Redefining India’s Role In Afghanistan

Institute Of South Asian Studies (NUS)

November 23, 2021

The return of the Taliban had been in the making for a decade. Convinced that it has come to power through military means, the Taliban does not feel the need to form an inclusive government. Unlike other neighbouring countries, India had been hesitant in exploring engagement with the Taliban and ended up withdrawing from the country. However, it has legitimate interest in the stability of Afghanistan and enjoys goodwill among all communities.

Introduction

The Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, at the level of National Security Advisers (NSAs) was hosted by Delhi on 10 September. An Iranian initiative, the first two meetings of this forum were held in Tehran in 2018 and 2019. NSAs from Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan responded positively to Indian NSA Ajit Doval’s invitation. There were two significant no-shows. Pakistani NSA Moeed Yusuf had publicly rejected the invitation, stating that “a spoiler (India) can’t be a peacemaker” while the Chinese authorities cited “scheduling difficulties”. Given the state of relations with Pakistan, the rejection was expected. Chinese absence suggests that China’s Afghanistan policy will continue to be guided and shaped by Pakistan. No one from Afghanistan was invited.

The Delhi Declaration[1] issued at the conclusion of the NSAs meeting was along predictable lines. It “condemned” the recent terrorist attacks in Kunduz, Kandahar and Kabul and reaffirmed a shared commitment to ensuring that “Afghanistan would never become a safe haven for global terrorism”. It stressed the need for “an open and truly inclusive government” and ensuring the “rights of women, children and minority communities”. While emphasising a central role for the United Nations and underlining the need for urgent humanitarian assistance, it reiterated that this be distributed across the country “in a non-discriminatory manner” through “unimpeded, direct and assured access”. The Declaration sought collective cooperation in tackling extremism and drug trafficking in the region.

This paper suggests that the basic message of the meeting was that though India no longer has a presence on the ground (India had withdrawn its personnel and shut down its embassy on 17 August, two days after the fall of Kabul), it has legitimate political and strategic interests, something the Central Asians, Iran and Russia acknowledged. The United States (US) Special Representative Thomas West also visited Delhi for ongoing bilateral exchanges on Afghanistan on 16 November 2021. Regular dialogue on Afghanistan continues with leading European nations and the European Union.

India’s Role Post-2001

Following the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, India returned to reopen its embassy. Indian presence had been scaled down in the early 1990s as Afghanistan gradually became a war zone due to the infighting between the Mujahideen groups. In 1996, the embassy was closed as the Taliban approached Kabul. Together with Iran and Russia, India supported the Northern Alliance, a resistance front against the Taliban led by the charismatic Ahmed Shah Massoud, operating from the Panjshir valley.

The hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC814 enroute to Delhi from Kathmandu in December 1999 that ended up in Kandahar led to protracted negotiations with the Taliban, hardening anti-Taliban perceptions in India. The 1990s had also witnessed ratcheting up of cross-border infiltration of trained militants into Kashmir.

In a post-Taliban Afghanistan, India found a welcoming environment with Northern Alliance leaders now holding key positions Though not a traditional donor, India became Afghanistan’s biggest regional development partner. During the last two decades, India committed nearly $3 billion (S$4.08 billion) towards humanitarian assistance, infrastructure development and rebuilding governance capacity with special focus on human resource development. A million tons of wheat, rebuilding hospitals, running half a dozen medical camps across the country providing prosthetics and undertaking minor surgeries were the major humanitarian projects. Power transmission lines enabling electricity import from Uzbekistan, road connectivity, a multipurpose hydel project, a machine tool workshop, TV uplink and downlink systems, a new Parliament building and cold storage units for local agricultural produce, were among the infrastructure projects.

Over a thousand Afghan students received scholarships every year for college and university education and nearly an equal number attended short term professional courses (like information technology, management and accounting) and basic skilling courses (refrigeration, electrical repairs, plumbing, carpentry etc). The United Nations Development Programme partnered with India for training Afghan civil servants. More than 60000 Afghans returned to help rebuild their country after completing their education in India. To strengthen local governance, India funded over 400 small development projects that were both proposed and implemented by local NGOs and district level officials. Special projects for skilling and reviving women’s enterprises were undertaken[2].

