Prema Sridevi, Editor in Chief of The Probe talks to Sanjay Kapoor, a foreign policy specialist and Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan and its implications in India.
Prema Sridevi: How do you see the recent developments in Afghanistan? How is India going to be impacted?
Sanjay Kapoor: Afghanistan has left many foreign policy experts speechless. They were not expecting this. Couple of days ago, it was said that it would take 90 days for Kabul to be overrun by the Taliban but in a matter of 9 hours they overran Kabul. People were intrigued that the Afghan national troops were 300,000 which were trained by the US at the cost of 88 billion dollars over the last 20 years. What the hell happened to that? Why didn’t they fight? Where did they all go? The truth is that there weren’t 300,000 troops. There were far less troops. We had been reading for the last many years about the ghost army that the Americans had created. So, there was a certain alienation. You had commanders who may have been wedded to the cause but there were no soldiers who wanted to fight for President Ghani or the United States.
Prema Sridevi: You were saying the US had spent 20 years fighting the Taliban, they had infused billions of dollars into Afghanistan and after providing decades of military support to Afghanistan and after losing over 2000 US soldiers to the war, the US is back to square one. They have decided to call it quits. In an address, the US President Joe Biden said that he does not regret his decision. He has blamed everybody. He has blamed the Taliban, the former US Presidents, the Afghan government and the Afghan defence forces. He has blamed everybody but himself. He also seemed to lack empathy for the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. How do you read the address by the US President?
Sanjay Kapoor: I personally feel that Biden cannot be faulted as much. Everyone in Afghanistan and elsewhere wanted the Americans to go at some stage or the other. The Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis wanted the Americans to go because America has a very destabilising presence wherever they go. As I told you, they muscle their way around, they treat the locals a certain way but the fact of the matter is these societies never stand on their own feet. There is too much dependence on the investments and the funds the Americans bring. What Biden can be faulted for is for the speed at which they decided to leave Afghanistan. Now everybody is asking how the Taliban took over so speedily. That’s because the Taliban had the support of the Americans which gave them legitimacy. They had the support of the Russians who conversed with them many times. Their leader Baradar travelled to China to meet the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. So, the big powers were backing the Taliban. Who was backing Ghani? Ghani was disliked immensely and nobody was willing to stand for him. He escaped and rumours are that he took 2 vehicles full of dollars with him.
Prema Sridevi: What about India? Where is India in all of this? The Indian Government has been saying that they have over 500 projects in Afghanistan and that they are a key player. People we have been talking to in the government say that we have got the Salma Dam in Afghanistan done. We built the Afghan parliament. We have gifted 600 buses to them. We have sent them 75,000 tonnes of wheat. Is India really a key player in Afghanistan? Initially, India did not even get a seat at Doha and Pakistan had to be convinced to get India a seat. In the Troika meet, the US, China, Russia and Pakistan were there. India was not invited. The recent developments clearly shows that India is very irrelevant in the Afghan scheme of things. What do you think?
Sanjay Kapoor: India doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan. That in a certain way puts us at a great disadvantage. In Afghanistan, India enjoys enormous amounts of goodwill. There is so much love for Indian teleseries. People prefer to fly to India for treatment for their ailments. But because India doesn’t share a border, time and again, India is asked why are you shedding tears for Afghanistan? They are no longer willing to see you. You have blown up 3 billion dollars. You could have used it in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh rather than in Afghanistan. But I think that when we invested that kind of money, we had a plan and a policy driven by the promises that may have been made by America or we may have had a desire to go beyond Afghanistan. That began to take shape when we decided to invest in Chabahar port which is based in Iran. Our attempt was to sidestep Pakistan because Pakistan was blocking our way to Central Asia since 1947. But what happened was that Iran was handed out major sanctions by the US and India didn’t want to antagonize the big powers. We didn’t take Chabahar to the next level. In 2016, we signed agreements on Chabahar. It was supposed to gather momentum in 2 to 3 years. We were supposed to construct a railway line. There were so many possibilities but we didn’t do enough.
Prema Sridevi: But China is trying to milk this entire situation in the region. Two weeks ago China hosted Taliban representatives for a meeting with their Foreign Minister Wang Yi. China seemed to have smelt the coffee and is milking the situation and both Pakistan and China have been able to sideline India geopolitically.
