August 03, 2020
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'One Million Internal Refugees by this summer'

Ahmed Rashid has reported on Afghanistan for 22 years, from the time the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. His book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia has been translated into eight languages. Outl

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'One Million Internal Refugees by this summer'
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Why did the Taliban suddenly decide to demolish the statues?
Ever since the sanctions were imposed on January 20, the Taliban has been in a state of defiance against the West. Since then they closed down the UN political office in Kabul, massacred 300 Hazaras, an ethnic minority, executed two women and flogged 12 others. The January 20 sanction was the last straw. They are in no mood to compromise over Osama bin Laden or anything else and want to tell the world that they don’t really care about recognition.

What’s the impact of the sanctions?
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is now catastrophic. We’ve had two years of drought. The Taliban have been unable or unwilling to offer relief or any kind of governance to the people. But the sanctions have not affected the Taliban so much because there is very little you can actually sanction in Afghanistan. But I don’t think the Taliban will be able to tide over this crisis. You already have 5,00,000 internal refugees and by this summer this number could touch one million. Given that you have three million refugees in Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia, it’s catastrophic. Post-demolition, I think the donor aid will be further reduced, because it would be difficult to convince countries to give money for UN relief operations in Afghanistan.

What is your assessment of the international reaction?
I am very critical of Muslim countries who have not differentiated between the kind of Islam the Taliban has been implementing and true Islam. It is not up to the West to delineate the Taliban as instruments of fundamentalism but it is the responsibility of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has not made a single comment. Given that it’s the custodian of all Muslims as well as of Mecca and Medina, it should have made a strong comment. Qatar has made a strong comment. The oic has condemned it but that came very late in the day. The Muslim world should have played a stronger role.

Over the years, has the American approach to the Taliban changed?
The Americans were supporting the Taliban till 1997, even after it captured Kabul in 1996. Then came Bin Laden and the attack on US embassies. That the Taliban has given sanctuary to Bin Laden has dominated Washington’s approach. If, for example, there is a chance of a deal on Bin Laden, what the Taliban would look for is recognition in exchange for handing over the Saudi terrorist. There are elements in the US government who’d be quite happy to do that. But other elements, both in the administration and specially outside—for example, the women’s lobby, the anti-narcotics lobby—would be very reluctant about recognising the Taliban. After the Buddha incident, I think it will be very difficult to cut any kind of deal with the Taliban—and this even if they hand over Bin Laden.

What about the blowback of the Taliban on Pakistan?
The Taliban emerged from the new madrassa phenomenon along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. And now what we are seeing is the return of the Taliban teachings to Pakistan.

Where does New Delhi figure in the Taliban gameplan?
India has provided field hospitals and three new helicopters, which were bought through Russia, to Ahmad Shah Masood’s anti-Taliban alliance. India has always been providing covert financial support to him. It now sees the opportunity provided by the international mood against terrorism to jump on the bandwagon and be part of the consensus against terrorism and, of course, inflict some embarrassment on its old enemy, Pakistan, which is supporting the Taliban and also to show the Central Asian republics that it is willing to support their military and security concerns.

There are reports that Mullah Omar is reclusive.
He doesn’t meet anyone, he doesn’t travel, he has been to Kabul only once and has never been to northern Afghanistan. There were in the past large shooras which were attended by tribal leaders, commanders, mullahs. He only seeks the opinion of the ulema in Kandahar who are all about 80 to 90 years old.

What does this mean for the Taliban?
The Taliban will become more extremist. Mullah Omar is not listening to reason. The Taliban government in Kabul is desperately grappling with the humanitarian crisis, it wants some kind of working relations with the western ngos. If they had a chance of meeting Mullah, they would have argued against the destruction of the Buddhas. There is also a growing popular disillusionment with the Taliban because of the economic and humanitarian crises. I foresee a power struggle between the moderates and extremists in the Taliban, though it is difficult to tell what shape it will take.

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