By Sushant Sareen
The situation in Afghanistan is going south very fast.
Confidence in the Afghan government’s hold over the country, always a little tenuous, now appears to be slipping quite precipitously. The Taliban have, for some time now, been on the ascendant. They are not getting any support from their primary backers — Pakistan — but have also found a degree of acceptability among other countries. The Russians, Iranians, Chinese, Turks and some Arab states have established a close liaison with the Taliban. These countries are not just providing diplomatic space to the Taliban by engaging with them, but there are also reports that some of them might be supplying weapons to these medieval monsters.
The US too seems to be inclined, even desperate, to start a dialogue with the Taliban.
The newly appointed Special Advisor for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has already held a round of talks with the Taliban in Doha.
American officials are pressing Pakistan to make the Taliban amenable to a negotiated solution. They are hopeful that talks with the Taliban will take the ‘peace process’ forward and eventually end the civil war in Afghanistan.
While all these moves on the Afghan chessboard seem to suggest that peace might be within grasp, it is difficult to not be sceptical about the prospects of this somewhat half-baked ‘peace process’.
The spin that is being given by all the countries to justify their acceptance of the Taliban is that they are legitimate stakeholders who need to be brought in rather than kept out.
The policy of engaging the Taliban is based on a few arguments, which are nothing if not specious.
It is said that the Taliban are a local, Afghan force. Since they have no international agenda like the Al Qaeda or Islamic State or other such jihadist organisations, they don’t pose a threat to the world.
It is also being said that the Taliban have changed. They aren’t the Taliban of the 1990s. To gain acceptability from rest of the world, the Taliban have moved towards moderation.
Another argument is that the Taliban cannot win. There is a stalemate which isn’t going to be broken unless the Taliban agree to a political negotiation for power sharing.
Clearly, these arguments, dripping with desperate self-deception, if not manic delusion, are nothing more than an excuse to strike a Faustian bargain with the Devil himself and throw the Afghans to the wolves.
The bottom line is that if the Taliban were reconcilable, they wouldn’t be the Taliban; if they were interested in peace, there wouldn’t be the sort of blood-bath that they have unleashed on Afghanistan; if they were reasonable, and if they had changed and become moderate, they wouldn’t indulge in the massacres and brutal executions in areas they have temporarily captured, nor would they impose their medievalism on the areas where they hold sway.
The thing is that the Taliban are a local manifestation of a global jihadist movement.
The Taliban ideology itself is not of Afghan origin but a Pakistani import.
But leave that aside, even in the 1990s, the Taliban while not actively exporting their pernicious ideology or participating in jihadism outside Afghanistan, were a magnet for all sorts of despicable jihadists from around the world.
They provided sanctuary to every bad guy — Pakistani sectarian terrorists, Chinese Muslim militants, Uzbek jihadists, Arab terror groups, Indonesian and other South East Asian Islamists, you name it they were there in Afghanistan. And there is nothing to suggest that the same won’t happen again if the Taliban control Afghanistan.
There is also no evidence that the Taliban have nothing to do with international jihadist terrorists like Al Qaeda anymore. If anything, the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have fought together over the last 17-odd years, means that they will continue to have a much closer relationship than they had before 9/11.
For anyone to think that the Taliban, who think they are winning, will sever all links with the Al Qaeda, is to live in alternate reality. Similarly, there is no evidence that the Taliban have given up their medieval mindset. Their track record in places they have captured or influence stands testimony to their barbarity and misogynism. In fact, the Taliban of today are far more virulent, violent and radical than the Taliban of the 1990s.
As for the military stalemate, it is quite debatable whether this is a correct description of the ground reality.
Over the last couple of years, the Taliban footprint has constantly been expanding while the Afghan government has been steadily losing control over large swathes of territory.
The Taliban might not be in a position to launch a blitzkrieg to capture Kabul, but they are winning through attrition.
To put it simply, there is no military stalemate because one side is winning, the other side is losing.
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that even though the Taliban have condescended to talk to the Americans, they have not given an inch on their demands.
On the other hand, the US has backed down on virtually every single pre-condition they had put on talks with Taliban. This, in turn, has given the Taliban a leg up not just in the war, but also in the so-called negotiations.
Before the way is paved for a Taliban takeover — a power sharing arrangement will be only the first step towards that eventuality — the Americans must take into account the imminent possibility that Afghanistan under Taliban will once again become a magnet for all sorts of Islamists.
After all, the Taliban chief is Emir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the faithful) not Emir-ul-Afghan. What is more, the psychological impact of a Taliban regime in Kabul will be devastating. It will enthuse jihadist terror groups all over the world that they can tak on the mightiest military force on Earth, and win.
Rather than bringing peace to Afghanistan, a deal with the Taliban will bring war to rest of the world.
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation