On the first day of the second instance of Taliban rule in Kabul, the scenes played out at the city’s international airport, reminded many of us of the end of Vietnam War,” said Mr Peter Rimmele in his introductory remarks.
“Women are now barely visible in Afghanistan’s streets and markets; posters of women have been hastily painted over throughout the cities and the sharia law has returned, all signs indicating that the Taliban reign of terror has made yet another comeback and the clock has been turned back by 20 years,” he said.
He regretted that Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung which had been active in Kabul since 2002 supporting several educational projects and other peace initiatives had to close its office now and evacuate its personnel to safety, like many other organisations. He termed the withdrawal of the US military as a hasty political decision and one that was poorly executed.
Mr Peter Rimmele felt that the US focused more on military aspects than on development, during these 20 years. “Because of corrupt officials, the humanitarian aid did not reach the people,” he pointed out and cautioned that the western allies which turned a blind eye to these developments now have to face the consequences.
He was categorical that the Taliban assurances of not meddling in Kashmir cannot be trusted. “The earlier regime of Taliban was a safe haven for terrorists,” he said and expressed his opinion that the vacuum created in Afghanistan cannot be filled by Taliban and their control would be limited. There will be infighting and power battle in Afghanistan and as an offshoot, terrorism will be a problem for India and the world, he predicted.
The helicopter scene from 2001
Initiating the panel discussion, Ms Indrani Bagchi stated that the increased sense of threat perception from the Afghan developments is because of the fear that what happened in Afghanistan may not just be restricted to Afghanistan. According to her, people who have studied Afghanistan feel that this development should have been expected, knowing the Taliban.
“They (the US) just fought a one year war, twenty times over…”
She reckoned that there will be two lines of India’s engagement with Afghanistan: One, the investments that India has made in Afghanistan and their people for the last 20 years, and two, India’s own security, viewed in the context of the Taliban and its relationship with terror sponsors.
She urged the panel to deliberate on the degree of control that can be exercised by Taliban, the political and military actions that will follow, the fate of resistance that they face in the Panjshir valley, the role that will be played by regional partners – Pakistan and China and the other regional players like Iran, Russia, Qatar and Turkey, the fate of ISI sponsored and radical Islamic terror and if the US will remain engaged with the new Afghan dispensation, and if so, how.
On a concluding note, Indrani Bagchi recalled a scene from the past – 22 December 2001- when Hamid Karzai took over the Presidency of Afghanistan, which was attended by India’s then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh with a small team including Indrani Bagchi.
“We boarded a helicopter at Bagram to fly to Kabul with Jaswant Singh. It was a Northern Alliance helicopter that was taking us. There was only one seat in the helicopter. Jaswant Singh occupied that seat and we were all standing. The door opened and one gentleman walked in from another flight. It was Ashraf Ghani who was going to become Hamid Karzai’s Finance Minister. Jaswant Singh with his impeccable manners and a gentleman to the end, stood up and gave his seat to Ashraf Ghani, a much younger man,” she narrated and added on a poignant note, “Twenty years later, on the 15th of August 2021, Ashraf Ghani had to leave Afghanistan in a helicopter. That scene of 2001 has stayed with me forever.”
Cracking the myths
Ambassador Rakesh Sood opined that while much has been written about the Afghan developments, there are many myths in the narratives and which need to be dispelled. Was it America’s longest war? No, he said. “They just fought a one year war, twenty times over. He attributed the US army’s inability to weaken the Taliban to the frequent changes of army generals and the failure of the US to go after the safe havens of the insurgents.
“The US war had ended on 31st Dec 2014 when President Obama announced the completion of Operation Enduring Freedom and launched Operation Resolute Support. After the surge of US military personnel which Obama had authorised, he had also begun the drawdown of the forces. Since then, US forces were in Afghanistan only to train and assist Afghan National Defence Security Forces and not in combat operation. The lead was since taken by the Afghan forces,” said Ambassador Rakesh Sood.
