A seminar was organised by India Foundation on 02 September 2022 at the Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi, with the theme, “One Year After the Fall of Kabul: Geopolitical Implications for the Region”. The event was attended by senior serving and retired officers from the Armed Forces and Civil Services, foreign diplomats based in India, politicians, think tanks, scholars and the media. Capt. Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation, in his opening remarks, stated that Afghanistan has fallen of from the international radar due to the war in Ukraine, but the situation in the country remains volatile and one year after the fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban, we need to analyse the current situation in relation to past events and also look into the future. This set the tone for the discussions to follow, which were held in two sessions.
The first session, chaired by Shri Shyam Saran, former foreign Secretary of India, discussed the external dimensions behind the fall of Kabul. The three panellists for this session were Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, author, independent scholar and Senior Fellow at King’s College London, Mr Sediqullah Sahar, Educational Attache, Embassy of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Shri Amar Sinha, former Secretary (Economic Relations), Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
In her address, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa postulated that the rise of the Taliban is a matter of concern not only for South Asia but also for the rest of the world. She said that the Taliban is an ideological organisation based on hardcore radicalism, the rise of which is a result of interference and influence by international powers over the years. Consequently, Afghanistan has once again started to become a hub of various extremist elements such as ISIS, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Qaeda etc. Presently, the world is not eager to engage with Afghanistan as in the currently charged geo-political scenarios, attention has shifted to the war in Ukraine and to Chinese intransigence in the South China Sea. Afghanistan is thus a secondary issue for most countries. Even investments such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Afghanistan are just in the realm of ideas for now, as Afghanistan has become a centre of instability. The Afghan Taliban government, despite the fact that it received great support form Pakistan over the past two decades and is still supported by Pakistan, continues to support the TTP on ideological grounds. Those ideological linkages are difficult to break and so Pakistan continues to face a major security challenge from the TTP. This ideological orientation of the Afghan Taliban has also imposed caution on Russia and China, both of whom are reluctant to invest in the region.
The major concern for the world, especially to the neighbouring countries, is the need to contain and confine instability and extremist radical ideology which emanates from Afghanistan. As of now, there is no indication that the Taliban will change its ideological moorings and tone down on its radical leanings. The prospects of a large-scale internal uprising against Taliban are also low. Hence, there is a need to come to terms with the reality that the internal makeup of Afghanistan is unlikely to change. However, there is scope for long-term, slow and steady engagement with Taliban, with the hope that some of the policies being followed by the current regime may mellow in the coming years. What needs focus and attention is preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming the hub of extremism and containing the spread of its ideology, for the security and stability of the region and beyond.
Mr Sediqullah Sahar gave a general idea of the current internal situation as a result of the fall of Kabul. He said that Indian aid to Afghanistan, through these tough times is valued deeply by the people. Despite the current circumstances, the deep connection between India and Afghanistan remains. On the internal situation in Afghanistan, he said that the situation is grim, with massive human rights violations in the country, reversing 20 years of gains made from socialist reforms and education. Development is at an all time low as the economy has been contracting. Severe drought has only made the situation far worse as is evident from the levels of food insecurity in the country. Inequality is growing and the majority of the population is suffering. Education has been put on the back burner and educational access for women seems like a far-fetched dream. He listed four main expectations we need to have of Taliban, in order to see any progress with respect to the present situation:
- Establishing measures to identify and track terror activity.
- Strengthening the rule of the Afghan people.
- Maintaining rule of law.
- Establishing mechanisms to address and counter all issues related to terrorism.
Shri Amar Sinha gave a detailed and holistic account of the circumstances that led to the fall of Kabul. He said that, while the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan was the immediate catalyst for the fall of Kabul, it was not the only cause. For a long time, the US totally excluded Taliban from all discussions related to Afghanistan and also curbed all domestic impulses to reconciliation. China and Russia also actively engaged with the Taliban which delegitimised the Afghan government. Russia, in fact, started reaching out to the Taliban from 2014 onwards. The key factor to note however, is that Pakistan had been planning this Taliban takeover since long, inspired of course by pre-1947 British policies towards Afghanistan. The Afghanistan governments, prior to the Taliban takeover, also played a role in the rise of the Taliban and there were deep fissures within the government itself. While the 2014 elections were chaotic at best, the 2019 election was a complete disaster, with one million votes disputed during the election. It is important to understand that you cannot import leadership. Expats can’t run countries. These things need to be fostered internally.
