The invisible woman bundled up in an oppressive and endless swathe of blue; the Kalashnikov-hugging man with a beard to his knees; the public executions ordered in a gladiatorial fit of overzealous morality and, of course, the caves of Tora Bora where Osama bin Laden spun a maze around overwhelmed soldiers — these were the images that determined and defined the original war against terror and became synonymous with the Taliban. Back then, Western-styled liberalism argued that the cultural orthodoxy of the Taliban was as much of a moral imperative to overthrow the regime in Afghanistan as the need to hunt down global terrorists.
But today as the Americans prepare the world for a paradoxical ‘surge and pull-out’ strategy for their troops, history appears to have turned full circle. First, the Taliban was romanced by the West to create a counterfoil to the might of the Russians; then they were declared Enemy Number One in the battle against terrorism and now, quietly, but consistently, the ground is being prepared to restore political legitimacy to the Taliban. And India — who for years has rejected the distinction between “good Taliban and bad Taliban” — may have no option but to sit back and watch this ominous reversal of ideology.
Remember it was Pakistan’s former president, General Musharraf, who first spoke about “moderates” within the Taliban. He often argued that such elements should be mainstreamed and wooed into any new Afghan government. the then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, had dismissed the suggestion of a moderate Taliban as an “oxymoron”.
But it is this very oxymoron that has become the Western diplomat’s favourite word in this season of change. Strategists are now arguing that we must learn to distinguish between the ultra-conservative Talibs who impose a brutal social orthodoxy on the areas under their control and the global terrorists whose agenda is blinded by violent hate. The former, it is being increasingly argued, is no threat to the world’s security interests, however inimical its values may seem to a modern world.
As “Reconciliation” with the Taliban becomes the new buzzword in international diplomacy, India has taken the nuanced view that while we will oppose the proposal to treat the Taliban as a sudden equal at the dialogue table, we will not necessarily resist its “Re-integration” but only if the Taliban is willing to accept certain basic minimum terms. We still believe that the courtship of the Taliban is a British map for the future, and one that the Americans will not use to navigate their way out of Afghanistan.
But perhaps we are in denial about the inevitability of where things are headed. The London Summit on Afghanistan held earlier this year gave its thumbs up to a reconciliation fund to woo Taliban fighters to cross over. More and more of the world seems to ready to listen to Pakistan’s plan that a power-sharing deal be worked out with some Taliban leaders if they break free from the al-Qaeda — a deal that Islamabad is more than happy to broker.
And perhaps India’s real concern is exactly this — the increased leverage that Pakistan would gain — if the world resumed business with the Taliban, or even sections of it. The other worry for India’s own battles is the formulation that suggests that terror groups reside in neat, unconnected silos. In the intertwined web of global jihad you can, in fact, join all the dots between the Taliban, the al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba.
Yet, unless we re-energise our covert support to the Northern Alliance or broaden our strategic partnerships with Russia and Iran — neither of which seem all that workable in the present circumstances — what options does India have? As we increase our strategic presence in Afghanistan, we should be prepared for mounting international pressure on us to take a more realistic stance.
Interestingly — at a recent conference on the region mediated by the Ditchley Foundation in Oxford — the subject of debate was whether India was ready for superpower status, but I was struck by how the overwhelming concern of American and British diplomats was more about how India would manage its relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Worryingly, the question we were asked repeatedly was why India believed it had any vital interests in Afghanistan, other than to contain Pakistan. Several delegates pushed home the argument that there was no solution possible in Afghanistan without making the Taliban part of it. The Americans present — both Republicans and Democrats — appeared to be believe that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was a case of when, not if, and India could no longer plan its strategy on the assumption that American troops would be there “in perpetuity”.
At the end of three days of invigorating, cross-border arguments, the conference report concluded: “If the Taliban, or some of them, were approached as part of the negotiation, Pakistan would have to be included in the activity, as the Pakistanis would need to be persuaded that their interests were fully protected in such an approach. It was important to recognise that an Afghanistan which was stable and friendly to Pakistan would not necessarily be against Indian interests… Delhi would certainly find difficulties in reaching such a conclusion when India’s relationship with Pakistan was so complicated in other ways.”
And it’s a relationship that looks set to get complicated in newer and more intractable ways. The bilateral dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi is already paralysed. The American declaration that Pakistan’s struggles are also Washington’s struggles is an indication of the mutual, if dysfunctional, dependency of that equation. And now as the world moves back in time and extends a caution hand of peace to the Taliban, Afghanistan is set to erupt as the new
battle zone between the two countries. It’s already the Obama administration’s greatest challenge. It may well be ours, as well.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal