How long can India ignore the Taliban? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 13 June 2011

How long can India ignore the Taliban?

It is time for India to open a dialogue track with the Quetta Shoora of the Taliban, which increasingly chafes at restraints and controls imposed upon it by Pakistan

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th June 11

After a decade of deft manoeuvring in Afghanistan with its successful aid policy, New Delhi has taken its eye off the ball. While Washington tries hard to nudge Mullah Omar into sharing power in Afghanistan – a political watershed in a decade-long war – our mandarins have chosen to pooh-pooh the process. Taking cover behind the Mullah Akhtar Mansour fiasco – when a “senior Taliban leader” was flown by the Royal Air Force from Pakistan to Kabul last November for peace talks, but turned out to be a money-seeking impostor – Indian officials dismiss any thought of opening their own track to the Taliban with the toss-off: “Who knows who we would end up talking to?”

But, as I discovered during a recent visit to Kabul, the dialogue with the Taliban is being seriously pursued and it is captivating everyone who matters: the insurgents, the Afghan polity and government, the Americans, the United Nations and practically every Afghan who has time left over from scrabbling together a livelihood

Lutfullah Mashal from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s key intelligence agency, told me that American negotiators have met Mullah Omar’s representatives, including Syed Taib Agha, a Taliban ambassador-at-large. Besides Agha, the dialogue has also featured Qudratullah Jamal, formerly Mullah Omar’s minister for information and culture. Admittedly, Mullah Omar himself has remained invisible, but that is not necessarily suspicious; negotiating is something that Omar disdains. As Mashal says, “Nobody has seen Mullah Omar, nobody has talked to him, but his trusted people are talking.”

This dialogue, however, has created discord between Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shoora and Pakistan. Taliban sources lament that Pakistani pressure is forcing Omar to engage with the Americans. Without that, he would be little disposed to talk, being increasingly confident of outlasting the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Given the Quetta Shoora’s single-point agenda of forcing foreign forces out of Afghanistan, negotiating with the Americans is a humiliating climb-down. But Islamabad, with its feet held to the fire by Washington, has bluntly told Omar that dialogue is essential, if only to stave off US pressure. But this is a serious loss of face for the Taliban and confuses its rank and file.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s representative to Pakistan until Islamabad handed him over to Washington for an extended stay in Guantanamo Bay, is among those who best understand the Taliban’s complex relationship with Pakistan. Zaeef points to the growing contradiction between the Taliban’s uncompromising rejection of foreign occupation on the one hand; and on the other, Islamabad’s weak-kneed acceptance of American drone attacks and Special Forces operations on its territory. Pakistan has also arrested, and handed over to America, dozens of senior Taliban leaders over the last decade. A proud Pashtun like Omar resents being coerced into dialogue by what he considers a duplicitous and craven government.

Says another Talib: “We are angrier today at Pakistan than America. Pakistan is playing a double game, telling the Muslims that we are looking after your interests … but actually they are working for America. Thousands of Taliban are in jails in Pakistan even today.”

AfPak watchers know that Taliban-Pakistan relations were hardly smooth when Omar called the shots in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Now, however, uneasy coexistence is giving way to deep bitterness within the Taliban.

This widening fault line provides South Block an opportunity to transform its traditional power calculus in the AfPak region, which unquestioningly lumps Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shoora with the ISI-military combine. There seems little recognition of Mullah Omar’s impending collision with Islamabad; nor that “the Taliban” that the ISI mobilises against Indians in Afghanistan belong to the Haqqani network, which Pakistan maintains far more lovingly than the Quetta Shoora. Divide and rule is standard ISI practice; during the anti-Soviet jihad, it had presided over seven Afghan mujahideen factions, playing one against the other. Today, the ISI effectively maintains two Afghan Taliban by keeping the Haqqani network functionally and financially autonomous from the Quetta Shoora. But, despite the fear that the Haqqani network generates with its suicide strikes and Al Qaeda linkages, Mullah Omar remains the spiritual and symbolic leader of the Taliban, the Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful). With his uncomplicated agenda (freeing Afghanistan of foreigners); his straightforward methods (gun-toting insurgency rather than suicide bombings); and his growing disenchantment with Pakistan, he represents a real opportunity for an Indian overture.

But ideology invariably trumps realism within the Indian establishment; anyone who deals with the ISI is surely the enemy! Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former senior Talib official, now deputy head of the High Peace Council, provides the obvious context. “The Taliban are in the battlefield against the world’s greatest power, which heads of a coalition of 48 countries. They will take the support of anyone who could support them … Pakistan; the Indian government; or the Iranian or Chinese government. This is the nature of the battlefield.”

New Delhi’s dialogue with Mullah Omar will not be easy. Omar knows that India supported the hated Afghan communists; then the Soviet Union invaders; then the mujahideen factions that battled the Taliban; and then the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Furthermore, the fissures between Pakistan and the Taliban may not turn out wide enough to exploit. But as South Block prepares for a post-2014 AfPak, it would be a strategic blunder to not even have tried to open communications with a major player in the Great Game.