Session 1: Q&A
In the Q&A for the first session, the Chair, Shri Shyam Saran, made the opening comments. He said that the peace deal that was negotiated by America with the Taliban, completely excluded the Afghan government. This exclusion basically served Afghanistan to the Taliban on a platter.
Various issues cropped up in the interactive session, to include the nefarious role played by Pakistan in the fall of Kabul. The panelists were of the view that due to the long-term investment Pakistan has made, it is unlikely to give up on the Taliban. It still desires strategic depth within Afghanistan, but the manner in which the Taliban is operating, it appears that is has got strategic depth within Pakistan!
With respect to the US and other Western powers, once Osama Bin Laden was killed by the Americans, their interest in Afghanistan diminished. Western powers eventually became tired of paying for and dealing with Afghanistan, and thus they sought internal actors to take over the country. Pakistan pushed for the Taliban being that force. However, Pakistan itself faces many challenges, such as that of dealing with the TTP, which has ties with the Taliban itself. Despite the fact that the Afghan Taliban supports the TTP, Pakistan will continue to support the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
An issue for discussion that cropped up was opening the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan and the risks involved. On this point, two views emerged. On view was that the Taliban presently has weak control over the security situation within the country. It would hence be unable to ensure the security of the Indian Embassy. The number of attacks on mosques and on clerics that support the Taliban are also on the rise. There has also been an attack on a Gurudwara in Afghanistan which was perceived as a message to India by many. As security in Kabul is in the hands of the Haqanis, who have Indian blood on their hands, there is little to suggest that the Indian mission will be safe. The alternate view was that since the rise of Taliban in Kabul has not led to any major violence against India or Indians in Afghanistan, other than the unfortunate killing of an Indian journalist, the decision to partially open the Embassy may have been a calculated and well considered one. The former view held resonance amongst the audience. To consider the Taliban as becoming benign was at the best naive. Recent happenings in Afghanistan show no reason to believe that the Taliban will change its ideological moorings or be in a position to maintain law and order in the country. However, India does have interests in the region in relation to certain investments made and trade routes via the region. This is also an opportunity for India to neutralise threats from Pakistan. For the moment, there is no alternative to Taliban and we need to focus on dealing with them strategically and reinforce policies that are beneficial to us. Approaching the Taliban as a friendly force would be naive. However, we don’t only engage with friends. The entire session was summarised by Shri Shyam Saran who said that Taliban 2.0 is not a different entity; it is the same as Taliban 1.0 and any engagement by the international community with Taliban from here on must be approached with caution.
Session 2 was chaired by Dr. C Raja Mohan, Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi. It focused on the geopolitical implications surrounding the fall of Kabul in context of the previously discussed external dimensions. The speakers for this session were Capt Alok Bansal, Director India Foundation, Mrs. Bilquees Daud, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs and Shri Shamsher M. Chaudhary, former Foreign Secretary, Bangladesh Government.
