Are the Taliban returning to Kabul?

The Taliban have captured the rural areas, but the Afghan Army is pushing back

July 30, 2021 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Members of the Taliban delegation arrive for the presentation of the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha on July 18, 2021. - Representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents held talks in Doha as violence raged in their country with foreign forces almost entirely withdrawn. The two sides have been meeting on and off for months in the Qatari capital, but the talks have lost momentum as the insurgents made battlefield gains. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

Members of the Taliban delegation arrive for the presentation of the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha on July 18, 2021. - Representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents held talks in Doha as violence raged in their country with foreign forces almost entirely withdrawn. The two sides have been meeting on and off for months in the Qatari capital, but the talks have lost momentum as the insurgents made battlefield gains. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

After 20 years of fighting, the United States is set to end its military operations in Afghanistan by August 31. Since May 1, when U.S. troops started withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban have made rapid territorial gains in the country. They have taken control of dozens of northern districts and several of the country’s key border crossings, mounting pressure on the Ashraf Ghani government. In a conversation moderated by Stanly Johny , Jayant Prasad and Avinash Paliwal discuss the Afghan situation, India’s options, and the prospects for a peaceful settlement. Edited excerpts:

The American media reported that there is an intelligence conclusion that Kabul could fall within six months once the U.S. troops are out. Do you think that’s happening?

Jayant Prasad: That’s perhaps somewhat exaggerated. I reached Kabul in January 2008. When I was leaving Afghanistan, in the middle of 2010, there were 1,50,000 international forces there, including about 1,00,000 American troops. Even at that time, the Taliban occupied 25% to 30% of the territory. Now, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the U.S. says that strategic momentum is with the Taliban. And people are writing the epitaph of the Afghan government. But I think it’s somewhat exaggerated. The Taliban have made gains. What is remarkable is that they have made gains in the north and the west. They have taken border posts along Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and two main border posts with Pakistan. But to say that the Taliban will occupy Kabul before long is perhaps an overstretch. The Afghan Army has begun to react and reorganise. The Afghan Defence Ministry has a new chief, Bismillah Khan. So, priorities will change. Instead of stretching all over the place, they will concentrate on the border crossings, because these are also the customs collecting points. And they will also concentrate on the main trunk routes and the major cities. I don’t think the Taliban will make great progress in occupying major cities. The Taliban have taken large tracts of rural areas and are now poised outside the cities. But they will remain thus till the beginning of September, when all the foreign forces pull out. September, October and November will be the big test for Afghanistan. If the government can hold off the Taliban during that period, then anything can happen next year, because then the Taliban will know that taking over Afghanistan is not as easy as it might have appeared some time ago. If they realise that, then the peace process may have a better chance next year.


How did Afghanistan come to this point? Can we say that the U.S. could have negotiated a better deal with the Taliban that would have also addressed the question of political settlement between the insurgents and the government, or did it just want to exit Afghanistan?

Avinash Paliwal: There are two aspects to the possibilities that could have existed between the U.S. and the Taliban when they began talking in Doha a few years ago. One is the war, the way it has been executed, and the effect of that execution on any potential negotiation. The Americans and the larger security umbrella provided by the West were not fighting a comprehensive, well-thought-out, long-term campaign to support the current state in a fundamental way. This debate about whether they were there for counterterrorism purposes or nation-building was never resolved. The West was essentially torn in what it actually wanted. That had a structural impact on how it went ahead with the dialogue with the Taliban and what it could have potentially reaped out of that.

This takes me to the second point of the negotiations itself. There were two moments in the past when the Americans were serious about talking to the Taliban directly. One was sometime around 2012 during the term of the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. That was perhaps a little premature because they had given a deadline by which they wanted to leave. So, the talks when they began or when they were supposed to begin in 2012 really put off the Kabul government in a political sense, and there was a lot of pushback by President Karzai that you cannot enter into a direct communication with the Taliban because that would fundamentally undermine the political experiment in Afghanistan that had begun at the end of 2001. During the next round of conversations beginning 2017-18, under U.S. President [Donald] Trump, the ground shifted domestically within America. The Americans did not want to continue fighting and losing soldiers and resources in Afghanistan, given the strategic priorities that they had with an assertive China in the horizon. There was also a clear sense that given how they actually fought this war — aimlessly perhaps — they could not have bargained better than a withdrawal agreement.

This was not a deal in which they were settling the fate of Afghanistan. The Americans made sure that they would extricate themselves without further losses and in the process, legitimise the Afghan Taliban diplomatically for the world to deal with. The outcome has been that the Taliban are being assertive. They have been using the talks with the Afghan government in Doha as a tactic to assert themselves, buy time and continue pressing for their legitimacy the world over. If there was any appetite for a political solution among the Taliban, I think we would have seen the importance of that, but unfortunately, we haven’t.


I’ll end my point by strongly agreeing with what Ambassador Prasad just said: it is too early to celebrate or to criticise, depending on which side of the spectrum one is on, the Taliban’s tactical gains on the battlefield. We have not reached the endgame of this round of fighting. I think we still need to see how it pans out as the Afghan forces are really reorganising themselves. And they continue to actually have kinetic air support from the Americans, as we saw in Kandahar. And the message to the interlocutors in Doha was very clear: you might have space to manoeuvrer in rural areas, but the city centres and the provincial city centres are off limits.

This brings us to India. Ambassador, you served in Kabul, when the Indian mission came under attack. You have seen violence in Afghanistan up close. How do you look at the recent developments from an Indian point of view? What does India want in Afghanistan? And what can it do to achieve those objectives?

Jayant Prasad: What India wants in Afghanistan is very simple. Our short-term strategic objective will be served fully if the Afghans have a government that stands on its own feet in terms of decision-making — who it can be friends with, cooperate with, and so on. All these years, we were faced with incessant experimentation by Afghanistan’s military allies. They were not just the U.S. and NATO, but also other countries friendly with the U.S. When I left in 2010, there were members of 44 armed forces in Afghanistan. Even if the coalition that supports the Afghan authorities today falls to half that number, that is enough to sustain an independent Afghan government. I don’t think we were looking for an Afghanistan inimical to Pakistan. Rather, we would welcome good relations. But Afghans, at least in my time, and I hope in the future as well, will refuse to be subservient to anybody. I feel that the investments India has made, they are going to remain. We heard reports that the Salma Dam or the friendship dam has been occupied by the Taliban. But that’s not the case. And in any case, even when the dam was being built, there were always mortar attacks, rocket attacks, and peripheral activity, way back in 2008 and 2009, and until the dam was ready four or five years later.

Also read | Taliban has won battles, we will win the war: Afghan President Ghani

So, what we are seeing is nothing absolutely new. But what we are seeing, unfortunately, is that the Afghan people are paying a heavy price. I had a little bit of hope when a high-level Afghan team went to Doha to talk to the Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar. But Abdullah Abdullah, who led the Afghan side, came to Delhi and said that nothing had changed with the Taliban. They are playing for time. And they are playing a game of ‘good cop, bad cop’. Mullah Baradar and Suhail Shaheen, the spokesperson of the Taliban in Doha, keep talking about peace. If they want peace, they should stop killing Afghans, whether they are from the armed forces or civilians. There is no reason for them to continue, because they are supposed to be part of Afghan society. The message from the field commanders and the military commanders of the Taliban is completely to the contrary.

This is disquieting for India. We’ll have to be dexterous and support those Afghan communities which are willing to fight for their rights, an Afghan Constitution, Afghan sovereignty and independence, and Afghan republicanism, which is all there in the present Constitution.

Dr. Paliwal, you have argued that India should hold talks with the Taliban. Why should the Taliban engage with India? In the 1990s, the Taliban regime had diplomatic ties with only three countries. You just said that the Taliban have been legitimised by the Americans through the withdrawal agreement. And even London says it will engage the Taliban regime in the future.

Avinash Paliwal: When I say India should engage with the Taliban, the idea is not to give in to the Taliban’s demands or give up on India’s existing allies in Afghanistan; it is that India must have channels with Taliban representatives, whether they are in Doha or elsewhere in Afghanistan, to make sure that in any eventuality of a Taliban takeover, either in Kabul or different parts of the country, India’s interests are not harmed. And this is keeping in perspective the fact that a stronger Taliban is not necessarily going to be subservient to the Inter-Services Intelligence. This is something that needs to be appreciated as a long-term phenomenon. This is in the space of principal-agent relationships, where the principal is Pakistan and the agent, the Taliban. Political interests and strategies don’t always align. There is considerable discontent within the Taliban about its relationship with Pakistan. That’s what I mean when I say that India must have a channel open to at least be aware of what the thinking is within the Taliban.


