As Trump administration finally shook hands with the Taliban in Doha and promised to withdraw within 14 months after 18 years, does the ‘Pakeezah’ moment mean anything to Kashmir? Senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani explains the new milestone in the age-old Great Games
In the wee hours of August 1994, a wailing woman was trying to catch the attention of passersby in Spin Boldak, a border town in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, next to the border with Pakistan. When she was travelling on way to Pakistan’s Chaman border, gunmen loyal to a local warlord, a former commander of anti-Soviet Mujahideen group had kidnapped her daughter. A black turbaned tall Pathan, on his way back from the mosque after hearing the story of the wailing woman, scrambled 15 youth, all students of a madrassa and invaded the abode of the warlord. After a brief exchange of fire, the warlord retreated as people in the Spin Boldak had also joined this one-eyed Pathan against the warlord’s gang. Upon searching the dera, they found scores of kidnapped girls and teenage boys, who had been forced to work as sex slaves.
The one-eyed man was none else by Mulla Omar, who founded the Taliban with his 15 friends. He had fought with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen under the command of Nek Mohammed of the Hizb-e-IslamiKhalis. However, he did not join fighting against the communist regime of Najibullah. Wounded four times, exploding shrapnel destroyed one of his eyes during a battle in Sangsar, Panjwaye district in 1987. After 1989, he had given up fighting and had taken a teaching job in a madrassa.
Short of expressing an outright welcome, India pledged to go along with something that “the entire political spectrum in Afghanistan, including the Government, the democratic polity and civil society, has welcomed.” It will “continue to extend all support to the Government and people of Afghanistan in realising their aspirations.”
Apparently distressed, Delhi’s Kabul policy was based on its ties with the Afghan security agencies in order to elbow out Pakistan. However, Washington expects India to tag along. In Delhi, Trump said the two major democracies were on the same page. Many think it was a ploy to tie up Modi’s hands and ensure he reins in the hardliners. It wants the Ghani’s caravan remains in power but also realises that the Taliban will eventually rule the Afghans.
Soon after the fall of Najibullah, Afghanistan was a lawless state. Mujahideen commanders turned warlords were fleecing people, kidnapping young girls and boys. When Mulla Omar’s men drew warlords away, war fatigued population in other areas invited them to restore order. The governors of Helmand and Gazni willingly surrendered their provinces.
Though they restored order quickly in southern Afghanistan and captured Kabul without any resistance, they proved lethal for northern Afghanistan. They employed brutal methods for other ethnic groups and sects to cement their rule and ideology. If this was not enough, they allied with al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s outfit provided them with much-needed funds and international outreach.
Mullah Omar’s Taliban ruled the major part of Afghanistan till 2001, till the US-led forces to avenge the 9/11 attacks, captured Kabul and handed it over to Northern Alliance, a group that had refused to surrender to the Taliban. The US entry led to another era of insurgency. The daisy cutters, fighter jets, drones did kill thousands of Taliban fighters but did not end the insurgency, which kept on growing stronger.
Anxiety In Delhi
After 18 years of fighting, the recent US-Taliban deal has lit a glimmer of hope that peace may return to Afghanistan. The return of the Taliban to power has led anxiety in New Delhi that it may affect its US $3 billion worth of investments in the war-torn country. More worry for New Delhi is that its beta noire, Pakistan is aiming at to regain its clout and secure western borders by ensuring a friendly government in Afghanistan.
The anxiety is not limited to losing control in Kabul, but apprehensions that the Taliban take over in Kabul with an emboldened Islamabad could have cascading effects on the ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir. According to reports, India’s external intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Chief, Samant Goel had called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 5, recommending integrating Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of country as soon as possible.
A maze of high-level sources in New Delhi suggests that the spy chief had argued that things could spin out of control after the US -Taliban deal. Goel warned that Washington could choose to reward Islamabad for its role with the resumption of military and economic aid. “That could see an intensification of Islamabad’s direct and indirect sponsorship of terror groups operating in Kashmir,” the source said the spy chief told the Prime Minister. Exactly a month later on August 5, Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two Union Territories (UT) and the erstwhile state’s special status was withdrawn. Then, indications suggested the deal was supposed to be inked sometime in September 2019, but it got delayed and was signed on February 29, 2020.
A Pakeezah Moment
The unease in Delhi can be gauged from the fact that External Affairs Minister, Subramaniym Jaishankar drew parallels between the US-Taliban peace agreement and 1972 Bollywood movie Pakeezah. Set in the Muslim locality of Lucknow, known for its distinct erudite culture the movie centres on the mental plight of a courtesan longing to be loved. The film director Kamal Amrohi took 16 years to make the film. Even though the film was a hit, the lead actress MeenaKumari died days before it was released.
