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‘Yatri’s Great ‘Yatra’

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“Mr. Modi came into office with a formidable piece of baggage, having been blacklisted by the United States government for nearly a decade over his handling of religious riots in Gujarat… (Ellen Barry: The New York Times)
Citing him as a metaphor, the yatri was not an ordinary person but the US President whose India yatra stayed in prime focus that kept intensifying as and when the travel date approached closer.

While his capabilities and competence over several years reflected efficiently through the prism of rigorous public scrutiny to which the US Presidents remains subjected to, Mr. Modi’s posture was relatively new to watch though he broke the crust of ambiguity during his America yatra not long ago and managed to cultivate ‘friendship’ with Mr. Obama.

One is sure, Mr. Singh; his predecessor had no less rapport because these were India’s credentials as a state having burgeoning economy, a power with significant military potentials and occupying crucial geo-political as well as geo-economic space in Asia-Pacific region that enable Indian leadership to pass through the uncompromising US friendship-filters comfortably. Modi’s Obama-hug and his tea-pouring for him did not escape observers notice. Some said the magic had worked.

Mr. Obama’s second visit to India and being the only US president who ever reviewed Indian Republic Day parade as the chief guest, places him at the pinnacle of much needed glory.  The urge to make the occasion special, coincided dramatically on each side. Modi being aware of the whispers in US circles that India, even after striking a deal as a strategic partner with George W. Bush and securing concession from the nuclear supplier group  was reluctant to embrace its role in entirety. Such an apparent psychological inhibition, deliberately carved by the Congress government appeared an eye sore for Modi’s BJP government.

On the other hand, Obama has embarked at extensive damage control measures after having been bruised through not-so-brilliant, questionable gains in Iraq and now Afghanistan where US/ISAF forces have lowered their flag to shift operational responsibility to Afghan National Army. The truth has seeped through to US public who rightly demand from US administration to focus at home and take a much needed break from the era of foreign interventions. Nuclear dialogues and interim easing of economic sanctions over Iran, seeking window of opportunity with Cuba to normalize relations, though eclipsed by Russo-Ukrainian conflict and Middle East imbroglio, are some wise moves that bring added vibrancy to US foreign policy. In Ukraine case, US plea of repulsing Russian adventurism does not sound a weighty claim because Crimea is comfortably in Russian grip while Eastern Ukraine does not need Russian forces intervention. The region alone would keep Kiev busy for years unless there is break through, employing soft power of diplomacy.

The follow-up media blitz suggests that the two leaders are in absolute sync and are inclined to cooperate in nuclear, defense, science and technology, trade and environments domains. Modi gave the discourse an added dimension to bolster his inward and outward stature by creating a witty ambiguity for not revealing what the two leaders discussed in closed-door session. The media would have the reasons to make bloated conjectures as some have questioned the incentives that compelled Obama to visit India when he had yet not digested elation accruing to him at the end of his state of union address. Modi also assured Obama that he could not be pressured by any one. Whether or not the statement at this juncture was nice diplomacy-fit but one thing is clear that he did not mince words any longer to suggest that Obama was standing on the soil of changed and vigorous India who would support its allies to the hilt. Modi proved that he knew precisely how to tickle Mr. Obama who is inclined to open Asia-Pacific front once driven by China-phoebes like Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment at home, “It is in U.S. interests to bolster Indian power even if no repayment is forthcoming because doing so will help limit the rise of a Chinese hegemon in Asia that could undermine the enduring strategic interests of the United States.”

When the high pitch visit proceeded, there should have been natural concern to see US drift so close to India and vice versa. Russia has been India’s close ally since Cold War era when India ostensibly owned non-aligned countries club. Balancing its policy parameters very shrewdly, it harvested enviable gains across the globe but equipped its forces predominantly with Russian arsenal. In recent Russo-US/EU standoff perspective, Russia would view Indo-US bonhomie grudgingly. Mr. Obama, possibly alive to international undercurrents, did speak soft about Russia that US did not wish to dent Russian economy. However, his plea could be brushed aside simply if any one raised the question, what do the economic sanctions mean against Russia? No doubt, Russia is finding its balancing acts in world power-politics rather challenging but one could go by simple arithmetic. Indo-US embrace, if it translates to supplementing US capabilities in Asia-Pacific, bringing China in the arena, Russia would prefer to support China against US and its allies.

