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Mainstream, VOL LX No 28, New Delhi, July 2, 2022

Book Review: What Can India do in Afghanistan? | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 1 July 2022



Afghanistan: The New Great Game

Edited by Alok Bansal

Pentagon Press LLP;
Pages: 201; Price: Rs 895
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9390095492

Now that America has blundered and Pakistan has scored a strategic victory with the return of the Taliban, what are India’s options vis-à-vis Afghanistan?

Can there be a meeting point between a country like India and a radical Islamist outfit like Taliban?

One of the best known experts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, Captain Alok Bansal, a former naval officer, says there was a feeling of betrayal in New Delhi as the United States cut a deal with the Taliban without taking New Delhi’s interests into account. In the process, despite having had overwhelming influence in Kabul, India now has no capacity to resist the brutal hard power of the Taliban.

The problem with India as it strives to regain its lost influence in Afghanistan is that it does not know whether to engage with the Taliban or build a resistance to it – as it did with the earlier Taliban regime when New Delhi teamed up with Moscow and Tehran to back the Northern Alliance, which seized power after 9/11.

Captain Bansal underlines that remnants of the former Afghan regime are still resisting the Taliban. If this opposition is snuffed out, the foot soldiers of the Taliban who have known no other profession other than war will move out of Afghanistan to other parts of the world including India. “The only solution lies in either weaning the Taliban away from its obscurantist ideology or strengthening the National Resistance Front to free Afghanistan from the Taliban.”

P. Strobdan, a long-standing student of Eurasian affairs, argues that Pakistan is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds in Afghanistan “with the sole aim of seizing a fresh opportunity to foment trouble in Kashmir”. Unlike Bansal, he feels India has no strategic option left with on Afghanistan at this stage, and what New Delhi needs is to reset its geo-strategic calculus with Russia.

All the experts agree that the abrupt departure of the United States from Afghanistan was a betrayal of the Afghans who had all these years stood up to the Taliban despite immense dangers. The American withdrawal has shown Washington in poor light, and also given China a firm footing in Afghanistan, a country where great powers have traditionally played a Great Game, at terrible human cost. Such was the hurried exit of the US that it left behind deadly military hardware worth $86 billion, all of which naturally fell into the Taliban hands. In the process, 14 internationally proscribed terrorists ended up sharing the power table in Kabul – a complete reversal of all the gains Washington made after 9/11.

Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, a former Director General of Military Operations of the Indian Army, however, says that the Taliban will find the going tough “as you can rule with the gun but cannot govern with the gun”. Yet, despite its diplomatic isolation, the Taliban is still capable of double-speak. In May this year, it said it won’t intervene in Kashmir as it does not get into the internal affairs of other countries; but after seizing power, it invoked the religious angle and said it is the Taliban’s right to speak out for fellow Muslims in Kashmir and any other country.

Security scholar Soumya Chaturvedi argues that there exists very little reason to believe that the Taliban has indeed changed colours. Exploring the complex security dynamics between the Taliban and terrorism, she says the Taliban is complicit in the Al Qaeda’s end goal. Also, the association of the ISI-backed Haqqani Network – which introduced suicide attacks to the Taliban after being inspired by Al Qaeda – only strengthens the Taliban’s connection with terrorism. Pointing to a grim situation, she insists that it will be near impossible to make the Taliban disassociate itself from terror.
New Delhi-based Dr Sanchita Bhattacharya points to the blowback Pakistan can expect following the Taliban victory in Kabul. Pakistan has already sacrificed more than 80,000 lives of its own countrymen to ensure the Talibanization of Afghanistan and Islamist inertia at home. As the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban share close tribal, religious, ethnic and organizational connections, there is hardly any hope of sustainable peace in Pakistan. She warns that the re-emergence of the Taliban will further diminish democratic ideals and the ethos of parliamentary politics within Pakistan.

Afghanistan has suffered immensely ever since the Soviets invaded it, and the United States and Saudi Arabia joined hands with Pakistan to create a Mujahideen and a blood-soaked history that gave birth to the ISI-backed Taliban, which in turn created complications by sheltering Al Qaeda; later events brought the US into conflict with the Taliban but Washington could never understand in full measure the games Islamabad played. Today, 14 million Afghans (1 in 3 Afghans) face severe hunger; 3.4 million Afghan children suffer from acute malnutrition; 22.8 million Afghans need immediate relief aid; and 97 percent of all Afghans live below the poverty line. If all this was not enough, Afghanistan is the only country where women are banned from participation in polity, society and economy – and continued diplomatic isolation has made no difference to the Taliban’s obnoxious conduct.

In a messy situation like this, what should the world do? And more specifically, what should India do? The book in question offers some answers.

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