Introduction: Humanitarian Disaster is round the Corner!
Winter has come in more ways than one, for the unfortunate people of Afghanistan. It has been four months since the Taliban dramatically seized power, resulting in NO governance. The Taliban players who acted as leaders and diplomats are nowhere to be seen or heard. Other nations especially global and regional players (USA and her partners, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and CAR– Central Asian Republics) who were enjoying playing their ‘great game’, with tragic consequences for the people of Afghanistan, are still wondering what hit them and are counting their losses (nobody won anything including Pakistan who will find out sooner than later if not already aware). They have left behind Taliban which does not know what governance means, and a humungous humanitarian crisis due to hunger and famine, which may turn into a catastrophe with the winter creeping in, if sanctions are not lifted.
International aid in all forms; lifting of sanctions with pre-conditions, food, medicines, water, tentage and housing camps for the millions of needy, needs despatch and distribution to all segments of society immediately (here again there is a fear of favouritism for supporters of Taliban). The security situation has worsened and threatens the region, in my assessment the globe. After all, we do live in an interconnected globalised world.
There are no victors in this appalling dynamic despite initial chest-thumping in some regional capitals. While the USA and her allies may move on temporarily, the immediate neighbours must bear the cross, and salvage the situation with urgency. While experts within and outside India may keep debating, India remains the only power, that has space to manoeuvre between the conflicting interests and games of nations in the region and also simultaneously assuage the anxieties of the West and UN.
The Current Crisis
As hopes that the Taliban might form an inclusive government were fading, but on 22 November, they added 27 new members (deputy ministers, corps commanders and heads of independent departments), but again there was a pre-dominant Pashtun majority and women were shunned. No country has formally recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the country is on the verge of economic collapse. Afghanistan is also facing a threat from the Islamic State, which has ramped up attacks over the last few months. The attacks were universally condemned. The security situation is grim; at some stage the current low-key anti-Taliban resistance, which in itself constitutes of disparate groups with individual agendas (Northern Resistance, Uzbeks, IS and the Fatemiyoun Brigade composed of Afghan Shias, each wanting to establish its sphere of influence) will gather momentum and the stage will be set for a chaotic tragic civil war.
Deplorable Human Rights Situation
The human rights situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. There are credible reports of reprisal killings of former members of the Afghan security forces, as well as reports which indicate that the Taliban has arbitrarily detained former government officials and conducted house-to-house searches in an effort to locate people connected with the former government.
Women have been progressively excluded from the public sphere and the Taliban has limited Afghan girls’ access to education Reports of several instances of Taliban fighters using violence against protesters and journalists have emerged[i]. Numerous terrorist attacks have taken place in Afghanistan since mid-September. On 9 October, a suicide bomber struck a Shiite mosque in Kunduz, killing at least 43 people and wounding more than 140 others. Similarly on 15 October another Shiite mosque in Kandahar was attacked killing 47 people with over 70 injured.
As per the published UN Security Council November 2021 Forecast on Afghanistan[ii], it is interesting to note that China apparently sought to remove language that indicated the mosques were Shiite which was opposed by other council members led by India. An understanding was reached whereby the specific mosques were named. On 7 October, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted resolution 48/1, which appointed a special rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan.
Fawzia Koofi, the now-exiled first woman deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament briefed the Security Council on 12 October 2021. She underlined the importance of putting in place “a pluralistic social and political structure” for peace in Afghanistan, and called on the international community to work with the Taliban only if they “map out a clear path that guarantees the fundamental rights of all segments of society, in particular women and girls”, since the Taliban’s ideology discriminates on the basis of gender[iii]. While vide Resolution 2596, adopted on 17 September 21, the UNSC has extended the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) mandate until 17 March 2022, the complexities and uncertainties can be gauged by the fact that nobody is clear what its role should be.
It is ironic that many members of the Taliban cabinet are on the UNSC and US sanctions list, which constitutionally can be an impediment to render aid to Afghanistan. Both have to seriously consider reviewing the 1988 sanctions. Despite the rhetoric and threats, many in the international community have acknowledged the need to cooperate with the Taliban (while not recognizing it) in order to prevent an economic collapse and humanitarian crisis. USA enabled the Taliban via the Doha Accord but retained sanctions till main elements of the Accord are fulfilled. EU, Russia, China and many countries are willing to talk to the Taliban (Pakistan is a natural ally). Pakistan, China and Russia have functional embassies in Kabul hoping to exploit the situation to meet their objectives, and with the purpose of keeping other regional players like India out. It is difficult to imagine how the people in Afghanistan can be helped without involving the Taliban.
No Dearth of Bilateral and Multi-lateral Meetings: Crisis Deepens
On 20 October, members of the Taliban attended a conference in Moscow with representatives of China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan followed by a statement, saying that practical engagement with Afghanistan needs to take account of the Taliban’s seizure of power, irrespective of whether the international community recognises “the new Afghan government”.
The statement also called on the Taliban to form an inclusive government and proposed an international donor conference under the auspices of the UN. This was the third meeting held in the “Moscow format”, which was established in 2017 to discuss Afghanistan. Meetings on Afghanistan are becoming common place at UN, and within the West, with mainly rhetoric and not much movement on ground.
