On August 20, 1998, American cruise missiles pounded six sites in Khost in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There was intelligence information that Osama bin Laden and his supporters were housed in Khost. Osama escaped the raid, but the American missiles destroyed ISI camps of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, being trained for jihad in Kashmir. Taliban rule in Afghanistan enabled the ISI to use Afghan territory for its jihad across India. The Taliban were to prove an asset to the ISI barely a year later, when they colluded with the Pakistani intelligence agency in the hijacking of IC 814 to Kandahar. Even after the Taliban was ousted after 9/11, they have been used by the ISI to target Indian nationals and projects in Afghanistan.
It took the Americans 15 years to acknowledge that despite being designated a “major US non-NATO ally”, Pakistan was providing safe haven to the Taliban, who killed 2,500 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Restrictions and preconditions on the economic and military aid the US was providing to Pakistan were imposed only last year. In the meantime, after receiving massive assistance from Pakistan, the Taliban have emerged as a formidable force across Afghanistan. With only a residual force of 9,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, the US is now concentrating on providing training, intelligence, air power and logistical help to Afghanistan Armed Forces, who have taken around 30,000 casualties in 2016.
India should have no doubt that its security challenges will increase if the Taliban overthrow the present elected government in Afghanistan. For over three years now, Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have been appealing to Delhi for military aid. After much procrastination, we have provided them with four attack helicopters. Mercifully, the Narendra Modi government appears to be more forthcoming in providing Afghanistan more military assistance. But, for this, we need to make the Chabahar Port fully operational. In a remarkable turnaround in American policy, US Commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson visited India, seeking our cooperation on this.
Attempts to promote a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government by the US and China drew a blank because of unacceptable preconditions by the Taliban. The Obama administration publicly acknowledged that Pakistan was playing a double game of calling for peace while providing support to the Taliban. President Ghani’s tirade against Pakistan in Amritsar and his decision to boycott the SAARC Summit in Islamabad clearly reflected Afghan anger and frustration at Pakistani duplicity.
China, which predictably backs Pakistan’s desire to give a predominant role for the Taliban in ruling Afghanistan, has been joined by Russia in seeking legitimacy and even tacit recognition of the Taliban for a major role in Afghanistan’s national life. Russia is facing growing problems by the radicalisation of its Muslim Chechen population, who are joining the ISIS, also known as Daesh, for jihad across the Islamic world. Central Asian republics bordering Russia and Afghanistan are witnessing similar developments. This has led to calls that it is the Daesh and not the Taliban that is the greatest threat to their security. Iran is meanwhile keeping its links with the Taliban open.
The greatest challenge to Indian diplomacy in 2017 lies in persuading Russia, Iran and the Central Asian republics that it would be dangerous to underestimate the threat the Taliban poses to their security. All these countries, like India, are waiting to see how the incoming Donald Trump administration deals with the ISI-backed Taliban challenge in Afghanistan.