China’s perceived stance is friendly towards India which harbors tremendous mistrust against China after she drubbed Indian forces on its Himalayan borders in early sixties. China is accused of capturing and retaining Indian Territory and several attempts to normalize the relations broke down without yielding any tangible results. Besides, India sees China-Pakistan nexus with slant greedy eyes. Indo-US strategic alliance, when India appears inclined to flex its muscles, not only in Indian Ocean but also in Pacific (Modi missed mentioning ‘Pacific’ in the press conference on first day of visit) would now force China to draw a red line for India as well. Interested quarters are absolutely insistent that Indian forces potentials on Blue Sea are better than China, a flurry of opinions which mysteriously swamped the media just before Obama’s visit that could be meaningful. US placing strategic pivot in Asia-Pacific would lead her to inspire India to perform added role along with the alliance. A small take off has already been agreed to, once both the dignitaries resolved to play stabilizing role in Afghanistan. The dimensions of the role is a matter of opinion at this stage but it could well be a small battle-inoculation exercise for Indians troops who are yet not tuned to conduct operations out of their territorial limits, UN peace-keeping mission participation once in a while notwithstanding.

For Pakistan, the US role as it draws closer to India in the sub-continent has become fraught with serious ramifications. Modi’s anti-Muslims history is no secret any longer when BJP’s role in torching Samjhota Express and demolition of Babari mosque had been established. Only a week before Obama’s visit, three Muslims were burnt alive by BJP sympathizers’ mob and forced conversion of Muslims to Hindu religion has been set as the state’s theme. The bloodletting by half a million-strong Indian Army is rampant in Indian Held Kashmir. Kashmiris, having been denied the right of self-determination, are the chronic victims of Indian forces’ atrocities since Indo-Pak partition in 1947. UN Security Council resolutions passed during Mr. Pundit Nehru’s times have been dumped in UN archives. Several powers that champion the human rights cause have meted willful neglect to the Kashmiris’ cause. The issue led to three wars among the two neighbors. Sporadic unprovoked shelling by Indian forces against civil population along its border with Pakistan is a routine matter. Mr. Obama remarkably pretended to be ignorant of the entire Indian shenanigan.  The implicit fall out of making India militarily strong would be dangerous for the region, particularly for Pakistan because:

