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US failed in Afghanistan because it believed Pak army while dealing with Taliban

Ayesha Siddiqa speaks to Outlook about the impact of Taliban taking over Kabul and how it will have an effect on the region.

Q. Were you surprised by pace of Taliban (TB) taking over Kabul? Were you anticipating it? 

I think the pace was a surprise, because a lot of things were happening in the region and Afghanistan. Pace is not determined by one factor. There are a host of factors like what was the assessment of govt? What was its relationship or what kind of support or understanding was given?  What was the planning of US? There were a number of factors which were responsible for the pace of Taliban or the collapse of Kabul.  Therefore, if you didn’t have perfect set of information you would be surprised with the pace and collapse.

Q. Was it wrong planning or intelligence that failed the US resulting in Taliban taking over Kabul so quickly?

I think there was an incorrect assumption by the US about Taliban being more cooperative and that peace will follow. That assumption was incorrect from the day one.  I think it all started the day the US agreed to release 5,000 Talibanis.   It was like the US adding to Taliban’s power itself. So, once they started, there was no stopping. How will you stop them?  And there was too much expectation from a force, the Afghan Army, which was divided and didn’t have the required strength. Our calculation is that there was 3.5Lakh Afghan army, which is factually incorrect. The latest figures tell their strength was about 50,000 and the local police too.  When the withdrawal started, the governance structure was not there. So, multiple factors resulted in the collapse of Government. 

Q. Can we squarely blame the US for the present situation or there were other factors too?

Can you ever blame only one factor for this kind of disaster?  Definitely there was bad planning from the day one.  It was US fault to negotiate with Taliban like this. There were errors in US planning and their understanding. They kind of believed what Pindi-  It’s a shorter version of Rawalpindi where Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) is  based –  was telling them that Taliban are willing to change . They went on a wrong assumption that Taliban will not fight and compromise on their ideological formula or formula of power. They never did.

Q. What you make of Pak PM Imran Khan’s statement that Afghanistan has broken the “shackles”?

What he is probably saying is expressing an assumption that no outside power has been tolerated or would be allowed to rule Afghanistan. So, the understanding of Imran and Pak generals’ is that Afghanistan has defeated UK, USSR and now the US and would now govern themselves. But, if you want to probe more, Imran Khan’s  statement, his understanding of Taliban and other Mujaheedens  is that the US should not have entered Afghanistan and when it did it should have left.

Q. Many believe Pak agreed to hold ceasefire agreement along LoC with India as it’s wary about developments along Pak-Afghan border. Is Pak Army worried about development?

Where is the evidence of their worry? In broader concept, they would  be concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. Taliban is a large network with division. One can’t claim it has a centralised network as it did earlier in ’90s  when Mullah Umar headed it like a central figure. After more than a decade  , now there are several groups.  So, yes, Mr Bajwa (Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa) would be concerned.  Tactically, there is no worry for Pakistan. Strategically, there is worrying development, but that is for politicians, not the General.

 There is worry in Pak that radicalism of Taliban will have spill over effect there.  Some reports and videos have surfaced suggesting  pro-Taliban slogans being raised in Khyber Phaktunkhawa

See, had Pakistan been so concerned it wouldn’t have marketed Taliban so much. Pak has invested heavily in it. It wants to have an inclusive government headed by Taliban, which I believe is oxymoron.  You can’t have broad based government in Afghanistan led by Taliban . Their (Pak) worry is to have  a government which looks inclusive.  But, the larger worry would be political opposition which is sitting in Panjsheer valley and other heights.  So, it emerges there would be civil war and if that happens, that would be a concern for generals (Pak generals). They are not wary of Taliban taking control of Kabul but civil war in Afghanistan. These are two different things.

Q In Panjsheer anti-Taliban forces have got control of the areas. Taliban has sent its cadre there, Is Afghanistan heading towards a civil war?

Of course, there is a possibility of civil war. If opposition remains in Panjsheer, if Amrullah Saleh- Afghanistan’s Vice-President, continues to fight, there will be a civil war.  There will be divisions.

Q: So in your assessment civil war in Afghanistan is the most worrying factor for  Pak Army?

Yes, civil war is a worrying factor. What you have imagined is an inclusive govt led by Taliban. Nothing is decided as yet. Technically, according to UN document, Asharaf Ghani is still the president and these are facts. Taliban is in Kabul but haven’t yet been able to form the government. By the time they form the govt, when things shape up, there would be a lot of chaos that is what would worry the Pak generals.

