Reflections on Events in Afghanistan

The Taliban fighters posing for family photo and relaxing in the Presidential Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug 15, 2021

Afghan ambassador to Washington Ms. Adela Raz said that President Ghani and his cronies simply emptied the Afghan Treasury and left with the loot…India’s policymakers couldn’t have been unaware that a cabal was ruling Afghanistan but deliberately chose to ignore it… The Washington Post has exposed that the Pentagon commanders lied and the ‘forever war’ continued… The disconcerting fact is, in India too, a determined lobby advocated the ‘forever war’ against all logic, and Mohib was our man in Kabul, too. 


1. Collapse of the Afghan Army 

Social media reported that at the Kabul residence of the Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib who post-haste fled to Tajikistan on Saturday with President Ashraf Ghani, three Toyota Landcruiser SUVs were found stacked with American dollar bills.

Mohib was the shadow king of Afghanistan. He controlled the country’s defence budget. In the coming year, he would have handled over $3 billion, which the US has earmarked as assistance for the Afghan armed forces. The Taliban spoiled his party.

The mystery of the Afghan armed forces losing the will to fight is actually no mystery at all. The main reason has been the misappropriation of defence budget. In Ghani’s set-up, Mohib, his trusted flunky, controlled the Defence Ministry — not the Defence Minister — and he obviously did well for himself — and probably Ghani too. Time will tell.

The soldiers seldom received their full pay as officers pocketed the money and that explained the high rate of desertion from enlisted men. Soldiers often flogged their US-supplied weapons in the black market to earn a living.

Simply put, the army lost the will to fight for a decrepit government that lacked legitimacy, was inept and indifferent to people’s needs and grievances — and a leadership it held in contempt.   

The contrast with the Afghan army built by the Soviets in the early 1980s couldn’t be sharper. Najibullah held out for three years after the Soviet troop withdrawal and stepped down only when Moscow cut off all assistance — even wheat flour to make bread. The army was disciplined, well-trained and politically indoctrinated, and the officer corps trained in the Soviet military academies commanded respect.

The Battle of Jalalabad (1989) stands out as its finest hour when Pakistan masterminded a siege on the city to capture it as seat for the Mujahideen provisional government, but failed.

Over the past twenty years, the US supposedly trained the Afghan army by NATO standards, 300000 strong, but when the battle was joined in May, it began crumbling under Taliban pressure. 

When corruption eats into the vitals of a nation, the state structures decompose and collapse. And when the leadership loses respect of the people, the war is lost. 

At the famous Mehdi Hasan show on MSNBC today, Afghan ambassador to Washington Ms. Adela Raz said that Ghani and his cronies simply emptied the Afghan Treasury and left with the loot.

The Afghan finance minister Khalid Payenda’s resignation and escape from Kabul on August 11 falls in perspective! The poor man feared the day of reckoning. He didn’t even say where he was heading.

India’s policymakers couldn’t have been unaware that a cabal was ruling Afghanistan but deliberately chose to ignore it. This is incomprehensible. India stuck out its neck as recently as Aug 9 Monday to set the stage for Ghani’s government to project itself to the international audience from the UN Security Council podium. It ignored a formal request from Pakistan to participate in the UN SC discussion so that Ghani’s people had a field day!

The best hope is that no interest groups existed within the Indian establishment, as happened to the US. The Washington Post has exposed that the Pentagon commanders lied and the ‘forever war’ continued. Evidently, a gravy train was running through Kabul.

Such things happen when the covert agencies of the state stand above law. A nexus formed between Kabul bigwigs like NSA Mohib and decrepit rogue elements within the US military and they thwarted all attempts to end this war. The disconcerting fact is, in India too, a determined lobby advocated the ‘forever war’ against all logic, and Mohib was our man in Kabul, too. 

2. The green shoots of politics are reappearing

The explosion of life is unstoppable. The first buds are edging their roots from the dirt no sooner than Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on Aug 15 Sunday, without telling anyone, carrying a massive loot of ill-begotten wealth stolen from his people. And the green shoots of political recovery are appearing.

Tense and urgent care is needed. The region is rallying. Pakistan has taken the lead.

