In Afghanistan, another Great Game set to unfold

Iftikhar Gilani

ANKARA: An unease in India, jubilation in Pakistan, and cautious optimism on the streets of Afghanistan sum up the varied moods in South Asia after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.

While the deal offers a glimmer of hope that peace may yet return to Afghanistan, India is anxious that the Taliban’s return to power may affect its $3 billion worth of investments.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is aiming to regain its clout and secure its western borders by ensuring a friendly government in Kabul.

New Delhi’s anxiety is not limited to losing control in Kabul; its apprehensions include that a Taliban takeover in Kabul, along with an emboldened Islamabad, could have cascading effects on the ground realities in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

According to a report published in The Hindustan Times, Samant Goel, the chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 5 last year to recommend the integration of the region with the rest of the country as soon as possible.

Warning that things could spin out of control after the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, Goel said Washington could choose to reward Islamabad for its role with the resumption of military and economic aid.

A month later on Aug. 5, India divided the state and revoked the disputed region’s special status.

The unease in India can be gauged from the fact that External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar drew parallels between the U.S-Taliban peace agreement and a 1972 Bollywood movie, Pakeezah.

Set in the Muslim locality of Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh and known for its culture and civilizational links, the movie centers on the plight of a courtesan longing for true love.

The director, Kamal Amrohi, took 16 years to make the film. It was a resounding hit but the lead actress, Meena Kumari, died days before it was released.

“What we saw at Doha was not a surprise. Everybody knew something like this was happening. It has been talked about for so long. It was almost like finally seeing Pakeezah after seeing 17 trailers of the movie,” said Jaishankar.

While many in New Delhi are arguing for opening channels with the Taliban in response to their recent overtures, official sources said a wait-and-watch approach and continued support to friends in Kabul was the best policy at the moment.

Wait and watch

India’s former envoy to Afghanistan Amar Sinha said there was no point engaging with the Taliban right now at the cost of losing friends.

“Also, the Taliban’s policies are too heavily governed by Pakistan. Until those ties are loosened, it will be pointless for India to make a move,” he said.

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 meeting].

“We are a safe country and a neutral country. We do not 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, the current and formers rulers in Kabul had strong links with India.

Be it President Ashraf Ghani, ex-chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, or former president Hamid Karzai, all had lived in India for years at some point in their lives.

The view in New Delhi, therefore, is that it would be pointless to go against the government in Kabul.

Due to investments in social projects, many believe that India has acquired considerable goodwill among the youth, the middle class, and the affluent population of Afghanistan.

Sinha said this favorable opinion was the reason for the Taliban’s statement last month that they would support Chabahar and protect Indian investments in Afghanistan.

Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran urged New Delhi to plan countermoves.

He said the bottom line of India’s Afghan policy should be to prevent a complete takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, but to 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 help in uniting Afghan groups inimical to Taliban must be explored,” Saran said.

India’s former envoy to Pakistan, G. Parthasarthy, believed that while New Delhi must monitor developments, there was also a need to launch astute diplomacy and express readiness to continue economic assistance and open channels with the Taliban.

His view is that unlike during the last Taliban government from 1994-2001, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not be in a position to help Afghanistan financially.

Therefore, even a Taliban-led government will ultimately depend on New Delhi.

Under the Doha agreement, the U.S. has committed to reducing its military footprint to 8,600 from 13,000 soldiers in the next three to four months, with the remaining forces withdrawing over the next 14 months.

Washington has also pledged to lift sanctions against the Taliban.

The Taliban, on their side, committed to ensuring that Afghan soil is not used to plot attacks on the U.S. or its allies.

The pact also provides for a prisoner swap, with the provision that around 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security personnel would be freed by either side.

Goodwill: India’s asset

While most experts refer to goodwill among Afghan people as India’s trump card, former lawmaker and strategic expert, Manvinder Singh, thinks that New Delhi has shot itself in the foot.

Referring to the controversial new citizenship law enforced in December 2019, he said it had angered Afghans by implying that Afghanistan persecuted its minority communities.