Q. India is deeply worried about the developments. What are its options and how it can go about from now on?

India doesn’t have much options. Taliban is controlling Kabul so India has to talk to them. Taliban had said they are ready to talk . India will have to talk whosoever is in power in Kabul and Taliban are a major power centre. I am sure India are having conversation. India should also be talking to and seeing what are the areas of cooperation with opposition in Panjhsheer. I think this is what India will be doing.  If it puts all its eggs in Taliban basket it would be dangerous.

Q. Taliban is giving an impression that they are a “changed” lot. Is it so?

It would be absolutely flawed to think of Taliban as a source of integrating Afghanistan, a source of bringing social justice and peace to Afghanistan. They are divided and are violent as well. We are looking at new Taliban- one with greater experience of war and greater pragmatism. So, they will speak but it doesn’t mean they will drop their ideology. Anyone who is looking at Taliban should be very careful in not confusing pragmatism with liberalism. Taliban are ready to talks, which means they can’t fight the way they did in ’90s.  In 1990s they were a new force. But, that shouldn’t be confused with greater capacity to engage with liberal- secular force. No, that is not there and it’s not going to happen.

Q. In case India holds talks with Taliban will these be dictated by GHQ or it will be independent of it?

See it’s very confusing.  They have been partners (Pak Army and Taliban)  for so long and would be able to appreciate each other’s interest.  I don’t think Pindi believes it can run day to day rule of the Taliban, but  there would be good appreciation of each other’s interests. Also, the issue is who is India talking to?  Mullah Baradar may be heading this interim government but not necessarily the man who has tight control of Taliban as Mullah Umar used to have. One doesn’t know who is India talking to. 

Q. Another worrying point is that terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohmaad (JeM) has been fighting along with Taliban . Will Taliban let JeM   increase its terrorist activities in Kashmir? How do you foresee the situation unfolding?

See, one is beginning to hear chatter about excitement. People are talking about it. Let’s not forget that Taliba coming to power is perceived, and rightly so, as US  defeat, it will encourage  militancy in general. Even if again GHQ doesn’t control every minute of militant activities, militants cadre are alive and functional and would want to increase militant activities. They are already saying if they can defeat US and USSR then what is India? India is much smaller in comparison to them.

So in your assessment militant activities in Kashmir would increase ?

It would definitely have an impact. And, perhaps GHQ would want to be in a position where people in Kashmir get excited and groups in Kashmir make their own calculations. The failure of GHQ until now is that while India revoked Art 370 and Art 35A, there was no fighting. It could sit back and watch how Kashmiris react to it.

Another point for India is that China holding talks with Taliban.  Pak is already involved, so how problematic and worrisome should be emerging Pak-Taliban-China axis?

 Every region in the country  has to worry. China  has its worries about Taliban, leave alone Taliban power let loose on India. Entire region is going to get stuck in Taliban problem. China is keeping silent. Russians seem to be siding with the Pak version.   My argument is that if in next 6 months or a year, Taliban is successful in demonstrating that it can have a govt which works,  then we are looking at phenomena which should be worrying Pakistan.  Then there would be demand for more Islamic kind of government in Pakistan. So, Pakistan needs to worry, China needs to worry. Then what you have is the emergence of a stronger religion-based block. There would be Pakistan, Afghanistan and  Turkey. So, we are looking at emergence of new phenomena which will not entirely take diction from China. It will like Chinese resources but not its influence.

Q India-China relations are already strained. Will China use Taliban against India?

It’s not that China would be able to use Taliban against India, but with Taliban  in power the free hand that India had earlier there is gone and that is a major issue.  The advantage India had in reaching to Central Asian republics through friendly Afghan government is gone. Have we arrived at a point where China will dominate? I don’t think so.  There is a lot of working and sorting out of things that needs to be done.

Q Taliban said  it  would govern as per Sharia and local customs, so in this context how worrisome will be  the situation for females and minorities?  

Taliban in power is like an abusive marriage, they will want you to believe that they will not beat you up. They will start with few slaps here and more serious abuse some other time.  We are not seeing a very promising future for minorities and women, whatever they may say.  Already there are death squads, people are being punished, the situation is not normal.  I am worried about its impact on Pakistan.  Let us face it, Taliban is going to have major impact in the entire region.  The world has tolerated and seen the Mullah regime in Iran, which wasn’t nice and continues to  be threatening . But, the reason we tolerated is that it has semblance of modern state and society.  Afghanistan is not modern state and society, the modern part is running away, it’s escaping.