The media has been focusing on the Taliban threat to India without understanding how its rise benefits India in the 21st century. Nation states with common borders, economic power and offensive military capabilities are more threatening than far away states with rudimentary military capabilities. It’s China which is a threat to India while Taliban does not feature anywhere near the threat parameters.
In a changed geopolitical environment India will gain from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the realignment of the US military strategy towards the Indo-Pacific. The China threat has propelled India to the top of America’s list of strategic priorities as seen from the close US-India defense cooperation and the multilateral Quad initiative.
Taliban has problems of their own such as organizational conflicts, people’s revolution, ISIS Khorasan, massive flight of talent and capital and pressure from Western democracies to implement the Doha agreement.
Insurgencies give rise to authoritarianism. But the civil war scholar Terrence Lyons has written that insurgent groups are able to deliver a degree of democracy when it suites their interests. Taliban 2.0 is more pragmatic than ideological as compared to Taliban 1.0. Its declared policy is against foreign interference in Afghanistan and non interreference in internal affairs of other nations. The Afghan population has experienced democracy in the past 20 years. Taliban is concerned about the population who may revolt if the Taliban reverts back to its earlier regressive rule. This will lead to balkanization, proxy wars and an invasion of terrorist groups from all over the world. India is of little strategic value to the Taliban.
Diplomatic and Financial
The Taliban is eager for diplomatic recognition, trade and financial aid. International organizations have suspended funding as the Taliban is not yet recognized as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. The IMF has blocked access to emergency reserves and SDRs leaving Afghanistan without international aid. Taliban’s allies such as Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia and China will not support it financially. Pakistan’s economy is in crisis while UAE and Saudi Arabia are mired in regional conflicts. Taliban cannot govern Afghanistan through illegal and informal businesses such as poppy trade and smuggling revenues.
Taliban knows it’s the US which has the leverage and not Pakistan. Pakistan could not save the Taliban from being decimated in 2001. Washington has frozen Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves. The diplomatic recognition of Taliban by foreign powers is dependent on US policy. Taliban has emphasized a desire for normal relations with foreign powers. Taliban has experience in insurgencies but is unaware of the finesses of international diplomacy. For international recognition the Taliban has to demonstrate respect for international law and human rights.
States describe enemies in overly stark terms and view them as having an unrealistic homogeneity while missing out on their internal conflicts and potential for implosion. The working of the Taliban leadership structure is afflicted by many factions. At the top levels are politically moderate leaders while at the lower levels are radicalized foot soldiers. Mullah Baradar is a nationalist and Mohammad Yaqoob the son of Mullah Omar is anti Pakistan. Afghanistan’s newly appointed interior minister Sirajuddin Haqanni has close relations with Pakistan and is on the FBI most wanted list. Yaqoob favors closer ties with India. Another moderate leader Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai was trained by the Indian Army in 1982.
The Taliban’s contradictory policies indicate that there is an internal rift between Haqqani and Yaqoob group. As the political leadership weaves out a reconciliation framework and the continuation of the liberal policies of the earlier government the Taliban fighters are engaging in reprisal killings and terrorizing the Afghan population. It will be difficult for the Taliban leadership and Pakistan to reconcile and contain the opposing factions. Internal strife and incompetency may lead to a civil war as seen in places such as Syria and Libya.
The Taliban recognizes that governing an impoverished and a war-ravaged nation is a different challenge and without international support it cannot provide basic public services such as electricity and water. For making economic policies or addressing droughts and poverty they will require the assistance of economists and international NGOs. There is a refugee emergency, COVID-19, drought and economic crisis in a country where 90% of people live in poverty and 30% are food insecure while the prices of daily commodities are soaring. Many state employees no longer show up for work as their salaries have not been paid. Many Taliban fighters in rural areas have not received remuneration and are surviving on donations provided by the locals. It’s a grim situation for the Taliban as nation building without international support is proving to be harder.