Basking under the sunshine of its centrality in the Afghan problem, Pakistan is euphoric and closely follows the US projection that the Doha pact offers a “historic opportunity”, which Afghan parties should “seize”. In self-congratulatory mood, an optimistic Pakistan feels her Afghan stand was vindicated. In substantive terms, its decades-long policy to project power into Afghanistan is reaching the homestretch and its “strategic asset” is now assured of a leadership role in Kabul. The “peace dividends”, the revival of the relations with the US, in particular promise to be a game-changer for Pakistan’s standing as a regional power.
“What we saw at Doha was not a surprise. Everybody knew something like this was happening,” Jaishankar said. “It has been talked about for so long. It was almost like finally seeing Pakeezah after seeing 17 trailers of the movie.”
External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said India would continue to extend all support to Kabul. Interestingly, he described Afghanistan as a contiguous neighbour, in a clear reference that the Pakistan-administered-Kashmir belongs to India.
Wait and Watch
Many influential individuals in New Delhi are now arguing for opening channels with the Taliban by responding to their recent overtures. Official sources, however, say that a wait and watch policy and continuing support to the friends in Kabul administration were the best policy at the moment.
India’s former envoy to Afghanistan Amar Sinha argues that there was no point engaging the Taliban at this moment at the cost of losing old and trusted friends. “Also, Taliban’s policies are too heavily governed by Pakistan and until those ties are loosened, it will be pointless for India to make a move,” he said.
Iran sees the deal from a triangle. 1. Underscoring that “lasting peace” can be realised through the upcoming intra-Afghan talks that must take into account the interests of neighbouring countries. 2. American moves are “an effort to legitimise the presence of its troops in Afghanistan, and is opposed to such moves.” 3. Afghanistan is in transition. Its principal worry is that the US intends a strong presence in Afghanistan to destabilise Iran. Instead of torpedoing the peace process, Tehran will try to leverage its influence with Afghanistan factions to safeguard its interests in a final settlement. US negotiators at Doha actually brought in Taliban-Iran relations as a pre-condition indicating the Trump administration does not expect Iran to undermine the deal.
The former ambassador, however, suggested that once the intra-Afghan dialogue picks up pace, India should offer its services and host a Jirga (Grand council meet). “We are a safe country and a neutral country. We don’t pose a threat to either the Taliban or the others, and we do not choose winners or losers,” he added.
Even before coming to power, current rulers in Kabul had strong linkages with India. Be that President Ashraf Gani, the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah or former President Hamid Karzai, they had been living in India for years. The view in New Delhi, therefore, is that it was pointless to go ahead of the government in Kabul.
Due to investments in social projects, many believe that India has acquired considerable goodwill among youth, rich and middle-class population in Afghanistan. Sinha attributed the Taliban statement of February that they will support Chabaharport project and protect Indian investments to the public opinion in the country.
Shyam Saran, India’s former Foreign Secretary urges the government to plan counter moves. He said the bottom-line of India’s Afghan policy should be to prevent the complete takeover of Kabul by the Taliban but encourage them to be a part of a broad-based government. “Short of sending boots to the ground military support to the current regime and helping to unite Afghan groups inimical to Taliban must be explored,” he suggested.
Russia exhibited enigmatic silence over the deal even though it has contacts with the Taliban and has largely normalised the relations with Pakistan. It once hosted intra-Afghan forums including the Taliban. Though not opposing the deal, the Kremlin is seething with the discontent that it has been marginalised in major global decision making. It shares Tehran’s concerns over US presence in Afghanistan.
India’s former envoy to Pakistan GParthasarthy believed that while India needs to monitor developments, there was a need to launch astute diplomacy and express readiness to continue with economic assistance and open channels with the Taliban. The view is that unlike during the last Taliban government from 1994-2001, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE will not be in a position to help the country financially. Therefore, even a Taliban-led government will ultimately depend on New Delhi for resources.
Under the Doha agreement, the U.S. has committed to reducing its military footprint to 8,600 from 13,000 in the next three-four months, with the remaining forces withdrawing in 14 months. The Taliban on their side has committed to ensuring that Afghan soil is not used to plot attacks on the US or its allies. The US has pledged to lift sanctions against the Taliban. The pact also provides for a prisoner swap with the provision that around 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners would be exchanged.
While most of the experts refer goodwill among Afghan people as India’s best trump card, former MP and strategic expert Manvinder Singh stated that New Delhi has shot itself in the foot.
Referring to the new citizenship law approved by the Indian parliament in December 2019, he said that it has angered Afghans. The law blames Afghanistan for persecuting its minorities. “That is all it takes for decades of goodwill to go up in a jiffy,” said Singh, whose father Jaswant Singh, India’s former external affairs minister had negotiated the release of the hijacked plane and its passengers in Kandahar with then Taliban regime in 1999.
While President Ashraf Ghani has put a question mark on the release of over 5000 Taliban prisoners from the prison, which has been an important pre-condition to start an intra-Afghan dialogue, M K Bhadrakumar, former ambassador who has served in Kabul and Tehran said the Gani government may not be able to hold the peace process to ransom.
