Updated: September 9, 2021 1:43:44 pm
What led to the defeat of America in Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban after 20 years, more dominant than ever before? What did India gain or lose from its financial, strategic, and political investments there? Gautam Mukhopadhaya, former Ambassador to Kabul, explains. Edited excerpts and full video from a conversation last month, before the Americans finally left.
On where the US failed against the Taliban:
The failure was right in the beginning. The Americans were clear that they had intervened to eliminate al-Qaeda and international terrorism. To be fair, they did not say they were there to liberate Afghans from the Taliban. But it took them 10 years to even find Osama bin Laden and actually reach a stage where you could theoretically say that al-Qaeda was eliminated.
But they also came face to face with the reality that al-Qaeda’s presence came out of the radicalism that had been promoted and exported from Pakistan. In the second phase [after the Iraq war], the US military presence in Afghanistan moved from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency. Since the origin of the war lay in Pakistan, Obama came up with the ‘Af-Pak’ mandate for Richard Holbrooke. Before Obama, Bush had realised that Pakistan was the root cause of the problem, and Trump in his South Asia strategy of August 2017 came to the same conclusion. He specifically and very strongly named Pakistan, but for some reason, no American administration was able to pursue the logic of that discovery to its conclusion by the use of coercive diplomacy. For years, President (Hamid) Karzai pleaded with the Americans, “Why are you fighting in Afghanistan, the war is actually starting from Pakistan.”
Also, while the US spent money on the war effort and on media, civil society, women, and many other things, they did not invest in Afghanistan. They knew Afghanistan was sitting on $3 trillion worth of mineral wealth, but there was not a single investment in it. The Americans did not invest even in democracy, in the institutions of democracy; they did not invest in trade. If they had wanted to invest in trade, they could have pushed Pakistan to open two-way transit trade between India and Afghanistan through Pakistan. They did spend a lot of money, but that money went into the gravy train of a large number of US and Afghan contractors, opportunists, power brokers.
The problem was compounded by many other things; I’ll mention one major point. Around 2018 when the Trump administration first reached out for direct negotiations with the Taliban, I think they came to the realisation that after 20 years of the war on terror, they had effectively provided net security for their major strategic rivals — China, Russia and Iran — in that region. The reason was that they never thought of Afghanistan in terms of its strategic importance; they wasted opportunities that they could have used both for the development of Afghanistan as well as for greater stabilisation of the region. And so they said, “we are pulling out, this government is corrupt, etc.; now whether there is a civil war or whatever, it is your headache”. They reduced everyone — central Asian republics, India, the Afghans themselves — only to collateral damage.
There could be another interpretation — that the Americans deliberately facilitated the return of the Taliban to destabilise the region for their strategic rivals. On the face of it, it appears baffling that the US should try to contain China everywhere else but give them a virtual strategic pass in central Asia… I am just hypothesising here, but it is possible that that they were not giving them a strategic pass, in fact, they were trying to lure them, just as they lured the Soviets, into Afghanistan. A new bear trap, this time for the Chinese.
On whether the Taliban and democracy are incompatible:
The Taliban were a 100 per cent Pakistani project that started in 1994, and who are now 27 years old. They underwent a mutation after they were defeated in 2001 and moved to Pakistan. They were picked up and groomed in the madrasas associated with the refugee camps of Pakistan that were run by extreme Deobandi or Wahhabi mullahs. There are hundreds of madrasas in that region, so somebody aged say, 5 or 6 or 10 [then], would still be of fighting age [now]. These students also provided the pool for suicide bombers, and for every bomber who may have actually blown himself up, there was a large support group, starting from recruitment to training to brainwashing to the logistics…
The Pakistani agenda was to create a constituency of Afghans that would effectively erase the Afghan and Pashtun identities of the people who had grown up in the refugee camps, and submerge it in the larger pan-Islamic identity under an emirate or a caliphate. When it came to a choice between Afghanistan and the emirate, the Taliban would opt for the emirate. If they really had Afghanistan in their hearts, they could have made peace with the Afghans — but in fact, theirs was a war against other Afghans who did not think like them, who did not accept an emirate, and who still thought in terms of an Afghan national identity.
If you use the word democracy a lot, people think of it as a western imposition. In fact, democracy is code for co-existence and freedom and rights. It is not the form of democracy that matters; what does is the spirit of freedom and rights that is enshrined in the democratic project. Afghans have shown in the last 20 years that they are second to none in wanting that freedom and those rights. Of the last 40 years [of war in Afghanistan], the most recent 20 make up the only period in which there has not been a net export of refugees from Afghanistan. In fact Afghan expatriates came back, and a new generation grew up, that did not actually see fighting and war.