Unfortunately to complicate matters, there is no unity or cohesion within Taliban. Inter and intra-group fights/brawls have been continuous, highlighted by the reported brawl between Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, with supporters of Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, the Taliban’s Minister for Refugees and a prominent figure in the Haqqani network. The fault lines within the Taliban, of divisions along ethnic lines and splitting factions that represent the northern, eastern, and southern parts of the country have accelerated.
Reticent India shows Leadership
The Indian government has cautioned the global community not to rush into any formal recognition of the interim government set up by Taliban. It has also urged the world leaders to ensure that the Taliban deliver on their commitments that Afghan soil will not be used by terror groups, especially Pakistan-based organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
A ‘Reticent India’ finally broke its own shackles and hosted the ‘Delhi Regional Security Dialogue’ on 10 November 2021, chaired by NSA Doval and attended by his counterparts from Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkemenistan and Tajikistan. China and Pakistan refused the invite and representative from Afghanistan was not invited. Interestingly, this is the first time that all Central Asian countries – and not just Afghanistan’s immediate land neighbours, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, participated. This is the third such meeting with the previous two regional meetings held in Iran in September 2018 and December 2019.
India is clearly signalling that it has no intention of giving up on its role as a key interlocutor on the issue. India is continuing with its policy of supporting the aspirations of ordinary Afghans, the emerging of a stable polity and ‘peace within and with its neighbours’, which has been widely welcomed globally, signifying acceptance of India’s legitimate interests and leadership on this vital issue and region globally.
Afghanistan, geo-politically a nation at the cusp between Central and South Asia, has shifted towards South Asia, and its link between the two regions is largely predicated on the strength of India-Afghanistan ties, not on Pakistan. While the West can walk away, India will have to work with its regional partners in finding a long-term solution.
No single regional state is in a position to deal with problems such as violent extremism, radicalisation, porous borders and drug trafficking on its own. Regional coordination is needed and, for that, security agencies across borders will have to work together. It is in this context that India’s decision to take a leadership role on Afghanistan is a welcome change from its historical reticence. Further, India’s interests converge significantly with those of Russia, Iran and Central Asia. Russia is concerned about the spread of radicalism and extremism to its peripheries including CAR (Central Asian Republics). Iran wants to safeguard Shia minorities from persecution and prevent a refugee crisis. CAR countries want a stable region free of radicalism. Indian stewardship as a regional power capable of finding a common minimum ground to ensure stability, and coordinate urgent humanitarian assistance to Afghan people is being increasingly accepted. With no direct land borders and a tentative linkage through Iran (Chabahar), and unreliable link through Pakistan, India’s impact appears a mirage, but as elaborated, in another six months as Afghanistan descends further into chaos and humanitarian crisis, India will remain the only neutral balancer to find the way forward.
Pakistan Responds with an Extended Troika plus one Meeting
One day after the Delhi summit, on 11 November 2021, Islamabad hosted a meeting of the extended Troika, comprising Pakistan, China, Russia, and the USA to discuss the latest situation in Afghanistan. Nothing significant emerged except to reiterate the agreements and terms of the Doha agreement and UN resolution, and exhort the regional players to play a more pro-active role to bring stability and humanitarian assistance.
Pakistan and China: The Spoilers
Pakistan’s initial jubilation over a perceived “victory” in Afghanistan has waned. It is grappling with a fiasco of its own making as radicalisation sweeps through the Pakistani hinterland, forcing the political class and the military-intelligence complex to make compromises with the extremists. Ironically, calling India a “spoiler”[iv] confirms Pakistan’s desire to view Afghanistan largely as a protectorate as opposed to an independent, sovereign nation. It reflects Islamabad’s reluctance to engage New Delhi, and reinforces its policy of marginalising India. China wants early entry and primacy in Afghanistan. It is keen to fill the geo-political vacuum left by USA, expedite expansion of its BRI with a passage through CAR into Europe. It eyes the rare earths available for its economic and strategic payoffs. It also wants to safeguard its restive Xinjiang region and Uighur population from radicalisation and terrorist influence, thus providing an impetus to its ‘China Dream’ of being acknowledged as a super power.
Afghanistan is descending back to the stone age with regional players intervening with divergent national agendas; an ungoverned nation where there is increasing intra and inter factional rivalry and fighting, resulting in a high probability of civil war with tragic humanitarian consequences. India appears to be the sole regional power with the status, capability, capacity and backing of the international community and global players to prevent a ‘descent to hell’ by working out a road map for stability and rehabilitation. It is a geo-political-strategic compulsion for India with rich rewards if achieved, but major vulnerabilities if she fails.
[i] Report on the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, Statement delivered to the Human Rights Council on 13 September by Michele Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Univesal Rights Group, available at https://www.universal-rights.org/blog/report-on-the-48th-session-of-the-human-rights-council/
[ii] November 2021 Monthly Forecast posted on 29 Oct 2021, UN Security Council Report, available at https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/monthly-forecast/2021-11/afghanistan-14.php
[iii] ‘Female Afghan Leader Fawzia Koofi Keeps Striving For Afghanistan From Exile’, November 17, 2021, Outlook Magazine, available at https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/world-news-female-afghan-leader-fawzia-koofi-keeps-striving-for-afghanistan-from-exile/398446
[iv] ‘A spoiler can’t be a peacemaker’: Moeed Yusuf says will not attend Indian moot on Afghanistan’, Dawn, Pakistan, November 02, 2021, available at https://www.dawn.com/news/1655514