'Taliban a Pak project, won't last long in Afghanistan'

'Taliban a Pakistani project, not going to be a permanent phenomenon in Afghanistan'

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, now retired from the Indian Foreign Service, tells DH in an interview that the Taliban does not have an organic presence

Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul. Credit: AFP Photo

The Embassy of India in Kabul was shut down soon after the Taliban had marched into the capital of Afghanistan in September 1996. After the Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan in October 2001, New Delhi sent one of its ace diplomats, Gautam Mukhopadhaya, to Kabul to reopen the embassy. He later served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013. The Taliban is now again set to return to power in Kabul. Mukhopadhaya, now retired from the Indian Foreign Service, tells DH’s Anirban Bhaumik in an interview that the Taliban does not have an organic presence and is not going to be a permanent phenomenon in Afghanistan.

What did go wrong in Afghanistan? You had predicted way back in February 2019 that the peace process between the US and the Taliban will lead to another chapter in Afghan quagmire and make things worse. In retrospect, was the February 19, 2020 deal between the Taliban and the United States skewed in favour of the Taliban? Do the concessions given to the Taliban in the deal, without making it to commit very little in return, made the basic premise of the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government and civil society, represented by the High Council for National Reconciliation, flawed?

Yes. Absolutely. In fact, the so-called ‘deal’ the US clinched with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 was so flawed and so overwhelmingly stacked in favour of the Taliban, both on the negotiating table and in the battlefield, as to virtually hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban and Pakistan on a platter. Even its counterterrorism component, which was important for the US, was very weak, almost non-existent. The process was conducted behind the backs of the people and the government of Afghanistan, with the help of Pakistan. It delegitimised the already weak, fractured and increasingly discredited Government of Afghanistan and instead legitimised the Taliban. It placed Pakistan as the major enabler giving it undue influence in the process.

Also read: ‘Pak project is to submerge Af in a larger radical Islamist identity’

We have seen heart-rending pictures and videos from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, where hundreds of people have been desperately trying to fly out as Afghanistan now appears to be going back under the rule of the Taliban. Why was this desperation not reflected in the resistance put up by the Afghan Government and the Afghan National Army in the weeks before the Taliban finally marched into Kabul on August 15?

I have never seen such a mismatch between the fear and loathing for the Taliban and lack of resistance to them. At one level, this is inexplicable. At another, it was predictable. It involves both the US as the lead country in the post 2001 reconstruction effort and Pakistan, as much as it does the weaknesses of the Afghan Government. The US came to Afghanistan to avenge the September 11, 2001 attacks and to eliminate the Al Qaeda as a threat to itself and the world. It did not come on a nation building mission in Afghanistan. Initially, it came with a light footprint, mostly the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but all it required was its presence for the Northern Alliance to take over Kabul and for the Taliban to disappear. The Bonn Conference installed Hamid Karzai as an interim President and a new Constitution was drafted. However, the US soon found that the war against Al Qaeda could not be separated from the war against the Taliban. So, it brought in a heavy military and political footprint that resulted in a lot of collateral damage and little else. The US spent money that lined the pockets of contractors, middlemen, power brokers and opportunists through a ‘gravy train’. But it did not invest in the Afghanistan or its economy or its people.

It made much of the US-NATO ‘training and equipping’ mission, but it did not really invest in the Afghan National Army (ANA) to make it capable of defending itself. The US investment in the ANA was limited to honing its counterterrorism skill, partly because that was how it defined its war, partly because it did not cost much, but, mostly of all, because it did not want to hurt the sensitivity of Pakistan. Islamabad had the leverage over the successive administrations in Washington D.C. through the US dependence on ground lines of communication through Pakistan. So, the US invested mostly in the ANA’s special forces units, who acquitted themselves admirably in repelling or retaking targets of terrorist attacks, but were not equipped to defend Afghanistan’s boundaries or hold territory or retake provinces. Its NATO standards made the ANA wholly dependent on the US and the US contractors. In the end, it was a few units that had to fight all over the country without adequate mobility.

Some, like the 215 Corps still put up a great fight. The US knew that Afghanistan sat on an estimated $3 trillion worth of minerals, but it did not invest or encourage others to invest in it to generate revenues that could have helped the Afghan Government stand on its own feet. India organised the first and only Afghanistan Investment Summit in 2013 as the US troops were drawing down, but there was no follow up by the Afghan or Indian governments. The US did not invest, nor encourage others to invest in the real economy and livelihoods of the people that lay in agriculture, horticulture and cottage industries. The US dictated what the Afghan Government should do, but, despite what it says and what it is believed to stand for, did not invest even in democracy and institution building other than media, civil society NGOs, etc. It said that it could not do more than ‘nation-building lite’. The US did not regard Afghanistan as strategic enough for it to prioritise the country over Pakistan or to invest more heavily in Afghanistan. Its 20-year presence provided net security to its greatest strategic rivals, China, Russia and in the region, Iran.

In the end, it threw the ball at the region and left, sowing the seeds of destabilisation which will rock the region for years. Pakistan patiently worked on a multi-pronged strategy to trick the US right from the beginning, preparing for the return of the Taliban once the US would inevitably tire and leave. It fooled the US again and again. It prevented the US from building a national army that could have faced Afghanistan’s primary threat. It enabled the training, financing and equipping of the Taliban with the help of opium cultivation and drug trade; used its leverage as a transit country for US equipment to keep Afghanistan weak; deployed information and psychological warfare on a massive scale; embedded the Taliban in Afghanistan for years in a shadow government away from Kabul’s eyes and wait for the right moment to launch its offensive; coordinated various regional extremist outfits working together with the Taliban from Central to South Asia to strengthen the Taliban militarily; and planned the strategy and execution of the sophisticated final push from the north and west to the south and centre. Pakistan used terrorism as a technique of attrition to wear out the people already fatigued from 40 years of conflict to accept peace at any cost. In the end, faced with the Taliban, the Afghans chose discretion over valour, perhaps to fight another day.

What happened in Afghanistan was effectively an invasion of Afghanistan with an Afghan face and Pakistani brains and hands in an extraordinary unconventional war strategy. The military strategists all over the world, certainly in India, are likely to study it for years to come.

The UK too played an insidious role, initially behind-the-scene, and of late openly, in keeping Pakistan in the game and confusing the Americans whenever they realised that the source of the problem lay in Pakistan, by bringing India into the picture. What was always a product of a super power rivalry and still is in a new form, was projected as a regional proxy war with India portrayed as a mirror image of Pakistan absolving the former of responsibility. The UK’s role has been in the shadows, and needs to be investigated much more.

Finally, the Afghan government was also to blame. Afghan leaders failed to provide the leadership to discern the motives, actions and limits of international presence, build institutions, devise strategies to overcome foreign tutelage, connect with the people, and join hands in rebuilding a united, independent and strong Afghanistan. It was a collective failure.

How did the Taliban remain such a potent force and why did the Afghan National Army (ANA) fail to resist it after the withdrawal of the troops by the US and its NATO allies?

The Taliban became such a potent force with the help of Pakistan, as a result of the mistakes of the US, guidance by the UK and the failures of the Afghan Government and leadership. While the US flip-flopped from one strategy to another, Pakistan had a steady, consistent strategy of supporting the Taliban and waiting for the US to leave. For those in India looking at the Afghan war from the lenses of western colonialism and US imperialism, the Taliban victory is sometimes seen as a victory of Afghan nationalism over US occupation. This is a serious mischaracterisation. It was a war by Pakistan against Afghanistan using Afghans all along, which successive US presidents from George Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump realised, but failed to follow through using coercive diplomacy. It was a war by Afghans groomed in the refugee camps and madrasas of Pakistan brainwashed into erasing the Afghan and Pashtun identity and submerging it in a larger radical Islamic identity with blurred boundaries, against fellow Afghans. That is why in the final analysis, the Taliban did not join the peace talks in good faith. They chose the Emirate over Afghanistan.

