Foreign policy expert and editor of HardNews magazine, Sanjay Kapoor believes that Taliban 2.0 has more legitimacy unlike in the past as it had signed a deal with the US and negotiated with other countries of the region, but the final verdict can be passed only after it manages ticklish issues involving half of its population, the women
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): After months of reportage that the Taliban takeover would be chaotic and bloody, the actual change of guard was swift and bloodless. Was this entire reportage media’s manufactured narrative?
SANJAY KAPOOR (SK): India had few freelance reporters, but there was no journalist from mainstream media. The bulk of the reportage was coming from agencies that recycled perspectives from think tanks that were palmed off as exclusives. Due to the absence of good reporting, the world proved to be so wrong on Afghanistan. The local people were not so wrong. I have an Afghan friend who kept cautioning me by saying – ‘as soon as the US army goes, the entire country will fall to the Taliban’. This happened at great speed. He was right and we in the media were wrong.
KL: What could be the impact of the change of guard in Kabul on Delhi-Kabul relations?
SK: If one goes by the ties between India and Afghanistan when Taliban 1.0 was ruling Kabul, then the impact of the change in Kabul would be really bad. It would also suggest that India would be an active sponsor of resistance against them. But Taliban 2.0 is different. It enjoys more legitimacy than its previous avatar. It signed a deal with the US in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020. We do not know the content of the deal, but surely it suggests that the US army will leave Afghanistan soon. We do not know how soon it was to be, but by the speed at which US troops flew out of Bagram airport in July 2021, it is clear that the deal had meant it to be real quick
Even US President Joe Biden admitted that he had to stick to the agreement that the US, a sovereign power, had signed under his predecessor, Donald Trump, with the Taliban. India was kept out of the loop when it came to the deal with the Taliban as it expressed reservations about them countenancing them as terrorists responsible for much of the violence in that country and elsewhere.
In 2018, India did send two ex-officials to attend Moscow Conference in which the Taliban were invited, but they did not really interact with them. Since then there have been rumours that we have been in touch with them, in Doha and elsewhere. Many of their emissaries were floating around in Delhi lobbying that India should talk with the Taliban.
Many Taliban have families in Delhi and some of them have had education and training in India. Taliban leader like Stanikzai was trained in Dehradun’s Indian Military Academy
New Delhi was told that the Taliban should give them an opportunity to normalise ties as many of them have a close relationship with India. Families of Taliban live in Delhi and some of them have had education and training in India. Taliban leader Stanikzai was trained in Dehradun’s Indian Military Academy. What was also conveyed discretely was that they would like to distance themselves from Pakistan’s excessive control and would need India’s help for that. India has heard all these assurances in the past but does not trust them. New Delhi is extremely circumspect as it fears that the Taliban would not change its stripes.
Hawks in New Delhi’s strategic community fear that the Taliban after winning Afghanistan would turn its attention to Kashmir. Many of the mercenaries that helped them from Chechnya and Xinjiang would use their ire on Kashmir where they will be helped by militant organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad that had been armed, trained and outfitted by the Pakistan army to carry on their violent Jehad against the Indian forces in Kashmir.
Though unstated, many observers claim that LeT, which is a highly trained guerrilla organisation and works closely with the Pakistan army is at the vanguard of the Taliban. A violent face-off at Kashmir will buttress the theory of historians like Willian Dalrymple that the conflict in Afghanistan is the outcome of the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and Islamabad’s consequent need to have strategic depth in the event of a war. Now with a favourable regime in Afghanistan, what will Pakistan do in Kashmir? That’s what has to be watched very closely. Briefly stated, Pakistan has emerged stronger after these happenings and with China’s support, it presents a real and present danger to India’s geo-strategic interests.
KL: How will Tehran Delhi relations play in the situation that is anticipated between India and Afghanistan?
SK: India has close ties with Iran if interactions between Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and Iranian leadership are anything to go by. In the last couple of recent trips by the EAM, the two governments have resolved to work closely on many development projects, but I hear different voices from Tehran. These sources claim that India has not measured up as an ally as it failed to lend speed to the Chabahar port project, which India was to develop after a trilateral agreement in 2016. Iranians did not give this port to the Chinese or the old great gamers, Russians, but to India for many historical reasons. But New Delhi was wary of the US after former President Donald Trump re-imposed sanctions on the country and was looking over its shoulders all the time about how the US will react to its enterprise in this port city. Besides, New Delhi decided not to go ahead with the Farzad B gas field. Iranians claim that they waited for 15 years for the deal which allegedly allowed Saudis to drain the field off the gas. Besides, India after promising also did not build the railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan, which would have given impetus to the port and the free zone around it.
Iranians believe that if Indians had been proactive in that region then they could have been a factor in Herat and the area around that. Also, the Taliban and their sponsors, Pakistan would have thought many times before taking on India there. In other words, they could have served as a counterpoint to Pakistani and Chinese ambitions, but we failed. After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Chabahar and the connectivity route that was built around it has become unviable.
