Weekly Update: What Taliban’s Ascension Means for India; How Popular is Modi?

The turbocharged takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban within days after the US forces exited the country after two decades of waging a controversial war in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has confounded diplomats, foreign affairs experts and the security and intelligence establishments. The swift takeover by the Taliban, which refers to it as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has led to nations across the world scurrying to evacuate their diplomats from Afghanistan and to re-evaluate their relationship with Afghanistan under its new leadership.

But even as social media channels are abuzz with chuckle-evoking video clips such as the one of Taliban members romping about the gym at the Presidential palace in Kabul, which the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled, there is a sobre aspect of what the US military’s exit and the Taliban’s ascension to power means for India.

As the Taliban wrests control of Afghanistan, the consequences for South Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, will likely be significant. India’s relationship with its immediate neighbours–Pakistan and China–have for decades been fraught with risks and apprehension. In the best of times, India’s relationships with these neighbours have been testy. 

Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan are sieve-like. Taliban militants, and those of the al-Qaida have frequently sought refuge in the northern part of Pakistan.And, as we know, the US sought Pakistan’s help to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden by raiding his hideout in Pakistan. The latter has always had an active role to play in the affairs of Afghanistan, with or without the help of the US. China, on the other hand, has been showing greater interest in the country of late. In July, the Chinese foreign minister had meetings with the Talibanjust before the US formally began its disengagement.

How would the roles that its two neighbours play in Afghanistan affect India? One theory is that Pakistan could now have a greater influence over the Taliban-led government in Kabul. Under Ashraf Ghani, Islamabad’s relations with Kabul had softened and this had perceptibly weakened Pakistan’s clout in the region. Many believe with the Taliban back in the driver’s seat, the new government in Afghanistan could reach out to Pakistan and the latter could, therefore, increase its say in the governance of the country. This could also mean that militants in the region could take advantage of the lax borders between the two countries and easily move closer to Pakistan’s borders with India.

The other area of concern for India could be China’s ostensible desire to play a bigger role in the region, particularly in keeping with its plans for the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organisations. Meanwhile, Russia, which once propped up a Communist government in Afghanistan and fought a war there for nine years,is one of the only countries that has not been alarmed by the Taliban’s ascension to power. It has decided to keep its embassy manned and has, in fact, lauded the Taliban. One view that some analysts have is that in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran could increase their roles in the region, something that India is understandably apprehensive about.

While New Delhi evaluates its moves with regard to the changes in Afghanistan, it will be interesting in the coming weeks and months to see how the geo-political dynamics move in the region.

Is Modi Losing his popularity?

If two national surveys in India last week are to be believed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity could be waning. According to India Today’s Mood of the Nation survey, only 24% of respondents said he was best suited to be Prime Minister. Six months ago, it was 38% and a year ago 66%.

Likewise, another poll, the YouGov-Mint–CPR Millennial survey, showed that 46% of respondents think that there is a need for a new political leadership in India. And another 53% of people surveyed agreed with the statement that the people they “interact with are very upset with PM Modi’s leadership in the past few months”, while 42% agreed with the statement that “Modi was responsible for the healthcare disaster that followed the second wave of the pandemic”. 

According to the India Today survey, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath came in second as the person best suited to be prime minister — 11 per cent of those surveyed rooted for him. He was followed by Rahul Gandhi (10%); and the chief ministers of West Bengal and Delhi, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, respectively (both had 8% each of the respondents opting for them). 

While Modi with 24% remained as the prime choice, his previously unassailable popularity has come under severe pressure–partly due to the impact of the pandemic but also because of slowdown in the economy, rising inflation, and growing unemployment, all of which have seen people’s livelihoods affected adversely and also pushed millions back into poverty.

Some columnists, particularly the pro-government sort, have predictably disputed the survey findings and nitpicked some of the figures and percentages. It is, however, quite likely that Mr Modi has suffered a setback in the aftermath of the pandemic. India’s vaccination rate at 9.3% (fully vaccinated) has been low and lack of availability and inadequate infrastructure have wreaked havoc with its vaccination programme, which is marked by inconsistencies. Its economy has also failed to pick up. So, while opinion polls have their shortcomings and are never very accurate, the straws in the wind that they point to in terms of Mr Modi’s support from his countrymen should be a cause of concern for him and his party as the 2024 parliamentary elections come closer.

A Resurgent Taliban In India’s Backyard

The recent advances by Taliban in Afghanistan compel us to impartially analyse their psyche and reasons for their success and continued survival

The US President Joe Biden in a speech on Thursday 8 July announced that the U.S. military would complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, nearly two weeks before his earlier deadline of September 11, announced in April. The U.S. pull-out from Afghanistan, will end the US’s longest overseas war – which cost the lives of around 2,300 US troops and $825 billion monetarily- is a result of the February 2020 agreement that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

In his latest speech Biden strongly defended his decision to pull U.S. military forces out of Afghanistan, saying the Afghan people must decide their own future, rather than sacrificing another generation of Americans in an unwinnable war. Biden called on countries in the region to help bring about an elusive political settlement between the warring parties. He said the Afghan government should seek a deal with the Taliban to allow them to coexist peacefully.