But it was also strengthened by discontents within Afghanistan with US domination and use of military force, and the predatory and parasitic governance of the Afghan state and leadership. It left the people with a sense of profound powerlessness and lack of identification with the government, a feeling that their fate was being decided by foreign powers and their leaders with utter disregard for them. It is there that the Taliban seemed to provide an alternative, but one that will come with a cost.

The Afghan people want freedom and peace. The post-Bonn government gave them greater freedom but at the cost of peace, partly on account of Pakistan and Taliban and lately IS terrorism. Now, in resigning themselves to the Taliban, they are opting for temporary peace.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya file photo. Credit: Special arrangement

Why do you think President Ashraf Ghani chose to leave Kabul so hurriedly?

The charitable explanation is that he left as he claimed, to avoid more bloodshed. Despite this self-serving explanation, there is some merit to it. Had he remained, the probability of violence would have been higher. As the Taliban closed in, it was evident that he was trying to work out some ‘deal’ with the Taliban. In anticipation of that, whispered instructions were issued to Governors and Army units in many places not to fight. In the end, it appears he was deceived into thinking that a deal was possible. Once he realised that, he left. But he also broke what resistance was still possible. The image of President Ghani as the captain of a sinking ship or a later day Najibullah is misleading. President Ghani was never the captain of the ship. Nor was he a Najibullah. In the end, he stood for a handful of Afghans with foreign passports who were his associates, two of whom he left with. Despite his intellectual brilliance, he had no connect with the people of Afghanistan. But it is not only his fault. We should not forget that there were people, both Afghan and foreign, that imposed him on the Afghan people especially, after the questionable second round in the 2014 elections.

President Joe Biden recently said that the US had given Afghans every chance to determine their own future, but what it could not provide them was the will to fight for that future. Is this observation correct?

That is not true. For all its investment in blood and treasure, it did not invest in Afghanistan enough. It was not a strategic priority for the US. And whatever it gave in assistance, it took back through contractors, but also by emasculating the Afghan government. The Afghan government could not move a step without US concurrence. For a lot of ordinary people, the government did look like the puppet government that the Taliban claimed that it was. They had no reason to fight for that government.

You had also observed that despite the huge investment of the international community in governance, security, human rights and development in Afghanistan, the Afghans too have not quite stepped up to the plate. Why?

As I have said, those investments were large, but poorly directed and insufficient to create a state and society that would act as a bulwark against terrorism. They did not invest enough in eliminating the relationship between extremism, society, state and governance, and between Pakistan and the Taliban. At the end of a 20-year war on terror, state-sponsored terrorism has triumphed, and regional and international terrorism receive a boost regionally and internationally. The Afghans have not stepped up to the plate because they were deprived of agency. Ethnic fault-lines, political ambitions and a failure of leadership also played a part.

We heard Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan hailing the Taliban’s imminent return to power in Kabul, referring to it as people of Afghanistan breaking “shackles of slavery”.

Unfortunately, a lot of well-thinking and well-meaning people in India too have fallen for the narrative that the Afghan people have broken the ‘shackles of slavery’, and that they are patriots and freedom fighters, under the mistaken impression that this was a war by Afghans against the US. It was not. It was a war by Pakistan against Afghanistan using radicalised Afghans and victims of predatory, parasitic governance. Far from freeing Afghanistan from the ‘shackles of slavery’, it is actually a subjugation of Afghanistan to Pakistan, a new slavery as it was from 1996-2001, when Afghanistan saw no reconstruction or development, and was pushed back in time, in terms of rights and freedom and economic opportunities. This time, Pakistan is speaking the language of ‘geo-economics’ trying to bring in China to reinforce its subjugation with China’s strategic heft and economic muscle. The Chinese are tempted to step in to take advantage to the US departure. But it will be a risky venture.