If you look at it, Iranians haven’t really interfered in the march of the Taliban to take over Afghanistan. They have not tried to use the Hazaras’ on whom they have influence. Perhaps early diplomacy by the Taliban and the Chinese lobbying ensured that Iran stayed its hand when it came to stopping the Taliban from coming to power. They have also not reached out to the Northern Alliance, which relies on them. Iran like other countries is waiting and watching how the cookie crumbles.
KL: Pakistan has been nervous about the Taliban takeover because of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Were those fears real? How will the change in Kabul play on either side of the Durand Line?
SK: I think Pakistan’s fears are not misplaced. If the Taliban manages to forge good ties with India, brokered by the US or the Shanghai Cooperation Countries (SCO), depending on how they behave in the coming days then Pakistan has a lot to worry about. Afghans are not fond of their abrasive attitude towards them and their historical fault-lines could resurface as soon as the Taliban get back to running the state.
Historians like Willian Dalrymple are of the belief that the conflict in Afghanistan is the outcome of the stand-off between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and Islamabad’s consequent need to have strategic depth.
KL: There is a lot of narrative being generated on Kabul impact on Kashmir. What impact do you anticipate?
SK: Indian government fears the Kabul impact on Kashmir. As stated above, some historians viewed the instability in Afghanistan as linked to the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It sounds far-fetched, but the Pakistan army’s insistence on the need for strategic depth after it lost territory in the 1971 war has dictated their conduct. Strategic depth means that in the event of a military debacle, Pakistan was looking for a friendly country where its military and political leadership could take refuge. Due to this reason, Pakistan is deeply invested in Afghan turmoil and demanding a reduced Indian presence in Afghanistan. India’s shutting down of consulates in Jalalabad and Heart, ostensibly due to pandemic; many observers claim was linked to US pressure that wanted to appease Pakistanis to fast track the deal with Taliban in the landlocked country. Is it any surprise that the Taliban went around the Kandahar consulate of India searching for some papers? All these issues firmly indicate that Pakistan is indeed calling the shots with the Taliban when it comes to dealing with India. It is still early days, but we will know whether there is an escalation of violence in Kashmir supported by Pakistani allied militant organisations that played a role in Afghanistan. The Indian government is also raising this issue of the threat from the Taliban to Kashmir as it could help with religious polarization in other parts of the country. In UP elections this polarisation could play a role.
KL: How correct is this impression that Kabul change of guard created a huge block involving China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan? If it is real, then what is the way out of siege?
SK: India is challenged by the emergence of this block, but nothing is in black and white. We must remember that the presence of Turkish troops is with the blessings of the United States. During President Biden’s last meeting with Turkey’s President Reccep Erdogan this decision was taken. My information suggests that the Taliban is listening to the United States in Afghanistan. How does this square with what is visible? We really do not know as I believe that someone has to pay the Taliban to run the country. The only three entities that can do it are the US, Qatar and China. Without their support, a miserable Afghanistan will sink deeper into an abyss. US has frozen its accounts and also nudged IMF not to allow access to emergency funds. President Biden will leverage this to salvage his tattered reputation. Meetings between Taliban and Hamid Karzai are meant to pave the way to sort these ticklish issues. One of them, at least for optics, would be how will the Taliban treat the women of Afghanistan. We may hear some more guarantees that promise opportunities to women. This would be critical to allow them to get back their funds. We will also see a more inclusive government with some key members of the earlier cabinet joining the interim government. Russia and China will benefit in the long run, but the Taliban needs the West support for winning legitimacy.
KL: China is already around Ladakh. How correct and plausible are the claims about a two-front involvement?
SK: India is staring at a situation where there could be a two-front war. India should not have done anything to spoil ties with both countries at the same time. It’s bad diplomacy. India is on a weak wicket now with China and resurgent Pakistan snapping at its heels. It would require the support of Quad and statesmanship on the part of our leaders to stand up to this threat.
KL: Is there some thought process about reviving anti- Taliban forces? There are already hints about the resistance emerging within Afghanistan and Rashid Dostum, Ashraf Ghani and many others have already left. Within Afghanistan, even Amrullah Saleh is loudly talking?
SK: I think all the key players are watching the events closely. Taliban would not have taken over Afghanistan without the support of all those countries that it negotiated with in the last 18 months- the US, China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Turkey. That is why Taliban 2.0 has more legitimacy. It is unlikely that these countries will throw the Taliban under the bus right away. Northern Alliance gives an option to those opposed to the Taliban, but the alliance is too weak without US support or the Iranians stepping in to build them. Last time even India was helping them out. If the Taliban’s have an inclusive government that is Afghan-owned then the threat from Northern Alliance could fizzle out. Much will depend on how the Taliban treat their women and manage their economy.
KL: Is the situation eventually pushing India to join CPEC?
SK: India opposed CPEC ideologically. Also, accepting CPEC would mean accepting the occupation of areas in Kashmir that are under Pakistan and China’s control. Without a trade-off of land between the two countries, this can’t be solved and India would not join CPEC. China had offered India all kinds of options to join it, but we refused. After the violence in Galwan valley, rapprochement with China has become far difficult.