It’s a battle for the control of Afghanistan. ISIS Khorasan seeks to revise the existing territorial and political arrangements in Afghanistan. ISIS Khorasan with a radicalized ideology has global framework while the Taliban wants to implement sharia law in Afghanistan. ISIS Khorasan is responsible for a spate of attacks such as the car bombing of a school in Kabul which killed 85 people and injured 300. Proxy wars may be played by rival countries as one group may fund ISIS Khorasan while another supports Taliban. Many Taliban middle level commanders are members of global jihadi networks, are hardliner than the political leaders and may join ISIS Khorasan whose core structure consists of former Taliban commanders. The ISIS Khorasan threat will affect the Taliban rule.
India’s enemies and a boiling pot
An insurgency and the rise of terrorism in an unstable Afghanistan will threaten bordering states such as Pakistan, China, Russia and the Central Asian republics.
China will not invest in an unstable and a battle damaged country. Beijing is worried about the precarious security and fragile political situation under the Taliban. China’s all weather friend Pakistan cannot guarantee the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan. Prominent attacks by the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have taken place such as the bombing of a hotel in Quetta where the Chinese ambassador was staying, a bus explosion in Kohistan killed nine Chinese engineers and the shooting of Chinese engineers in Karachi. The US withdrawal could lead to a rise in attacks against Chinese nationals in the AF-Pak region. China is concerned about an increase in extremism in Xinjiang province which borders Afghanistan. China will find it difficult to deal with the various Taliban factions some of which are closely aligned with radicalism. If China was interested in Afghanistan’s development it would have built its infrastructure in the last 20 years under the US security umbrella.
Pakistan has lost the leverage over the US and Taliban after the US withdrawal. Afghanistan will distract Pakistan from its rivalry with India and potentially jeopardize Chinese investments in Pakistan. Pakistan is drawn in a bottomless black pit due to its support to terrorism and Taliban. Since the mujahedeen movement began in 1979 its not India or the US which has suffered but Pakistan has become a radicalized state.
The Taliban’s top councils — Quetta Shura, Miramshah Shura and Peshawar Shura are named after the Pakistani towns where they are based. Taliban families live in Pakistani towns such as Rawat, Loi Ber, Islamabad suburbs, Bara Kahuh and Tarnol. Mualvi Faqir Mohammad has called for the merger of mujahideen groups for the establishment of an Emirate in Pakistan. The head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Sirajul Haq has declared his support for the Taliban and a sharia system in Pakistan. TTP has renewed a campaign to overthrow the Pakistani state. TTP has carried out major attacks in Pakistan such as the Mehran naval base and Peshawar school massacre. The TTP threat has impelled New Zealand’s and England’s cricket team to withdraw from a match in Pakistan. Taliban’s nationalist and anti-Pakistan factions may ignite a Pashtun insurgency in Pakistan as the Taliban does not recognize the Durand line.
Pakistan is facing a refugee crisis which will lead to a humanitarian disaster further straining its economy. The refugee camps in Pakistan are fertile grounds for the TTP to recruit new members.
India is in a much better geopolitical situation than it was in 1996. Taliban wants to govern Afghanistan rather than fight Pakistan’s proxy war against India. They didn’t support Pakistan’s divisive plans in Kashmir during their earlier rule. The Taliban is looking for legitimacy and will not allow Afghanistan to once again become a base for terrorist groups as they don’t want to be bombed back to the stone age by the US. Taliban is not dependent on Pakistan as they don’t require safe havens from US drone strikes.
India respects Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Taliban officials and commanders have advocated talks with India. India has reached out to the Taliban. Since 1996 Pakistan has consistently destabilized Afghanistan while India projected soft power by providing $3bn which includes the construction of dams, highways, schools, hospitals and the country’s parliament building.
Taliban is on their own in the present geopolitical circumstances. It is looking to diversify its relations beyond Pakistan. India should continue the outreach to the Taliban while attempting to drive a wedge between the group and Pakistan.
Mangesh has a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, New York where he concentrated in international security policy. He is a subject matter expert on military studies, geopolitical risk analysis and global security. Mangesh has more than 18 years of experience in conducting research, policy analysis and formulation and developing case studies and lessons learned. Mangesh’s articles have been published in Small Wars Journal, The National Interest, Eurasia Review, E-International Relations, Modern Diplomacy, Indian Defense Review, Security Management, Geopolitical Monitor and Internationale Politik. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.