Sanjay Kapoor: It is a very challenging situation for India but the greatest success that has happened because of the change that has taken place in Kabul is the strategy of Pakistan. Pakistan has waited for 20 years. They needed strategic depth and they needed a friendly power in Afghanistan and they have got it now. If the Afghans play to the script the Pakistanis have written for them, then Pakistan is in a damn good wicket not just in terms of controlling the border areas of China but beyond.
Prema Sridevi: What is Pakistan’s script? What is their game plan going to be in the next few months?
Sanjay Kapoor: Pakistan has managed to keep India away from Afghanistan. They were cribbing that they cannot have normal relations with Afghanistan if India continued to have a consulate in Kandahar and Jalalabad in Afghanistan and they managed to get our consulates closed down. So let’s look at life beyond the haze. There are plenty of things that are happening that will escape us. For instance, for the first time,the Saudi Arabians and the Iranians are talking to each other. Last time when the Communists took over Afghanistan, it was a different world. That is what triggered many things. But now you have the Afghans promoted by the Iranians, the Saudis and the Qataris in a manner they haven’t done before. So, the possibility of the radical Islam gathering momentum is far less than what it was in 1979, or 1996 or 2001 or 2010. That was when the Islamic state gathered momentum.
Prema Sridevi: What about Baradar? The Taliban leader who is touted to be the next big man in Afghanistan. Do you think the US is also responsible for the re-emergence of this man? He was arrested by Pakistan in 2010 based on US intelligence and in 2018 he was released by Pakistan because of a request from the US. Then last year we saw the US Special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad signing a deal with Baradar in Doha. And now Baradar is at the helm of affairs. Why is the US interested in Baradar?
Sanjay Kapoor: Baradar was arrested by Pakistanis and kept in jail for long. That time he was not considered to be very powerful. He has been built up. He relocated to Doha. People used to say that you have Doha Taliban and then the other Taliban with gun wielding men. People wondered whether Doha Taliban like Biradar would have influence over the other hot-heads. You also cannot discount the presence of the Turks. The Turks are very influential in Afghanistan. In fact, there are around 600 Turkish troops which are looking after the airport in Kabul. They were promised that they will be given a greater role to play which has not happened till now but you don’t know in the coming days how things will pan out. Lot of things have been signed on papers which we don’t have access to. Those papers will start showing up at a later stage. It will have details of the deals, about the money that has to be transferred. Taliban cannot last without money. Who will put in the money? There are a lot of things that have been promised. Pakistanis don’t have the money. It has to come from the Chinese or the Americans. Russians can’t do it. What are the guarantees that have been given to the Taliban? Guarantees given by whom? The story is still evolving. Baradar is key to that understanding. Let’s see what happens.
Prema Sridevi: While India may not be a key player in Afghanistan now, many sources I spoke to, say that the unintended consequences of the Afghan tragedy can be this that there will be a consolidation of islamic forces in Afghanistan and in turn there will be a surge in polarisation in India based on religion and in the next general elections there will be a call for a strong nationalist government in India. What do you think?
Sanjay Kapoor: I think you have a fair point on this. It will provide an opportunity to the Hindu nationalist forces about the threat that is looming because of Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I see this as a period of great setback for India’s foreign policy. A period of great setback for how we envision India as a secular republic because there will be more people claiming time and again that this is the time for all good Hindus to come together. I feel very bad for the inclusive character of the society. I feel bad for many of the people who would be sidelined because they would be seen as a threat to the character of India. There would be a big shadow that will be cast on the 2024 or even the 2022 elections in UP. Both Yogi and Modi will talk about national security because their track record domestically is so botched-up especially during Covid-19. So, national security is the refuge of every possible clever politician.
Prema Sridevi: What is the way forward for India?
Sanjay Kapoor: Much before this damn thing blew up, India had already decided that they wanted to be a Hindu republic. They came up with the Citizenship Amendment Act which kept all the Muslims out of the neighbourhood. They have made it amply clear that there is support only for the persecuted non-muslims who are there in the neighbourhood. I feel that this has been a major foreign policy setback when you have decided to exclude people. So, once you have chosen this path, the government needs to make amends and say that we will allow everybody. If you want to undermine the Taliban, you need to get the whole lot of people who are there and who will help you out. If you want to bring about polarisation with one religion then it is your doing. It is not anybody else’s responsibility. India must reassess its strategies.
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