The serial blasts, the revival of Islamic radicalism and the Pak-Taliban military standoff will affect Indian interests
When the ruthless, militarily powerful and ideologically-driven Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the expectation was that peace ( even if it was only the peace of the graveyard) would return to the hapless country. But contrary to expectations, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is facing an internal revolt by other, more radically Islamist groups. This is clearly reflected in a series of bomb blasts across the country.
These disturbances are occurring even as the regime is being subjected to international isolation, open US hostility, and of late, an unexpected military standoff with former patron, Pakistan. Together, these are bound to have an impact on the South and Central Asian region, in which India has developed an economic and geopolitical interest. A troubled Western neighborhood in which forces inimical to India are active, will necessarily impact India’s security and internal communal cohesion, the latter already fraying at the edges. Of particular concern should be the strengthening of extremism in Pakistan as a result of its fight with Afghanistan-based Islamic State of Khorasan Province/Pakistan and Afghan Taliban.
Scenario in Afghanistan
Thursday’s explosion at a Shia mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif in the Balkh province of northern Afghanistan killed 30 and wounded 80 worshipers. Capital Kabul witnessed two blasts on the same day, in which two children were wounded. The northern Kunduz province was hit by a bomb that killed four and wounded eight. Four Taliban cadres were killed in a blast in Khugiani district of the eastern Nangarhar province. Three bombs in a school and an educational center in Kabul killed six students and wounded 24.
No one took responsibility for the blasts but it is suspected that Islamist groups like the ISIS and the Haqqani group, that are more radical than the Taliban, are suspected. These feel that the Taliban are not radical enough. Gautam Mukhopadhaya, a former Indian envoy in Kabul, told Stratglobal recently that resistance to the Taliban is widespread, albeit largely latent. While the ordinary Afghan feels oppressed, radical Islamists find the Taliban wanting. According to Mukhopadhaya, Afghans are waiting for the emergence of a messiah who will unite the various groups to take on the Taliban.
Such an eventuality cannot be ruled out. he says. He recalled that after 9/11, when the Americans launched their global war on terror, the Northern Alliance emerged to challenge the Taliban, overthrew them in five years, and ruled Afghanistan for two decades. Mukhopadhaya advocated outside support for appropriate groups in Afghanistan to neutralize the Taliban, even as he cautioned against hasty steps given the fluidity of the situation.
The newest factor in Afghanistan is the escalating military standoff between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the border (the Durand Line). To Mukhopadhaya this stems from Pakistan’s vested interest in keeping at bay the troublesome Pashtuns or Pakhtuns, who dominate the Taliban and also straddle the border. Islamabad is keen on crushing the Pakistan Taliban for the latter’s terrorist activities in Pakistan. But the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are blood brothers and ideological kin, both aiming at the establishment of Sharia-based rule in the region.
Writing in The Diplomat Umair Jamal says that trouble between Pakistan and the Taliban started soon after the Taliban captured power on August 15, 2021. “Border tensions rose exponentially as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ramped up its attacks on the Pakistani security forces from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s attempts to convince the Taliban to expel the TTP leadership from Afghanistan have failed. Islamabad’s efforts to involve the Taliban in negotiating a peace agreement with the TTP have also failed. In fact, the Taliban have not made any substantial efforts to contain the TTP or prevent it from attacking the Pakistan military,” Jamal says.
The Pakistan Air Force had no option but to carry out strikes in Khost and Kunar provinces targeting TTP hideouts, killing 47. In turn, the Taliban have warned Pakistan of “bad consequences” if another air strike took place. But having lost 70,000 lives to Islamic terrorists based in Afghanistan, Islamabad is unlikely to show tolerance. Now that Imran Khan is out of the way in Islamabad (he was in the beginning dubbed ‘Taliban Khan’) the Shehbaz Sharif government, which is also pro-US, is unlikely to step back. What is more likely is tension along the Durand Line, a border which is also challenged by Afghanistan traditionally. An unstable Pakistan with Islamic radicalism in the fore, is not good news for communally-divided India.
What external forces are likely to do under the circumstances is a matter of conjecture. While the Americans will continue to maintain their distance from the region to take on Russians in Eastern Europe, Chinese involvement will increase as it sees Afghanistan as a bridge to its Belt and Road initiatives in Central Asia. Pakistan, which has played a key but confusing role in Afghanistan for long, will continue to do so. It is interested in keeping Afghanistan as a strategic ally and as an Islamic bulwark against efforts by India and other powers to make regimes in Kabul bastions of secularism rather than Islamism. But Islamabad has to achieve these objectives without making its Afghan agent, a Frankenstein’s monster, as Taliban became.
Gautam Mukhopadhaya gave some ideas on what India can or should be under the circumstances in an article in Mint last year. He wrote that India should go beyond humanitarian assistance and wait for opportunities to support a ‘national uprising’. According to Mukhopadhaya and many others including others in the current Indian Ministry of External Affairs, India enjoys much goodwill among the hoi polloi in Afghanistan thanks to its US$ 3 billion worth of projects in that country. But India had failed to capitalize on this by not using its good relations with all the ethnic and political forces in Afghanistan “to play a more active political role in promoting national unity,” he submits. India could have played a more active diplomatic role in warning the US about its disastrous ‘peace’ process, though the task would not have been easy given the heavy American presence and Pakistan’s hold over the Taliban.
And the task is not going to be any easier now because, despite the international boycott, unabated US hostility, the Taliban regime has not given an inch of concessions to the world to gain recognition and get much needed financial aid. Girls are still barred from school. Even the top most court orders flogging. Those Afghans invited come back are made to disappear after they come back. The government is neither ethnically nor ideologically diverse. It is still overwhelmingly Pashtun and includes the Haqqani group. Some of its key functionaries are in UN and US-designated terrorist lists with known ties to Al-Qaeda.
Therefore, the situation makes it very challenging for India to operate. However, there is no way India can give up as it did between 1996 and 2001 when the Taliban ruled with the blessings of Pakistan. India could work on the goodwill of the masses of Afghanistan across the ethnic divide (including the Pashtuns) by opening an ‘Indian interests section’ in the embassy of a friendly country. It should continue to give humanitarian assistance and also increase trade to put money into the pockets of Afghans.
Interestingly, the Taliban have not made anti-India statements and have in fact welcomed trade with India. Prudence dictates that India should not give the Chinese and the Pakistanis a free run over Afghanistan. While India’s steps should be broad spectrum, caution and measured steps are called for, because the situation is fluid and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future, Mukhopadhaya concludes.