Bhadrakumarbelieved that in such pacts, more important is often not mentioned in the black and white. Even though days ahead of the Doha agreement, the election commission declared Gani a winner in the presidential elections, he still fears that the formation of an interim government has become unavoidable. Bhadrakumar said the US was intending to keep select limited military bases in Afghanistan, with intelligence deployment.
A Regional Tilt
In the run-up to the deal, an important aspect was SirajuddinHaqqani’s op-ed in The New York Times titled What We, the Taliban, Want. It became an important signpost that deals with the support that it has from all factions. Before the Haqqani network was declared a terrorist group, JalaluddinHaqqani (Sirajuddin’s late father) was seen as very close to the CIA. The well-known journalist and academic Steve Coll in his masterly work The Bin Ladens says that Jalaluddin was the only Mujahideen leader of the Afghan jihad whom Pakistan President Zia-ul Haq had permitted the CIA to mentor directly. Bhadrakumar believes that Sirajuddin’s mainstreaming (with US acquiescence) is a guarantee for Pakistan that India’s influence with Afghan security agencies will be terminated and its capacity to inflict damage on Pakistan’s national security interests will be rolled back.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman unequivocally supported the deal and is pleased with its role as “a supporter, mediator and facilitator of the Afghan peace and reconciliation process.” Willingness to play a “constructive role” in future, two templates of the Chinese statement draw particular attention. 1. “Foreign troops should withdraw in an orderly and responsible way so that the situation in Afghanistan will experience a steady transition with no security vacuum for terrorist forces to seize upon and expand themselves. Meanwhile, the international community should continue to support and engage in the Afghan peace and reconstruction process.” 2. “China stands ready to work with the international community and continue to offer our support and assistance to the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.”
In Pakistan, former foreign Secretary, Riya Muhammad Khan said the agreement marks a formal reversal of the wrongs committed in early 2002 when the US chose to lump the Afghan Taliban together with al Qaeda even though the Taliban were not responsible for 9/11. He said the intra-Afghan talks would prove more challenging and advised players to desist from pushing narrow interests. He asked outside powers to allow enough space for the Afghans to work out their differences.
Khan said the agreement has also validated Pakistani position on the Afghan Taliban. “Our policy must now proceed with confidence that nothing can offset the unique relationship grounded in common geography and population overlap. Pakistan has an inbuilt role in helping the peace process,” he said, insisting instead of pushing peace that draws suspicion it was necessary to move prudently. “We must not let our policy fall into the Afghan ethnic divide or into taking sides. Peace will contain Indian capacity for mischief.”
Ironically, what the US achieved in Doha is almost similar to what it’s then-UN Ambassador, Bill Richardson had negotiated with the Taliban when he landed in Kabul on April 17, 1998. According to a book How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, authored by Roy Gutman, in the company of Pakistani Ambassador in Kabul Aziz Ahmed Khan, the Taliban had agreed on a ceasefire and to join talks with United Front or Northern Alliance. They also agreed to allow higher education to women, but no coeducation and permit health workers and doctors to treat women and to prohibit all opium cultivation.
To eradicate heroin production, the Taliban declared that growing poppies was un-Islamic, resulting in one of the world’s most successful anti-drug campaigns. They enforced a ban on poppy farming via threats, forced eradication, and public punishment of transgressors. The result was a 99 per cent reduction in the area of opium poppy farming in Taliban-controlled areas, roughly three-quarters of the world’s supply of heroin at the time. The ban was effective only briefly due to the deposition of the Taliban in 2001.
Many experts are drawing similarities between the US strategy back in Vietnam in 1969 and the agreement with the Taliban. They say that President Richard Nixon had played a similar game to seek re-election in the early 70s. With the help of Pakistan, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing in July 1971, agreeing to a complete withdrawal of troops in return for Hanoi’s releasing the US prisoners of war and a ceasefire. He had assured Chinese leaders that if the US-backed Saigon government was overthrown following the withdrawal of troops, the US would not intervene.
And this is exactly how it unfolded. Nixon visited China in February 1972, describing it as a visit to bring about lasting peace in the world. He won his re-election handsomely in November 1972, communists overran the Saigon government and the US did not intervene.
Many strategists now believe that the Taliban have evolved over the years. While at one time they enforced a medieval code, today, they are now tech-savvy insurgents and ready to accommodate modern-day means and other sects and ethnicities. The region, which has been the victim of a Great Game, has mesmerized and romanticized the world for centuries. The bravery, quest for freedom and zest of inhabitants divided into innumerable tribes has punished the British, led the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and taught bitter lessons to the US. There may be no medals for those who took the superpowers. But their stories are told besides campfires in the cold Hindu Kush Mountains.
(A former Strategic Affairs editor with the DNA, Gilani now works for Anadolu Agency.)