Taliban on the surface has changed and has become media savvy and uses the new tools of communications for creating and conveying effective narratives across to the sceptical global community which is not buying it yet.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
Yesterday, in an unusually lengthy conference, the Taliban spokesman Zabinullah Muajhid was at pains to convince the international community and the frightened Afghans that they had nothing to fear and apparently life will go as it is with in the contours of Islamic tenets and Sharia especially for women whom he invited to return to work and be part of governance structures . Taliban also declared amnesty for all who worked with either the Americans or with the previous governments. It also reiterated many times that Taliban will not allow any terror activities against any country from Afghanistan. Sounds very well but only time will tell as in this case an unpleasant history of torture, executions and submissions of women to virtual non-existence does exist. This was clear when the UNSC in its two hasty meetings asked Taliban to ensure human rights especially those of women, credible action against terrorism and an inclusive government. It is ticking all the boxes but the jury is out whether two decades apart Taliban 2.0 is any different from Taliban 1.0.
Taliban on the surface has changed and has become media savvy and uses the new tools of communications for creating and conveying effective narratives across to the sceptical global community which is not buying it yet. In India one witnessed Taliban spokesman Suhail Shahin ( likely to be next FM) talking in Hindi/Urdu much more than ever, telling India to remain neutral while repeating the same line on other issues. Well, as per reports and unruly scenes at the Hamid Karzai airport while despair and despondency are there for everyone to see some also suggest that Taliban is being cautious and somewhat accessible to Afghans trying to reassure them. In an interim inclusive government several channels of discussions are going on in Qatar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Talks are underway with AbdullahAbdullah (CEO who just did not like the imposition of a fleeing Ashraf Ghani) , Hamid Karzai- who posted his picture with his children the day Taliban walked into Kabul and even Hekmatyar and Ismael Khan -the Generals and others even as former Vice President Amrullah Saleh stakes claims to the non-existent Afghan throne citing constitutional provisions and claiming to fight for his constitutional position. But who cares? A Triumphant Taliban are the ones the world is looking to deal with.
Pakistan has been the nursery of the Taliban leadership and hence PM Imran Khan, fondly called in his country as “Taliban Khan”, hailed the victory of Taliban as “breaking chains of slavery’. No doubt Islamabad’s quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan remains an enterprise which it will pursue since it ensures its continued relevance to the powers that are or be in future. But it will have its own challenges of Talibanization across the Durand line among others. For the time being China and Russia are also happy to go along.
Mikhail Gorbachev , first Russian President , who had called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a political mistake that accelerated the doomsday for the Soviet Union , said to Ria Novosti that NATO and Americans had no chance of success because “ Like many other similar projects at its heart lay the exaggeration of a threat and poorly defined geopolitical ideas. To that were added unrealistic attempts to democratize a society made up of many tribes”. But years later Russians have not only made up with the Taliban but have turned into favourites . While many other missions including that of India evacuated quickly the Russian embassy is being protected by the Taliban as it emerges as a major political interlocutor in the region. Credit indeed must go to my friend Zamir Kabulov, Kremlin ‘s Special Envoy, who rightly claimed “It is not for nothing that we have been establishing contacts with the Taliban movement for the last seven years”. Iran changed tracks too and Moscow is also looking at Tehran playing a bigger role and eventually India. Russia’s geopolitical interests in Central Asia, Eurasia and worries about long time drug flows affecting the youth and to temper expanding Chinese influence in its backyard will keep it on a higher crescendo in the region and the international and multilateral arena. It might be one of the first to recognise the new interim government even if it says it’s in no hurry. Meanwhile the original troika of US, Russia, China remains in concert as Secretary of State Blinken conferred with his counterparts on the stability and humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan.
After their hasty and irresponsible and ignominious exit on which eventually many books will be written, the US maintains that it will only recognise the Taliban government if it respects the rights of women and shuns extremist movements such as Al Qaeda. It will be open to question since they and many other Pak based terrorist groups are well entrenched in the war-torn country. But Taliban were already legitimised when “Doha Agreement “wassigned by Trump Administration let alone prolonged talks. So far Taliban has assured protection and safe passage to foreigners and diplomats and in theory for the Afghans as it controls all border check posts. The US will hope to work in the contours of its new found Quartet with Pakistan, T-Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
China would be the biggest gainer in the bargain as it has been having its troikas with Afghanistan and Pakistan and had just hosted the Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar slated to be the next head of the government . China has also not moved its embassy and their MFA stated“The situation in Afghanistan has changed and China respects Afghan peoples will and choice“. China will closely monitor the situation and will help Afghanistan with investments within the CPEC and BRI context, even as it secured some assurance from the Taliban to not allow Afghan Uyghurs and Turkestan Movement to hurt its interests in Xinjiang. Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is also its major concern for CPEC projects in Balochistan. But Taliban not being a monolith may have their own limitations in containing other terror groups and activities.
Regional countries can not avoid the fall out of the strategic Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia which had been a supporter of Mujahedeen, in the beginning, expressed hope that situation will stabilise assuring “The kingdom stands with the choices that the Afghan people make without interference,Based on the noble principles of Islam…, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia hopes that the Taliban movement and all Afghan parties will work to preserve security, stability, lives and property” .Qatar, that hosts a Taliban office since 2013, has been on the forefront of negotiations between the Talibs and Afghan government as well as between US and the Taliban and now working closely to firm up a transitional government. As it hosts the largest US base it, along with Kuwait, also plays an important role in evacuations of Americans and others. Bahrain, the chair of GCC, is talking to other member countries for a way forward. Oman, mostly neutral, allowed a fleeing Ashraf Ghani and his entourage safe passage as the neighbouring Tajikistan refused to let his plane land lest it incurs the Taliban displeasure. Israel has expressed its concerns about the growth of extremism with the onset of Taliban.
India, as the current Chair of UNSC, has called two meetings to discuss Afghanistan and all relevant issues were addressed as the situation evolves and it secures her national safely out of Afghanistan. Even though Taliban has no problems with India directly and has been somewhat positive on issues of its concerns in J&K and terrorism etc. the vicious designs and intent of Pakistan will be a spoiler like the last time. Taliban does appreciate Indian developmental assistance and is not averse to it continuing even though it will look to China and others even more, who secured the early bird advantage in regional geo-economics.
Well, time will only tell, and strategic patience is the buzzword these days. We must also play our part in humanitarian relief efforts and provisions to help Afghan people bilaterally or through UN or other regional efforts. However, we shall have to be agile in our responses and overtures, if an opportunity arises.
(The author is Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta & Rotarian and presently, President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)