•    Indian stubborn stance on Kashmir issue would further intensify to shun the need of meaningful dialogue and effective resolution of the issue.
•    Kashmiris agony would continue with no hope of finding respite from the Indian Army atrocities that have already led them to suffer about 100,000 men, women and children deaths.
•    Obama’s visit would set in an extreme degree of despondency when the US President has not, ironically, spoken a word about Kashmir and the need to find a lasting solution according to the wishes of the Kashmiris.
•    With US alliance, India’s ability to trash the neighbor like Pakistan would increase. Conversely, Pakistan with lesser power potential has the ability to respond effectively. It makes a scenario clad with perils. Tanvi Madan of Brookings also predicts, “The consultations on regional issues are likely not just to focus on India’s west, but also to its east—where they have identified stability in the Asia-Pacific as a shared interest.” Their measures for stability in Asia-Pacific without knocking out others, considered rivals, would certainly be worth paying compliments.
•    The standoff between two neighbors is ominous for the world peace also. In case of nuclear conflagration, the conflict would expand in scope and lethality for which world powers have yet not come up with a responsible answer. Instead, the fledgling capabilities when the power admittedly intoxicates would mean affording the pretext of hostilities to India.
•    India has already plans in place to set its Cold Start War Doctrine in practice that envisages compact, mobile, hard hitting forces to make surprise shallow, offensive maneuvers and cause destruction (ambitious aim though relevant) or attrition on Pakistani forces system. Pakistan needs to fine-finish all passive counter measures to deny any worthwhile success to Indian Cold Start War euphoria  and keep ready plans to strike back within hours in the same or different sector of its own choosing to teach her a lesson at their cost.
•    Any Indian forces meddling in Afghanistan would not be a welcome proposition under any pretext. Incidentally, two developments occurred that are favorable to Pakistan. When Obama and Modi were addressing joint press conference on 25 Jan 2015, Pakistan Army Chief was reviewing the guard of honor in Beijing with Chinese military counterpart. It would be naive to assume that Obama’s visit and accruing implications were not discussed by them. Also, concurrently, Afghan military delegation was conversing with Pakistani counterparts in Islamabad, a gesture almost akin to tell US/Indian hawks, thanks for the care, we had enough in last over thirteen years.
•    The development in India requires skillful handling and extra vigilance by Pakistan foreign policy wizards. Pakistan foreign office initial response to Mr. Obama’s visit has been disappointing that claimed that it would auger well for the regional peace, an assertion far removed from reality. In fact, Pakistan’s clear interpretation of the aforementioned thrust vectors would have been sounded to US on diplomatic channel, prior to Air Force One’s taking off from Washington tarmac as did Mr. Putin promptly, mustering a counter poise. He said, “Russia would not let US grab the Middle East”. Whether he has the capability or not, may be a moot point but he did not leave any vacuum when Obama and Modi were manipulating the world order in a different way, right or wrong, the time would judge.
•    Pakistan’s foreign policy does not operate on forward foot but is reactive instead. It is time that US played its role as honest broker and bring around Modi to settle Kashmir issue once for all according to the Kashmiris wishes. To achieve such objective, our pundits have to be at par, at least one of them, with Metternich or Castlereagh to convince US administration about the urgency to explore peaceful settlement of Kashmir issue and overcome Modi’s reticence.

India, despite full US shoulder-support needs to remember two vulnerabilities that would haunt her ambitions. One, UN Security Council permanent member seat-promise is a contentious issue for her. Having active hostilities with neighbors, two of them being nuclear power would make it dangerous proposition to admit India into the UNSC. There are strong arguments to give representation to Africa or Latin America who have been denied the slot in UNSC. If in post-Cold War scenario, the merit hinges on the country’s contribution to peacemaking efforts with no flare for embarking on military buildup despite having the sophisticated technological edge, Germany would be the best choice. When France and Britain are UNSC members, Germany’s case becomes weak from as small a continent as Europe. Muslims have no representation in UNSC either when every sixth person on the planet is Muslim. Turkey, Pakistan or Indonesia could be as deserving candidates as India, in fact better one.

Secondly, India’s proclaimed desire to emerge as economic giant, soon outmatching China appears on wrong drive if Mr. Modi’s body language is any guide. What transpires from his statements that somehow he has come to believe that the kind of geo-political environments India is placed in; it would be prudent to insult Pakistan and stigmatize Kashmiris, by snatching their constitutional status through an amendment that the present Indian constitution bestows on them. He also appears inclined to resort to occasional saber rattling towards China. This sequence to achieve by placing the economic objectives laced with hubris born from the heap of sophisticated military hardware appears asymmetrical. Such ruses and chicanery, at which Mr. Modi has been traditionally quite adapt, would lead Indian economic ambition for double digit growth to some silly snare. Instead India must resolve disputes with China and Pakistan through a visible pragmatic diplomacy and must not be lured in to show of force on high seas to intimidate its foes. Indian dreams can be carefully constructed by her allies but these can be shattered certainly by China or Pakistan decisively when Modi breathes too hot on their necks. Indian paradigm hereafter is complex and would also need brainstorming by Turkey and Iran because the alliance in fact is multilayered and some actors in the fold are yet to stand up at an opportune moment. An interesting hypothesis that would merits separate space to cover.

As the largest democracy, she lays claim upon, World would expect from India, strengthening of the universal peace rather than bully Pakistan, pester Kashmiris, meddle in Afghanistan or flash a sword towards China and side line Russia. Big power = Big forgiving heart, makes simple but effective equation for India to emulate. Einstein would have certainly liked this equation if he was alive, better than his theory of relativity.

Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan is a retired Brig Gen from Pakistan Army, served 32 years. A veteran of ‘1971 Indo-Pak War’ has been instructor in officers’ Pakistan Military Academy, commanded Divisional as well as Corps Artillery. Holds first class Masters degree in International Relations and PhD degree, acquired in 2002-2007 from University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Authored a book, writes frequently in national and international media. Has attended several seminars and conferences within the country and abroad on invitation. Travelled to Switzerland (twice), UK, US, UAE, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Germany (twice). Cambodia and Thailand. Email: dr.makni49@yahoo.com

South Asia

Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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South Asia

Afghanistan: Hazaras in danger of extinction

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As reported on August 30, 2021, Taliban shot dead 14 people belonging to the Hazara community in Khadir District of Afghanistan’s Daykundi Province. Among those killed are 12 soldiers, who reportedly surrendered, and two civilians.

Earlier in between July 4-5, Taliban tortured and killed nine men of the Hazara community and looted their homes in Mundarakht village of Malistan District in Ghazni province. Reportedly, six Hazara men were shot while three of them were tortured to death. The entire episode was part of a ‘door-to-door’ killing operation as orchestrated by Taliban.

On May 8, 2021, explosions outside Syed Al-Shahda school for girls in Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul, killed at least 68 people and wounded over 165. The majority of victims are girls attending school. The attack targeted Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazaras who live in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood.

The Taliban are yet to spell out finer details of how they will impose the Sharia law in Afghanistan. Interestingly, on August 17, Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabihullah Mujahid said that Afghanistan’s new government would be “inclusive.” On the same day, Taliban officials visited a Hazara neighborhood and attended a Shiite mourning ceremony for the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the third imam of Shiites and the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. But, on August 18, 2021, sadly, after ‘coming to power’, the Taliban forces destroyed the statue of prominent Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Bamiyan. Mazari was tortured and killed by the previous Taliban regime in 1995.

Comprising roughly 10-20 percent of Afghanistan’s 38 million population, Hazaras speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi dialect) called Hazaragi and the vast majority follow the Shia sect (Twelver Imami) of Islam. A significant number are also followers of the Ismaili sect. Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shia faith in a country racked by deep ethnic divisions. Their distinct features make them easy prey for Sunni hardliners, both Taliban and the Islamic State, (IS) that consider them “infidels”. The Hazaras are also accused of being too closely allied to Shia Iran, and tens of thousands have moved over the years as economic migrants to work mostly menial jobs.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: UNAMA’s “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Midyear Update: 1 January to 30 June 2021”, suggests that in total, 20 incidents targeting Shia/Hazara, resulted in 500 civilian casualties (143 killed and 357 injured). The report also states:

…a resurgence of deliberate sectarian motivated attacks against the Shi’a Muslim religious minority, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic minority, nearly all claimed by ISIL-KP. These included a string of non-suicide IED attacks and shootings, including at least eight IEDs in May-June alone that targeted buses or similar vehicles carrying members of the Hazara community…

Reportedly, a large number of Hazaras live in Hazarajat (or Hazarestan),’ land of the Hazara’, which is situated in the rugged central mountainous core of Afghanistan, in the Bamiyan province and in cities such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. With others living in the Badakhshan province. Many Hazaras settled in western Turkestan, in Jowzjan and Badghis provinces. Ismaili Hazaras, a smaller religiously differentiated group of Hazaras, live in the Hindu Kush Mountain region.

Hazaras in Afghanistan have faced decades of abuse and state-sponsored discrimination, most recently under the Taliban regime between 1996-2001. Hazaras have been singled out for killings, beheadings, suicide bomb attacks, and kidnappings. They have been targeted at weddings, schools, mosques, sports clubs, and even at births.

As reported on September 1, the killing of Hazaras, are a tiny fraction of the total death toll inflicted by the Taliban to date, as the group had cut mobile phone service in many of the recently captured areas, efficiently controlling which photographs and videos are then shared from these regions. Habiba Sarabi, a Hazara political leader, told she had proof of more atrocities but could not share the details, as it might endanger surviving eyewitnesses. Sarabi was the first female Governor of Afghanistan (in Bamiyan Province) and one of four women representing Afghanistan in the negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Unfortunately, soon after the interview, Sarabi sent a link to a short, grainy video, which showed two Taliban militants. Speaking into the camera, one of them said they are waiting for permission from their leaders to “eliminate” all Hazaras living in Afghanistan.

More worryingly, over a period of time, out of the dire necessity of self defence and mistrust over government and administration, many Hazaras have either formed or joined armed militias to counter radical forces operating within Afghanistan. One of the examples is that of Zulfiqar Omid, a former lawmaker turned resistance leader. He has reportedly established an armed Hazara resistance in Central Afghanistan, comprising some 800 regular fighters and 5,000 volunteers. Abdul Khani Alipur, is another such militia leader from Maidan Wardak province. As reported on July 13, 2021, his militia boasted of patrolling roads and launching brazen raids on Taliban areas to abduct the relatives of militants, later used as bargaining chips to release Hazara hostages. Such developments would only bring more bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Further, the Hazaras have also taken refuge in Pakistan since many decades, due to violence meted against them. As reported on September 1, 2021, up to 6,000 refugees, among them many Hazaras, have already made their way to Quetta, Balochistan in Pakistan, a city with a sizeable Hazara community. But unfortunately, Pakistan also has a history of frequent attacks on the minority Hazara community, due to the exact same reasons of their different religious and ethnic identities, as in the case of Afghanistan. According to the 2019 report of Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, about 509 Hazaras were killed since the year 2013. Moreover, according to partial data collated by South Asia Terrorism Portal, since 2001, 386 Hazaras have been killed, 480 injured in 80 incidents in Pakistan. Therefore, the danger of death and persecution doesn’t end when these people take refuge in Pakistan.

The Hazaras are victim of a double-edged sword of religious and ethnic differences, causing their death in Afghanistan. The Taliban ‘takeover’ of the political structure of the country can only ensure one thing vis-à-vis the Hazara population- their absolute annihilation. They will either die or flee the country in whatsoever means. The practice of ‘othering’, as preached by the militant Islamist groups, be it a religious minority, or a woman, or non-Pashtun person, would cause harm to the Hazara community. Along with the Taliban, other terror groups of IS, Al Qaeda and their various affiliates are definitely going to have their own game plan for Afghanistan, of which ‘persecution of Hazaras’ be an important constituent.

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South Asia

Why the Taliban Had to Change

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The fall of Kabul to the Taliban, pre-negotiated with the US in Doha, Qatar, has launched yet another fruitless enterprise, as fruitless as the US effort to keep Afghanistan under its own control: all sorts of IR scholars, pundits, and journalists, in all sorts of specialized and unspecialized publications in the US and Europe, are trying to prove that the 2021 version of the Taliban has not changed in comparison to the version of the Taliban which seized control of Afghanistan in 1996 and that they will again make Afghanistan a cradle for all kinds of terrorists. If they use facts rather than hollow phrases, they commonly seek a confirmation of this thesis in the names of the 2021 Taliban leaders appointed to the interim government, the names which are not particularly different from those of the Taliban who governed the country from 1996.

Yet, all these would-be experts have somehow failed to notice that the times have changed, and so has the geopolitical environment in which the whole overturn took place. Indeed, how can the Taliban remain the same, if the entire world has changed so profoundly, comparing the year of 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown by the US forces, with the year of 2021, when the US forces withdrew before the Taliban’s advance?  No matter how rigid they are in their faith as a religious movement, the Taliban as a political organization had no choice but to adapt to the tide of change, if they wanted to seize and exercise power in a changed geopolitical context.