While people say that Afghan forces cannot fight, the fact is that they have been fighting the Taliban all these years, losing over 50,000 men while the US lost 67 soldiers since 2015. He also demystified the statement that US spent 2 T$ on Afghanistan. Of this, close to 1750 B$ was spent on the US military, including spend on US war veterans and the interest payments. Only about 40 B$ was spent by the US on governance, economy and development of Afghanistan.
He also disagreed with claims that US withdrawal was sudden. The process of legitimisation of the Taliban had begun much early, orchestrated by nations including Europe. In 2013, Taliban opened an office in Doha and in 2018, US began direct talks with them, he said.
He was firm in his conviction that Taliban 2.0 will be very much the same as Taliban 1.0, drawing inference from multiple reports of UN Sanctions Monitoring Committee which were prepared with intelligent inputs from many UN member nations.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) focussed on the origin of Islamic radicalism and traced it to Gen Zia Ul Huq’s taking over the power in Pakistan in 1977 to convert Pakistan to an Islamic state. It was the combination of US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that created and funded the Mujahideens since 1981 and this led to many major developments, including the rise of Osama Bin Laden and 9/11.
He regretted that despite the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) losing 8000 soldiers every year in spite of having air support from the US forces, no audit was done on ANDSF as to why they suffered such huge casualty and what was their real capability. There were huge gaps in logistics; the fighting forces did not get even their food. The money that was intended for the forces had gone elsewhere, he regretted and ascribed these factors to their giving in to the Taliban’s final onslaught without offering much resistance.
“Kashmir was the main target of Islamic radicalism and Afghanistan was only an interim point in their journey,” according to Lt Gen Hasnain. He said that India has been doing a great work in Kashmir since 2017, busting the terror networks and, therefore, saying that there will be immediate ripple effects of the Afghan crisis in Kashmir may be far-fetched.
However, he hastened to add, that in the present situation, one should not merely focus on Kashmir but look beyond, not just at other places of India but also in the neighbouring nations like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives, for the effects of terrorism.
He suggested that India should work closely with Saudi and UAE and Kazakhstan and Iran, apart from the US, to handle the fallout of the Afghan developments.
Captain Alok Bansal said that one should have a thorough understanding of Islamic theology to unravel the Afghan developments and how it will develop. The Taliban are an ideologically committed organisation and they are committed to the establishment of an Islamic emirate. Their linkages with global jihadist movement are very strong. Righteous leadership and capture of territory are ingredients of Islamic theology. With the passage of time, this ideology will spread beyond Afghanistan, he said.
“Kashmir was the main target of Islamic radicalism and Afghanistan was only an interim point in their journey”
Recalling history, he pointed out that in its modern existence, Afghanistan had never been free from foreign influence. Afghan army was capable of fighting. But Afghans have an uncanny skill of sensing the impending doom. That is why their soldiers fled, in search of survival, he said.
He also attributed Taliban’s quick march into Kabul to a dramatic change in their strategy, by taking over the country’s Northern provinces and all the border posts thus starving the supply chains for the ANDSF (Afghan National Defence Security Forces). “This strategy was perhaps drawn by ISI. Also, the 300,000 strong Afghan army was overwhelmingly dependent on US contractors for its logistics support. One month ago, 80% of this logistics support was withdrawn, giving a clear message that the Ashraf Ghani government would go,” he said.
He remarked that the US under former US President Donald Trump not only legitimised but also enhanced the reputation of the Taliban. The US kept Ashraf Ghani and his team out of the talks and thus marginalised his regime. He dismissed claims that the Taliban government will be inclusive and said that their assurances mean nothing.
Captain Alok Bansal concluded that India will eventually have to fight the Taliban. The only question is: Will it be in Afghanistan, Srinagar or at the Wagah border?
In his concluding remarks, Mr Sathiya Moorthy, Director, ORF Chennai, said that it is too early to come to conclusions with the Afghan situation being too hazy. However, he suggested that India must engage with the Taliban.
There are shifts in the geo-political arrangements in the region. We are looking at new alliances / informal groupings between Pakistan, Russia, China, Qatar and Turkey while India works with the West and the US. How do you see the region shaping up?
Amb Rakesh Sood: In 2001, the US action in Afghanistan was supported by Russia and China. Twenty years later, the US-China and US-Russia relationship are under strain. US now looks at Russia and China as strategic rivals. There are sanctions on both Russia and China by the US. Russia feel that they have been let down with NATO expansion. China feels that US does not want them to rise further. The net result is that both Russia and China look at the US now very differently, compared to how they viewed it in 2001.
Even Iran provided intelligence to the US in their war against the Taliban. But they were later disappointed when they were labelled as the axis of evil by the Bush administration. China has developed closer ties with Pakistan and they have also invested heavily in the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Russia has increased its influence in the Central Asian countries. At the moment, we see a coming together of Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran in dealing with the Taliban.
Do you believe that India will end up fighting the Taliban and if so, what is our preferred theatre?
Lt Gen Ata Hasnain: According to me, it is not the Taliban that will be fighting with India. Instead, the whole of Islamic radical ideology, propelled by Pakistan, will take on India. Pakistan has been projecting to be the flag bearer of Islam but it has not succeeded in doing so. They may start imagining that they are closer to that dream today. It will not be a conventional war but a hybrid war where we will see a battle of the mind and battle of ideology. India must learn to fight this hybrid war. We have not done badly in Kashmir but our focus so far has been on the physical neutralisation of terror networks. With correct international linkages, we must counter Pakistan in all its intents. We have to sensitise the world against discrimination of and atrocities happening to Muslims, both in China and Pakistan.
How should India deal with the ideology and forces unleashed on it?
Captain Alok Bansal: India has to create a counter-narrative and for this, one needs to understand theology. The counter narrative must be seeped in theology. Media and curriculum are the powerful tools that we should make use of.
How should India respond to the Afghan crisis?
Amb Rakesh Sood: We need to have options, evaluate them and decide on a course. At the moment, I am afraid, our options are limited, except to withdraw all Indian personnel from Afghanistan and bring them home. Unfortunately, we relied much on the government in Kabul and believed in the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. We have to wait and see how the situation evolves. These are early days yet and the situation is very fluid. We have to engage in, as the British described, masterly inactivity.
Why did the US fight the Taliban and now why are they legitimizing them?
Amb Rakesh Sood: When the Taliban came to power in 1996, the US did not have any enmity with them, in spite of the Taliban coming out with draconian Sharia rules and blowing up Bamyan Buddha statues. In 1996, Osama Bin Laden was brought to Sudan with US knowledge when Saudi refused to accept him. Even after 9/11, the US gave an ultimatum to Mullah Omar to turn in Osama Bin Laden and said they did not want to fight with them.
The Taliban came up with many conditions and sought more evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11 and this angered the US. So on 7 Oct 2001, they attacked and ousted the Taliban. The US mission was focussed on counter-insurgency but they were never really equipped for that. That is why, for the last one decade, they were looking for ways to get out of Afghanistan. In the last few years, the US saw less of a threat perception from the Taliban.
Should India accept the Taliban offer of being a trading partner?
Amb Rakesh Sood: We cannot respond to every statement of the Taliban. We have to see the shape of the government that is coming up there and see who will call the shots.
Why do many people believe that the Taliban now have no linkages with terror groups?
Lt Gen Ata Hasnain: This has been projected primarily to the United States whose main focus is their homeland security. US has stipulated that the Afghan territory should not be used in any way to target the American homeland. If something sort of 9/11 happens, it will draw the ire of the US government, military and the people and we will never know the intensity with which they will respond. So, the Taliban is playing cool and they are not showing their true colours at the moment.
Was there a lack of nation building in Afghanistan? How does it affect nation building exercise elsewhere?
Captain Alok Bansal: Afghans have a fair amount of feeling of nationhood. What really lacked there was State building. The State institutions did not work out as envisaged. Right from the early days of its history, Afghanistan had been a decentralised feudal entity. There was an attempt at providing too much of centralisation. Governors were changed at the whims and fancies of the President. 80% of the officials were expatriates with dual citizenships, like Ashraf Ghani himself, who had two passports. Also, corruption became endemic.