With just about 24-hours to go before the US military leaves Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai airport, concern about more terror attacks on the final hours of the drawdown continues in Washington. True to US predictions, rockets were fired early Monday towards the airport and an air defence system that was put in place before the Taliban takeover, went into action.
On Sunday, the US carried out its second drone strike in Afghanistan, again targeting the ISIS-K. According to Afghanistan’s local Tolo News, ten civilians including six children were killed in the attack. But evacuation work continued uninterrupted as this happened outside the perimeters of the airport.
A UNSC meeting is scheduled to be held to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. The idea is to get the Taliban to allow thousands of Afghan civilians who have been unable to reach the airport to travel out. French President Emmanuel Macron is suggesting creating a safe zone around Kabul to allow those wishing to leave to gather in the area. So far there is no word if the Taliban would agree to this as they are stopping locals from entering the airport area. They have complained of a brain drain as professionals fly out of Afghanistan.
Once the August 31st deadline is over and unwanted forces out of Afghan soil, the real test for the Taliban will begin. So far while it has appointed temporary people in charge of some key ministries, the actual job of government formation remains. Talks and negotiations are on with various former political leaders like Hamid Karzai and Abdullah-Abdullah not much are known whether ethnic groups are included. It is likely that some will be accommodated in the new setup as the Taliban is desperately seeking international recognition. They know that without the world acknowledging the new government no international fund will come to Afghanistan. Already the US, the IMF and the World Bank have frozen funding. This after all is the only leverage that the international community will now have on the Taliban.
Taliban’s overture to India on Sunday is in line with its desire to change its image and demonstrate that it wants ties with all countries. In its last avatar, the Taliban was recognized by just three nations: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the twenty years since Afghanistan has changed dramatically and the Taliban claims it has also gained experience of dealing with the world. Yes, it had negotiated a peace deal with the US, has held talks with China, Russia, Iran and naturally with Pakistan. Despite the seeming sophistication and media-savvy bunch of the Taliban operating from Doha, no one can predict which faction of the outfit will finally call the shots. The military commanders and fighters are rural and staunch Sunni Muslims, not given to tolerate Shia and other religious sects within Islam. Taliban has also claimed that they will rule through Sharia law. Much will depend on how the sharia laws are interpreted by the religious leadership. Whether the group can translate its words into action, is another matter. The international community will be closely monitoring developments in Kabul.
The Taliban outreach to India was not by a low functionary, but by the deputy head of the outfit’s political office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Stanikzai. His words carry considerable weight. The rough translation of what he said runs like this .``India is very important for this sub-continent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India, like in the past.’’ Even more intriguing was his reference to trade with India via Pakistan. Islamabad does not allow transit for Indian goods. This was the reason Delhi backed Chabahar port in Iran. It is unlikely that the Taliban can persuade Islamabad to change its mind over transit rights for India.
Earlier too, junior functionaries of the Taliban had said that they appreciated New Delhi’s development projects in Afghanistan. But there were no signals from the top leaders. Stanikzai is so far the highest-ranking Taliban leader to have spoken favourably on the need to maintain ties with India.
India has not reacted to Stanikzai publicly. But officials have taken note of the statement as well as the fact that it is coming from a responsible senior leader. On its part, Delhi has also been mindful not to ruffle the Taliban. It had dropped the mention of Taliban at a UNSC statement released asking Afghans not to support terrorists. Earlier India and the Ashraf Ghani government had continually kept up a chorus on terror groups like the Taliban and the sanctuary Pakistan would give these outfits. Perhaps realizing that the Kabul government had collapsed like a house of cards, India is changing its stand. During the evacuation of Indian diplomats and nationals, the Taliban had cooperated with New Delhi.
New Delhi has not missed the importance of the Taliban message. It has perhaps reached out quietly to the leadership but will not publicly rush to acknowledge any of this. India will wait and watch and recognition will be accorded only once the rest of the world does.
Like India, the Taliban is also gauging the ground situation. Many in India have said that New Delhi needs to just bide its time. When the dust settles and the Taliban has to get down to the business of ruling the country, it may need New Delhi’s development assistance. But that will be sometime in the future. Pakistan will hope to roll back India’s presence inside Afghanistan. It will use loyalists like the Haqqani network to turf India out. Much will depend on the power play between the various factions within the Taliban. It is well known that the Haqqani brothers are close to Pakistan’s spy agency the ISI. The picture is still hazy but perhaps in the long run all is not lost for India.