TNM spoke to Stanly Johny, author and foreign editor for The Hindu, about the on-the-ground realities currently unfolding.

A jeep in an open field with the sun streaming through the clouds
news Conflict Monday, August 23, 2021 - 18:15

The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has dominated headlines in recent weeks, as the fall of Kabul sealed the Taliban’s takeover of the country following the withdrawal of American troops. Afghanistan has a long and violent history with the Taliban, and its future has been the subject of intense speculation. 

TNM spoke to Stanly Johny, author and foreign editor for The Hindu, about the geopolitical ramifications and on-the-ground realities currently unfolding. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

How is the Taliban takeover expected to change the geopolitics of Asia? 

This is a major historical development, and it will have lasting geopolitical implications. The United States was in Afghanistan for the last 20 years. It spent trillions of dollars, and tried to rebuild the state after the fall of the Taliban. And now, when the United States is withdrawing, the Taliban are in power, which means the United States is not just exiting Afghanistan, it doesn't have any influence left in the country. This is a major setback. 

And I think the Chinese and the Russians had foreseen this. They knew the Taliban would eventually come to power. We can see that starting in 2018 — both were reaching out to the Taliban. The Russians had hosted Taliban delegations in Moscow. China had done the same thing. Recently, [Taliban co-founder] Moolah Baradar went to China to meet the Chinese Foreign Minister. The Chinese calculation is a little more ambitious. The American withdrawal and the return of the Taliban is a major setback to the United States' presence in continental Asia. The United States is trying now to squeeze China in maritime Asia. They're shifting their focus towards East Asia. 

India's immediate interests are getting our citizens out of the country and also deciding what kind of a policy to take towards Afghan refugees. But in the larger context, this is a definite setback for India, because Pakistan has claimed a strategic victory here. 

But India will wait and see. The big decision is whether it should recognise the Taliban government because this time, the Taliban government will have a formal diplomatic relationship with more countries. 

And then the third challenge is to see what kind of resistance is taking shape within Afghanistan towards the Taliban. Because you look at Afghanistan history, the resistance never goes away. India has to decide what role it should play because it was one of the backers of the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban resistance. 

How will the upcoming government be different from the 1996-2001 rule? 

The Taliban are at least trying to send a message that there would be changes from the 1990s. They say that women are allowed to work, women are welcome to work with the Taliban government, they have declared an amnesty, etc. But we don't know whether they are serious. They wanted to calm the people, they wanted to send some kind of a message to the international community that, no, we are not going to persecute the Afghans like we did in the 1990s. 

We have to wait and see what kind of government they are going to implement. What is their criminal justice system going to be? Are they going to amputate alleged thieves? Are they going to stone to death women accused of adultery? The Taliban's record was grave. They didn't respect even basic human rights. So are they going to be fundamentally different from that? We don't know. They haven't shown any signals that they have ideologically transformed. There was no bloodshed when they took Kabul because the Afghan forces didn't resist. But the road to Kabul was very violent. In the last one-and-a-half years, ever since the American agreement was signed in February 2020, the Taliban have carried out a series of assassinations in Afghanistan, targeting liberals, journalists. They have carried out suicide bombings. So the road to Kabul was bloody violent. 

But there is a tactical change in terms of dealing with the world. They are sending delegations everywhere, to Moscow, to Beijing, to Tehran. In Doha, they have a political office. They are ready to engage with the world more than what they did in the ‘90s. And as part of that, they are trying to show a different face to the world. 

If you ask me, I am skeptical because I don't think that the Taliban have ideologically transformed. At least we don't have any evidence to believe that. And then, secondly, the ground reports coming from Afghanistan, from Kunduz, from Panjshir, from many places in the north, all send us worrying signals that the Taliban are going back to their ‘90s. 

Much of the blame is being directed at the United States, but is it really that straightforward to place the blame squarely on the US government? 

When the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, at no point during the negotiations did the US manage to extract any concession from the Taliban towards a political settlement for the Afghan conflict. Instead, the United States' focus was entirely on getting its troops, its diplomats, its interests out of Afghanistan, safely. Partly this was because, I think, the United States assessed that this was a lost war. What altered the balance of power on the battleground is the United States’ agreement with the Taliban, or the way the agreement was signed. I think that's where the United States is blamed. The Taliban celebrated the American decision to withdraw troops through this agreement as a victory. The Taliban's narrative was that we defeated the world's most powerful military force. And the withdrawal itself was very hasty. Once the Americans were out, the Afghan forces melted away because the government was very weak, internally divided. The American presence was kind of a glue that pulled different anti-Taliban forces together. The American Air Force’s superiority was critical for the Afghan forces that were fighting the Taliban. 

For the Afghan soldiers, on the one side they have this resurgent Taliban, that is talking to China, that is talking to Russia, that is backed by Pakistan, a Taliban that signed an agreement with the United States, a Taliban that forced the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan. And on the other side, you have a weak, divided Afghan government that's been abandoned, even by the United States. They're completely demoralised, lacking supplies, reinforcements, and not getting salaries for months. You can blame anybody; the Afghan leadership deserves to be criticised for their tactics, the way they defended the cities, etc. But the road to the final collapse of Kabul began from the Trump-Taliban agreement.

What's your interpretation of the Taliban "urging" women to join their government? 

I am skeptical because I don't think the Taliban have transformed ideologically. You can see tactical changes. The Taliban might allow women to work within the Islamic code. As I said, we don’t know what their Islamic code is. A magnanimous Taliban might let girls go to school, which is a basic human right, which had been banned under the Taliban rule in the 1990s. So they might make these changes, but it doesn't mean that the Taliban have fundamentally changed. It doesn't mean that the Afghan people would get better administration this time, for which we have to see what kind of regime the Taliban are going to implement in Afghanistan.

We’ve heard from students in India that President Ashraf Ghani fleeing saved thousands of lives. Can you comment on this?

This is Ashraf Ghani's narrative. Ghani himself said that I fled because if I didn't flee, Kabul would have seen bloodshed. I think he fled because he knew that there wouldn't be any resistance to Kabul and he didn't want the Taliban to capture him. Because you can't entirely blame Ghani for this. You can blame Ghani for his lack of leadership skills, his misjudgments, his inability to shore up his government, his inability to bring together all the anti-Taliban forces during the war. But he saw cities crumbling. He saw the Taliban advancing at breakneck speed. In major cities, his government troops were not resisting the Taliban. So I think Ghani expected that the same thing would happen in Kabul.

In 1996, when the Taliban  captured Kabul, they captured the communist President Mohammad Najibullah, killed him and hung him from the lampposts in Kabul. So Ghani doesn't want that to repeat, of course. So that's why he fled the capital city, and his fleeing has made it easier for the Taliban because once your president is gone, why should you fight? There was no resistance to the Taliban. So Ghani leadership actually played a role in the rapid collapse of the government. I think it's debatable, but he fled because he wanted to save his life. There were also reports that they fled with lots of dollars.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.