  1. Good article, anybody listening ?.

  2. India has a long history of ignoring threats... it has long ignored China..[pre and post 1962 debacle]. Now it ignores Taliban.
    When hardened warfigters and guerrilla force like LTTE can be liquidated and disarmed, why can't Taliban be done same. This is possible by PROTEGEE govt, dialogues and direct military intervention.

  3. After NATO leaves, a strategy has to be prepared which keeps the Northern Alliance and Taliban together, but drives out the Pakistan.

    If this does not becomes feasible, then division of Afghanistan may be on the cards.

  4. why india need to open dialog with Taliban, is afgan is also india.
    Taliban is terriost group , which hijacked indian aircraft and demanded , india already has its own headache with pak/china.

  5. Dear Ajai,

    I find it fascinating that you have now suggested negotiations with the Taliban. However I have some misgivings.

    What do we, as a secular country, having suffered at the hands of Afghan radicals (Kashmir in the 90s and who can forget Khandahar) have in common with the Taliban? What is the common negotiating ground we can get to? What will be our aim, or is talking for the sake of talking?

    The International coalition, which has borne the brunt of the fighting and paid the blood-price for containing the Taliban over the past decade, have every right to negotiate with the enemy. We have been screaming from the roof tops our moral support to them all these years, how would they perceive us opening another dialogue track with people who continue to kill their soldiers? Pakistan can be expected to scream from the rooftops that this is proof that we support terrorists in their West, but we cannot honestly take Pakistan too seriously in these matters, so I’ll not stress on that.

    Will we ever be able to trust the Taliban? I reckon that whatever we get up to the Taliban, their history suggests that they will say whatever they must to get back to power and then cosy up with their ideological bedfellows, the ISI. Remember that they are guided by their ideology of religious fascism and blind hatred, not by considerations of the good of Pakistan.

    My suggestion would be to let the US led coalition pursue their chosen path to peace, whilst supporting civil society in Afghanistan. We must oppose the Taliban, and stick to our principled stand. Sooner or later, the Taliban, if appeased, will cause trouble again, and we must be amongst those that opposed them, or supported those that opposed them. Besides, there is no gain to be had from dealing with them. Our worldviews are so divergent, we might as well be from different planets.

    So let’s hold firm to our core beliefs and build goodwill amongst right thinking Afghans, leave the negotiation to those doing the fighting, and hope that the right thinking will one day prevail in that unfortunate country. Till then, the Taliban do not directly harm us, but talking to them harms our reputation and corrupts our soul.


  6. nah!, there cannot be any kind of talk. It is too complicated. Besides without the blessings of SAM it could be economically suicidal for us. And if it was with the blessings of SAM the Taliban and the Pakis would see right though it.We also cannot do it now with our current media fetish for openness.

    But yes if we did not have a PM called IK Gujral we might have been able to play some sort of double game which is what is required to checkmate ISI.

    Then again there is a simpler game that can be played in baluchistan no? It always had a heavy Iranian influence anyway.

  7. I am not sure about your suggestion. If you co-habit with a snake, you would be bitten! Pakistan is bleeding heavily by their strategic assets at the moment, and India has had its own experiences with LTTE. I would rather have India working full throttle to further improve its economy, civil and military industrial base and infrastructure, and root out corruption to make us much stronger to deal with whatever remains of Pak and its assets post whenever.

  8. You can sleep with your enemy... you can sleep with the devil... an indian can sleep with a pakistani... (sania mirza and shoib malik... ha ha ha ha...)... but not with taliban/al-qaeda...

  9. Very interesting article.

    I recently completed the 4th book of Mukul Deva called Tanzeem (after lapping up the prequels: 1st- Lashkar, 2nd- Salim Must Die, 3rd- Blowback, 4th- Tanzeem).

    So while I can corelate the different aspects of your article, other's may not be able to. Most Indian's are not up to date with AfPak politics (beyond the "Pak"). The thinking is that Afghanistan is quite far away. We need to realize how close it is to our borders, and how events there affect us big time.

    To that end, your article is timely.
    Good going.

  10. Great suggestions. I hope somebody in establishment is tuned in.

  11. India's weakness is like everything else procrastination and belated diplomacy.Sadly, like me who does nothing till the last minute and and then go frantic working up till late nights, India does the same with everything foreign policy,defence procurement or domestic governance.Add to this it also has the weakest of all intelligence services in the world - RAW wich is more like Really A Waste (of time and money).Unless India thinks strategically, proactively and engages in preemptive intelligence gathering and processing no point walking out with a huge shopping trolley load of military hardware.Weapons alone don't make you a superpower - what do they say? It's not the size that matters but what you do with it?

  12. Ajai

    The heights of India psychophancy, how these guys play with taxpayers money and endanger security

    Joydeep ghosh

  13. first it was buying the F-35s and now engaging to talks with the are falling to an even lower level with every post Mr. Shukla..I sincerely hope that you can see the day when people may finally agree to what you have been saying for such a long time but with the increasingly gullible and ludicrous posts, I feel that might still be a long time away...neverthless, I wish you luck in your seemingly ill-fated endeavours...

