The Kabul dilemma
The civil war in Afghanistan came home on Friday, with the formidable Indian photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui of Reuters, who was embedded with Afghan security forces, killed by the Taliban in Kandahar. Siddiqui’s tragic death has led to an outpouring of grief globally, but it is the latest symbol of the tragedy that is unfolding in Afghanistan. The Taliban remains a monstrous force, committed to a medieval form of an Islamic Emirate, but it is winning. The Afghan government remains determined to preserve the Republic, with its democratic values, but is struggling to hold on to power. The international community (read the United States and its western allies) is still holding on to the fiction of a peace process and political settlement, but can’t wait to flee after having ravaged the country for 20 years and left it without any sustainable and resilient institutions to defend democracy. And India is stuck, caught between its values and principles it holds dear and immediate strategic interests and imperatives.
Distilled to the core, at the cost of being simplistic, here is a 20-year history of Afghanistan. Wounded by the 9/11 terror attacks, the United States (US) decided it was time to invade Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden, dismantle al Qaeda and oust the Taliban, which had provided State support and sanctuary to the terror outfit. The last objective was met fairly quickly, and a new interim authority led by Hamid Karzai took office. But it took the US 10 years to find and kill bin Laden; al Qaeda changed its form and its ideology and leaders also found a home in other terror outfits; and the Taliban went to Pakistan and waited.
Islamabad and Rawalpindi, compelled to take part in the US-led “war on terror”, figured that eventually the Americans would go back home. Uncomfortable with a democratic regime in Kabul which wanted to reorient Afghanistan’s domestic and external trajectory and have balanced ties with other South Asian countries, particularly India, Pakistan harboured, supported, funded, and armed the Taliban and other proxies — even as it pretended to be with the US in cracking down on terrorism. Washington, first distracted by the flawed invasion of Iraq and then war fatigue back home, vacillated between the objectives of merely defeating terror and nation-building. It achieved neither successfully. And as the politics of nationalism intensified in the US, Washington began looking for an exit. Pakistan then pretended to be the good guy facilitating peace, and a staggering degree of spin about how there is a good Taliban and bad Taliban began doing the rounds. The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a desperate bid to emerge as peace-maker irrespective of the terms of the peace, appeased the Taliban, even as the Afghan government got weaker every day.
And so now there is a descent into chaos, to use Ahmed Rashid’s evocative title of a book on Afghanistan-Pakistan. The Taliban is officially participating in a peace process, but is on a military offensive. In two months, it has taken over one-third of the country’s districts; captured crucial border posts; penetrated Kandahar; and caused massive civilian suffering in terms of death and displacement. Ashraf Ghani, the Republic’s president, in an interview with The Hindu, put up a brave front and said while the Taliban has won battles, the Republic will win the war while still pointing to the need for a political settlement. The US has claimed that it will not recognise any forceful capture of power, but the Taliban intends to change the balance of power irreversibly, leaving little choice. The West is slowly reconciling itself to a Taliban-dominated regime in return for guarantees on security; China, Russia and even Iran seem to have cut bilateral deals with the Taliban; and despite sporadic differences with the Taliban, Pakistan seems to be smiling all the way to Kabul.
India is in a tough spot. Delhi recognises the threat the Taliban poses to not just its security but modernity. But it has little leverage to influence the outcome. It is unhappy with the manner of the US exit, but can’t change that either. To secure its political, diplomatic and developmental investment in Afghanistan, it wants to support the Afghan government, which is indeed putting up a fight, but also knows that there is little choice but to deal with the Taliban, a force that it so dislikes for the right reasons. Between the right side and winning side, India will have to strike a balance to protect its core national interests and citizens.