Talking to the Talibans

Talking to the Talibans

For India,the key will be to get away from a debate centred on a binary construct: for or against the Taliban

For India,the key will be to get away from a debate centred on a binary construct: for or against the Taliban

India is not our enemy,but a complication,” argued a former deputy minister in the erstwhile Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,as the Taliban-led government that forced its way into power in 1996 was known. Like many of his companions,the official in question remained in hiding following the American-led intervention in October 2001. He was allowed to return to Afghanistan,and now works as a “peace entrepreneur”,a self-styled designation. A moderate by comparison,he argues that he advocates education for girls — as long as they don’t share a classroom with boys — and employment schemes for women,as long as the latter are housed on a separate floor of a factory or an office. He explains why neither he nor what is today referred to as the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST),the old guard that rose to disrepute in the 1990s led by Mullah Omar,were inherently “anti-Indian”. They “had” to be seen to be anti-Indian by their chief sponsors: the ISI in Pakistan.

Further,the former minister argues that in part,the Taliban has changed. The QST,he claims,“has learnt its lessons”. Al-Qaeda did nothing for the Taliban. After all,he argues,its actions displaced the Taliban from power. To be politically engaged and connected with the future of Afghanistan,moderation and a degree of compromise is paramount. Such carefully chosen and well designed rhetoric can be understood to have been tailored to soothe the ears of his interviewers: a group of academics struggling with the contours of reconciliation.

The empirical evidence — including the barbarities thrust upon the Afghan population during the Taliban’s time at the helm — does little for the interviewee’s credibility. For India,the rationale underlying the deep and unwavering scepticism of any hope in a changing the Taliban is understandable. Few can forget those anxious days in the winter of 1999,when the Taliban allowed a hijacked Indian Airlines plane to land in Kandahar. The semantics between an “enemy” and a “complication” mattered little to a nation held at ransom. It is hardly surprising that the current American-led — but British and German supported — efforts to negotiate with the Taliban in Doha are neither attractive nor encouraging for Indian officials and experts.

However,can the Taliban and the ongoing endeavour to negotiate in Qatar simply be ignored or argued away as another West-backed try at something reckless? Certain markers deserve attention. First,the “Taliban” — in its various hues — remains an undefeated force. It’s authority in large parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan is a reality. Second,while there is nothing inevitable about an element of the larger Taliban movement reconciling to accept political imperatives over those of the gun,there is some evidence to suggest that a slim minority are more convinced by the virtues of dialogue than continuing bloodshed. Third,a large part of the movement — or the likes of the so-called Haqqani group — cannot and should not be reconciled. This is an organisation largely supported by the ISI,as treacherous to Indian interests as the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

If these observations are to be taken at face value,and if the presumed reality of the continuing existence of the Taliban is accepted,the following measures might be kept in mind. For India,the key would be to get away from a debate largely centred on a binary construct: for or against the “Taliban”.

First,it is essential to at least consider the arguments highlighted by the former minister quoted above,many of whose views tally with one section of those currently represented in Doha. Whether out of necessity or virtue,there is little doubt that those within the political committee of the existing QST desire a political role in the future of Afghanistan. Indeed,at least three former senior ministers and dignitaries once close to Mullah Omar have surrendered or volunteered — the difference is hard to disentangle — to accepting and advocating what might be called a compromised version of their social conservatism.

It is not for nothing that these actors have pushed for local ceasefires,persuaded their more militant partners to stop attacks on teachers and girls’ schools,and openly voiced their support for women’s colleges and an Afghan constitution acceptable to all ethnicities. Again,whilst not convincing,surely there is an argument to be made about engaging these voices. In some small way,they are likely to be a force of reality in the future of Afghanistan,an Afghanistan in which India’s role and footprint will outlast those of other nations haphazardly scuttling out of their respective military and political centres of power.

Second,there is merit in branding different parts of the group rather than treating the Taliban as a single whole. In this respect,the Indian government needs to do more to push back the American-led design to engage the Haqqanis. It is unfathomable why the Haqqanis should be represented in Doha. If true,from an Indian point of view,there is no merit in the argument whatsoever. These are,of course,matters that were presumably discussed with US Secretary of State John Kerry,but they need urgent public articulation. Dealing with the Haqqanis is a short-sighted and potentially dangerous advance thought up in Washington and London. For its part,India needs to step up the pressure. The failure to do so may well lead to a future Afghanistan that will house actors a lot more convinced about treating India as an enemy than those in the 1990s.


The writer teaches at the Department of War Studies at King’s College,London