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Taliban as rulers : Hope against hope

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
23 Aug 2021
Weekly Magazine In India

On Thursday, August 19, Afghanistan celebrated its Independence Day that commemorates the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1909 that gave the nation full independence. Four days before that date, India celebrated its 75th Independence Day. It was on August 15 that the Taliban forces entered Kabul and occupied the Presidential Palace from where Ashraf Ghani fled. He is believed to be in the UAE but his exact whereabouts are not known.

Tajikistan claimed that he ran away with trunk-loads of currency but he himself clarified that he did not take anything with him as he was only interested in saving his life.

Of course, nobody would blame him for leaving Kabul like Maharaja Hari Singh, who left Srinagar in 1947 in the wake of the tribes from Northern Pakistan entering his territory and marching towards the Kashmir capital. Incidentally, his great grandfather Gulab Singh purchased the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the British for a sum of Rs 75 lakh. 

Ghani knew only too well what happened to one of his predecessors Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai when the Taliban occupied Afghanistan. Living on the United Nations’ compound in Kabul, he was caught by the Taliban. He was killed and his mutilated body was hung from a post at the football stadium where playing football was eventually banned. 

Ghani’s fate might not have been any different if he had stayed on in his palace as the Taliban jeeps rolled into the compound to seize power. The picture of the Taliban soldiers squatting on the sofas in the drawing room of the palace captured the imagination of the people the world over. For once they realised what has happened to Afghanistan twenty years after the US began pounding the nation.

We as a nation have heaved a sigh of relief over the successful evacuation of the whole Indian Embassy staff in Afghanistan, including Ambassador Rudrenda Tandon. Indian Air Force aircraft had to be deployed to bring them back to India. 

The account of their departure from the mission compound for the only airport functioning in the country to catch the IAF flights is nothing but thrilling. However, the point that needs to be raised is why the mission waited for so long when it was obvious that the Taliban were having a smooth journey to Kabul.  

There was hardly any resistance to their march of victory and it was obvious to one and all, particularly after the fall of almost all the major towns, including Kandahar, that it was only a matter of time before they captured the Presidential palace, the symbol of authority like the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. It is difficult to understand how the denouement was not on the radar of the super spy and septuagenarian Ajit Doval who is the National Security Advisor with Cabinet minister’s rank.

It is unimaginable how much bloodshed would have been there in Kabul if the Republic forces had put up even a semblance of resistance to the Taliban. Thankfully, the American forces had taken control of the Kabul airport, allowing the IAF aircraft to evacuate the diplomatic and other staff. 

At the time of writing, there are still many Indians, especially workers, trapped there. The people have faith in the Indian government’s promise that everything would be done to bring everyone back. It is a task that could have been carried out a few weeks ago, if not a few months if the leadership was sensible. It marks a failure of the External Affairs Minister, who is a diplomat-turned-politician, who should have known better. 

About a year ago when the US struck a deal with the Taliban at Doha, Qatar, it was obvious that the end game of the great game in Afghanistan had begun. The change of regime in the US with President Joe Biden not wanting to keep the American forces even for a day more in Afghanistan should have opened the eyes of the Indian government to the realities in the landlocked nation.

Instead, the Indian mission seems to have been taken unawares by what happened in Kabul on August 15. Unfortunately, India put all its eggs in one basket, viz. the government of President Ashraf Ghani. No doubt, he was a confidence-inspiring leader. Yet, for all his abundant qualities of head and heart, he was a leader who did not command what could be called a groundswell of popular support. His was a house built on sand, to use a Biblical expression.

The Taliban were not exactly boasting that in many towns they were welcomed by the people. The Pashtuns continue to be their main supporters for the latter believe that they are the instruments of God to build His kingdom on earth. Little do they know that this is the promise that anyone who claims to speak the language of God profusely offers to the people.

Forty-three years have passed since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, which was one of the most powerful nations under Shah. What has it achieved since Iran declared itself to be an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979? The Iranians were once known for the carpets they exported. Today also they are known for the same carpets. I read a book recently that suggests that the people  in Iran do not want to have children, like many in the West, despite the government wanting them to produce more.

More than a hundred years have passed since Afghanistan became an independent nation. In comparison, China and India, which gained independence at least a quarter century later, have achieved greater progress. China is now the world’s second largest economy and India will soon be the third.

On the other hand, Afghanistan has become a basket case. True, they have proved to be great warriors as they could defeat, first, the British, then the Russians and, now, the Americans and the NATO forces. Many people see it from the religious point of view. No, their success is because of the tribalism prevalent among the people. Tribal solidarity and the cohesion that brings forth had a greater role in the success of the Taliban.