  14. Thank God Ajai, you left Indian Army.

  15. Ajai sir any updates on Arjun II, Agni-V or Cochin IAC? Pls...

  16. devindra sethi18 June 2011 at 06:46

    As a correspondent Broadsword has written a timely article,we can:-

    a)ignore or decry it,

    b)put on our thinking caps irrespective of whether we are from the political class / armed forces /IAS /IFS /THINK TANKS for in the month of july 2011 a substantial draw down of Nato / ISAF troops is going to take place.why? the bill is $110billion per anumn and the US economy cannot afford it simple as that.

    c)Mahatma Gandhi was a great friend of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.As a trained lawyer our leader knew where undivided India's likely achilles heel was and was preparing us for the future like any strategic thoughtful leader would do.He never wanted partition of our country,hence we would be cheek by jowl with Afghanistan along the Hindu Kush ranges.Pakistan today is a mess.Having sown the wind they are reaping the whirlwind.we have a little time before they implode, time to get our thinking/abilities in order.

    d)Our history is determined by our geography.The Taliban will first move in to take Kabul, as they did before.Then they will turn eastwards.will the Pak armed forces be able to meet the challenge or are they already compromised as the PNS Mehran attack indicates? If so, they are on our western borders!!

    e)We now have 3 armed forces inimical to us not two and the prize is our homeland.they will come at us in waves as 1962 / Kargil/ 26/11 indicates land and by sea.As in the Balkans veterans of India will have to pick up their guns and stand up to fight for home and hearth.why?there is nothing left in the AF -PAK region as two decades of war has ensured that the economy is bankrupt and scotched earth policies has destroyed most of the infrastructure.India appears a glittering nation in comparision to their bleak existence.The Taliban has been living in caves since 9/11.

    f)the Taliban wants to impose their version of the Caliphate in this region. Is that acceptable to us? If not, then to protect our way of life,we have to accept the challenge.Jaw -jaw is always better than war-war,but the big stick must be brandished openly and all options must be made clear to our likely adversaries,be it agni 5 missiles/ nuclear submarines /mountain divisions impeccablly fitted out/fighter aircraft to command the aerospaces to a depth of a 1000nm.Mr Anthony is spot on recently.

    g)If we show weakness once we will be steamrolled over,and in this fight we are alone as nobody will come to our assistance.The western powers have been sapped of all will power by the blood letting in the past decade in Afghanistan.Even a tinpot dictator in Libya has halted them in their tracks despite over whelming air power application by NATO.Finally boots on the ground/ deployed sea power is what matters.

    Keep going Broadsword,more power to your pen.

  17. Devindra Sethi,

    What have you been smoking? Ajai wants us to talk to the taliban! Not very good at reading are you?


  18. devindra sethi19 June 2011 at 21:35

    Hullo Ranjit,you need to read my subpara (f ) again!JAW - JAW means talking to Taliban /Pakistan /Afghans/pushtuns tribal shoora /northern alliance et all.Kindly check what's in your pipe / weed before writing.

  19. If tomorrow the people of Afghanistan overthrow Taliban, we would be looking like idiots for negotiating with Taliban...

  20. as long as chor sonia is in power...we will ignore taliban, china, pakistan. in fact, we will sell the nation and become gulaam again.
    And you and your blog will talk about hardware...!!!
    We need a civil movement to get this government to take India seriously...put these people in jail for life, bring some character to the youth...only then talk of military hardware makes sense.

  21. when you have an enemy within and junta...even educated bloggers sleeping...why do you need an enemy outside

  22. Devindra Sethi,

    My pipe has pure high grade tobbacco. I understand what Jaw-Jaw is, you seem to have two yourself.

    You lost me when you started talking of Agni V and Nuke submarines when Ajai was talking about dealing with the Taliban.

    Say hi to the Tambourine man!


  23. devindra sethi22 June 2011 at 07:07

    Ranjit, the cardinal rule of statecraft is:-

    Never fear to negotiate,but

    Never negotiate from fear.

    Now read sub para (e) again.Our 3 adversaries are China,Pakistan,Taliban. The big stick for each of them varies as outlined in subpara (f)& beyond.I hope you are now with me and Broadsword.Read how Ronald Reagan took on the Soviet Union and caused its collapse without putting his armed forces in harm's way.BUT HE KEPT HIS POWDER DRY and all options were visible to USSR AND WERE ALWAYS ON THE TABLE in the talks / negotiations.

    our adversaries will not like it but will admire the courage of our convictions.Read how the only successful conquest of Afghanistan was achieved by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

    The way forward is by not behaving like a bull in a china shop.We cannot wish our neighbours away.Talking is the first step.

  24. Reagan did not finish the Sovs...Gorby and that stinker called Communism did. Reagan with his tax cuts and spending increases took US to the road to ruin that it is stuck in now.

    Anyway old Ron was also dealing with a rational foe who understood strength. Not someone who viscerally hated him and his philosophy. Have you ever spoken to a Pakistani? He truly believes the Indian Army carried out 26/11.

    Forget about Pakistan, contain them. They'll drown in their own sewage soon. Concentrate on our economic growth and on threats from China.

    Talk to Taliban indeed!!! Those rag-heads will talk to us in good faith...nice plan!



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