How should the world take the Taliban’s claim that it has changed from what it was 20 years ago?

The Taliban has changed as it has understood the value of international legitimacy, recognition and diplomacy. It has learnt to use information and communication technology and language very well. It has used deception to great effect, including making President Ashraf Ghani believe at the last stages of the military takeover that a deal was in the making and lulling the US into believing that it would not push for Kabul before complete withdrawal of the NATO troops. Their rank and file may be amenable for some tactical discipline, but they have not changed. Their true colours are bound to come out, sooner or later.

What should India brace for after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan and how should it respond to it?

The change of regime in Afghanistan does pose a long term challenge for India. The alignment of power and influence that has existed in Afghanistan since 2001 will now be replaced with the informal alliance of Taliban, Pakistan and China with Russia and Iran too aligned against the US. We still have our ties with Russia and Iran, but our only allies left in Afghanistan are the ones who will resist the Taliban. Some leaders of Afghanistan are holding talks with the Taliban to form what they call an ‘inclusive’ government. We should wait and see what they actually do. Most likely even the appearance of some ethnic leaders will not change the reality of a total monopoly of power by the Taliban. With Pakistan in control, India will have no say in the new government in Afghanistan. We should let that process play out until the contradictions emerge. There is also some resistance beginning in different parts of the country. The Taliban has no organic presence in Afghanistan. Its presence is a result of failures of the international community and the Afghans. It is difficult to believe it is a permanent phenomenon. We should be wary of legitimising them or their military takeover, or recognising them until they clarify their relationship with Pakistan and more importantly, the Afghan people who do not share their alien ideology.

How could Pakistan manage to get away with the charade of helping the United States in its war on terror in Afghanistan and, at the same time, helping the Taliban survive and regroup and now return to power? Why did the US and the rest of the international community choose to turn a blind eye to what Pakistan was doing in Afghanistan?

This is the single most difficult question to answer. Successive US presidents have diagnosed Pakistan to be the problem. Bush sent Richard Armitage to convey a message that Pakistan would be bombed back to the stone age if it did not cooperate with the US in the war of terror in Afghanistan. During his campaign trail, President Obama once remarked to the effect that ‘Iraq is a war of choice; Afghanistan is a war of necessity. In Afghanistan, the theatre of the war is Afghanistan, but the locus of the war is in Pakistan’. That was the logic of his appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Envoy to Af-Pak. President Trump too, in his South Asia strategy of August 2017 clearly identified Pakistan as the source of the problem and authorised a more muscular use of force by the ANA backed by the US against the Taliban. But eventually, they all fell back on Pakistan to help them out of Afghanistan. None of them followed the logic of their diagnosis, of targeting Pakistan through coercive diplomacy. In my view, elements in the Anglo-Saxon world persuaded the US that the Afghan conundrum could not be resolved without linking it to India and Jammu & Kashmir in effect justifying Pakistani logic that one country, Pakistan, could externalise its bilateral issue with India, to a third country, Afghanistan, and use of terrorism to achieve it. The Afghan people have paid a heavy and bitter price for this. The smell of betrayal hangs heavy over them. In the final analysis, the desire to dispose of the Afghan ‘headache’ prevailed over any desire to address the problem seriously.

The Taliban is trying to tell the world that it has changed from what it has been 20 years ago. How should the world take that claim? Even if the Taliban leadership, or a section of it, may wish to take a less radical approach this time, does the organisation have enough internal control and discipline to implement such policy changes and make local recruits come out of fanaticism that primarily motivated them to join it?

