India Soranson Way CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Manjari Chatterjee Miller on September 30, 2021.
The United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of August and the Taliban is now in control. The signing of the Doha accord in early 2020 facilitated this in that it carved out a space for the Taliban to share power after the U.S. left. What role did Pakistan play in the signing of the Doha accord?
I would say that on the surface that may seem a simple question, but in fact, it's a very complex question. Pakistan’s role depends on whom you ask. The US acknowledges that Pakistan facilitated the 2020 agreement with the Taliban but says that Pakistan gave sanctuary to the Taliban, and supported them and therefore enabled them to regroup. But in Pakistan's opinion, it kept the channels (of communication) open with the Taliban and it's because of Pakistan that the Doha agreement was signed. The Haqqani Network, which is close to Pakistan, were a part of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha. I think it was Sirajuddin Haqqani’s younger brother, Anas, who was actually a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha. It is complex because on one hand, Pakistan did play a role in facilitating the Doha accord. On the other hand, one of the reasons the US needed them to facilitate the accord was because of the support and the logistical support in terms of finance and sanctuary that Pakistan gave the Taliban over the years.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has important implications for India. How does Taliban control affect India-Pakistan relations? Does the takeover create new vulnerabilities for Indian security? Should India engage in talks with the new Taliban leadership in order to mitigate a potential future conflict with Pakistan?
The implications are vast. The rise of the Taliban in the 1990s meant that in exchange for financial support, the Taliban government created a sanctuary in Afghanistan for jihadi groups – for the militant training camps that were set up by Osama Bin-Laden. These mujahideen groups turned their attention to India after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. A return of the Taliban to power, therefore, has massive implications for India and Indian security, particularly in Kashmir, but even in other places. India feels very vulnerable about a Taliban government. On the other hand, should India engage in talks with any Taliban leadership? That's a really difficult question to answer. It would just depend a lot on what the Taliban does. The Taliban needs investments, infrastructure, and they're not likely to get it if they are again fostering jihadi groups. Certainly, in the short term, it's difficult to see that happening, but perhaps in the long term, if the Taliban stick to some of the statements that they have been making.
India's investments in Afghanistan are significant and include roads, dams and the parliament building. Does Pakistan see these investments as a threat to its influence in the country? Do they meaningfully diminish Pakistan's power or influence in Afghanistan under a Taliban regime?
I think we need to put this in proportion. India has invested about $3 billion in Afghanistan in soft structures, not in security. They symbolically built the new parliament and renovated a 19th century palace in Kabul. But $3 billion also isn't much compared to India's domestic spending on infrastructure. Also, India has struggled with many projects. There was a mine in the Bamyan district that floundered and didn't get off the ground. So, let's keep that in mind. Now, to deal with the second part of it. Did Pakistan see India's relationship, not just investments, but its relationship with the Afghan government, as a threat? Yes, it absolutely did see India's previous relationship with the previous Afghan government as a source of massive concern because India was a big supporter of the previous Afghani regime and Pakistan did not see that as in line with its interest.
Taliban leader Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai reiterated weeks ago that Afghanistan wants good relations with all its neighbors, including India. Is this likely given India’s past opposition to the Taliban and given India’s efforts to discourage a partial power sharing agreement in the peace accords?
I wouldn't really call it a peace accord. I think that's a that's a bit of a stretch. India was not happy about a partial agreement with the Taliban. That's true. Does Afghanistan want good relations with all its neighbors? Right now, it is definitely saying that because the Taliban leadership is very desperate for both funding and recognition, but the actual proof is going to be in the pudding. So, how beholden is the Taliban going to feel to the Pakistani government? Is it going to acquiesce to fostering militancy in Kashmir or in other Indian territories? It's very hard to know that right now. I will say that one thing that may get thought about is the prospect of Chinese investment. China is very interested in investing in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has very rich mineral deposits that China is interested in mining, but China is also very worried about jihadi groups. China is very unlikely to lend any kind of substantial support to to Afghanistan without some reassurance simply because these jihadi groups could then turn their angst towards China. As you know, China has been struggling with Xinjiang province and with its Muslim Uyghur minority. The last thing China wants is these jihadi groups turning their attention to Xinjiang province. China does have a vested interest in making sure that Afghanistan does not foster these jihadi groups. That might play to India's advantage in the long run, but it's very hard to say. And I certainly would not take anything that any Taliban leader says on face value at this point.
In terms of the U.S., do you see the U.S. potentially returning to Afghanistan with military forces? Or, do you think the withdraw will be the end all from military presence in the state?
This is going to depend so much on terror groups and what kind of sanctuary they get in Afghanistan. We don't know. Certainly, no, the U.S. president cannot afford to preside over another terrorist attack coming from Afghanistan. So, if that happens, then you know, all bets are off, but it just depends.
The vast majority of Afghanistan’s public expenditures have been funded by grants from the U.S., Europe, India and other powers. To avoid an economic collapse, the new government will need billions of dollars from abroad to keep the country running. What does the Taliban’s takeover of the government mean for capital flows from external powers? Do you expect that other countries will provide new sources of aid that could stabilize the Afghan economy under the Taliban?
It has already meant a drying up of the aid. So again, it's hard to see Western countries in particular investing in Afghanistan and directing aid into Afghanistan if their current policy is continuing. There was an article in the Washington Post on how women’s attendance at Kabul University has been shut down. They started with segregation between men and women and now it's been completely shut down. So, I think their policies on women, their policies on minorities, the sanctuary given to terrorist groups, to jihadi groups, all of that is going to matter a lot. What's interesting is that the last time that Taliban came to power was when Afghanistan was recovering from first the war with the Soviets, and then the civil war. At that time, they brought a measure of economic stability to Afghanistan. Now it's completely different. It will really depend on what kind of domestic politics and domestic policies that donors see being enacted in Afghanistan before they open the purse strings.
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