Also, they are people who do not have anything to lose. That is why there is a popular saying, “Give the Afghan a gun and ammunition, he will soon find someone to fight and continue fighting. What matters to them is not defeat or success but the act of fighting”.
How else could anyone have welcomed the Taliban? The word Taliban means “students”. The very name is antithetical to what they stand for. Islam is in many ways a very progressive religion. It gave women a lot of freedom. When the Taliban came to power twenty years ago, the first thing they did was to restrict the movement of women and stop girls from getting educated. 

Islam prohibits use of anything that gives a kick, including liquor and drugs. The tragedy is that the main source of income of the Taliban was from selling drugs. Nor does Islam allow extortion or illegal collection of taxes. The Taliban did all these things with aplomb. Thus, they do not have any right to claim themselves to be Islamic. They are “students” who do not want to learn anything all their life.

India should have built bridges with other political groups and factions, not just the ones the Americans trusted. The fact remains that the armed forces under President Ghani were larger in number and better-equipped. The Taliban did not number even a lakh of soldiers, to make allowance for some exaggeration. 

While the former lacked the will to fight, especially when they knew that the Americans would soon leave the nation, the latter were ready to bite the bullet. The Americans had spent approximately Rs 6.15 lakh crore on equipping the Afghan Army with the latest gadgets. Most of the equipment are now in the hands of the Taliban. 

There’s no point in crying over the lost opportunities, more so when it is obvious that India has to deal with the Taliban. One needs to learn from how quickly China recognised the geopolitical reality in Afghanistan. It was the first to openly state its readiness to have friendly relations with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It is tantamount to recognising the new government like India did when it became the first to recognise Bangladesh.

Twenty years of remaining on the periphery of power should have taught the Taliban many lessons in politics and diplomacy. They had also been maintaining offices as in Doha and holding negotiations with international, bilateral and multilateral agencies. In other words, Taliban 2021 is different from Taliban 1996. 

The amnesty it has announced for those who served the previous government and the readiness it showed to protect women’s interests and education show them in a better light. Though India had not recognised the Taliban government at that time, it showed willingness to collaborate with it by virtually running the Afghan airlines for them. 

During the last 20 years, India has invested heavily in long-term infrastructure projects, which will stand Afghanistan in good stead. The Taliban spokesman’s statement that they had no inimical intentions against anyone is certainly encouraging. Much will, of course, depend on how much influence Pakistan and its intelligence agency ISI wield on the Taliban leadership. 

Unlike Pakistan, which has been fattening itself by hunting with the hounds and running with the hares, India had and has only the welfare of the people of Afghanistan to promote. Once this reality is known to the Taliban leaders, India’s relationship with Afghanistan can only grow from strength to strength.

There can always be a slip between the cup and the lip. The recent developments in Afghanistan suggest that everything is not hunky-dory for the Taliban. There are pockets of resistance in the country. Many, including women, have come out on the streets to protest against the takeover. The Taliban had to use force against them, killing a few. Allowance has to be made for the fact that Afghanistan in 2021 is different from Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban took over.

There was no social media at that time. Today, the common people are empowered. They can use the social media to highlight the atrocities committed by the Taliban forces. Of course, the people are in dread. The dramatic scenes witnessed at the Kabul airport when people held on to the tyres of moving aircraft to flee from their homeland were mind-blowing.

A word about the Americans would be in order. As one wag put it, they took 20 years, sacrificed hundreds of soldiers and spent nearly a trillion dollars to replace Taliban with Taliban. The fact of the matter is that much of the money was wasted. There is a nexus between defence contractors and defence authorities. They are the ones who fattened themselves.

A New York-datelined report detailed how the American money was wasted in Afghanistan. Roughly Rs 4000 crore was spent on equipping the Afghan army with 20 turboprop fighter aircraft from Italy. They could not be used for varying reasons. Finally, the aircraft were sold as scrap and it fetched the US Rs 24 lakh.

The Americans built a 101 km-long road at a cost of Rs 1300 crore and when the first rains hit the area, most of the road was washed away by the rain water. They spent Rs 208 crore to provide the Afghan forces a new uniform but the uniform turned out to be a total waste as it did not suit the climatic conditions. 

Similarly, the Americans spent Rs 64,000 crore to prevent cultivation and processing of narcotics but the trade continued uninterrupted. The Taliban were never short of funds. The losers are the taxpayers in America. One can only hope and pray that the Taliban would control their triumphalism and tribalism to usher in an era of peace which alone will uplift the Afghans from poverty. 


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