My first visit to Afghanistan in 1996 was full of stark images. The country’s Soviet-backed president, Mohammad Najibullah, was pulled out of the United Nations compound and strung to a pole. His body was left hanging for a few days. The Taliban had just marched into Kabul and seized power. Heady with success, the Talibs were decorating their Kalashnikovs with roses. Women were wrenched out of offices, assaulted and forced into burqas.
Afghanistan changed overnight as the Taliban sought to rule through brute force, torturing women and literally stoning men to death in football fields. The same specter looms, more than two decades on, despite America’s global war against terror, initiated after its twin towers were downed in New York by pilots on a suicide mission.
The new age militant is more motivated than he is militarily-trained. And unlike in the 1990s, he is not seeking to cross over into Pakistan for weapons or training.
In 1996, the Indian diplomats had simply locked the embassy gates and run for dear life. Twenty-seven years later, India appears to be revising its policy vis a vis the Taliban, even though it has steadfastly maintained that there is no such thing as the “good Taliban” or “bad Taliban”. Apart from sending two retired diplomats to participate in the peace discussions hosted by Russia in November last year as unofficial members, the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, in a surprising statement, has advocated “unconditional” talks with the Taliban, whose ideology remains unaltered.
General Rawat’s logic is that India “can’t be left out of the bandwagon” because India has “interests in Afghanistan”. He is right. Why should India not find a place at the table when major powers of the world, including the United States, China, and Russia, are willing to talk to the Taliban? India has invested in war-torn Afghanistan long and hard and it is in its interest to not shun the militant group that looks set to play a role in the not too distant future.
Doors for dialogue must always be kept open.
The problem, however, is that General Rawat’s largesse for the Taliban does not apply to his own people in Kashmir. Clarifying that the “Taliban analogy” cannot be applied in Jammu and Kashmir, General Rawat rejects unconditional talks with separatists and militants, asserting that any talks in the valley will be “on our terms”.
True, geopolitics has failed Kashmiris and blunted Pakistan’s support for them but Islamabad’s approach indeed has been flawed and devoid of the consistent commitment that such a critical issue deserves.
India is a high-risk setting for an epidemic, but the current situation was not inevitable. As more are infected, the pool of susceptible people will shrink, the virus will relent, and the country will rebuild.