As a landlocked country, Afghanistan was dependent on Pakistan as Karachi was the only port it could access. India undertook a project to develop an alternative access route by developing Chabahar port in Iran and also built a 200-km highway in Afghanistan to help connect it to the Iranian border town of Zahidan. This was part of reviving Afghanistan’s traditional role as the crossroads between South and Central Asia and West and South Asia. Chabahar became part of this regional connectivity. India also spearheaded Afghanistan’s membership into SAARC.

In 2011, India became the first country with which Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement though Indian involvement in the security sector was minimal, largely due to US and NATO sensitivities as they were dependent on communication and supply lines through Pakistan. Gradually, as the Afghan army expanded, it began to make increasing use of Indian defence training establishments. In recent years, India has also supplied the Afghan forces with three helicopters. 

India’s development role was acknowledged by the Afghans and the international community. There was one exception – Pakistan – that tried hard to limit India’s role and presence. As Taliban insurgency grew, India was often targeted. Indians working on road projects were kidnapped and killed, guest houses where Indians stayed were often targeted and in 2008, there was a suicide attack on the Embassy in Kabul. Four Indians, including the Defence Attache and a senior diplomat were killed; the bombing also claimed over fifty Afghan lives. Intelligence pointed the finger at the Haqqani group that was later described by Admiral Mike Mullen in a briefing to the US Senate Armed Services Committee as “a veritable arm of the ISI”[3].

Return of the Taliban

Nobody could have predicted in 2001 that the US would be in Afghanistan for two decades or that its exit would be so ignominious. The searing image of Afghans falling off the C-17 Globemaster as it took off from Kabul will remain as abiding as those of the exit from Saigon in 1975. The tragedy is greater because the US went into Afghanistan with the support of the international community and its presence in Afghanistan was initially welcomed by all Afghans, except the Taliban. How did it go so wrong?

In December 2001, the Taliban sent an emissary to suggest a surrender to Hamid Karzai who was being tipped to head the transition in return for being allowed to stay in peace in Afghanistan but the US rejected it outright, assuming the Taliban had been eliminated. Even as the US got embroiled in Iraq, Taliban were regrouping in safe havens in Pakistan, reconstituting their cadres and re-establishing their financing links with Islamic charities. By 2006, the insurgency was back with increasing number of suicide attacks and IEDs, undermining the government and exploiting growing local disaffection.

The US kept insisting that it was not into nation-building but it pushed a new constitution, conducted elections, set up new judiciary, new army and police, in short, a completely new governance structure. The new constitution adopted the US model and centralised power in the presidency but the system lacked the checks and balances of a Congress, a judicial system, media and civil society structures. Corruption began to grow and governance suffered. There was lack of coordination among the donors as Germany took charge of the police sector, Italy of the judiciary and UK was given the counter-narcotics dossier. One example will suffice – after having spent tens of billions, Afghanistan today produces over 80% of the world’s illicit opium. The reason was that projects were funded based on reports by highly paid foreign experts who were totally divorced from Afghan ground reality.

Barack Obama came to power as US president, distinguishing Iraq as the “bad war” while Afghanistan was the “necessary war”. He announced a military surge to bring the insurgency under control but also announced that drawdown would begin 18 months later, leading to the Taliban joke, “You have the watches; we have the time.” The generals knew that it is impossible to defeat an insurgency that enjoys safe havens and sanctuary but it was an inconvenient truth. During the 1980s, the Mujahideen wore out the Soviets because the Soviets could not take the fight where the supply lines and the training camps were; the US forgot the lesson but the Taliban and the ISI did not.

The time was ripe to change the narrative. From a terrorist, the Taliban was first rebranded as an insurgent and now emerged as a political group. The opening of the Doha office in 2013 was the formal beginning of the legitimisation process. Various peace processes began, in Doha, Istanbul, Moscow and Islamabad. The final breakthrough came when US opened direct talks with the Taliban in 2018 and eventually capitulated to sign the 2020 Doha Agreement by committing to a withdrawal deadline in return for vague assurances about the Taliban cutting ties with Al Qaeda and other groups and engaging in a peace process with other Afghan sections. By committing the Kabul government to release over 5000 Taliban fighters held in custody, the US fatally undermined it. Even as US forces withdrew, the Taliban continued with their military advances occupying key districts and border check posts; the intra-Afghan talks remained at an impasse, unable to agree on an agenda.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s flight from Kabul while the US was undertaking its evacuation process only ensured the peaceful fall of Kabul. It ended US’ longest war but for the Afghans, a new chapter of uncertainty and violence was just opening. The Taliban’s backers showed greater staying power while the supporters of the Kabul regime lost patience and quit.