There are many symbolic signs of this new context which are directly linked to the second arrival of the Taliban. First, both the Taliban and the US sat down to negotiate the withdrawal of the US forces and transfer of power to the Taliban, which signals that the US is no longer the same hegemonic power that refuse to ‘negotiate with the terrorists’, as the Taliban were characterized by the US diplomacy for so many years. Second, the Taliban have adopted a different political philosophy, which gives precedence to diplomatic – rather than military – means, whenever the former proves more efficient. Third, the negotiations took place in Qatar, a country that used to be the most isolated among the Arab countries due to its alliance with Iran, which shows that the Americans have accepted not only Qataris, but also Iranians, as mediators and potential partners. Fourth, despite their ambiguous relations and deep ideological differences, Iranians have also accepted the Taliban as a potential partner, which is also mirrored in the fact that their only Arab ally, Qatar, played the role of the mediator and host to the US-Taliban negotiations. Fifth, China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan did not close their diplomatic missions in Kabul after its takeover by the Taliban, which demonstrates that two global and two regional powers intend to cooperate with the Taliban-led government; moreover, that these four powers asses that they can benefit from such cooperation and accept the Taliban as a relevant regional partner of potential strategic significance. Therefore, at the very least, the Taliban are not going to be so isolated as they were during their first incarnation, which will certainly open them up, for the first time, to various foreign policy options.

However, there is one important question that is rarely posed by those who pretend to write and speak about the Taliban. This question is the most basic one: who are, in fact, the Taliban and who actually created them? In a recent interview, the former National Security Advisor to the US President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, proudly admitted that the US intelligence agencies inserted a number of Islamist fighters’ cells into Afghanistan by the end of the 1970s, with the task to penetrate the territory of the then Soviet Union and perform military actions, so as to provoke the Soviet regime to invade Afghanistan. The idea was to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam-like catastrophe and thus bring the communist empire to a collapse. As we all know, the Soviets had fallen into that trap and the rest is history: they were eventually defeated and expelled by the well-organized Islamist fighters, better prepared for a guerrilla war than the Soviet army. However, no matter how Brzezinski now prides himself for this idea, it is well-known that its execution and implementation were in more than 90% left to a non-American agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, the country that was the most faithful British and American ally at the time. In an exceptional analysis Forever Friends? Pakistan and the Taliban Still Need Each Other, written by Zahid Shahab Ahmed and published in the National Interest, we can see it clearly:

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Washington approached Islamabad to become its frontline ally in a proxy war against the Soviets. During the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989), thousands of mujahideen were recruited from around the world and trained in Pakistan, and then deployed into Afghanistan. In addition to receiving billions in economic and military assistance from the United States, Pakistan expanded its influence in Afghanistan through close relations with the Afghan mujahideen as they later united into the Taliban in the 1990s. In 1994, Mullah Mohammed Omar founded the Taliban with fifty students in Kandahar. By 1995, the group’s control increased to twelve provinces and its size to 25,000 fighters. Due to its quick territorial gains, the Taliban managed to seize control of most of the country and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996. To date, their first takeover of Kabul is attributed to Pakistan’s strong backing.

Therefore, the Taliban’s recruitment from among the Afghani and Pakistani Pashtuns and their military training for guerrilla warfare and religious indoctrination with the mixture of Pakistani Deobandi and Saudi Wahhabi Islam are to be treated as a special intelligence operation conducted by the ISI, and the same may be applied to their military victory. Of course, this operation would not have been viable without adequate coverage by the American CIA and British MI6, and assistance by Saudi Arabia’s GID (General Intelligence Directorate). Thus the Taliban and their hybrid ideology were created for a particular purpose and their heavy-handed policies upon the seizure of power also served a particular geopolitical agenda. It would go beyond the scope of this article to analyse in detail what this agenda was or might have been. Let us only notice that the Taliban in those times prepared the ground, both ideologically and literally, to legitimize the future American ‘War on Terror’, which has brought 20 years of continuous instability to the central part of Eurasia. In other words, there is no reason to look at the Taliban as a genuine occurrence – they had been created as a proxy and were left with no option but to remain a proxy. Whose proxy, that is the only question.

