If anything happens to me, please tell my story.” This was the last communication I received from a feisty young Afghan girl who, till the very last, was keen on fighting for her space, and that of other women, in her country. But the day her president fled, she realised that for the present, discretion was the better part of valour.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid's assurances, at the group's first presser, about ensuring the emancipation of women, within the framework of Islam, has not done much to soothe the frayed nerves of a people who feel betrayed by every side and do not know what to believe.
It is not just a 20-something woman in Kabul who is bewildered by the recent developments. World leaders and global strategists are baffled. And, it is not only the speed of the Taliban takeover of the country that has caught them off guard. The cultured new language of peace, development, human rights and self-determination that the Taliban is speaking was not expected.
Many leaders had thought it would be easy to dismiss a band of men who spoke the language of bullets. Most countries—from Germany to Turkey, and including India—had maintained that a government imposed by force would not be recognised. But, the almost bloodless takeover of Kabul means they cannot shield themselves behind this moral high ground. The surprising peace in Afghanistan since the takeover of Kabul (no reports of looting, riots or retaliation), a point Mujahid stressed in his presser, brings to the fore the question: How will the world engage with the Taliban now?
China and Pakistan were prompt with responses—China stating hope that the Taliban would establish an open and inclusive Islamic government, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan noting that the Afghans have broken the “shackles of slavery”. Turkey, which planned to take over Kabul airport security after NATO forces left, dropped the plan, but said it is ready to “provide support if the Taliban requests”.
China and Russia both have embassies open in Kabul. Moscow even said the situation in Kabul is better than it was under Ashraf Ghani. Saudi Arabia said it stands with the choices the Afghan people make. Even Shiite Iran looks at the US military failure in Kabul as a chance to establish lasting peace in the country. Iran, initially fiercely opposed to the Taliban, has in recent times established communication links with its leaders. Clearly, the world is in no hurry to immediately condemn the new reality in Kabul, though every country is now calibrating developments from its viewpoint. India is among those which have decided not to utter anything, but to wait and watch.
The takeaway from the United Nations Security Council's special meeting on Afghanistan, presided over by India, was clear—the concern for the country is mostly humanitarian. Ensuring food security, women's rights and evacuation of refugees topped the agenda. The UN subsequently said it will engage with the de facto government in Kabul.
Taliban representatives repeatedly stress that while their aim to rule by Islamic law stays, they have evolved over the past two decades in outlook to governance and minority rights. The Taliban is keen to be recognised, to be the entity which takes the country to development, to establish diplomatic ties and sit at the high table in multilateral outings. Can it walk this talk? There are reports that old Afghan leaders, like Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, may join the government, thus providing the world with acceptable faces to engage with.
However, can Kabul's new elite ensure that the grassroot following is also compatible with the updated version of the Taliban? “The ball is now with the Taliban, the world is watching for every misstep,” said Kabir Taneja, strategic studies fellow, Observer Research Foundation. India shut its embassy with alacrity, but Taneja said at least a charge d'affaires should have been left behind. “Now, if India returns, it will be starting from scratch,” he said. Security concerns, however, might have overridden pragmatism.
Will all the hearts India has won in the Hindu Kush yield results now? Afghanistan is the largest recipient of India's development aid. Even the Taliban knows the good education and medical treatment Afghans get in India is important. It did not destroy India-built infrastructure and will most likely rule from the Parliament building India built. It has also said India can continue to work on the incomplete projects. India has projects in every Afghan province.
“We need to remain patient and see how the situation plays out over the next few months,” said G. Parthasarathy, who was the Indian high commissioner to Islamabad during the hijack of IC-814 in 1999. “The China-Pakistan-Taliban axis cannot be ignored.” Parthasarathy believes that the Taliban would find acceptability difficult, even with ordinary Pashtuns, let alone other ethnicities. Even the Islamic world will be divided on how to engage with the Taliban, now that they are themselves keen on image makeovers and are even diplomatically dealing with Israel.
Will Kabul finally step into that elusive era of peace under the Taliban. Or will the land nurture a million new mutinies? Already, Panjshir, which still remains free of the Taliban, is being looked upon as the centre for the first resistance to form, just like two decades ago. The peace on the Iranian front can evaporate the moment the Taliban strikes on Hazara Shia, who were oppressed under the previous regime.
The Taliban may think it is savvier with governance now, but it faces the challenge of keeping all its regional leaders happy. And even if the Taliban's lofty intentions of world-class governance are genuine, will it be allowed to take them forward? There are just too many nations invested in the region, who might foment uprisings for their own purposes. Who knows, instead of that promised peace, season three of the Great Game may be about to play out.