India’s Afghan stakes wobble as Taliban set to re-occupy Kabul

The Taliban, which has been involved in a two-decade-old insurgency against Kabul, has been hostile to India in the past. New Delhi is now in discreet talks with the Islamic group

India, which re-entered Afghanistan in a big way after the removal of the Taliban in power in 2001, has over the last two decades invested over $3 billion in that country for rebuilding infrastructure. Representative photo: iStock

Top-ranking Afghan bowler Rashid Khan, who plays in India’s IPL, is a huge draw among cricket enthusiasts. He’s also an expensive buy for his franchise, but worth the money. But, the question is, will he be able to play in next year’s (2022) edition of the popular T20 tournament?

It would all depend on how political changes in his country play out over the next few months. If he does play it will mean India’s ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan are on an even keel. If he’s not allowed to play in India or anywhere else, it means trouble in the subcontinent. In short, Rashid Khan could be the weathervane for what’s going to happen in his country.

Afghanistan is on the cusp of a seismic shift, politically. The Taliban, which has been involved in a two-decade-old insurgency against Kabul, will be part of the government in a peace deal that will see the exit of the United States from the conflict-hit country within the next three months.

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Rashid Khan is just the miniscule tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg. It is a make or break moment for India in Afghanistan.  Apriori, New Delhi is concerned at the imminent return to power of the Taliban, which in its earlier stint in the 1990s viewed India with intense hostility.

However, much has changed since then. The most prominent among them being that the Taliban-Pakistan relationship is not as cosy as it was then.  India hopes to find a foothold in the wedge that exists between the Taliban and Pakistan.

Latest reports say that India has been involved in discreet talks with the Taliban leadership in the Qatari capital Doha where negotiations are on between the Islamic group and the Ashraf Ghani government, under the auspices of the US, to chalk out a power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan.

A Qatari diplomat Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani reportedly confirmed India’s overtures to the Taliban on Monday at a webinar. This is borne out by reports that Minister for External Affairs (MEA) S Jaishankar has met Taliban officials in Doha twice in recent days.

A Hindu newspaper report, quoting India’s MEA spokesperson, said New Delhi is “in touch with various stakeholders in pursuance of its long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”

The talks in Doha, initially between the previous US’ Donald Trump administration and the Taliban resulted in a deal last February. But, the Afghan government initially refused to take part in the talks.

However, under US pressure, the Ashraf Ghani government eventually relented in September last and talks have since been underway with the Taliban to come to a political settlement before the US departure fixed for September 11 this year.

Until now, there has been no agreement between the two sides. Even as the talks are on, the Taliban which controls at least 30 per cent of Afghanistan, has continued to engage in arms combat with Afghan troops periodically, raising fears over a messy struggle for power that may occur if the two sides do not come to an agreement.

The Taliban was overthrown in an US-led attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC. The then Taliban government protected the suspected perpetrator, al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and refused to hand him over to the US.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by the US, under the approval of the United Nations Security Council, invaded and ousted the Taliban from power. Since then, for the last nearly 20 years the US has tried to set up a stable and moderate government in Kabul. But the Taliban has never given up; instead it has mounted an insurgency that has eventually left it the de facto winner in the war, considered the longest that the US has been directly involved in thus far.

The US is returning, all but humbled as it has not managed to decimate the Taliban as vowed by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the US under the current Joe Biden administration has said it will leave, unconditionally.  In other words, the US has not been able to wrap up a conflict it had initiated in Afghanistan, and instead has paved the way for a more gory battle in the months ahead – if a peace deal is not worked out.

For India which had nothing to do with the initiation of the conflict or its conduct in Afghanistan, the prognosis is grim.  To begin with, New Delhi has had a hostile relationship with the Taliban. It can only hope for a significant dilution in the radical Islamic group’s ties with Pakistan.

Recent statements from the Taliban on the sidelines of the Doha peace talks indicate that this group may consider accommodating Indian interests once it returns to power. But that is as tenuous as it gets.

Pakistan has an upper hand, though. The Taliban, which was incubated by Islamabad during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, has had enduring ties with the Pakistani deep state. Though their ties were significantly strained following the US pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban and allied groups after the 9/11 attacks, the relationship has largely held up.

India, which re-entered Afghanistan in a big way after the removal of the Taliban in power in 2001, has over the last two decades invested over $3 billion in that country for rebuilding infrastructure. It has also expanded its strategic and diplomatic footprint in the country in this time.

While India is worrying over its future in Afghanistan, time is slipping by with no signs of a deal in Doha between the Taliban and the incumbent Ashraf Ghani government. The ground reality speaks for itself. Most bases that the US troops exited from have been literally handed over without a fight to the Taliban by dispirited Afghan troops. In short, the militant Islamic group has proved it has the heft to takeover power in Kabul, deal or no deal.

If and when that happens, the Taliban has already made no bones about the fact that Afghanistan will be governed by Islamic laws similar to how it was in the 1990s.  This, among other things, would mean a return to extreme patriarchy.  The spate of targeted killings, specifically of women journalists in recent times, in attacks attributed to the Taliban or its supporters, is a definitive pointer to what awaits Afghanistan soon.

Schools have been targeted too, especially those attended by female students, and reports point to a wide variety of discrimination in other ways that women face in the country, with the Kabul government appearing helpless to intervene.

Also read: US messed up Afghanistan, now wants others to clean it up

In the past, among other things, the Taliban had taken a strong position against sports and music claiming they were “un-Islamic”. Games like cricket and an individual like Rashid Khan flourished only after the removal of the Taliban in 2001.

Though many hope that the Taliban 2.0 will have moderated its views, one need not be surprised if such perceived “deviations” and “un-Islamic” activities are eventually proscribed. In which case, it will spell finis to Rashid Khan’s career and his IPL team, Sunrisers Hyderabad, may have to look for a replacement.

Alternatively, if the Taliban has turned more pragmatic and moderate, Rashid Khan can thank his luck, and so will India.

 

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