Chances are that the churn in Afghanistan may end up singeing those who take an intrusive interest in its affairs, writes Amb Rajiv Dogra (retd) for South Asia Monitor
In an interview on BBC’s Radio 4, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that when he woke up on August 15, he had no inkling it would be his last day in Afghanistan. He added that it was only when his plane left Kabul that he realized he was going.
Ghani ruled Afghanistan for seven years. He had the latest information available about the Taliban advance from his intelligence services. Did he not know, much before August 15, that the Taliban were knocking at Kabul’s doors?
All through those wasted seven years he could not command the trust of Afghans, nor earn their respect. That’s why they voted in 2019 to remove him in his re-election bid. But his American sponsors felt comfortable with a figurehead and he was manipulatively reinstalled. As a creature of their creation, when the Americans deserted Afghanistan, it was natural that Ghani should flee too.
Had he been a man of character he would have stayed on, like the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. But Ghani is not man enough; that’s why he finds it necessary to whitewash his sins. But Afghans are contemptuous of him. They have a reason to spite him because not once, in any interview, did he express regret for the horrors that have visited Afghans since he abandoned them.
Taliban won’t learn
Meanwhile, the Taliban are busy dialling the Afghan clock back to the times they left it in 20 years ago. They themselves remain fixed in their ways; having learnt nothing new and having forgotten nothing of their old practices. This means women are unlikely to get their place in society and the girl child will continue to be denied her right to education. It also means freedom of expression and democracy are terms for further shores. The media will remain muzzled. After the abolition of the Election Commission, debate will have no place in Afghanistan.
Unless there is a radical course correction, chances are that the Afghan economy will steadily regress towards the very bottom it had reached during the previous Taliban rule. Up to 2001 the Afghan GDP remained at around $ 2.7 billion. From here, it climbed to achieve a GDP of $19.5 billion in 2017. Its exports reveal a similar picture. They totalled in 1996 a pitiable $90 million. By 2017 they had reached a reasonably respectable $784 million.
Now, with international sanctions in place, the slide to the dismal state of the 90s may not take long. Rather, the overall conditions could worsen. During the first Taliban rule there was virtually no opposition to the government. This time the government itself is divided between factions. There are rumours of a growing rift between the Haqqani network and other factions of the Taliban. Moreover, ethnic minorities like Hazaras are restless; many are being forced out of their houses. The substantial population of Tajiks remain on the edge and hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmen have been evicted from their land.
Gradually, and as frustration with the hardline methods of the government grows, other pockets of resistance could emerge. Discontent may become more pronounced within the Taliban ranks, in part, because of Haqqani group’s domination in critical security positions. All these are formidable odds for a new government.
What 2022 holds?
Consequently, 2022 holds little promise for the Taliban. They will have to grapple with humanitarian and financial crises, international condemnation, some backlash by people and an IS-Khorasan threat to its power and control. Yet the Taliban are likely to remain indifferent to the world and its opinion.
Despite that defiance, the outside world’s choices are limited. It could, and perhaps it should, keep Afghanistan under sanctions till it begins to conform to the minimum global standards on women’s rights and general human rights. But that tussle could be long. The Taliban might remain obstinate.
Meanwhile, Afghans will continue to suffer from mass unemployment and food shortages. It is for the sake of the average citizen that the world may have to take a step forward. Some contact will have to be established so that the Taliban are reminded from time to time of the outside world’s expectations.
The UN has taken that first step with the adoption in December 2021 of a Security Council resolution to provide humanitarian assistance. This resolution has put in place a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the aid it provides reaches people. It also called on all parties to respect the human rights of all. Whether this call will be heeded by the Taliban remains to be seen. But there is no harm in the UN making this pitch.
Meanwhile, the best the outside world can hope for is that over time, as economic and societal issues begin to overwhelm it, the Taliban might make some concessions to ease people’s lives.
These are minimal expectations, yet the Taliban might prefer to keep walking down the negative path. Then, the way ahead could be challenging for it and the region around it. Therefore caution should be the watchword for the foreseeable future.
India must keep distance
Because of the uncertain times that lie ahead for Afghanistan there are some who maintain that India should offer refuge to Afghan minorities like the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks. But this appeal for generosity is misplaced. It ignores the security implications these vast numbers pose, nor does it take into account the societal impact in India of accommodating a large influx.
Then there are those who find fault with India for saying that during the pre-Taliban phase it was on the same page as America. The counter to this being would they rather that India announced it was not on the same page as America.
A balanced view would acknowledge that India does not need the American crutch to reach out to Afghans. Its relationship with Afghanistan predates the birth of America by centuries; unlike America’s episodic attention towards the country, India has emotional and enduring links to nurture. That’s why over the centuries India gave refuge to Afghans. But this fact did not deter Afghanistan from sending volunteers to fight alongside Pakistani tribals in Jammu & Kashmir in 1947-48.
To give another example, let’s take the case of Indian aid to it. This has consistently received appreciative nods from people. But at no point did any Afghan government regard India as a partner of strategic significance.
Then there is also a suggestion that India should revive the Northern Alliance, hinting thereby that it could form the resistance to the Taliban. It is true that the Northern Alliance had played a hopeful role for a brief period in the late 90s. But it was never powerful enough to pose a challenge to Kabul. In any case, it was a product of circumstances and overlapping interests then. These no longer exist.
Now, Russia follows a different trajectory and so does Iran. It will currently be unrealistic and hazardous to expect India to launch a solo foray.
Accordingly, and given the turbulence that lies ahead, it will be prudent for India to maintain some sort of informal contact with the government in power in Afghanistan without getting involved one way or the other. The chances are that the churn in Afghanistan may end up singeing those who take an intrusive interest in its affairs.
(The writer is a former Indian ambassador and author of the book “Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan's Heart”. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)