The Taliban have been busy. Domestically, a gut wrenching attack took place in a maternity ward in an MSF hospital in western Kabul, primarily inhabited by Shia Hazaras. Whilst the ethno-sectarian element of the attack bore similarities to previous Daesh attacks, Kabul was quick to blame the Taliban, despite the group condemning the attack. President Ashraf Ghani announced that his forces would adopt an offensive posture toward the Taliban as a result. Recent reports indicate a wave of coordinated Taliban activity, particularly in Qunduz. With so much going on domestically, it may come as a surprise that on the foreign front too, the Talibs have been active.
As part of an attempt to breathe fresh air into a slowly stalling peace process amongst the Taliban and Afghan factions, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Envoy for Peace in Afghanistan, suggested India and the Taliban engage one another directly. The context to this is important, given the former has viewed the latter suspiciously over the years over its links with India’s arch-nemesis: Pakistan, and its infamous intelligence services. As Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai pointed out in response to the prospects of an Indo-Talib rapprochement, India had played a ‘negative’ role in Afghanistan over the last four decades. India supported the current Kabul government. India supported rebel forces led by Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan during the Taliban government of the late nineties.
Before that, in the eighties, India supported Afghan communists as they and their Soviet patrons inflicted unprecedented levels of destruction in their fight against Pakistan backed Mujahideen guerillas. Despite this, Stanakzai added, the Taliban were open to cordial relations with India, should it abandon its ‘negative’ policies and act in good faith.
News then circulated of an apparent official announcement of the Taliban announcing jihad against India. Unsurprisingly, this announcement was received enthusiastically in Pakistan, by popular personalities nonetheless, where the undercurrent of sympathy for the plight of Kashmiris under Indian occupation is understandably strong. According to the document in question, shared widely online, the Taliban ostensibly aimed to liberate Kashmir, half of which has remained under a brute Indian military occupation for over seven decades.
The Taliban promptly denied they had announced this jihad, that it was fake and that they ‘don’t interfere in the domestic issues of’ neighbouring countries.
There are numerous issues to dissect. Firstly, what can be deduced from the hysteria caused by this false announcement is the appetite amongst quarters in Pakistan’s society for armed confrontation with India. That this confrontation is one in which non-Pakistanis are conveniently encouraged to initiate and operate is a separate issue. Pakistan’s powerlessness in the aftermath of New Delhi’s revocation of Article 370 need be viewed in the broader picture of its involvement in Kashmir.
Of specific importance is Pakistan’s suspected role of facilitating a deadly insurgency in Kashmir in the eighties and nineties, in which allied Afghan guerrillas were involved. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s experience in aiding Mujahideen guerrillas against the Soviets further enhanced its ability to manage the Kashmiri insurgency. Pakistan’s relatively muted response now, revolving primarily around diplomatic protests and public announcements by Prime Minister Imran Khan, highlights a lack of will, resources, or both. That too, over the country’s primary issue of national security.
More centrally, however, what does this reveal about the Taliban? As the group further solidifies its place in the Afghan political mainstream, there are two tangible benefits to remaining coy on Indian Occupied Kashmir. It allows the Talibs to further build on momentum at home and abroad as a legitimate political force actively disinterested in intimate involvement in the affairs of neighbouring/regional states. More importantly, a public break from Pakistan, whose puppet and proxy it has long been accused of being, emphasises the Taliban’s nature as an independent and indigenous Afghan entity. This yields rewards both inside and outside Afghanistan.
Predictably, this comes at a cost. Observers have noted changes in the Taliban, from being ‘Islamist’ to increasingly ‘nationalist’. Such a dichotomy, at least within Afghanistan, is inaccurate. In a country with an overwhelmingly Islamic society and a history within which resistance against foreign occupation is firmly embedded, an Islamic consciousness is fused with and constitutes a solid part of Afghan national identity. Its appropriation of patriotic rhetoric buttresses its Islamic credentials, and vice versa. Beyond Afghanistan, though, is where the dichotomy starts to rear its ugly head.
Does the Taliban focus on its goals as an Afghan national movement, or extend solidarity to Kashmiri Muslims languishing under increasingly belligerent Hindutva boots? It need be noted that in the same vein the group too described Afghanistan as being under non-Muslim, American occupation. Equally important is the reality of 2001: Afghanistan’s invasion by US-led forces was due to a fundamental clash of visions. The Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden on the terms demanded of them, citing Islamic and tribal principles. Has the movement learnt hard lessons over the last nineteen years which have coloured and changed its perceptions of the outside world?
Neither does this question extend only to Kashmir and its unfortunate role between two nuclear armed rivals. Today, the issue is of Kashmir. In the uncomfortably close tomorrow, across the Wakhan Corridor, there lie millions of Uyghur Muslims in conditions not dissimilar to those in Kashmir. In 2000, the group’s founder Mullah Omar met with Chinese diplomats, rebuffing diplomatic pressure with regard to Uyghur militants, instead providing them with sanctuary. Seemingly, this did not damage ties beyond repair. Less known are instances of Sino-Afghan economic cooperation, with Huawei and ZTE contracted to develop telecommunications infrastructure around Kabul and Qandahar in 2000.
In any case, the Talib rationale displayed in this latest episode with Kashmir and India indicates that an approach based on Islamic solidarity would no longer be taken. This is despite the commanding hold over Talib loyalists that the image of Mullah Omar, officially the Commander of the Faithful, exercises even in his death. If this is emblematic of the movement U-turning on previous attitudes, it is indeed momentous. For it risks not just damaging its credibility as a religious movement, but the ethos underpinning its nineteen year long insurgency against US occupation: that of native resistance to the foreign occupier.