“That is all it takes for decades of goodwill to go up in flames,” said Singh, whose father Jaswant Singh, India’s former external affairs minister, negotiated the release of a hijacked plane and its passengers in Kandahar with the Taliban regime in 1999.

In recent days, President Ghani raised doubts on the proposed release of over 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which was an important pre-condition for the intra-Afghan dialogue.

However, M K Bhadr-akumar, a former ambassador to Kabul and Tehran, said the Ghani government may not be able to hold the peace process to ransom.

He said that in such pacts the more important details are often not mentioned in black and white.

Although his reelection was confirmed days ahead of the Doha agreement, Ghani still fears are that the formation of an interim government has become unavoidable. Bhadrakumar further said the U.S. also intended to keep select limited military bases in Afghanistan, with intelligence deployment.

Pakistan vindicated

But in Pakistan, former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan said the agreement marks a formal reversal of the wrongs committed in early 2002, when the U.S. chose to lump the Taliban with al-Qaeda, even though the latter was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. He said the intra-Afghan talks will prove more challenging and advised players to desist from pushing narrow interests. He urged outside powers to allow enough space for the Afghans to work out their differences.

Khan said the agreement had also validated Pakistan’s position on the 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.

But, Khan said, it was necessary to move prudently instead of pushing for peace that draws suspicion. “We must not let our policy fall into the Afghan ethnic divide or into taking sides. Peace will contain India’s capacity for mischief.”

Ironically, what the U.S. achieved in Doha is almost similar to what it’s then-UN envoy, Bill Richardson, negotiated with the Taliban when he landed in Kabul on April 17, 1998.

According to the Roy Gutman’s book, How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afgha-nistan, the Taliban had agreed on a cease-fire and to join talks with the United Front, or Northern Alliance.

Under the agreement, reached in the presence of Richardson and Pakistan’s former ambassador Aziz Ahmed Khan, the Taliban also agreed to allow higher education for women — without coeducation — and permit health workers and doctors to treat women.

They had also promised to prohibit all opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

Similarities of Vietnam and Afghanistan

Many experts are also drawing similarities between the U.S. strategy back in Vietnam in 1969 and the 2020 agreement with the Taliban.

They say President Richard Nixon had played a similar game to seek reelection 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 releasing American prisoners of war and declaring a cease-fire.

He had assured Chinese leaders that if the U.S.-backed Saigon government was overthrown following the withdrawal of troops, Washington would not intervene.

And that is exactly how it unfolded.

Nixon visited China in February 1972, describing it as a visit to bring about lasting peace in the world. Months later in November 1972, he recorded a convincing victory and secured reelection.

Later, the Saigon government was overrun by communists and the U.S., as agreed, did not intervene.

Emergence of the Taliban

The Taliban emerged from their stronghold in Kandahar in August 1994, when the group’s founder, Mullah Umar, enraged by the crimes of a local warlord, invaded his abode with 15 fighters, all students of different madrassas.

When the Taliban drew warlords out from the area, the war-fatigued population in other areas invited them to restore order.

Soon those administering Helmand and Ghazni provinces surrendered without fighting. But once they captured Kabul, and other provinces in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban became lethal in their pursuit to control the whole country.

They employed brutal methods and wreaked ha-voc on the northern provi-nces to cement their rule and ideology. They also al-lied with al-Qaeda, a move that analysts believe was partly to compensate for their boycott by the international community despite their control over Kabul.

Osama bin Laden’s outfit provided the Taliban funds and international outreach.

Many strategists now believe that the Taliban have evolved over the years.

While at one time they enforced a medieval code, today they are tech-savvy insurgents ready to accommodate modern-day means.

The region, which has long been a victim of the Great Game, has captivated and mesmerized the world for centuries.

The bravery, drive for freedom, and zest of the inhabitants divided into innumerable tribes, has punished the British, led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and taught bitter lessons to the U.S.

There may be no medals for those who took on these superpowers, but their stories are still remembered around campfires every evening in the majestic Hindu Kush mountains.