In Kabul, the centrality of Pakistan

The presence of erstwhile leaders of the Northern Alliance in Islamabad is a stark reflection of current geopolitical realities
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands guard as people enter Pakistan through a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan, Tuesday. (AP) PREMIUM
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands guard as people enter Pakistan through a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan, Tuesday. (AP)
Updated on Aug 17, 2021 04:39 PM IST
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ByVivek Katju

The Indian mission in Kabul has been closed. While it may have been for security considerations, it sends out a message about India’s current irrelevance in shaping the political reality in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the visual manifestation of Pakistan’s current centrality was manifested, above all, in the visual images of Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi welcoming a delegation of leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance at the Pakistan foreign ministry in Islamabad on August 16.

For me, these images were far more telling of Pakistan’s success than those of the Taliban in the palace complex of Kabul or occupying the speaker’s chair in the Indian-built Parliament building in Kabul.

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In the Afghan delegation were many leaders I had got to know well during the dark years of the Taliban control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, and later as India’s ambassador to the country from March 2002 to January 2005. What was most striking in the Afghan delegation was the presence of two brothers of the legendary leader of the Afghan jihad — the one who had never bowed before Pakistan — Ahmed Shah Masood. He was the most remarkable man I had the privilege to have known in my diplomatic career. Masood was the soul of the Tajik stronghold of Panjshir, a centre of resistance to the Soviets and later to the Taliban. One of his brothers, Ahmed Zia Masood, served for five years as president Hamid Karzai’s first vice-president; the other, Ahmed Wali Masood, was for long years a prominent Afghan diplomat during the anti-Taliban struggle.

Also in the group was Yunus Qanooni, Ahmed Shah Masood’s close aide, an astute negotiator, who was a prominent minister in Karzai’s cabinet and his principal rival in the 2004 presidential election. Later, from 2005 to 2010, Qanooni served as speaker of Parliament. The visit to Islamabad in the wake of the Taliban entry into Kabul would have been especially poignant for Qanooni — he was the first Afghan leader to have entered Kabul after the Taliban exit in November 2001; the moment captured forever in an iconic photograph.

In the group were also the two great Hazara leaders, Karim Khaleeli and Mohammed Mohaqiq. The latter had shown exemplary courage in staying within Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in the 1990s when it was displaying a special animus against the Shia Hazaras. Khaleeli had served as a vice-president of the Republic and Mohaqiq held ministerial and high executive office. Their present priority would clearly be the safety of their Hazara compatriots.

Also, in the group was former foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, son of the president Burhanuddin Rabbani whose government held Afghanistan’s United Nations (UN) seat all through the years the Taliban was in Kabul. He was assassinated in 2011 by a Taliban suicide bomber. And now the Taliban had easily overrun the Rabbanis’ Badakhshan stronghold.

All these leaders have harboured deep reservations, even anger, against Pakistan. It would not have been easy for them to go to Islamabad to seek its intervention to get the Taliban to conduct itself responsibly in its hour of victory. And they are all doubtless fully knowledgeable about Pakistan’s enormous role in the Taliban’s success. That they have gone to Pakistan and not come to India has a clear message. They are aware that India can now simply play no role at all in the unfolding of events in Afghanistan.

India’s statement to the UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan on August 16 contained elements of a grudging acceptance of Afghan developments. There was no demand that it would not recognise a government formed by force. There was no repetition of the “double peace” formula. It noted, “A broader representation would help the arrangement gain more acceptability and legitimacy”. The key word is “arrangement”. Its use denotes a desire to still keep options open, even though India has no role in working out the political structure that will now be put in place in Kabul.

Clearly, India is aware that there are intense ongoing negotiations about the nature of the dispensation that will now take control in Afghanistan. It is particularly noteworthy that the Taliban leadership has shown no great hurry in announcing the new administration. Not only Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar but other either Doha or Pakistan-based Taliban leaders did not rush to Kabul to take charge. This is indicative of the sophistication with which it is approaching its next moves.

What seems to have happened is that the Taliban shadow apparatus has moved to take control at the provincial level to prevent total chaos and anarchy. The terrible scenes at Kabul airport should not mask the reality that, in the rest of the country, there is calm, if an uneasy one. The worry of the international community on the human rights front is justified for there have been unacceptable incidents. Yes, what is clear is that the Taliban will not give up its flag or the formulation of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” even if it agrees that the new dispensation will include non-Taliban leaders. It will also keep an iron grip over the security and the intelligence apparatus of the country.

The absence of a central authority cannot continue much longer. Will India accept it, irrespective of the nature of this authority? Or will it be sullen? The heightened dangers in its western neighbourhood demand the pursuit of cold realism.

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat

The views expressed are personal

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Thursday, December 02, 2021