On India’s choice to not talk to the Taliban, and whether it should do so now — and perhaps also try to reach out to Pakistan:
India did right in perhaps making discreet, behind-the-scenes contact with the Taliban, maybe some elements, individuals, or a faction. The Afghan people and government were definitely not very keen, so if you (India) had talked to the Taliban, it would have had to be in the context of the peace process, when we were represented at the Doha talks and particularly when the intra-Afghan talks started. But talking to do a deal behind the backs of the Afghans, as every other country had done, would have been betraying the Afghan people who opposed the Taliban and who actually constituted the majority in the country, for your selfish interests. You cannot just substitute the generation that you have helped educate, nourished and supported for the last 25 years, with the Taliban.
Also, if you think that by reaching out to the Taliban, you would win a strategic friend against Pakistan, we are deluding ourselves. This is an old relationship, and even if a lot of Taliban are disliking it, there is not much they can do; they are very tightly in the clutch of the Pakistanis. More importantly, India, perhaps the most important historical partner of Afghanistan, would have conferred legitimacy on the Taliban and, in the process, betrayed the generation that wanted freedoms.
Back-channel connections do exist, and I think they were exercised in the course of the evacuation so that we were able to get to the airport [from the Embassy]. I also think that the time to use that card will come now. We have to see what kind of government they will make, whether it is transitional, whether it is inclusive; we will see if the factions have their frictions; who is able or willing to reach out to us; who can reach out to us; whether the ISI’s control can be diluted — the time to play that game is now.
On whether we can co-operate with Pakistan on dealing with the Taliban — I think as of now it seems very difficult given the overall state of our relations. Even when things were much better, say when I was ambassador in Kabul from 2010-13, the Pakistanis would often say that you should talk to us about Afghanistan, and we would say we were ready, but they would never actually take it up… They were only interested in point-scoring.
On the internal resistance to the Taliban:
The spontaneous resistance we have seen [is] extremely touching; defiant banner protests by women rejecting Taliban rule… August 19 was the anniversary of Afghan independence, and there were long processions in Kabul with the Afghan flag. In places like Kunar, Asadabad, Khost, and Jalalabad, and in non-Pashtun areas too, these flag protests have caught on.
I think the resistance is not only going to be among the Panjshiris, the Tajiks, and possibly other ethnic groups, but there is a distaste for Taliban rule even among the Pashtuns, who constitute the majority among the Taliban. There was a kind of effort at resistance in Herat by Ismail Khan and in the Mazar area by (the Uzbek) General Dostum and (Tajik) Atta Noor. These were aborted I think partly because of the swiftness of the (Ashraf Ghani government’s) surrender, and partly because whispered instructions seemed to have gone to the army units not to fight because a deal was in the making.
One of the reasons why Afghans by and large caved in was fatigue with war and terrorism, a kind of resignation; complete disconnect with the government, a sense of powerlessness. And therefore, when they saw the Taliban over a period of time…there was a massive propaganda war, a kind of psychological warfare that conveyed an image of invincibility and inevitability, and so in response, and seeing that the Afghan forces were not really putting up a fight, the large majority (of people) have accepted the turn of the tide…
We have to watch whether the Taliban actually act as they have been messaging, conveying a sense of amnesty and responsibility. On the ground this is not visible, Taliban fighters are walking about with lists, people have been identified as being pro- or anti- them; I think there are fears about people who have been closely associated with India as well. In the meanwhile, there is also a cash shortage, there is a need to find provisions for day-to-day life, and there is a potential humanitarian disaster to be tackled. When the Taliban took over the customs points and border points, in a way they forced countries on the other side, for practical reasons, to deal with them. In blocking the road to the airport, they forced all those who were in Kabul to negotiate with them. They leveraged their presence on the ground to force the international community to deal with them, and that will also apply to the humanitarian issue.
Why did 300,000 Afghan troops trained by the Americans for 20 years, cave in?
Much is made about the 300,000-350,000-strong Afghan army, but the Americans only invested in counter-terrorism capacities; they never created an army that was capable of defending borders or holding territory, and they didn’t provide them with artillery, armour, logistics, mobility, engineering and communication skills. It is questionable whether that army was even 300,000-strong. There were other issues too — issues of military appointments and old ethnic rivalries, etc.
India bet wrongly; should it completely overhaul its policy towards Afghanistan?
We bet on a progressive Afghanistan and we got the dividends over the last 25 years. By suddenly switching horses, you will be neither here nor there, and you will be trading a bird in hand for two in the enemy’s bush. We hoped that democracy would be an antidote to extremism. The way democracy was practised in Afghanistan did not led to that — but we tried our best to re-energise the people-to-people relationship. Karzai used to say that one dollar from India was worth a hundred from the US.
Transcribed by Mehr Gill
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.