The Taliban is trying to project a more polished image than before, and in this they have been helped not only by Pakistan, but also by elements in the West including those close to their governments. A good example of that was the obviously ghost written article by Sirajuddin Haqqani in the New York Times around the time of the US-Taliban deal presenting a ‘reasonable’ image of Pakistan clearly with the intention of preparing the Haqqani Network for a leadership position and role in a future Taliban-led government. Remember, a top US general had once described the Haqqani Network as a ‘veritable extension of the ISI’. More recently, we saw the spectacle of the UK Chief of Defence Staff accompanying Pakistan Army chief Gen Bajwa for negotiations with President Ghani. The Taliban has changed in three ways, but not necessarily the way we think. They have understood the value of international legitimacy, recognition and diplomacy. They have learnt to use information and communication technology and language very effectively. Even influential circles in India have fallen victim to it. And they have used deception to great effect including making President Ghani believe at the last stages of the military takeover, that a deal was in the making, and lulling the US into believing that the Taliban would not push for Kabul before their complete departure. Their rank and file may be amenable for some tactical discipline, but they have not changed. Except that being ‘rewarded’ for its use of terrorism and its military takeover of Afghanistan by legitimacy by an influential section of the international community as it is likely to be, it will no longer need to practice externally sponsored terrorism. It will now use state power against its citizens to make them conform to the values of Pakistan’s Islamic Emirate for Afghanistan

What should India brace for after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan? Do you think that apart from the security threats posed by a possible spurt in radicalism and extremism and return of Taliban’s support to anti-India terrorist outfits based in Pakistan, does the change of regime in Kabul also pose a long-term strategic challenge for India, given China’s renewed focus on Afghanistan? What are your views? How can India deal with this emerging security threat and strategic challenges posed by Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan?

This is a very new situation. The Taliban have made some promises. Pakistan as well as parts of the Afghan leadership have been trying to form what they call an ‘inclusive’ government. While the Taliban’s past record is not encouraging, we should wait and see what they actually do. Most likely even the accommodation of some ethnic or other political leaders will not change the reality of a total monopoly of power by the Taliban. With Pakistan in control, we will have no say in the new government. We should let that process play out until the contradictions emerge. There is also some resistance beginning in different parts of the country. There are reports of popular uprisings taking back some districts in the north. Saleh and Ahmad Massoud have dug themselves for a fight in the Panjshir Valley. They have asserted that the Republic is not dead. The change of regime does pose a long term challenge for India. The entire alignment of power and influence in Afghanistan since 2001 has been standing on its head. Instead of the US, a flawed but democratic Afghanistan, Europe, the West and the democratic world as a whole, including India, the new alignment that will take over is Pakistan, Taliban and China in an informal alliance, with Russia and Iran too aligned against the US. While we still have our ties with Russia and Iran, the only allies left in Afghanistan is those who will resist the Taliban. Even if we pry out some Taliban factions away from this alignment, which is a big if, they can never substitute the post-2001 generation as our strategic allies in Afghanistan. They are down in the ropes now, but they will return. We should stick to our investment in them, not only for sentimental reasons, but for strategic reasons.

There is a tendency to think that we are powerless in this situation. That is not true. We should stand by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, wherever it may be. Even if there is nothing we can do, we should keep alive the alternative to the Taliban, the idea of a free Afghanistan with political and civil and human rights and opportunities. There are hundreds of ways we can support the Afghan people, whether it is through education or health or space for the independent media, civil society, think tanks, political activists to function. We should not close our borders to temporary asylum seekers who wish to keep this idea alive. Rather, we should welcome them. We should not rule out the option of a resistance should a credible one arise from within or outside Afghanistan and we have allies that we can work with. There will be a price to pay. We should be willing to pay it. The Taliban have no organic presence in Afghanistan. There presence is a result of Afghan and international failures. The last time, they lasted 5 years. It is difficult to believe they are a permanent phenomenon. We may have to make some accommodation with the Taliban to maintain a people-to-people relationship. We will need to negotiate that. In time, we may be able to expand that.

There are reports about informal contacts between the Government of India and the Taliban. But with elements like the Haqqani Network being a prominent part of the Taliban, which is guided by Islamabad and Rawalpindi, do you think such contacts (between India and the Taliban) could eventually lead to New Delhi recognising a Taliban or a Taliban-dominated Government in Kabul?