Two days after the Taliban entered Kabul, India closed its Embassy and evacuated its personnel, leaving open the field to the Taliban, Haqqani network and the ISI.

A Regional Reset

While presenting the Doha agreement as a peace deal, an impression was generated that Taliban had changed into a moderate political entity. However, there has been little evidence. Their first decision was to replace the Islamic Republic with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and bring back the old flag. There are some differences though. The Taliban of the 1990s was a politically unknown, militarily untested entity with a single leader, Mullah Omar. Today’s Taliban is politically known, with a decade of experience on the conference circuit in many capitals and a proven militarily entity, having waged a successful insurgency against the US. It is not as united though. The Amir ul Momineen Mullah Haibatullah has appeared only once at a madrassah in Kandahar on 30 October 2021 but no images or videos were permitted.

The Doha group that had been the public face led by founding member Mullah Barader appears to have been sidelined with Mullah Barader appointed as one of the two deputy prime ministers. News appeared about a showdown between him and the Haqqanis who have got the all-powerful Interior Ministry and intelligence as well as de-facto control of the eastern region of Afghanistan. Some of the old hard-line clerics have emerged as ministers but many of the military commanders who did the actual fighting are still waiting for the fruits of office to be able to keep control of their militias who are getting restive. There are reports that some of the more ideologically driven cadres are drifting towards the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K).

In addition, there are other groups too – Al Qaeda, IS -Khorasan, Uighurs (ETIM), Uzbeks (IMU), Tajiks (Khatiba Imam al Bukhari) and Pakistani groups like the TTP, LeT, JeM, Jamaat ul Ahraar, Lashkar-e-Islam and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Clashes have been reported between the IS-K and Taliban as the former mounted bomb attacks against Shias in Kunduz, Kandahar and Kabul. The Taliban may have promised Pakistan, China and Russia that they will prevent any attacks from Afghan soil but the foreign militants have set their sights outwards and are unlikely to choose peaceful retirement. In terms of ideology, all the groups share the Salafi-Jihadi ideology. Iran is watching carefully to see for any signs of persecution of the Shias as happened during the 1990s.

Taliban ideology may not have changed, Afghanistan certainly has during twenty years. Its population has gone up from 21 million in 2001 to 38 million; it is a young population with a median age of eighteen and a half years. More than two-thirds of the population is below 30 and has grown up in a conservative albeit open society with TV, mobile phones and a patchy internet. With growing urbanisation, number of people living in urban areas has gone up from 4.6 million to 9 million. Kabul has seen the biggest increase, from a city of about 700000 through the 1990s, it is today home to over 3 million Afghans straining the creaking urban infrastructure. All this poses governance challenges of a different order compared to the 1990s. There is no revenue stream to pay salaries. Reserves abroad have been frozen and pledges to provide humanitarian assistance have yet to materialise. With winter approaching, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours are concerned about an impending refugee influx.

For the last five years, Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been vocal in calling the US to leave describing its continued presence as the cause for violence and instability. With the US now out, the region is left with a highly unstable Afghanistan that is fast approaching a failed state.

Pakistan’s triumphalism was evident when the ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed made a highly visible visit to Kabul to resolve differences over power sharing among the different factions that enabled the announcement of the first cabinet list. The Haqqanis are now brokering a peace deal between Pakistan and the TTP with the latter demanding that they be allowed to govern their region in accordance with their version of the Shariah, something Pakistan finds difficult to accept.

As the old saying goes – be careful what you wish for, it may come back to bite you.

Conclusion

The Taliban are discovering that running an insurgency is easier than governing. They face multiple challenges – factionalism and disgruntled cadres, lack of resources and governance experience, tackling a hostile IS-K, a looming humanitarian crisis, potential pockets of resistance and an increasingly wary neighbourhood. They welcomed the Delhi Declaration though they were not invited and have repeatedly suggested that they would welcome the reopening of the Embassy by India. However, the Indian government is unwilling to take any chances given the influence of the Haqqanis, and by extension, the ISI. Nevertheless, unlike the West, India is part of the region and cannot disengage. It has responded to the humanitarian call by offering 50000 MT of wheat and urgent medical supplies. Pakistan has stated it would allow for overland transit as soon as modalities are finalised. Diplomatic engagement is likely to remain through Doha or at forums where Pakistan cannot veto Indian presence.

*****


[1] Delhi Declaration on Afghanistan, Ministry of External Affairs, 10 November, 2021, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/34491/Delhi_Declaration_on_Afghanistan

[2]India and Afghanistan: A Development Partnership, Publication by Ministry of External Affairs, 2009 https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwi6mJOAsqT0AhVExzgGHf83BccQFnoECAQQAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fmea.gov.in%2FUploads%2FPublicationDocs%2F176_india-and-afghanistan-a-development-partnership.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2hYz62UgRkCa5a7Ekf7A4z  and India-Afghanistan: A Historic and Time Tested Friendship, 2019 https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwi6mJOAsqT0AhVExzgGHf83BccQFnoECAQQAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fmea.gov.in%2FUploads%2FPublicationDocs%2F176_india-and-afghanistan-a-development-partnership.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2hYz62UgRkCa5a7Ekf7A4z

[3]Elisabeth Bumiller and Jane Perlez, “Pakistan’s Spy Agency Is Tied to Attack on U.S. Embassy, The New York Times, September 22, 2011 https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/world/asia/mullen-asserts-pakistani-role-in-attack-on-us-embassy.html

The Age Of Strategic Rivalry Has Returned

Published in Hindustan Times on September 13, 2021

Twenty years ago, the events of 9/11 changed the world, hurtling it into a new era. Even today, historians label it the post-9/11 era. A ‘global war on terror’ was launched. That era has ended and presumably, so has America’s ‘global war on terror’.

Historians prefer a date to bookend, but that depends on who you ask. On 31st August, the US concluded its withdrawal from Afghanistan, taking comfort in having undertaken the largest airlift evacuation but it was the Taliban that was celebrating their victory.

In 2001, US boasted of an invincible military. In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had famously described America as “the indispensable nation”. Explaining why US used military power, she said, “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us”.

Back then, North Atlantic treaty Organisation (NATO) operations in the Balkans had stunned the world with the display of the military superiority, using laser guided precision weapons with seamless digital integration of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Russian economy had shrunk to the size of that of Portugal. China was just entering the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Today, it is a different world. The age of strategic rivalry has returned. Taliban, ably helped by Pakistan, US’s ‘frontline ally’ in its ‘global war on terror’, has badly dented the notion of US invincibility. Despite President Joe Biden’s efforts in recent months to reassure allies that “America is back”, there is a wariness about both US commitment and its competence. The images of people hanging on to the C-17 Globemaster as it taxied for take-off at Kabul will remain as enduring as the image of last American helicopter out of Saigon in April 1975, hours before the Viet Cong stormed the city.

In 2001, the US embarked on two operations. The first was against Taliban and Al Qaeda but it was never successfully completed. Gen Pervez Musharraf who had been threatened into cooperating, pleaded that he couldn’t unless he got the Pakistan army officials – serving and retired – who had been advising and working with the Taliban. US played ball and the Kunduz airlift began in November. It lasted nearly a week and between 2000 and 3000 people were airlifted, including not just the Pakistanis but also a number of other senior Taliban and other jihadi leaders.

The second botch up was in December when Osama bin Laden was cornered in Tora Bora. Brigadier James Mattis, deployed in Kandahar (later Defence Secretary Gen Mattis) asked for reinforcements to surround the area but CentCom commander Gen Tommy Franks declined as he was preoccupied with finalising the operational plans for the Iraq invasion for Rumsfeld. The task was subcontracted to a local Afghan commander Hazrat Ali, and bin Laden, with his group, manged to escape across the Durand Line.

The outcome became apparent in 2005, once the US was distracted with Iraq and the Taliban had regrouped to begin their insurgency with suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In parallel, the US launched a second operation in Afghanistan with the Bonn Conference. The objective was to rebuild Afghanistan as a democratic, functioning state that would not play host to, or allow its territory to be used by, terrorist groups. Except that the US never accepted the idea of ‘nation building’ and the UN mission in Kabul, headed by veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi was only permitted ‘a light footprint’.

The cardinal sin was that the US (and allied) military forces got increasingly drawn from a counter-terrorism operation into a counter-insurgency operation that meant winning ‘hearts and minds’, a challenge for a foreign force that lacked empathy for a conservative, tribal society and its traditions. Counter-insurgency should have been done by the local forces but the newly created Afghan administration headed by President Hamid Karzai had neither the resources nor the agency and, in the process, became ‘a puppet regime’ and US forces represented ‘foreign occupation’.

The die was cast once the process of legitimisation of Taliban began with the opening of their Doha office in 2013. US exit was a given; the only question was when. Once direct negotiations began in 2018, the timeline became apparent. The US withdrawal deal signed in Doha in February 2020 was sold to the world as a ‘peace deal’, with a ‘reformed’ Taliban, a Taliban 2.0.

If there were any illusions about a Taliban 2.0, these were dispelled with the announcement of the new interim government on September 7. To underline that this was now a Pakistani enterprise, the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Faiz Hameed visited Kabul on September 4 for confabulations with different actors.

The Doha group that had been the political face of the Taliban engaging with the international community has been relegated to the second rung. Many of the key fighting units on the ground have not found place in the new dispensation, presumably because they would be less amenable to foreign direction. The Quetta shura finds strong representation, especially those who were also around in the 1990s Taliban government.

The clear winners are the Haqqanis who have long been known for their proximity to the ISI. Not only does Sirajuddin Haqqani control the all-powerful Interior Ministry, his family and friends enjoy key positions in Intelligence, Refugees, Communications and the Borders ministries. Most important, Haqqanis will control the appointment of governors to seven eastern provinces (Loya Paktia) that border Pakistan.

A nascent resistance movement centred in Panjshir valley has petered out. Demonstrations in cities that were drawing international condemnation have now been banned. Yet, even those countries that had promoted the idea of a Taliban 2.0 seem to be hesitant about rushing forward with political and diplomatic recognition.

America has ended its ‘forever war’; Afghans are preparing for a long winter.

*****

Interview with Times Now

September 15, 2021

[INTERVIEW] ‘Taliban’s return was imminent, but was India prepared?’ Rakesh Sood on the way forward

India Akrita Reyar | Chief Editor (Digital) Updated Sep 15, 2021 | 11:24 IST

India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Rakesh Sood, speaks about the current circumstances in Afghanistan and the road ahead for global players, including India.

Taliban's return was  imminent, but was India prepared - Interview Rakesh Sood India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood  |  Photo Credit: Twitter

Exactly two decades after 9/11, life came a full circle in Afghanistan as well. Its experiment with democracy crumbled as the Taliban got a virtual walkover after quickly overwhelming the country’s military and administrative structure. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that by January 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position and America had the smallest number of US forces in  20 years there. US President Biden, therefore, faced a choice between ending the war or escalating it, which would have required a substantial deployment of forces. 

Considering the dramatically changed dynamics in our neighbourhood, Akrita Reyar of Timesnownews.com spoke with India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood about the current circumstances and the road ahead. 

Akrita Reyar: The new Taliban government has been announced in Afghanistan. What are your first thoughts on looking at the mix?

Rakesh Sood: The new Taliban interim government reflects the internal differences between the Taliban’s different factions, which is why it took them quite some time to come out with the composition. 

Second, it was quite clear that getting over these differences needed the presence of the ISI and that is why the DG ISI was physically present in Kabul, meeting different Taliban factions, the leaders and the groups, to be able to work out a compromise. 

Taliban cabinet
Taliban Cabinet Ministers | Pic Credit: AP

Akrita Reyar: Taking forward the point of the Pakistan imprint on the new Taliban government, how much of a hand of Pakistan do you see in the entire strategy and execution of the Taliban operation to take over Afghanistan? Was this completely its brainchild?

Rakesh Sood: The Taliban followed a calibrated military strategy. They waited till they were absolutely certain that the US was sticking to a withdrawal deadline and it was an unconditional withdrawal. This was announced by President Joe Biden on the 14th of April. Thereafter, beginning in May, the Taliban executed an effective military strategy. I am sure they had good teachers who had learned the lessons of what had gone wrong in the past during the 1990s. Obviously, the good teachers I’m referring to are the ISI who were advising them. However, the Taliban, I think, were then able to execute this strategy reasonably efficiently. The strategy consisting of focusing on the more isolated military and police outposts, especially in the remote areas, which have a limited strength of maybe 10 to 15 people; it was easy to surround them with 40 to 50 Taliban fighters and since the US was in the process of withdrawal and air support was missing, the 10 to 15 people at these remote outposts ended up surrendering or capitulating because they were promised safe passage. This resulted in the fact that the Taliban were also able to acquire, without much fighting, additional military hardware from the stores at these places. 

Taliban soldiers stand guard over surrendered Afghan Militiamen in the Kapisa province
Taliban soldiers stand guard over surrendered Afghan Militiamen in the Kapisa province | Pic Credit: AP

The second strategy that the Taliban then followed was to move to the northern parts of Afghanistan and certain district headquarters as these were the expected areas of resistance. After they had taken these over, it enabled them to surround certain provincial capitals. They only started focusing on the provincial capitals in August. So through May, June and July, they essentially focused on remote areas, district headquarters, and revenue-generating border checkpoints. They knew that they would perhaps face resistance out of Panjshir valley, so they surrounded Panjshir Valley and cut it off from other districts at the Tajik border. Therefore Panjshir Valley lost its connectivity to Tajikistan, which is what it had retained during the 1990s when the Soviets could not occupy Panjshir Valley or when the Taliban during the 1990s could not occupy Panjshir Valley.

A Taliban soldier guards the Panjshir gate in Panjshir province northeastern of Afghanistan
A Taliban soldier guards the Panjshir gate in Panjshir province of Afghanistan | Pic Credit: AP

Akrita Reyar: How do you predict Western nations including the EU and the US to respond to the Taliban government in terms of giving it recognition and future dealings; after all, most are UN-designated terrorists and have bounties on their heads? 

Rakesh Sood: I am not in a position to predict how Western governments will respond to it. They will I’m sure take their decisions based on their interests. They obviously want to ensure that they’re able to get not just their citizens, but also the Afghans who have worked with them and they feel that they need to bring them out because they are in a position of vulnerability or danger. So that is one priority for the Western governments. Another priority for the Western governments is to ensure that there is no refugee influx into their countries. I don’t think they will bother too much if the Afghan refugees went to neighbouring countries like Pakistan or Iran, but certainly, they will not want refugees coming into Europe or into Canada or America. Third, I think they would also like, to the extent possible, to prevent any humanitarian crisis arising out of food shortages or medical shortages. 

Akrita Reyar: Do the developments have a sobering impact on India? Were we underprepared in the face of imminent US pullout? And what now from here…

Rakesh Sood: I do not know, but I think that any political observer would indicate that the process of legitimization of the Taliban was quite clear for at least a decade, if not earlier. In 2013, the Taliban opened an international office in Doha and they had a public presence. A number of countries were engaging with the Taliban directly, a number of European countries, plus China plus Russia plus Iran plus, of course, Pakistan and Central Asian countries. Taliban delegations were being received in many of these countries. I think it was therefore quite clear that the Taliban was emerging as a political actor. And that was in 2013, in 2018 the US began direct talks with the Taliban. So it should have been abundantly clear then; in 2020 an agreement was signed with the timeline for US withdrawal. It should again have been abundantly clear and as I said earlier, on 14th April, President Joe Biden also announced he would stick to the agreement except that he extended the withdrawal timeline from 30th of April to the 31st of August. So, in short, for nearly a decade, the writing has been on the wall that the Taliban were coming back, and the US was in the exit mode. 

LAST US TO LEAVE AFGHANISTAN
U.S. Army, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, was the last U.S. soldier to board a C-17 cargo plane at Kabul airport | Pic Credit: AP

Therefore, anybody who says that we were surprised, I think has failed to see the writing on the wall. Yes, you could be surprised about the fact that the actual US withdrawal in the last two weeks was conducted somewhat poorly. It reflected a lack of proper planning or reflected a degree of incompetence, but that is only in the last two weeks with the fact that the US was leaving, and the Taliban were coming back is something that has been known for, as I said, nearly a decade. 

Akrita Reyar: We can’t get away from the question of China and Russia – what is it for them in this and how do you foresee them playing their cards? You have already mentioned they have been engaging with the Taliban for a while.

Rakesh Sood: I think both China and Russia, having got rid of the US presence in Afghanistan, will now focus on their interests in terms of the fact, whether the Taliban will keep to their understanding, which the Taliban have conveyed to China and to Russia, that they will address their security concerns and not allow any groups in Afghanistan to adversely target either Chinese territory or Russian territory, I’m sure the Chinese or Russians will see to if these commitments are being fully honoured or not and calibrate their relationship accordingly.