The Taliban and India – A reflection

July 14, 2021 3:51 PM

The impression then was that the Taliban was created by Pakistan to thwart India’s financed railway project to connect Sarakh (Turkmenistan) with Tajan (Iran) that was completed in 1994.

The fear that the Taliban will create another vortex of turmoil in Kashmir remained far-fetched. (Image: AP)

By P Stobdan

The Taliban were first heard in fall 1994 when a group of militia rescued a Pakistani truck convoy from local guerrillas in Kandahar. But, its birth was deeply linked to Pakistan’s dirty conspiracy to water down the ideals of Pushtunwali ghayrat (honour) and replace them with Pakistani brand of Islamic morals with the aim to ultimately federate Afghanistan with Pakistan.

The idea of obliterating Afghan nationalism was initially conceived in the late 1980s when Zia ul-Haq and his ISI Chief, Hamid Gul launched the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union with the Saudi money and American weapons under the patronage of conservative Jamaat-i-Islami (JU). The underlying objective was to create an illusionary ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan with an eye of countering India.

But to their dismay, Pakistanis failed in their project when the Afghan Mujahideens, whom the ISI scrupulously nurtured, turned their back and refused to kowtow before Islamabad after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. To their disbelief, the Afghan Mujahideens instead turned to Delhi for support after they formed their government in Kabul in 1992.

And, when Islamabad failed to displace the Rabbani regime politically, Benazir Bhutto and her Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar (Gul’s arch-rival) sought to revamp the entire Afghan policy by abandoning the old Mujahideen networks in favour of creating a fresh militia – the Taliban. This time, the project was launched under the patronage of Jamaat-ul-Ulema-Islam (JUI) led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

The Taliban was raised in the year when the Durand Line Treaty (12 November 1893) was set to expire its 100-year validity in 1993. The Treaty envisaged the return of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Afghanistan on the lines of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Delhi strangely kept mum on it!

The impression then was that the Taliban was created by Pakistan to thwart India’s financed railway project to connect Sarakh (Turkmenistan) with Tajan (Iran) that was completed in 1994.

India’s strategic plan to connect Central Asia for the first time with the Persian Gulf after the Soviet collapse prompted Pakistan to quickly sign a deal with the UNACOL and Saudi Delta to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. This was in contrast to the Afghan government’s decision to sign a deal with the Argentinean Company, Bridas. But, in this game of pipeline politics, the United States supported the Benazir government. It was Zalmay Khalilzad, the current US special envoy on Afghanistan who had negotiated with the Taliban for UNACOL.

However, since the biggest obstacle of the project remained the pro-India Rabbani government in Kabul which preferred the Bridas, the ISI, CIA and Saudi General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) stepped in to militarily push the Taliban northwards to gain the majority of Afghan provinces throughout 1995. This push of the Taliban by the ISI and CIA culminated in the coming together of almost all Mujahideen factions including the ISI’s most loyal protégé Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to rally around the Rabbani government in Kabul. Hekmatyar was inducted as the Prime Minister in the Rabbani government under a power-sharing arrangement.

Prime Minister Deve Gowda was quick to send his congratulatory message to Hekmatyar upon assuming his office. Hekmatyar too responded by accepting India’s Charge d’ Affairs’ invitation to be at India’s Independence Day reception on August 15, 1996.

In a quick sequence of events thereafter, especially after a visit by Saudi Intelligence head Prince Turki al- Faisal Saud to Pakistan, it took only 50 days for the Taliban to capture Kabul on September 27, 1996.

India refused to derecognize the Rabbani government and 11 of its diplomatic staff returned home on 26 October 1996. India’s Foreign Minister I. K. Gujral, based in New York, expressed ‘shock’ and ‘outrage’ over the public execution of former President Najibullah.

No country except Pakistan recognized the Taliban government after six-months of the militia scoring a brief victory over Mazar-i-Sharif in May 1997. Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognised the Taliban thereafter.

Delhi ensured that the Taliban regime gets no legitimacy, abjured its display of bigotry and intolerance, for its dependency on the ISI, espousing extremist ideology, and undercutting India’s outreach into Central Asia among others.

