Time to refresh Afghan relationship

The geopolitics of Afghanistan, Central and West Asia has witnessed several important changes over the last six months, which makes the time right for a fresh Indian initiative that reaches out to old friends in northern Afghanistan along with anti-Taliban elements in the southern parts.

Two changes have given rise to this opportunity. The first is the changing equations of balance of power in Afghanistan; the second deals with the current status of Taliban’s capacities in southern Afghanistan.

The geopolitical situation on Afghanistan’s borders is rapidly evolving, following Taliban’s takeover of Kunduz. What has really set the alarm bells ringing for Afghanistan’s neighbours is that the Taliban in Kunduz comprised not only Afghans, but an ensemble of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uighurs, Chechens, Dagestanis along with the Al Qaeda and Pakistanis.

An immediate outcome of this mobilisation has been to bring Russia into the picture at a scale not seen since 2001. The Russian government is concerned that local Daesh (Islamic State) elements, comprising mainly Central Asian jihadis , could, along with the Taliban, further fuel instability. There is also fear that the Daesh could retaliate against Russian targets in response to the happenings in Syria. Moreover, Russia loses 50,000 youth to narcotics, which makes its way through the porous Central Asian border. Consequently, Russia is actively considering the movement of its forces to man the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.

The U.S., on the other hand, in search of an honourable exit from Afghanistan, has been shaken by the Kunduz incident. The Taliban operation makes it clear that the optimism generated by Pakistan-led round of talks was misplaced. The halt in troop withdrawal until 2017 is meant to buy time until the U.S. finds a better roadmap to peace in Afghanistan. While the U.S. and China still continue to place their bets on Pakistan-backed efforts, there is a growing realisation that the price Pakistan demands will never be acceptable to large sections of Afghans. Nevertheless, the U.S. is said to be examining various other possibilities for securing peace.

Tehran’s concerns

A resurgent Iran is also an important factor to reckon with. Tehran’s concerns are threefold. One, it is worried that instability in Afghanistan could give a boost to the Daesh . Second, an unstable Afghanistan will also lead to an increase in the illicit drug trade on Iran’s eastern border. Third, Iran is also worried that instability could lead to an influx of refugees. All these issues have motivated Iran to provide sanctuary to a few important segments of the Taliban. One such group is led by Mullah Zakir, hitherto the Taliban military commander inside Afghanistan but who has since broken away after Mullah Akhtar Mansour was anointed the new Taliban chief.

Along with these geopolitical movements in the aftermath of the Kunduz attacks, the second important change has been the inability of the Taliban to regain control of major cities in its traditional stronghold of southern Afghanistan. While Kunduz was meant to legitimise the new Taliban under Mansour’s leadership, its operations in the south give the appearance of not being as robust. In fact, there have been persistent reports of the presence of ‘Punjabi’ advisors who, it is speculated, are there to ensure that the Taliban cadres do not splinter on ethnic lines.

An unstated tenet of Afghan history is that the march for control of Kabul and the country is predicated on wresting control of Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional base. In recent times though, ever since General Abdul Raziq was appointed police chief of the province, the Taliban have not tasted much success in Kandahar. Raziq has singularly been responsible for the relative peace in the province. Similarly, Jalalabad remains out of Taliban control. In recent times, Nangarhar province has seen clashes between the Taliban and groups flying the black Daesh flags, perhaps in search of a new identity.

There are also others, who for tribal and other reasons remain opposed to Taliban. These tribal differences will exacerbate in the days to come as Mullah Mansour, a Durrani from the Ishakzai sub-tribe, tries to consolidate his hold over those from Mullah Omar’s Hotak (Ghilzai) sub-tribe.

There is also significant internal Taliban opposition to Mansour in the south. Apart from Mullah Zakir’s opposition, Mansoor Dadullah and his supporters have taken on Mullah Mansour’s commanders in southern Zabul province. Mutasim Agha Jan and Tayyab Agha are among some of the other senior Taliban political figures that have distanced themselves from Mansour.

The geopolitical changes around Afghanistan coupled with the ongoing organisational struggles of the Taliban provide an opportunity for Russia, Iran and India to reassess their roles in Afghanistan. Of course, this will materialise only in co-ordination with the Afghanistan unity government for which it will first need to convince itself that over-reliance on a Pakistan-led solution is a non-starter.

India played a pivotal role in the resistance against the Taliban through the Northern Alliance, two decades earlier. That role was predicated on the existence of facilities and friends in the region. Now, India needs to re-establish contact not just with the old friends in the region but also factions within the Taliban and the anti-Taliban forces in the south, to help Afghanistan gain strategic autonomy. It is also imperative for India that Afghanistan’s south-eastern regions are prevented from exporting terror into India. Unlike the last time, India now has the financial muscle to do a lot more. What it needs is renewed vigour and a fresh initiative on Afghanistan.

(Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane work at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru.)

The geopolitical changes around Afghanistan and the organisational struggles within the Taliban make the time right for India to reassess its role in Afghanistan

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