Second, why should the Taliban, you ask, engage with India. I would say that London’s statements have been a little hasty. London has been signalling that it might engage with the Taliban, by officially recognising the government, regardless of how that government comes to power.

The Taliban have always been interested in talking to India. Between 1996, when the Taliban came to power, and December 1999, when the IC-814 hijacking incident happened, there have been multiple signals by the Taliban leadership to India and other countries to engage with them. At that point, their sole desire was to be officially recognised by the rest of the world. They had official support only from three countries — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan — and they wanted a wider set of relationships in the international fora. That calculus remains till today. From a regional perspective, the Taliban are very clear that they do not want to get in between the India-Pakistan crossfire, and I think that’s the message that they have tried to send. And this happened, especially when India abrogated Article 370. It did that at the peak of the U.S.-Taliban conversation in Doha. And that whole process had to be temporarily halted for a couple of days, given what had happened here. The Taliban statement was very clear. They said, look, this is not our problem. Kashmir is not something that we want to wade into now or in the future. So, they have been very clear that if they are in a governance setup, they want to have a good relationship with all neighbours. And that includes India.

The question is whether they can sustain that kind of an outreach given the dependence on Pakistan. In the light of Pakistan’s clear messaging that it would not want Indian presence to be as sizeable as it had been, that’s a test for the Taliban. And that’s something that we need to see whether they can pull off, if they come to power. There is no clear sign in practice that it will happen. This is concerning. But there are constituencies within the Taliban who would want to have a stable relationship with India even if powerful factions, especially the Haqqani network and its allies such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, will not let that happen. So, it’s not just a dilemma for India whether or not to talk to the Taliban; it’s a more acute dilemma for the Taliban to decide whether to talk to India and to what extent.


Suppose the Afghan government holds on to its position and serious talks begin, what kind of a political settlement is possible?

Jayant Prasad: There are serious discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Despite the breakdown in Doha, they are continuing to talk to each other. But whether these talks will be productive or not, we don’t know. The Taliban are playing for time. They postponed the discussions on the future make-up of the Afghan state, that of the Constitution — of how Islamic it would be, because Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic. What the people in Afghanistan don’t want right now is for it to become an Islamic Emirate. So, the other fundamental contradiction is that the Taliban, in the best of times, will not accept democratic elections easily. But if they were to accept it, then the Afghans would be ready to compromise on the Constitution, I guess. Because it would mean the end of four decades of fighting and every Afghan wants peace and stability. So, the problem is, just as I feel that Pakistan is very important to a future settlement in Afghanistan, it’s very difficult to imagine that it would change course, especially when it thinks that the Taliban is winning.


And I agree with Avinash that in the short term, it will be difficult for the Taliban to assert its independence because in the Taliban, there are no good or bad Taliban. There are extremist and moderate Taliban. There are dependent Taliban and independent Taliban. Those Taliban that think that they are Afghans first — they are the independent ones. It is going to be a testing time ahead. Because Pakistan can always use one of the Taliban factions, such as the Haqqani Network, to create or to hive off or to align with other terrorist forces and create a new bugbear in Afghanistan. So, the situation is pretty complicated.


Dr. Paliwal, what are your views on how to end the conflict in Afghanistan?

Avinash Paliwal: I just hope that the Kabul government is able to bring about some political coherence within the coming weeks. There is clear intent being demonstrated by Kabul in terms of standing up to Pakistan, in terms of not letting the low morale of the Afghan national security forces bog them down. They have been making progress on the ground. There have been districts which have been recaptured. There is pushback on the ground, which is being led by Kabul, but they’re also kind of fractured from within.


If there is a stalemate in the next four to six months, I hope both sides and Pakistan realise that it is time to figure out a political solution because the pain that will be inflicted by violence in Afghanistan will not just hurt Afghanistan but be detrimental to Pakistan’s social, economic and political health. We have seen the rise of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Its leader has just given a video interview to the CNN. He is really hoping for the Taliban to come to power, because that would empower the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which has clearly stated its intent to fight the Pakistani state. So, this is why I am hoping that there is realisation in the next five to six months on all sides, especially in Rawalpindi, that there has to be a political settlement to this issue. Otherwise, this is going to blow back for them very heavily in the years to come.

Avinash Paliwal is Deputy Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute, London; Jayant Prasad is a former Indian civil servant who had served as India’s envoy in Kabul

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