India must continue to engage in Afghanistan to protect its interests no matter how loathsome that may seem
India can't stay on the sidelines when the US, the Chinese, of course the Pakistanis, and even the Russians begin talks, open business and prepare for collaborations with the Taliban
The developments in Afghanistan send out many complex messages but the one that is not in doubt is that even an endless supply of money, weaponry and soldiers cannot help secure a rugged land or decimate its hardy, if rag-tag fighters.
Former PM V P Singh used to say you can lose an election for want of money but you never win an election just because you have money. Of wars and occupations, it can similarly be said that you can lose a frontier for want of money or guns or technology but you can never win it just because you have access to money, technology, people or for that matter highly paid consultants and mercenaries of the Blackwater variety.
The question then really is what makes an army stand up and fight, and in that the cliché that the dog in the fight is less important than the fight in the dog, will hold.
The Afghan forces that the US trained and hoped would take over security duties eventually were never really up to the task, given that the story never went away that the Taliban would eventually return. The only incentive for the propped-up forces then was to keep the money flowing, and the more that flowed, the more it corrupted them and the weaker it made them.
The Taliban, not to be lionised, still had some kind of drive and direction; the American-supported troops only worked as brown mercenaries to the white ones that America imported from its increasingly privatised business of war-making.
The Americans knew all of this more than anybody else. For all the surprise, anger or criticism, feigned or otherwise, that the American administration has drawn over the return of the Taliban, no one tuned into the situation was in doubt that this is what would happen.
From a US standpoint at least, this was known to be the inevitable, even an immediate, outcome they would live with, and in fact not as bad as the initial PR disaster it creates. This is because the US has by now known, understood and even befriended players in the Taliban.
The indications of this return were there for the whole world to predict, not today but for at least a decade now.
The 2012 book ‘Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure’ by the sharp military analyst John Cook noted: “If the (Afghan) soldiers feel like simply walking away from their unit, they do it and there is no retribution. If they feel like coming back, they come back. If they don’t, the recruiters find a replacement. They are in the army for one reason and one reason only: for the money.” The difference between the Afghan army and the energised and committed Taliban, he wrote, was easy to understand, yet impossible to correct.
That situation only worsened with time. The last two years have been the worst, and just as the Trump administration made it clear that the US would after all withdraw, the pace of collapse intensified. The Afghan forces gave up their posts even before the Taliban marched on them. And the Taliban were no less funded through the flourishing opium trade.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest supplier of illegal opiates, with the crop generating USD 3 billion at the farm gate, and creating the equivalent of roughly 600,000 full-time jobs, more than the number employed by the Afghan defence forces, according to a 2021 report by the US Institute of Peace.
The reports of various US agencies on the inevitability of the Taliban make for fascinating reading. For example, the 46th quarterly report by SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) noted that “enemy attacks” in Oct-Dec 2019 were as many as 90 a day, a total of 8,204 in that quarter, the highest in the entire decade! As the attacks rose, the Afghan forces, often stoned, sleepy and irreverent, carried out just 31% of operations independently. US forces commanded and executed 70% of the counter offensives as 2019 ended.
All this begs the question: What was New Delhi thinking, doing and strategising while the station deteriorated and slipped from bad to worse, in full view of anyone who cared to take notice?
The Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu told the Afghan President Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani that “stability and prosperity will come to Afghanistan only if the gains of the past 18 years…are preserved.” This came in October 2019, on the sidelines of the 18th NAM summit, just about the time the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned: “The very survival of the Afghan government is uncertain after a legislative election that has left the Afghan parliament just as weak and ineffective as it has been since its creation.”
Later, the US was reporting that “the Taliban are not an international terrorist organisation, and there is no evidence that they have any intention to attack the United States” (Afghanistan Study Group Final Report, US Institute of Peace, 2021).
The Indian government did open back-channel talks with the Taliban last year, but the delayed effort, coupled with the apparent reluctance to intensify the dialogue and the consequent half-hearted nature of the engagement meant that India has not built much influence with the players who will now control Afghanistan while every other power has secured its position.
Only last month, India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said: “We were very clear that there must be a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, that there cannot be a military solution, there cannot be a takeover by use of force in Afghanistan…we would never accept any outcome which is decided by force.” This was the time the Chinese had formal meetings with the Taliban.
Expecting the Afghan government to fight, let alone win, against the Taliban was in effect depending on continued US occupation of Afghanistan to prop up that government. That has the effect of making Indian policy subservient to the United States and its fickle positions and sharp self-interests.
At this stage, India appears to be in a very uncomfortable spot. Reports say the Taliban requested the Indian government to retain its diplomatic presence in the country before India evacuated its personnel. That Taliban request is a good sign. After all, how can a major political and military force like India stay on the sidelines when the US, the Chinese, of course the Pakistanis, and even the Russians begin talks, open business and prepare for collaborations with the Taliban? Talks must secure Indian interests, with clear messaging that it is in the interests of the Taliban not to support any anti-India activities.
Diplomacy demands that channels of communications remain open, confidence be built and areas of collaboration be explored directly with the Taliban, however loathsome they may seem to be. That is the only way India can continue to engage in Afghanistan, protect its interests and guard the investments that have been poured into that country, including in infrastructure and other assets. And if that does not happen soon, the US would have lost the war in Afghanistan but India too would have lost the war, given up its interests and become a helpless bystander. It would be something to lose a war that was not ours to lose.
(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)