Capt. Alok Bansal stated that there is no good Taliban and bad Taliban. The statements put forward by the Taliban were made as token statements to please the international community at a time when they knew that they were weak. However, as they consolidated control, they are now showing their true colours. Ideologically, Taliban is in fact back to square one and thus, before anything else, we must understand the Islamic Ideology. Only when we understand the meaning of Amir al-Mu’minin, supreme leader of the Islamic world, will we realise that when the Taliban recognises Hibatullah Akhundzada as Amir al-Mu’minin and not Amir al-Afghanistan, they are aiming for a pan-Islamic emirate and are in competition with other forces with the same ideology, to gain more foot soldiers. Once this fact is understood, it becomes clear that it’s not feasible for the Taliban to hand over any committed Islamic militant to Pakistan or China or any one else. Taliban has achieved the pre-requisite for Jihad i.e., control of territory. Moreover, for the first time, we see that the Central Asian states are not on one page and Russia is not the only influential power as now another Ottoman Empire is also rising as a new player in Central and West Asia. You can see this in the actions of these nations; Qatar defying Saudi Arabia, UAE pursuing its own independent foreign policy and other fissures appearing among nations that once acted in unison. As radicalisation increases and pre 2001 activities resume in Afghanistan, the world needs to be prepared.
Mrs. Bilquees Daud was of the view that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, was the most significant strategic defeat of the US. However, this rise, fall and rise of Taliban was also influenced by regional powers. Right now, the power struggle with these powers seems to be along the lines of Russia and China vs Pakistan and Taliban. The Taliban today is facing an economic and political crisis as the Afghan economy contracts and the people suffer. The composition of Taliban itself is lopsided in favour of a certain sect of Pashtuns. This turmoil, mixed with the Taliban’s access to the US equipment left behind, spells disaster. This equipment has already made its way to Kashmir. With the knowledge that Taliban is unlikely to cut ties with other terrorist groups, we must start working on countering the ideology behind Taliban. Already, both Iran and Pakistan have received roughly 300,000 refugees each from Afghanistan. The future of Afghanistan and the region looks quite grim at present.
Shri Shamsher M Chaudhary said that Taliban is just old wine in an old bottle that may have been shined up a bit. With the Taliban now in control, however, they are in no mood to give themselves a new look for the international community. By opening missions in Afghanistan right now, we are to some degree, accepting that the Taliban is in control. Though the UN has not recognised the Taliban, we must engage cautiously so as to not legitimise the Taliban, but recognise the role of each regional player involved.
Session 2: Q&A
The following issues emerged:
- Greater radicalisation leads to lower tolerance levels. To maintain its hold over the cadre, the Taliban will resort to greater levels of radicalisation, which will prompt other groups like the ISIS to do the same. This will create more fissures and divisions will appear among competing claimants to rule Afghanistan. As it is, Islam is not a monolith and has various sects with competing ideologies.
- Ideology of radical extremist Islam is a major threat and must be countered from within Islamic society by use of moderate Islam. This requires an understanding of the drivers behind radical Islam.
- Other than the severe violation of women’s rights, where girls are denied a school education is the equally problematic case of the type of syllabus being taught to those who do attend school. Education will decide the level of indoctrination of the next generation.
- To ensure economic stability and security for women in Afghanistan, humanitarian aid and use of NGO’s is the only way forward.
- Economic pressure is viable to influence the Taliban but only if alternate sources don’t become accessible to them.
- Taliban is desperate at the moment as they can’t rely on Pakistan for assistance and want some kind of international recognition. Even foot soldiers of Taliban are facing food shortage.
- India can play a role in rallying regional power to support and consolidate opposition as Taliban’s acceptability starts to diminish within.
- While there are internal divisions in the Taliban, Amir al-Mu’minin is recognised by all the sects.
- The Chinese influence is slightly exaggerated. China has always had trouble dealing with religious ideologies, only displaying knee jerk reactions.
- Even Pakistan is attempting to find a second option or plan B to Taliban
The session was summed up by Dr. C. Raja Mohan who stated that internal unrest within Afghanistan and Taliban will be exploited by external powers. As far as India is concerned, we can but play the role of a secondary power, as we do not have direct land connectivity with Afghanistan. Consequently, India is also less threatened by the events as they unfold in Afghanistan. While India, will not be shaping the outcome for Afghanistan it will have to deal with outcomes that will arise. Pakistan, on the other hand is the opposite. It has a heavy influence on Taliban but as a result is under greater threat by the Taliban. India and the International community must observe the situation and act slowly, strategically and patiently.
-By Anmol Mahajan, Research Fellow, India Foundation