How’s this for timing? On September 23, as many as 250 troops from the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment arrived in Vladivostok for INDRA-2016, an 11-day joint exercise with an equal number of Russian Army troops. On the same day, 70 Russian soldiers arrived in Pakistan for the first-ever Pakistan-Russia joint military drills named Druzhba-2016.
Coming days after the Uri attack, Druzhba-2016 has caused a collective uproar across the international border, with some media outfits calling it a Russian snub. To most Indians it appeared to be a betrayal by a long-time ally.
It’s understandable that the average Indian person would react with such dismay at a time when tensions are running high over the Pakistan masterminded attack that left 18 Indian Army soldiers dead.
However, considering the extensive and strategic nature of the Indo-Russian partnership – BRICS, G-20 and defence – it should be a no-brainer that Moscow’s engagement with Pakistan does not come at the expense of its ties with India.
Those who believe Moscow is flirting with Islamabad because India is drifting into the western camp belong to two categories. One, they probably live under a rock and have no idea about the nature of India’s ties with Russia. The second group comprises western commentators – and their camp followers in India – who want it to happen and are therefore expressing their inner desire.
According to Petr Topychankov, South Asia expert and Associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, “Pakistan cannot replace or even influence Russia’s strategic partnership with India. This is just impossible. Russia’s priorities are very clear. No matter how long New Delhi will enjoy its ‘honeymoon’ in relations with Washington, both India and Russia understand that their ties cannot be influenced by any third parties.”
Russia-Pakistan ties had plummeted to such abysmal depths during the Cold War that they are only now recovering to normalcy. In 1947, when Pakistan was carved out of India by the retreating British, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin believed the emergence of the two countries was just a deal between the Indian elites and the British imperialists.
In fact, the Soviet media did not pay any attention to the proclamation of the formation of Pakistan. Nisha Sahai Achuthan writes in ‘Soviet Arms Transfer Policy in South Asia -1955-81’ that the Kremlin did not deem it necessary even to felicitate to Pakistani leaders on the occasion of the formal inauguration of their new state. Stalin told an Indian diplomat: “How primitive it is to create a state on the basis of religion.” He even expressed the view that a federation between India and Pakistan would be the ideal solution, and doubted the survival of Pakistan as an independent nation.
While the Pakistanis didn’t like the negative Russian views on the world’s first Islamic state, the Soviet Union took exception to Islamabad’s denouncing of communism. And when the first Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan visited Washington in 1948, and declined Moscow’s invitation, the rift grew wider.
On October 24, 1952 Izvestia wrote: “After Partition…Pakistan began to draw the fixed attention of the United States imperialist circles. The latter were enticed not so much by the country’s natural wealth as by Pakistan’s strategic position, especially its western part. Taking advantage of the United Nations mediation of the Kashmir dispute, the United States ruling circles endeavoured to derive from this “mediation” everything possible for strengthening American position in Pakistan. United States influence on Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy increased especially after Liaquat Ali Khan’s trip to Washington.”
The chances of the two countries coming together disappeared when General Ayub Khan engineered a coup and took Pakistan into the Baghdad Pact in 1959. Denouncing the bilateral agreement, Moscow Radio said the Soviet government had several times drawn the attention of the Pakistan Government to the “grave consequences of Pakistan’s membership of the Baghdad Pact which had made that country an American bridgehead for the atomic bombardment of the USSR”.
However, it was after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that ties with Pakistan rock bottom. Under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan assumed the role of a frontline state against communism and became the conduit for weapons to be used against the Soviet forces. Over 15,000 Soviet soldiers died as a result of Pakistan’s involvement.
It is a miracle that the mighty Soviet Army did not strike Pakistani supply lines and the numerous training camps where lumpen elements from all over the world arrived for jehad – in reality a one-way mission – against the ‘godless’ Soviets. Indeed, it is a measure of how much Pakistan was disliked in the former Soviet Union that long after the country dissolved, it wasn’t safe for Pakistani students and travellers to declare their nationality in places such as Uzbekistan and Azerbajian, where people held Islamabad responsible for the deaths of their boys in the Afghan War.
Thawing the Cold War
To borrow the words of Indian diplomat Eenam Gambhir, Pakistan has become the “Ivy League of terror”. The Pakistani passport is the third most unwelcome travel document in the world after the passports of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its only friend – or rather patron – is China, which uses it as a test market for its export model weapons. In this backdrop, Pakistan is desperate for new friends, allies or backers.
The country is an excellent example of what happens to a US ally after it is past its use by date. It was abandoned after the Afghan war by all its western backers, to be requisitioned a decade later for the War on Terror, which was in reality America’s War in Favour of Terror. Now that the US is winding down its operations in Afghanistan, America is again jettisoning Pakistan. To be sure, Islamabad has played both sides in the war so it can’t really point fingers at the US.
Russia and Pakistan have been circling around some sort of agreement for decades. During the 1950s, when communist newspapers were attacking Pakistan, Soviet diplomats left a door open for Islamabad. They said Moscow and Islamabad differed only 10 per cent while the remaining 90 per cent of their mutual relationship was fine.
Ayub Khan also hinted that Russia was waiting if the pact with the US didn’t work out. In an interview published in the French newspaper La Monda, he stated that Pakistan might turn to other powers for help if the United States continued to underestimate Pakistan’s needs. He said, “The camp opposed to the Americans attaches great importance to our country both militarily and politically and persistently makes advances to us.”
The Pakistan Times in an editorial commented: “Our foreign aid requirements are vital and urgent, and we cannot be expected to wait indefinitely in the hope that opinion in America will eventually be persuaded to view our needs with greater sympathy and understanding. Some other states in a position to help, have in the recent past repeatedly expressed their desire to give us substantial aid without political strings, and America should have no grouse if we turn to those countries to make up the shortfall between our needs and the aid available to us from our major allies.”
History repeats itself. With America withholding military and economic aid, Pakistani generals – who form the deep state that runs the country – are interested in building bridges with Russia.
What Russia wants
The United States’ retreat from the Middle East and its pivot to the Asia-Pacific has created several low-hanging opportunities for Russia in the region. Moscow is moving into Egypt with advanced MiG-35 jets. Iraq is buying Russian attack helicopters after a 25-year gap. Weapons sales are being considered for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is among these new opportunities.
For the first time ever Russian and Pakistan interests have converged – in the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban. America’s slow motion exit from Afghanistan has got the jehadis salivating at the prospect of regaining power in the war-torn country. While the Taliban may not have won more than a handful of battles in America’s longest war, in the popular Afghan narrative they have defeated yet another superpower. If, and when, they storm the gates of Kabul, the emboldened Islamists are likely to target Pakistan next.
This has set off the alarm bells in Moscow. The Russians are paranoid about waves of Islamic terrorists attacking their soft underbelly in Central Asia. “First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organised Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had warned way back in 2009.
The Pakistanis are worried too. Not only will they lose the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation that the United States doles out for the use of Pakistani military bases, Islamabad feels it is being abandoned in the midst of its fight with the Islamists.
Although it is a fact that they created the Islamist genie in the first place, for once the Pakistanis are right in saying they are bigger victims of terror than India. For instance, in a joint attack in 2011 the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda nearly totalled the Karachi Naval Base. While India suffers a major terror attack once or twice a year, across the border bomb explosions are a weekly or sometimes daily occurrence. It’s got so bad that Shia mosques in Pakistan don’t have regular prayer times for fear of being bombed by Sunni terrorists.
So, whether India likes it or not, Pakistan is really at the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban. The Pakistanis are, therefore, looking at extricating themselves from the US-created mess. For Russia, there could be no better time to pry Pakistan away from the Americans.
The Mi-25 saga
Druzhba-2016 isn’t the first instance where India has behaved like a jilted lover. In 2014 there was considerable anger among the Indian public when Russia announced it would supply Mi-25 helicopters to the Pakistan Army. Since Indians have for decades considered Russians as friends, many felt the sale was a betrayal. However, it is very likely Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had sounded out South Block before green lighting the deal.
At any rate, New Delhi wasn’t upset over the sale of a few 1970s vintage gunships to the rust bucket Pakistani military. In a previous era, despite being equipped with better weapons than the Indian side, the Pakistanis botched both the 1965 and 1971 wars. P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra describe in their book Eagles Over Bangladesh how the Indian Air Force neutralised the Pakistan Air Force “in less than 72 hours”. Today the Indian military is a behemoth and the balance is skewing – in India’s favour – by the day.
Besides, the IAF itself operates two Mi-25 helicopter squadrons (No.104 Firebirds and No.125 Gladiators) and so the gunship is hardly a secret weapon.
The reason why the Russians offered the Mi-25 helicopter is significant. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian pilots nicknamed the Mi-25 the “Flying Tank” because it was not only extremely survivable, it also created terror among the Afghan mujahidin. The gunship was so effective that the fear-stricken Islamic fighters called it the “Shaitan-Arba” or Satan’s Chariot.
While a handful of gunships to Pakistan won’t change the military balance vis-a-vis India, the Mi-25 can be the game changer in battles with guerrillas up in the mountains. Also, in Afghanistan where airfields are as rare as hen’s teeth, helicopters are the only way to get out and about. By supplying these gunships to Pakistan, the Russians get the Pakistanis to continue with the job of clearing up Islamist opposition.
In fact, the proven effectiveness of Russian helicopters was the reason why the US Defence Department – no less – paid Moscow $1 billion for supplying the Afghan military with their gunships.
As the world’s largest arms importer, India has considerable leverage over Russia. Moscow is hardly likely to risk its strategic relationship and defence trade amounting to dozens of billions of dollars by allying too closely Pakistan.
So long as Russia doesn’t cross the red line by supply strategic weapons like long-range jet fighters, submarines or missiles to Pakistan, India doesn’t have any reason to be alarmed by low-key joint military exercises. Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of the Russian state-run technologies corporation Rostec assures, “Our strategic partner has always been, and will be, India.”
And finally, a note to the media: do not label every new development as a “landmark deal” or a “strategic decision” as you did when Russia announced in 2014 that it was lifting its unofficial arms embargo on Pakistan. Here’s why: between 1996 and 2010 Russia had sold 70 Mi-17 transport helicopters to Pakistan. There was nothing “landmark” about the Mi-25 deal.
Joint military exercises are essentially confidence building measures. For Russia and Pakistan, considering their bitter history, defence contacts are necessary for erasing their past distrust in order to start over.
The India-Russia relationship is quite stable so the Indian public and media have no reason to get worked up over 70 Russian soldiers conducting drills with poorly motivated soldiers of the Pakistan Army.
According to Topychankov, “India will always play a very special role in Russia’s foreign policy and Russia is very much interested in keeping the strategic level of its ties with India.”
Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy
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.
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).
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.
Afghanistan: Hazaras in danger of extinction
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.
Why the Taliban Had to Change
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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