The issue in Afghanistan isn’t about the US or the West and the rest being either mean or magnanimous in defeat; it is about the nature and character of the Taliban regime, how it relates with the rest of the world, and what threats it holds for the region and beyond. The crisis in Afghanistan cannot be divorced from the toxic ideology of the Taliban. Nor can any responsible and sensible state ignore the danger that this medieval fanatical force will present to the rest of the world if it is allowed to consolidate and stabilise. Equally problematic is the close association and fraternal links of the Taliban with both international jihadist terror groups like Al Qaeda and regional terror outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat Ansarullah. To focus, therefore, only on either the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan or the possibility of a resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) if the Taliban are not bailed out and not allowed to settle down, is to miss the wood for the trees. It is akin to opening a backdoor to legitimising and recognising an ideology and a regime that has an almost identical mindset and worldview as that of the ISK, and which rules purely on the strength of brute force. And yet, that is precisely what Taliban sponsors, supporters, spin doctors and spielers, are attempting to do.
Equally problematic is the close association and fraternal links of the Taliban with both international jihadist terror groups like Al Qaeda and regional terror outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat Ansarullah.
The international community hasn’t really set the bar very high for the Taliban. Broadly, what the international community expects from the Taliban was outlined by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, shortly after the Taliban takeover of Kabul: Inclusive and, to the extent possible, representative government that gives other ethnic groups and minorities a stake in the system, guaranteeing rights of women and ethnic, sectarian and religious minorities (including the right to education and work); breaking ties with terrorist groups and not allowing Afghan soil to be used against any country or as a safe haven by regional and global terrorist outfits; respecting human rights and preventing any reprisals against members of the previous regime or opponents of Taliban; and allowing Afghans to leave the country.
Even if the Taliban had largely delivered on these ‘commitments’, would it have changed the basic DNA of the Islamist force? While there is no denying the importance of girls’ education, is allowing girls to go to schools or women to work any real metric on the basis of which Taliban would become more acceptable? Would a token representation in government of ethnic minorities, or of non-Taliban, or even of some women be enough to convince the international community of Taliban bona fides? As things stand, even the bare minimum hasn’t been delivered by the Taliban. While they have held out assurances, even issued orders, on some of the asks of the international community, these assurances have been observed more in their violation. The media has been strangulated; civil society activists have been intimidated, disappeared, even killed; girls are being deprived of education—schools and colleges remain closed to them; summary executions and reprisal killings are a new normal; freedom to travel remains restricted; the promise of an inclusive government (whatever that is) remains a pipedream; the Taliban have shown no inclination whatsoever to snap their ties with terror groups. Even the Pakistanis are now complaining about the activities of TTP from inside the Emirate.
Despite the Taliban track record of the last six months of not delivering on even a single item on the international community’s wish-list, there are moves to accept, give legitimacy to and even recognise the Taliban regime. Some of these moves started within weeks of the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan in August 2021. Needless to say, it was Pakistan that has been constantly pushing for getting the Taliban Emirate recognised. By November last year, Pakistani officials were quite cocky about the inevitability of the world accepting the reality of the Taliban. They seemed convinced that the world was confronted with a fait accompli and would have no choice but to engage, and eventually recognise, the Taliban regime. The Pakistanis adopted a two-pronged approach to sell the Islamic Emirate to the international community: while Prime Minister Imran Khan tugged at the heartstrings by warning of a monumental humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, his foreign minister was holding out dire warnings of how terrorist organisations would get strengthened if the world ignored Afghanistan.
Despite the Taliban track record of the last six months of not delivering on even a single item on the international community’s wish-list, there are moves to accept, give legitimacy to and even recognise the Taliban regime.
In December, it seemed that the Pakistani advocacy for Taliban was starting to get some traction. The OIC meeting in Islamabad managed to not only get some pledges of assistance but also called for unfreezing of financial resources by the US. The next month the UN launched the largest ever humanitarian appeal for a single country, seeking more than US $5 billion. Meanwhile, some European countries had jumped into the act and promised to pay the salaries of Afghan teachers. Delegations from different countries had started going to Kabul or meeting the representatives of the Emirate in Doha. The Taliban received another shot in the arm after the Norwegians invited the acting foreign minister Amir Muttaqi to Oslo to hold talks with different stakeholders.
While the Norwegians and other interlocutors insisted that meeting the Taliban was neither a legitimisation nor a de-facto recognition of the Emirate, the Taliban saw this as another step in the direction of recognition. The fact that some missions were already operating in Kabul, and others were likely to open their embassies – there were reports that even India was weighing her options to reopen her embassy in Kabul – seemed to justify the confidence of the Taliban that things were going their way. Just last week, a Swiss NGO Geneva Call hosted a Taliban delegation to “discuss the status of humanitarian assistance, the protection of civilians, respect of health care and the issue of landmines and explosive remnants of war in Afghanistan”. In a sense, the manner in which many of the European and middle-eastern countries were falling over themselves to engage the Taliban was being seen as a de facto, if not de jure recognition.
There is also no dearth of so-called Afghan experts—the same people who led the world up the garden path by selling the snake oil of ‘the Taliban have ‘changed’ and are ready to march in step with the civilised world’—exhorting and pleading for ‘working with the Taliban’ and how talking to Taliban is the right thing to do. Of course, none of these experts care to say what has come out of all the rounds of talks and dialogues that have been carried out with the Taliban over the last so many years. Nor do they elucidate if the Taliban have kept their part of the bargain, or even if they have conceded or compromised on issues that vex. And they certainly don’t say much about how these talks were used by Taliban to get what they wanted without conceding anything at all.
The Taliban received another shot in the arm after the Norwegians invited the acting foreign minister Amir Muttaqi to Oslo to hold talks with different stakeholders.
But despite all the advocacy in favour of the Taliban, the Executive Order issued by the US President to block the release of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves to the Emirate has, for the foreseeable future at least, stalled the chances of Taliban gaining any legitimacy or recognition. It is also unlikely that the sanctions on the Taliban will be lifted anytime soon. The usual suspects—the so-called ‘Afghan experts’—have sharply criticised the Biden administration’s decision to block the Afghan funds. But the fact is that the US has tried to balance the imperatives of providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghans with the need to ensure that the Taliban regime cannot lay its hands on resources which they would use to cement their position and fund their war machine.
It isn’t an ideal solution. But it is probably the most appropriate under the circumstances that exist on ground. The thing is that the Afghan reserves that have been blocked were never going to be a panacea for the fundamental problem that exists in the Afghan economy—without the billions of dollars that were being poured into the economy by the Western countries, the Afghan state is unviable, unsustainable and unaffordable. That gravy train stopped the day Taliban walked into Kabul after having refused all proposals for a power sharing arrangement with the erstwhile government. The funds impounded by the US could, therefore, have at best given some temporary relief, and that too assuming that the Taliban would have actually used them to provide succour to the people.
The American move will certainly have an impact on the Taliban efforts to consolidate their hold in Afghanistan. It is critical that a regime like that of the Taliban isn’t allowed to settle down and one way of ensuring this is to not do anything that cuts any slack for these medieval characters. This holds true not just for the bleeding hearts in Europe, but also for those in India who sense an opportunity to get back in the game in Afghanistan. Instead of making short-term tactical moves that give her some advantage, India needs to take a longer term, strategic view of what is happening in Afghanistan. India needs to understand that if a baleful force like Taliban consolidates, the brunt of this development will be felt by countries like India. The temptation exists to reach out to the Taliban and exploit the visible and maybe even growing divide between the Taliban and Pakistan. But it must be resisted. While a weak Pakistan is definitely in India’s favour, a strong or even stable Afghanistan under an unreconstructed Taliban isn’t necessarily going to be a good thing for India either.
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