unconcerned of its consequences for women and minorities is not worth pursuing.
One must remember that the Taliban’s rise in 2021 is not like its rise in 1996. Mohammed Omar enjoyed a certain level of popularity amongst Afghans as he led the Taliban to oust the warring Mujahideens in 1996. In 2021, the median age of the Afghan population is 18.4 years. Most of them have come up in a far more progressive environment than the Taliban’s rule. The resistance has already begun in Panjshir. Afghan citizens will continue to resist. So must we.
Chetan Rana is a PhD research scholar (Diplomacy and Disarmament), Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi