by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Oct 09
India needs to remember that even the most industrious ants are swept away in a flood! Even as New Delhi logs up success after success in development projects in Afghanistan, the storm clouds of the Taliban are gathering across that country.
In only the latest dramatic example of how AfPak is going the Taliban way, 8 American soldiers were killed on Saturday when the Taliban stormed a US outpost near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The attackers’ rifles and rocket launchers were pitted against American mortars, guns, and air strikes, but numerical superiority made up for that, with jehadis pouring across from hideouts in Pakistan. The locals supported the Taliban because an American air strike the week before had killed over a dozen villagers.
Today, the spectre of 1992 looms over Afghanistan, when Soviet-style communism collapsed and the civil war began, leading to the victory of the Taliban in 1996. It would not be rash to predict that US forces will pull out from Afghanistan by end-2011, a year before the next US elections. Two years after that, i.e. by 2013, the Taliban could well control Kabul.
But India’s Afghanistan policy appears paralysed, an aid policy substituting for a realistic political strategy. All India’s development projects --- those roads, electrical transmission lines, irrigation projects, schools and democratic institutions --- will cease to matter around 2013, when, like in 1996, New Delhi will have to pull down the shutters and exit from Kabul, ahead of the Taliban’s troopers. After that, as it did from 1996 to 2001, India will live on in Afghan hearts, while Pakistan-sponsored fundamentalists live in Afghan government buildings.
“What can we do?” shrug senior Indian officials philosophically; “If we have to pull out, we’ll pull out”.
This time, though, India could remain out of Afghanistan indefinitely. There is no Ahmed Shah Masood to keep the Taliban at bay, even if in just a sliver of Afghanistan. And the chances of another 9/11 --- which swept India back into Kabul, piggybacking on American power --- can be safely discounted.
The one way of preventing this disaster is by working with the US to split the Taliban, winning over fighters who are not ideologically committed. Instead of silently acquiescing in the blunt US and NATO strategy of defeating the Taliban militarily, India must point the way towards a more nuanced strategy: understanding the Taliban; identifying each of its components; stepping up military pressure on the irreconcilable ideologues; then winning or buying over the opportunists.
The prospect of “Talking to the Taliban” evokes strong reactions, mostly: “You can’t talk to those jehadis! Just crush them underfoot.”
That line of talk comes from those who don’t understand the nature of warfare in Afghanistan and its shifting system of alliances. After three decades of warfare and turbulence, Afghans see no glory in dying in battle. Fighters expect their leaders to switch allegiance in time, to avoid unnecessary casualties and to remain on the winning side. Building a winning image is half the battle won, because half the opposition will cross over.
A handful will never change sides, being ideologically committed. That is why, a strategy of talking to the Taliban excludes dialogue with Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. They are beyond the pale and New Delhi must ensure that Washington understands that. Islamabad’s recent offer to initiate talks with Mullah Omar merely invents a role for Pakistan. Instead, the Taliban Emir must feel the heat of US arms, even sitting in Quetta.
But most fighters wearing Taliban turbans today consist of ideologically uncommitted village militias who believe the Taliban is headed for a win. Most began their fighting careers in the 1980s as US-funded mujahideen, fighting the Soviet occupation; in the 1990s, when the communists sank and the Pakistan-aided Taliban was resurgent, they switched sides and grew their beards. After the Taliban were routed in 2001, the beards went off again. Scores of militias waited to see whether Karzai was worth joining; apparently he wasn’t, because shaving went back out of fashion and the Taliban ranks swelled again.
Karzai already discredited, is now untouchable after rigging the recent general elections. His lack of legitimacy has also put paid to America’s exit option, which involved training Afghan soldiers and policemen and handing over the country to a popular Afghan leader. New Delhi must point out to the US that a victory in Afghanistan, in the short time available, can only come by winning over large sections of the Taliban. Indiscriminate battlefield confrontation must make way for a carrot and stick policy, where Taliban commanders are lured over by a share of local power (even at the cost of Karzai’s officials) as well as dollops of money to ease their transition.