The informal contacts with the Taliban that the Government of India has not publicly acknowledged, had rattled the Pakistanis and paid us some dividends in the evacuation of Indian and other personnel from Afghanistan. We should acknowledge and appreciate that. We should keep a space for dialogue and build upon that depending on the situation. We should judge them not only on their past, and their words now, but also on their actions. Until then, we should we wary of legitimising their military takeover or them, or recognising them until they clarify their relationship with Pakistan and more importantly the Afghan people. There is no guarantee that even if we strike an understanding with one or other faction of the Taliban, even on something as basic as security, we can actually depend on it as the ISI can set anyone of its preferred groups or agencies against us. That is one reason why I think we had to close our consulates in time and withdraw our India-based personnel from Kabul.

Where do you see the discussion on the formation of the next government in Afghanistan going? Is an “inclusive government” really possible? And, if not, is Afghanistan again going to another round of civil war? Is a resistance from Panjshir Valley by Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud really possible? What role do you think Russia and Iran will play? Is a Northern Alliance 2.0 still a possibility?

In Kabul, political leaders like Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and ex-President Hamid Karzai are trying to work out some arrangement. Pakistan has flown several ethnic leaders to Islamabad to cobble together a transitional arrangement that has the appearance of including them. I am sure both are mindful of the risks of accommodating them as ‘faces’ without real power, but they may not have many options. It is unlikely that the Taliban will share power after avoiding it in Doha and taking over by force as they always intended. They will continue to call the shots. The danger is that in the process, those leaders who join a transitional or more permanent arrangement later, may get discredited by their own communities and constituencies. This would pave the way for the radicalisation of their own communities, which is what Pakistan wants. The ‘Emirate’ will expand its footprint. They will have to enter it with eyes wide open. This is the pessimistic view. There could be a more optimistic outcome. At this time, it would be best to see what comes out. But more importantly, why are the Pakistan and the Taliban monopolising this process? Is there not a role for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan which still represents Afghanistan in the UN, and its resistance in the Panjshir in this? Or are we already legitimising the military takeover of power by the Pakistan-backed Taliban? Building on the public positions of virtually every country that has influence in Afghanistan that they would not legitimise a takeover of Afghanistan by force or countenance an ‘Emirate’, should not the UN Security Council take the initiative to use its authority to convey to the Taliban the red-lines for legitimacy and lifting of remaining sanctions against the Taliban? Is there a role here for India?

Does the way it is withdrawing from Afghanistan diminish the reliability and credibility of the United States as a partner and an advocate of democracy, human rights and women’s rights? Is there a lesson for India, which has of late been increasingly drifting towards the United States to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region?

The withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union damaging its international standing for decades. The chaotic final moments of the withdrawal of US troops will also badly affect US standing in the world. In Afghanistan, not only has the US abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban and Pakistan once again, but it has also betrayed democracy, human rights, especially, women’s rights for a repressive, backward looking theocracy in its narrow self interest. While we are supposed to have a strategic relationship in the Indo-Pacific and in relation to China, democratic Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics and India are simply collateral damage of US priorities in Central Asia. I do not think Indian leaders are not aware of US self interest, limitations and motivations. They are. But the view is that our relations with the US are much wider and cannot be defined by Afghanistan alone. While Afghanistan is far away from the US and ‘collateral’ to it, we should not make the mistake of treating it as just a collateral in our larger relationship with the US. Afghanistan is strategically important for India, though, there are important voices who think otherwise. Put simply, historically it has been a passage for military campaigns and invaders. Today it will provide strategic depth for Pakistan. India should pursue its own independent policy towards Afghanistan together with those other regional powers who will experience the downside of a Talibanised Afghanistan in due course. Iran, Central Asian Republics and even Russia too are likely to feel the bite of extremism emanating and being exported from Pakistan.


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