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An Expert Explains | Afghanistan crisis: What Kabul means in Delhi

The Taliban have seized Kabul. What explains the capitulation of the US and Afghan forces? And what should India do in this crisis, given its past reluctance to talk with the Taliban?

Written by Gautam Mukhopadhaya |
Updated: August 24, 2021 9:48:35 am
taliban, kabul, kabul news, india Afghanistan relations, kabul india latest news, kabul india, kabul latest newsTaliban fighters raise their flag at the Governor's house in Ghazni. (AP Photo: Gulabuddin Amiri)

With the Taliban entering the outlying districts of Kabul Sunday and issuing a formal declaration that they do not intend to conduct a witch-hunt against those with the Islamic Republic Government while it waited for the completion of a ‘transition process’, and amid parallel reports of efforts to form a transitional or interim government for 6 months, the wheel has come full circle on the post-9/11 US ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan since 2001 and the country’s experiment with an Islamic republic in 2004.

India should be a first responder in the current crisis for humanitarian and longer-term political reasons.

Why the capitulation

First reports from Kabul describe tension and doomsday fears, but no serious outbreaks of violence in the city. The immediate challenge is a massive humanitarian crisis on account of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced who have left other war zones and taken shelter on pavements and parks in Kabul. The second is the panic and rush for passports and visas for those who fear for their lives from the Taliban or their sponsors. India should facilitate emergency visas and evacuation of those close to India who will be under threat. Outbreaks of violence and political persecution should be anticipated. The biggest losers in the transition will be Afghan women and youth who had tasted political, civic, economic and human rights and opportunities, and media freedoms.

Three questions loom uppermost in the minds of observers in India. First, what accounts for the near-total capitulation of the 300,000-350,000 US and NATO trained and equipped Afghan Army and Police forces, the ANDSF, without much of a fight barring a few honourable exceptions in Lashkargah, Herat and Taloqan, against lightly armed insurgents estimated to be around 60,000? Second, what can explain the US decision to pull out its troops unconditionally without waiting for a negotiated political settlement regardless of consequences that were almost entirely predictable other than the speed with which it occurred? And third, what can explain India’s reluctance to engage the Taliban and what can it do?

The Expert

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, IFS, has served in various capacities in Indian Embassies and Missions, including as Ambassador to Afghanistan (2010-13) as well as Syria and Myanmar. Following the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001, he reopened the Indian Embassy in Kabul that month.

It is too early for any firm or complete answers to the first question. There is little doubt that the undermining of the September 2019 elections by the Zalmay Khalilzad-led US peace process while trying to force a ‘transitional government’ as part of the US-Taliban ‘deal’; the contested elections and dysfunctional government that came out of it; and an increasingly discredited Ghani government were part of the problem, as was mismanagement of appointments in key security ministries, especially the Ministry of Defence.

Equally true is the fact that, despite clear intimations and notices of withdrawal of US support to President Ashraf Ghani and of US troops regardless of what Afghans felt, the Afghan Army was unprepared and caught by surprise by the Taliban offensive. Technical dependence on the US for air support, weapon systems, intelligence etc, psychological denial that they would indeed leave as they warned, a lack of military strategy, poor supplies and logistics, indefensible and thinly manned posts, unpaid salaries, phantom rolls, and a sense of betrayal, abandonment and demoralisation, all played a role in this.

Responsibility with US

More importantly, there were also structural reasons for their failure for which, notwithstanding the sacrifices made by the West in Afghanistan, responsibility must lie with the US and NATO. To fit the US definition of the war on terror, and also for reasons of cost of developing such an army to NATO standards, the Afghan National Army was never really trained and equipped with the normal attributes of a national army capable of defending territory with adequate mobility, artillery, armour, engineering, logistics, intelligence, air support etc for rugged terrain; and infantry battalions and doctrines designed for it. On the contrary, most of the effort went into grooming Special Forces units meant to recover targets of urban terrorist attacks, at which they acquitted themselves admirably, but not offensive operations. In sum, they invested just enough for the war on terror, but not the defence of Afghanistan although it was perfectly aware of the connection between the two in the Pakistani role in nurturing the Taliban.

Pakistan also leveraged US dependence on ground lines of communication through Pakistan to ensure that the ANA remained stunted. Afghan authorities, aware of this, approached other countries for such equipment, but nothing that was not interoperable and up to NATO standards would have been acceptable. Pakistani masterminds exploited this weakness since the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan and used it once the US was clearly on the way out. As a result, it was left to the limited number of Afghan Special Forces commando units to fight what was effectively a Pakistani invasion with an Afghan face and foreign fighters, most of all from Pakistan, from one theatre to another without adequate support.

US motives for literally abandoning a 20-year investment in blood, treasure and associates are more puzzling. First, it is arguable that after the end of the Soviet intervention and the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has never really considered Afghanistan of strategic importance. For all its $1 trillion investment in Afghanistan and its awareness of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, the US never really invested in the Afghan economy or attempt to integrate it to its economic sphere of influence (including India) as it did after its interventions after World War II in Europe, East Asia and later in the oil economies of the Gulf.

taliban, kabul, kabul news, india Afghanistan relations, kabul india latest news, kabul india, kabul latest news Residents of Kabul have been arriving at the airport in large numbers since the Taliban took over the capital. (AP Photo)

Neither did it invest in Afghan democracy as an antidote to the kind of Taliban religious fundamentalism that is intrinsically linked to religious extremism and terrorism. Ironically, despite western attempts to portray the Afghan ‘democracy’ that came in its wake as a failure, the 20 years since the ouster of the Taliban, for all its flaws, have arguably been one of the most promising periods in Afghanistan’s recent history in terms of education and capacity building in which India too played a major part. If one were to take just one metric, refugees, this was the one period when there was a net return of refugees and expatriates, not outflow of refugees that has now begun.

More baffling is why the US should cede strategic space in Afghanistan in the most vulnerable underbelly of its principal strategic rivals, Xinjiang for China, while it is working to contain it in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, the Central Asian Republics for Russia, and Iran to the west. One of the ironies of the US intervention in Afghanistan is that far from using Afghanistan strategically against its rivals in the region, it ended up effectively extending security against the Taliban for them.

Is it then possible that the primary motivation behind its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is not fatigue from an endless war, but a cold-blooded decision to convert what was essentially a counter-terrorist operation against the al-Qaeda, that expanded to a limited counter-insurgency operation learning from the Iraq experience until President Barack Obama’s ‘surge’, into a drawdown and training mission from Obama to Trump, into finally, an intelligence operation using the Taliban whose return it has legitimised and facilitated through the US-Taliban deal and its withdrawal, to destabilise the region to keep China, Russia, Iran, and possibly even Pakistan off balance with Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics and India as collateral damage?

taliban, kabul, kabul news, india Afghanistan relations, kabul india latest news, kabul india, kabul latest news Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country (AP Photo)

What next for India

Finally, what should India do under the circumstances? With the Taliban in Kabul, the old debate in India on whether to talk or not to the Taliban is now academic. The Taliban have proclaimed that there will be no witch hunt, that it will respect a transitional process, and that it will work for a “future Islamic system… that is acceptable to all”.

Prudence dictates that we keep an open mind, wait and watch what they actually do during and after the transitional process, assess how inclusive they are in accommodating the gains of the last 20 years and the progressive principles of the Islamic Republic, judge the opposition to Taliban rule, and our security needs before we jump into any hasty recognition of an Islamic ‘Emirate’ which will have profound consequences for the region, the world and the US in particular.

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