As the last American soldiers fly out of Kabul airport and the world adapts to the return of the Taliban, three uncomfortable but enduring features of international politics have come into sharp focus. The human tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, India’s enormous emotional investment in the Kabul government that collapsed this month, and Delhi’s strong concerns that the Taliban’s connections with Pakistan should not muddy our thinking about the ways of the world.
That victories on the battlefield have political consequences is one of the fundamental features of international politics. Governments have no option but to come to terms, now or later, with the victor. There is no reason, then, for the Indian discourse to be surprised at the rapid normalisation of the Taliban by the international community.
On August 2, the UNSC warned the Taliban against pursuing a military solution to the conflict and establishing an Islamic Emirate; on August 16, both the references were dropped as the Taliban took charge of Kabul. And last week, the UNSC stopped referring to the Taliban by name and moved to a general appeal against letting Afghan territory be used by terror groups.
The UNSC’s sensitivity to the rapidly-changing ground situation reminds us of the legendary headlines of a French newspaper as Napoleon escaped from confinement in Elba and marched on Paris in March 1815. Here is a rough sense and sequence of the headlines: “The Cannibal has left his den”. “The Monster has landed”, “The Tyrant has passed through Lyon”; “The Usurper is 60 leagues from Paris”; “Bonaparte is advancing, but will never enter Paris”; “Napoleon will be below our ramparts tomorrow”; “The Emperor has arrived at Fontainebleau”; “His Imperial Majesty is in the Royal Palace”.
All students of politics know that total wars of the kind that we have seen in Afghanistan change the domestic and international politics of a nation. Whether it likes the new and victorious sovereign or not, a government has the obligation to secure its national interests — ranging from the protection of its citizens and property to maintaining the regional balance of power. India is not immune to this essential principle of international relations and will find ways to protect its stakes in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
That brings us to the second enduring feature of world politics — that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Consider reports that the US is providing intelligence inputs to the Taliban on the terror threats from ISIS-K.
Although these reports are disconcerting to many, the conditions on the ground mean the US needed the Taliban’s support for the safe evacuation of its citizens in the last couple of weeks, as well as in the future. When asked whether he trusts the Taliban, US President Joe Biden told the press that “It’s not a matter of trust — it’s a matter of mutual self-interest.” “It’s in their self-interest that we leave when we said (August 31) and that we get as many people out as we can,” Biden added.
The convergence of US and Taliban interests may be more than tactical. The US would want to explore if the Taliban can help secure long-term American interests in preventing a regrouping of international terror outfits like the al Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan. The Taliban on the other hand would want American and Western support in rebuilding Afghanistan. It is by no means clear if such a deal can be clinched, given the big risks it presents to both sides. But the two sides seem ready to explore the possibilities.
The same can be said about the prospects for long-term cooperation between India and the Taliban-led government. For Delhi, the main interest is in preventing Afghan soil from being used by anti-India terror groups. At least a section of the Taliban is eager to continue political and commercial engagement with India.
Last week, in a major speech on the Taliban’s approach to domestic and international issues, the head of the Taliban political commission Sher Mohammad Stanikzai underlined the movement’s interest in continuing the partnership with India. This is part of a natural quest for a diversified set of international partnerships. Delhi would be right to keep its fingers crossed on the Taliban’s ability to deliver on these promises and stand up against the Pakistan army’s pressures to keep India out. But it would certainly want to find out if the Taliban means what it says and if there are any cracks in Pakistan’s relationship with Kabul’s new rulers.
Finally, the US engagement with the Taliban to counter the ISIS-K has been met with derision across the world. Critics say all these groups are part of the same school of terror, driven by similar religious zeal and nurtured in Pakistan’s sanctuaries.
India’s extensive experience of dealing with Pakistan-supported terror lends credence to the narrative on Rawalpindi’s masterful choreography of the unending terror ballet in our region. But Delhi should not rule out contradictions between Pakistan and the terror groups it has spawned as well as among various jihadi organisations.
Differences even among the closest of friends are natural and always offer openings to adversaries. History tells us that movements based on ideology — either secular or religious — are especially prone to internecine conflict. Ideological outfits squabble over the interpretation of the scripture and on the appropriate strategies for realising the declared goals.
Recall that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi exploited the divisions in the Indian Communist movement for promoting her dominance over the Congress and reorienting India’s politics. In the US, President Richard Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger actively exploited the differences between Russian and Chinese communists. Across Asia, conservatives actively used splits in the communist parties to establish their political dominance.
Despite its powerful appeal, religious ideology has failed to build durable political coalitions within and across nations. Pan-Islamist movements have quickly splintered amidst sectarian tensions as well as the clash between nationalism and ethnicity on the one hand and the calls for religious solidarity on the other.
Afghan history, too, bears witness to perennial political schisms. The Afghan communists who seized power in Kabul in the 1978 revolution could not overcome their internal differences on how to modernise their nation or the role of the Soviet Union.
The various religious groups that Pakistan supported could not unite after the Soviet army was ousted from Afghanistan. It had to create the Taliban to counter the Mujahideen. The Taliban’s capture of power in 1996 produced a new set of ethnic and religious divisions within Afghanistan.
Given this history, it is unwise for Delhi to paint the external challenges arising from the Afghan tumult as a single coherent force; and to believe in leveraging the external threat for domestic political ends. The Panchatantra has a more sensible strategy to offer — try and divide your potential adversaries and strengthen your internal unity.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 31, 2021 under the title ‘Taliban and new realpolitik’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express