In S Jaishankar, India has a foreign minister who thinks on his feet. But the Afghanistan chessboard now has more players than pieces

by Tara Kartha

Reports that India has opened ‘formal channels of communication’ to the Taliban, thereby changing its decades-old policy, created something of a stir in strategic circles. Clearly, with about 50 per cent of US troops already out of Afghanistan, the clock is ticking. Standing staunchly by Kabul is all very well, but the reality is that the Taliban are not going anywhere, and will be part of any future dispensation in Afghanistan. That’s the central pivot of all decision-making. That, and what the Taliban want themselves. That’s tricky, since it depends just who the ‘Taliban’ are at this point in time.

The Taliban And Friends

Deciding on just who the Taliban are requires a bit of a drill-down. First, the ‘Taliban’ effectively means some 60,000 core fighters, give or take, with several thousand in a situation of flux. Added to that are support groups or facilitators, which some sources number in tens of thousands, as well as local militias who may support them for gain. An increasingly large part of these ‘professional’ fighters have never known any other life. Others are ‘part-time’ fighters, going back to till their fields or ‘regular’ jobs, especially in districts where the Taliban are more or less in control. To both, being a Taliban means more income, and clout in their villages. Controlling these are district or local commanders, whose job it is to ensure collection of taxes in the name of a ‘shadow government’. Services have to be provided to the local population, which in turn ensures the Taliban a steady supply of recruits, ensuring numbers are sustained in the fighting season. Both these tiers can go on fighting till the end of their lives if necessary. But what they want is a move from shadow to substance; and they’re likely to get just that in large parts of Afghanistan even if negotiations stall.

India’s announcement of further aid of $80 million in November last year for some 150 projects signals an acceptance of the reality that for any development project to succeed, good relations with ground-level fighters are vital. These are not people with ties to Pakistan or anyone else. They’re simply likely to go where their interests are protected. With projects in all 34 provinces, Delhi has already recognised that.

Corporators In The Field

Second, there are the Taliban field commanders, who have created their own fiefdoms causing considerable unease in the Leadership Council. A seasoned analyst points out that at Doha, Mullah Baradar opted for “reduction in violence” rather than a ceasefire, since he was uncertain whether commanders would actually obey the leadership. Many have acquired their own “business interests”. Apart from the ‘opium economy’ valued at some $4 billion or more, are mining operations. Reports indicate that some 75 per cent of Afghanistan’s mines are with the Taliban and other strongmen. Talc mining is second only to narcotics in value, while the gold and lapis lazuli mines in Badakshan have shaped the conflict there. Commanders function like corporate honchos, and neither the Taliban leaders nor anyone else can get them to stop fighting unless their interests are assured. The advantage is that their independence gives negotiators a little leeway. The more the divisions, the greater the space for persuasion.

The Pakistan–Based Leadership

Third, are those at the Taliban’s leadership level, extending from the Amir Hibatullah Akundzada, who is ostensibly the sole leader, to the Rahbari (or Quetta) Shura, and some 16-plus commissions that oversee military, intelligence, and other functions including health, and increasingly a sophisticated media cell. Lower down are the shadow governors and their ‘staff’ who manage a range of tasks. The resilience of the structure largely held while Mullah Omar was heading it. But the manner in which his death was hidden for years, the huge finances, and years of Pakistani dominance, which included imprisoning those who went against their wishes, has meant that the organisation is not quite as united as it likes to make out.

That brings matters to Mullah Baradar, one of those who founded the Taliban, but was nevertheless held prisoner in 2010 by Pakistani intelligence. He was released in 2018 a physically weakened man, but still commands considerable respect, despite attempts to sideline him at Doha. He is reportedly one of those whom Delhi has reached out to. There could be others from the old guard, like Noorullah Noori, released from Guantanamo Bay together with five others. Or even Mullah Yaqub, son of Mullah Omar who has consolidated his power as head of the military commission, and who is favoured by Baradar. This is not just about Delhi picking anti-Pakistan insurgents, though that is eminently desirable. So far, the Taliban have not shown any interest in India, and indeed its spokesperson last year denied social media reports that the Taliban would turn to India soon, stating that it has no interest in the internal affairs of other countries. As fissures appear in the apparent monolith, it’s time for a quiet reach out. What the Taliban want is continued aid without the interference that characterises its neighbour. It’s doable.

Dealing With The Political Reality

In addition, there is no denying that the Doha Agreement between Washington and the Taliban, gave the latter a clear diplomatic standing, despite repetitive denial of recognition in the text. Insurgent leaders have been adding frequent flyer miles flying to major foreign capitals including Beijing. Rubbing shoulders with China, while Delhi fumed from the sidelines was hardly a policy. Which is why Delhi was present at the start of the Doha talks in September, when a 20-member Taliban delegation was in attendance. An Indian representative was also present at the signing of the Doha agreement. Under S. Jaishankar —a foreign minister who thinks on his feet — the shift had begun already. And to give the Taliban leadership their due, they have made it clear that while welcoming aid, they do not want any foreign power on their land, Islamic or otherwise. That was most apparent in the strong rebuff to Turkey’s recent offer to stay back in Afghanistan and guard the airports and embassies. Islamabad won’t have a free run in the country so easily, though it still holds the dominant hand and will probably continue to do so.

Now comes the difficult part. A recent UN report reiterates the Taliban’s continuing close connections with al-Qaeda, who are present in some 15 districts. Also present is AQIS (al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent), its regional affiliate. There is some discreet distancing now. But that could change in days. Apart from that are remnants of the Islamic State, and a slew of Pakistani groups and fighters, all of whom entrenched under some level of Taliban patronage. That’s mostly the Haqqanis. While diplomacy will rightly focus on protecting the rights of women and minorities in Afghanistan, the security establishment will look for assurances on these dangerous elements. That will require links all the way from the top to the bottom, with each level requiring a different carrot to cooperate. All this while keeping Kabul reasonably happy and traditional friends in the loop. It’s a chess game with more players than pieces, set in a scene of violence that is likely to rise alongside negotiations. It could all fall apart at any time into civil war. Nothing is ruled out. Hunger games indeed.