On Sunday afternoon, a galaxy of senior Afghan politicians, largely drawn from the erstwhile Northern Alliance of the late 1990s, arrived in Islamabad to cogitate with the Pakistani leadership regarding the mainstreaming of the Taliban. The delegation comprised three top figures from Panjshir Valley, veteran Hazara leaders, the Jamiat-e Islami, Afghan Parliament (including, interestingly, the eldest son of the Tajik leader from Mazar-i-Sharif Mohammed Atta Noor.)

Without doubt, it is a spectacular development that Pakistan is hosting the top leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, which spearheaded the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s. Put differently, with Ghani out of the way, the non-Taliban Afghan ‘opposition’ whom he had variously marginalised, humiliated or ignored during his maverick, corrupt dispensation, is surging.

By the way, Russian embassy spokesman in Kabul Nikita Ishchenko has given on record a graphic account of Ghani’s shameful escapade: “As for the collapse of the (outgoing) regime, it is most eloquently characterised by the way Ghani fled Afghanistan. Four cars were full of money, they tried to stuff another part of the money into a helicopter, but not all of it fit. And some of the money was left lying on the tarmac.”

Equally, it is a stunning display of the crucial role only Pakistan can play in today’s circumstances to facilitate national reconciliation in Afghanistan and nudge it towards the culture of inclusive politics. The Afghan politicians appreciate the significant shifts that have come over Pakistan’s policies and its regional strategy that enhance its credentials to be peacemaker.

Pakistan urged the Afghan delegation to seek a broad-based and comprehensive political settlement of the Afghan issue and to commence a comprehensive political dialogue as immediate step aimed at creating a peaceful, united, democratic, stable country.

Alongside, Pakistan’s National Security Council, the country’s apex civilian-military policymaking body chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, reiterated on Aug 16 Monday that an inclusive political settlement is the only way forward, representing all Afghan ethnic groups. 

Clearly, the developments in Islamabad cannot be seen in isolation. Amidst the botched-up evacuation of American diplomats from Kabul, President Biden underscored on Monday that in the period ahead in Afghanistan, the US hopes “to lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and our humanitarian aid”; will “push for regional diplomacy”; influence the dynamics with “our economic tools” while steering clear of “nation-building”; and, “maintain a laser-focus on our counter-terrorism missions”.

It is an audacious speech. Biden held the ground on his controversial troop withdrawal decision. His grating roar was addressed to the domestic audience but what emerges from his speech is the melancholy retreat of America to concentrate on “significant vital interests in the world that we cannot afford to ignore.” 

To be sure, the locus of peacemaking has significantly shifted to the regional states. Taliban senses it and scrupulously refrains from precipitate actions. Meanwhile, the “coordinating group” of former president Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is acting as a bridge across the void created by Ghani’s flight.

Inevitably, Pakistan has a centrality, but the role of Iran, China and Russia will also be important. The immediate effort is to create a transitional government. Taliban appears to be amenable to a broad-based, representative arrangement. 

India should summarily abandon its contrived narrative built on animus against Pakistan and recognise these new stirrings. Liberated from the Faustian deal with Ghani and his circle as well as the American yoke, Indian diplomacy should renew networking with Afghan elites who were kept out of power.

A closure of the Mission in Kabul will be a Himalayan blunder at this historic juncture when the wheels of diplomacy and politics are set to accelerate in Afghanistan. Normal politics is poised to grow a little each day, and the dust of thirty years hanging lifeless in the air is going to settle down. Retrenchment will only damage India’s interests and isolate it in the region.

3. The Return of the Native 

There is immense curiosity about the Taliban’s first moves following the dramatic return to Kabul after two decades. The big question on everyone’s mind is whether the Taliban has ‘changed’ since the 1990s. Opinions vary. But, so far at least, there are no signs of a return of repressive authoritarian rule.

The stunning press conference on Aug 17 Tuesday in Kabul by the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid distinctly exuded an air of moderation and tolerance to dissenting voices.