And this is what has proved to be the red herring amongst the neighbouring and regional countries. Most of the countries have reacted in a guarded manner over the advances of the Taliban forces in Afghanistan since May, who now controls 162 districts in Afghanistan.

In reality the chaotic and unpredictable conditions in Afghanistan will have a significant impact on the regional geo-politics. For starters, the Iranians have started fishing in the troubled waters by inviting the Taliban leadership for talks in Teheran.

Iranian Initiative

The Taliban-Iranian talks began in January this year, as part of Iranian efforts to broker peace between the Afghan government and other factions. The latest round of intra-Afghan talks began on Wednesday 7 July morning by a speech from Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who warned that the continuation of conflicts between the government and the Taliban will have ‘unfavourable’ consequences for Afghanistan, noting that a return to the intra-Afghan negotiations is the ‘best solution’.

Earlier, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, had said that Taliban is part of the reality in Afghanistan and they are also talking to the Afghan government. During the recent meeting, Zarif discussed the prospect of Afghan people forming an all-inclusive government, including Taliban.

Pakistan’s Alarm

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in an op-ed in The Washington Post on 9 June sounded hurt by the accusations of the government in Kabul naming Pakistan as inciting violence in the country.

He further wrote that he would like Pakistan to be ‘a partner for peace in Afghanistan’, which may have ideated from the Indian outreach to the Taliban.

UK’s Concern

The UK it seems is more worried about the presence of Al Qaeda and Daesh elements in Afghanistan and not with the Taliban advances. Sir Alex Younger, former head of MI-6 has cautioned about the terrorism threat to Britain rising, following the US withdrawal and has further said the threat from terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh would grow if the UK turns its back on Afghanistan.

But the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, who served several command tours in Afghanistan, believes the Taliban leadership may have learnt from their earlier mistakes. He maintains that if the Taliban expect to share power, or seize it, then they will not want to be seen as international pariahs. Wiser heads amongst the Taliban, especially those who attended the recent peace negotiations, may well argue for a clean break with Al Qaeda in order to secure international acceptance.

India’s Outreach

Indian officials recently met with the Taliban delegation in Doha. This marks a marked policy shift in India’s approach to Afghanistan and Taliban. Besides showing maturity of the policy makers and strategists, the move may accelerate the transition from a non-existent relationship to the inception of a diplomatic engagement, whilst acknowledging Taliban as a critical component of future Afghanistan.

Though Indian policy makers will also be worried about the security threat from the pro-Taliban Pakistani outfits, yet they may have weighed the advantage of engaging with the Taliban and also considered that in future the Taliban might be able to assert pressure on forces inimical to India.

India has always called for ‘an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process’, and as such, the strategic move to engage with Taliban broadly demonstrates a regional security imperative for India and its efforts to minimise Islamabad’s influence.

Taliban Psyche: American View

The Americans have always wondered what fuels the Taliban to fight against a huge military machine despite the odds. Though in reality this has not led to any effort to try to understand the Taliban’s psyche and their commitment.

However, an American, Carter Malkasian has tried to discuss this in his new book The American War in Afghanistan: A History. Malkasian analyses the Taliban advantage in inspiring Afghans to fight. He opines that their call to fight foreign occupiers, steeped in references to Islamic teachings, resonates well with Afghan identity and psyche.

He says that for Afghans, jihad — more accurately understood as ‘resistance’ or ‘struggle’ than the caricatured meaning it has acquired in the United States — has historically been a means of defence against oppression by outsiders, part of their endurance against invader after invader. The Taliban were able to tie them-selves to religion and to Afghan identity in a way that a government allied with non-Muslim foreign occupiers could not match.

The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on a sense of Afghan identity that incorporated national pride, a long history of fighting outsiders and a religious commitment to defend the homeland. The Taliban’s ability to link their cause to the very meaning of being Afghan was a crucial factor in America’s defeat.

He further says that the Taliban exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something tied to what it meant to be an Afghan. They cast themselves as representatives of Islam and called for resistance to foreign occupation. Together, these two ideas formed a potent mix for ordinary Afghans, who tend to be devout Muslims but not extremists.

Now, with the Taliban overrunning districts in the north, they will likely press their attack, further emboldened by US departure over the next few weeks. Afghan soldiers and police will suffer from the same morale problems that have plagued them for two decades. Provincial capitals and Kandahar or Mazar-e-Sharif are likely to fall, possibly within a year. After that, Kabul itself will be in danger. The capital may hold, at least for a while, but the government and its allies will struggle to survive, with little chance of regaining what has been lost.

The world it may seem is bound to sit at the same table with Taliban, once they embrace political identity and become part of the political establishment, and this may mark a peaceful future for Afghanistan.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)