There is no doubt that the second arrival of the Taliban has been prepared and backed, again, by the ISI and Pakistan. On the operative level, the Taliban have clearly remained Pakistan’s proxy. However, in the meantime, Pakistan has totally changed its geopolitical orientation and switched loyalties. Initially created by the British Empire through religious partition of the post-colonial India to enable continuous Anglo-American control of the heart of Eurasia, Pakistan found itself abandoned and cornered by its former sponsors and allies, when they invested their capital and geopolitical weight in the strengthening and rise of its archenemy, Hindu-controlled India. Of course, this was not the first time that the British-American axis supported India against Pakistan, just as they were supporting Pakistan against India. However, this time it happened in the context of the rise of the most extreme form of religious nationalism promoted by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, designed to eliminate Muslims as a constituent part of the Indian nation for good, which would force Pakistan to enter yet another conflict with India over a definite line of Muslim-Hindu separation. Ostensibly, it was a rational calculation by the British and Americans, to support instant economic rise of India and foster a redesign of Indian policy towards extreme, religiously based nationalism, so as to make India capable and willing to confront China, as India’s old and their new geopolitical adversary. However, such a tricky game has only pushed Pakistan to turn towards China as a potential ally and geopolitical patron. Thus the British and Americans have eventually pushed Pakistan away and lost their most faithful ally, and China has been delivered an entirely new leverage to fundamentally change the geopolitical balance in Eurasia.      

With Pakistan under the US-UK patronage and Afghanistan under American control, China had a huge problem to secure its most important strategic project, the Belt and Road Initiative, in particular its China/Pakistan and China/Central Asia/West Asia Corridors. Also, the direct access of the Anglo-American intelligence agencies to the very borderland of China, through their stronghold in Afghanistan and the porous borders of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, made it possible to instigate China’s own ‘Muslim problem’ in the form of the Islamist radicalization of Uighurs in Xinjiang. This, predictably, provoked the Chinese regime to respond in an extremely oppressive manner, which almost put in question its relations with the entire Islamic world, especially the countries of Central Asia, thereby undermining the prospects for their participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. As this problem proved to be too difficult to solve on the internal level, China’s imperative was to take Afghanistan out of the American control and reverse this trend that gravely threatened Chinese strategic interests. In these circumstances, Pakistan’s well-known proxy, the Taliban, appeared on the horizon as the best suited instrument for that purpose. In this context, it is not difficult to imagine why the Taliban were so quickly and efficiently restored by the ISI and why they suddenly became so politically pragmatic and militarily strong.

So, the Taliban’s 2021 takeover was also decisively supported by Pakistan, as it had been the one in 1996. However, this time it has all happened in a totally different geopolitical environment, with Pakistan under China’s geopolitical umbrella, which implies a totally different geopolitical orientation on Pakistan’s, as well as the Taliban’s, part. Instead of serving the goals of Halford Mackinder’s doctrine of permanent destabilization of Eurasia, so as to secure British-American control over the world’s sea-trade routes, now Pakistan and its proxies have become open to promoting the opposite geopolitical agenda, the Chinese doctrine of building Eurasian land-trade infrastructure as an alternative to the Anglo-American hegemony over sea-trade routes. Such a doctrine, embodied in the Belt and Road Initiative, requires a long-lasting stabilization of the Eurasian geopolitical space, and Afghanistan occupies a strategic place within this constellation.       

Of course, most the Chinese officials could do in their public activities was to keep the embassy in Kabul open, recognize the Taliban, and send their Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, to meet the Taliban delegation in Tianjin. On their part, the Taliban described China as a ‘friendly country’ and invited it to participate in reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, guaranteeing the safety of Chinese investments. However, there is no need to make vain guesses about whether the new version of the Taliban will really prevent various Islamist militant groups to penetrate China’s territory, as well as the territory of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics: this time, the Taliban have been resurrected and installed as a watchdog, to serve no other than this very purpose, so as to eventually make Afghanistan a part of a potential strategic alliance of China, Pakistan, and Iran. All in accordance with the Chinese strategic vision to make the Eurasian land-mass stable for transcontinental development of infrastructure, trade, and industry, designed to lead to economic, and eventually political, unification of the Eurasian continent.

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