The fact that local journalists could ask such provocative questions and get away with it has been widely noticed. Mujahid patiently answered. The following quotes speak for themselves:

  • We seek no revenge and “everyone is forgiven”
  • We will honour women’s rights but within the norms of Islamic law
  • We want private media to remain independent but the media should not work against national interests
  • Afghanistan will not allow itself to harbour anyone targeting other nations
  • Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country

In particular, Mujahid said women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam”. Similarly, his assurance that “everyone is forgiven” referring to former soldiers and members of Ghani’s government has made a remarkable impression. 

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” Mujahid said. Two other specific remarks by Mujahid were of far-reaching consequence to any open society:

  • Taliban will not allow Afghan soil to be used against other countries.
  • Private and independent media could continue but they should abide by the cultural norms.

Why did Mujahid do such a risky thing? One, he came prepared to say what he said. Most certainly, he acted under instructions from the leadership to put the above positions on record right at the outset even before forming a new government, as a confidence-building measure. By the way, the press conference was open to the international media as well.

Yesterday’s press conference will put the ‘Taliban-baiters’ who are barely surviving on fake news about Taliban’s ‘excesses’ — largely based on hearsay and rumours — in some   distress and confusion. 

The point is, it is becoming difficult to hold on to stereotyped notions as if time stood still for the Taliban since they vanished from Kabul overnight in the winter of 2001. 

To my mind, however, the really striking thing is that the Taliban has suo moto presented to us certain firm benchmarks against which it expects us to hold to account the Taliban ruler’s actions in the period ahead. Clearly, the press conference was called precisely for this purpose. Doesn’t that mean something of immense relevance?

Equally, the visit by the top Taliban leader (and a scion of the powerful Haqqani Network) Anas Haqqani earlier today to the residence of former President Hamid Karzai must be noted carefully. Karzai has taken the initiative to form a coordinating group of himself, Abdullah Abdullah and Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to clear the pathway for forming an inclusive transitional arrangement. Haqqani’s mission was in this connection. Abdullah was also present at the meeting. It stands to reason that Haqqani plays a key role in government formation.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threw some light on the state of play in government formation. Talking to the media while on a tour of Kaliningrad, Lavrov said:

“Just like all other countries, we are not in a hurry to recognise them. Just yesterday, I spoke with Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi. Our positions overlap. 

“We are seeing encouraging signals from the Taliban, who are saying they want to have a government with the participation of other political forces. They said they stand ready to continue the processes, including the ones that involve education, education for girls and the functioning of the state machine in general, without shutting the door to the officials who worked under the previous government led by President Ashraf Ghani.

“We are observing positive processes on the streets of Kabul, where the situation is fairly calm and the Taliban are effectively enforcing law and order. But it is too early to talk about any unilateral political steps on our part.

“We support the beginning of an all-encompassing national dialogue with the participation of all Afghan political ethnic and religious forces. Former President Hamid Karzai and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah have already spoken in favour of this process. They are in Kabul. They came up with this proposal. One of the leaders of northern Afghanistan, Mr Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has joined this initiative as well.

“Literally these days, as I understand, maybe even as we speak, a dialogue with a Taliban representative is going on. I hope it will lead to an agreement whereby the Afghans will form inclusive transitional bodies as an important step towards fully normalising the situation in this long-suffering country.”

At a briefing today in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed what Lavrov had stated yesterday. Zhao said, “It will be possible to talk about whether China will establish new diplomatic relations with Afghanistan only after a tolerant and open government is formed there that would sufficiently represent the country’s interests.”

He added that Beijing’s position is Beijing’s position on Afghan issues “is clear and unequivocal. We will wait and recognise the new government after it is formed.”

The template that is dramatically surfacing on the Afghan chessboard is the close coordination between Moscow and Beijing to steer events in Afghanistan toward the formation of a representative, inclusive, broad-based government that includes the Taliban. This needs separate analysis, as it is an unprecedented development in regional politics historically. 

My sense is Pakistan is on board. Today, Foreign Minister Qureshi again spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after hosting the Northern Alliance leaders in Islamabad.


Posted in his blog, indianpunchline,by the author.


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years. He introduces about himself thus:  “Roughly half of the 3 decades of my diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. I write mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific…”

His mail ID : [email protected]

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