In a suo motu statement in November 1996, Gujral vowed to get the Taliban’s opponents back to power. India kept up the diplomatic pressure along with others and invited Rabbani’s officials to attend NAM meeting in New Delhi in April 1997. The Taliban was badly irked by the event and cautioned Delhi for making a big mistake.

At home, the opposition BJP found India’s Afghan policy too ambivalent, while others termed it unrealistic considering the ground reality and called for being on the side of the new winner in Kabul. But the much proclaimed ‘Gujral Doctrine’ that focused on improving ties with the immediate ‘neighbourhood’ had pushed Afghanistan to the backburner.

India got in an unenviable position when the Taliban’s scored a surprise victory over Mazar-i-Sharif on May 24, 1997. New Delhi turned to use the diplomatic axiom and termed the event as Afghanistan’s internal affairs. But what came as shocking was the visit by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Viktor Osuralyuk to Islamabad in June 1997 and the subsequent visit by Pakistan Foreign Minister Ayub Khan to Moscow. India was also kept out of Moscow’s initiated discussions held in Central Asia in 1997.

The story remained stuck there until 9/11!

Surprisingly, during its rule in Kabul (1996-2001), the Taliban made no hostile overtures towards India. Instead, amidst reports in 1996 of Pakistan raising yet another alternative Afghan force, the Taliban warned Islamabad that such an action would force it to turn around for India’s help.

But for Delhi’s own rigidity, the Taliban would have reached out to India sooner or later to offset Pakistani influence. Delhi remained determined to hold back which was driven by the fear that the Taliban would muddle its way into Kashmir if it gets access through Badakhshan – PoK axis.

Taliban & Kashmir

The fear that the Taliban will create another vortex of turmoil in Kashmir remained far-fetched. The trouble in Kashmir had picked up in 1995 before the Taliban came to power in 1996. In fact, if the past is any indication, the Taliban’s preoccupation with Afghanistan proved better for India. After it peaked (above 6,000) in 1995, the flow of Afghan militants into Kashmir declined after the Taliban came to power in 1996. Most of the Afghan Mujahideens returned to Afghanistan.

Of course, insurgency in Kashmir continued thereafter but mainly backed by the Hekmatyar and Haqanni network—ostensibly to keep ISI in good humor. In fact, the flawed assumptions about Taliban in India could have been also because of the Pakistani media’s liberal bias section that tended to frighten Indian audience of Taliban’s monstrosity as a critical asset of ISI against India. But for the Taliban itself, apart from making some nebulous statements on supporting the Muslim causes, it made no implicit proclamation on Kashmir in the nearly three decades of its existence – no direct evidence of Taliban’s covert or overt involvement in Kashmir was witnessed. This was notwithstanding a powerful fatwa issued in 2009 by a Qatar-based Egyptian cleric and a key patron of the Taliban, Yusuf al-Qaradawi to support Jihad against India.

Taliban’s latest conformity on Kashmir came in the wake of Article 370 revocation last year when it issued a statement strongly rebuffing Pakistani sinister policy to link the US-Taliban Doha talks with the Kashmir issue.

The horrific case of IC-814 hijacking to Kandahar in 1999 was more the handiwork of ISI to free Masood Azhar and others from Indian jail than of the Taliban’s design against India. Yet, the Taliban bore grudges against India for not getting enough appreciation for its best efforts to resolve the IC-814 crisis without much bloodshed.

This aside, the Taliban taunted India for first supporting the Soviet and later the US-backed regimes in Kabul. They also objected to India approaching Afghanistan through the Pakistani lens.

Taliban’s spokesperson Mohammad Suhail Shaheen expressed willingness to enact a law against foreign terror groups operating against any other country. The statement needs fair scrutiny. Clearly, the Taliban is watching the Indian steps at the transitional stage carefully. The implied message is that the ball is in India’s court now. Delhi should be careful at this stage not to get provoked by ISI’s instigated propaganda and maintain a direct line of communication with the Taliban. New Delhi’s decision to evacuate diplomatic staff from Kandahar was the correct thing to do as the Consulate there would have been targeted by the ISI and blame it on the Taliban.

(The author is an expert on Eurasian Affairs. He authored the volume (book) ‘The Afghan Conflict & India’ (1998). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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