By Vivek Pattanayak in Bhubaneswar, August 31, 2021: Mahabharat has reference to Gandhari, hapless princess of Gandhar married to a blind king, and a mother of one hundred sons who perished during the internecine war. Gandhar, many believe, is the ancient name of Qandahar now in Afghanistan, the traditional stronghold of Taliban. This epic depicts the devious role played by Sakuni, Gandhari’s brother.

According to historian Nabin Sahu, the erstwhile Kalinga Empire under Kharavela included Qandahar in the north in his expedition to eject the remaining vestige of the Greek occupation.

This geographic entity is densely mountainous and was perhaps most inaccessible terrain in the ancient world with awe inspiring formidable Hindukush Mountain range. The country known as Bactria by the Persian and Greeks gave the toughest resistance to Alexander’s army on its quest for India.

Although Alexander entered the sub-continent via Khyber Pass, while retreating from India after unsuccessful attempt to subjugate the Indian warriors, the Greek hero chose not to take the same route as his experience was hazardous.Instead, he took circuitous path encountering arid desert with soldiers dying with hunger and thirst also harassed by the local population which was like the disastrous retreat of Napoleon after infamous Russian campaign.

In the 19th century the British army attempting to have a foot hold on this country was simply annihilated.In last half century two mighty superpowers, namely the erstwhile Soviet Union and now USA had their share of misery finding the country ungovernable and withdrawing with ignoble humiliation.

The country is a host to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. It has Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and within the Pashtuns there are many different clans. Part of the Pashtun speaking Pathan population live even beyond the artificial Durand line drawn by the British which forms now the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pathan population in Pakistan is sizable in number who had a dream of establishing Pashtunistan after India’s partition. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as Frontier Gandhi, was the pivot of this movement. Many Afghan Pathansalso had Pakistani passports.President Ayub Khan of Pakistan was a Pathan. So is the present prime minister, Imran Khan.

The country has Sunni and Shiites.It has also Hindu and Sikh population as minorities.Many tribal dialects are spoken apart from Pashtu, Dari and Farsi.

Having given a picture of ancient and immediate past, it would also be relevant to state the country is endowed with rich mineral resources with steel grade iron ore, copper, aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, lithium, cobalt and precious stones some are very rare like lapis lazuli only found in Chile and Afghanistan on earth. In addition, there is huge reserve of rare earth. According to the American assessment Afghanistan is Saudi Arabia of lithium which has immense strategic value now and in future as its battery is used for source of renewable energy.

China which shares its borders with this country has also Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan (by way of illegal ceding of territory of occupied Kashmir) as immediate neighbours. All are Muslim countries.

Xinjiang with rebellious Uighur Muslims is festering wound of China also aggravated by East Turkmenistan Islamic militants. China’s ambitious BRI programme when it materializes will go through these countries. No wonder China having immediate and future strategic economic interest in Afghanistan is wooing the Taliban and its factotums. USA’s Doha initiative included China apart from Pakistan and Russia.

During NATO occupation in the last 20 years, infrastructure has been built up in this country by way of roads, highways, power projects, transmission lines, communication system and buildings etc. with the American and European funds, also resources generously contributed by India. In addition, human resource upgrading through training and education is a major area where India has played its role.

Curiously, even after twenty years of massive training of army and police under NATO supervision and with modern arms and equipment and two hundred or more aircraft with helicopters and drones, the entire force meekly surrendered to the Taliban force funded through opium trade and clandestine contributions from known and unknown sources who depended on smuggled, captured and stolen arms with active participation of notorious self-governing ISI of Pakistan whether admitted or not. This speaks volumes of the state and society.

At the same time, a new generation of millennial has sprung up with exposure to the globalized world with access to internet and cellular telephone. More so, women especially young have enjoyed freedom, some inspired by Malala, a Pashtun speaking girl who got Nobel Prize for peace. Nevertheless, Taliban burdened with medieval ideology promises to govern through archaic Islamic law.

How much they have been influenced by realities of change in the world the future will only tell. Recent reports in media do not reflect any noticeable change. Its unified leadership is yet to unfold itself. Their spiritual leader Hibatullah Akhunzada, a Pashtun, is related to Karzai the former President. As the news come out Abdullah Abdullah, former CEO of Afghanistan under the President Ghani is in contact with Akhundzada along with Karzai. Even Iranian protégé, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is in picture. Where about of Uzbek war lord, Dostum is not yet known. At the same time Sirajuddin Haqqani, a declared terrorist by UN is a deputy of the present leadership. Further, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a person who was in Pakistani jail in 2010 is a close associate of the new leader.

Interestingly, after the collapse of administration, Vice-President Saleh of the former regime, claiming to be legitimate successor now in Panjshir on the side of slain Northern Alliance leader Masud known as lion of Panjshir is giving resistance.Recent suicide bombing at Kabul airport by IS-K shows how volatile the situation is.

Although China,Russia,Iran, and Pakistan have maintained embassies in Kabul what influence they have over the new murky and heterogeneous political dispensation is a big question mark with Russia being an old enemy, Iran with the previous support to Hekmatyar and Pakistan being opposed by Tehirk Taliban of Haqqani Network. China, however, is less of an outcast in the eyes of hardcore Taliban. It will negotiate with caution keeping the burning Islamic uprising in its own erstwhile Sinkiang autonomous province.

With drying of flow of funds from USA and other NATO allies and now IMF, Taliban will perhaps depend upon its old allies like UAE and Saudi Arabia although the presence of Qatar will not be very conducive. There is an on-going struggle between Saudi Arabia and UAE on one side and Qatar on the other in the Gulf region. Moreover, Iran can be a red rag to the bull.

Incidentally as analysed by Hamid Ansari, India’s former Vice President there is perhaps a back-channel diplomacy going on between these two arch rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey a Sunni Muslim country more Islamist now than before under Erdogan is perhaps more reliable to Taliban as is indicated in the recent talk of future management of Kabul airport by Turkey after the exit of USA.

A crucial element in international law and diplomacy is the legitimacy of the regime of a country. A state must have government which is legitimate and that depends upon recognition by other sovereign states and public international organizations no matter how the government has been constituted whether by peaceful or by violent process.

Air services to Afghanistan have attenuated with rising control of Taliban. Kabul airport provides air navigation services to large number of international flights being part of the ICAO designated routes. Even during 1996 and 2001 Afghanistan then under Taliban, ICAO gave defacto recognition to the regime although UN gave dejure recognition to Northern Alliance under Masood in Panjshir.

Now with present volatile situation air services over Afghan airspace may be kept in abeyance for reasons of safety and security. The recent Ryan Air incident would deter many airlines to overfly a territory which is under unstable condition.This would increase losses of airlines under financial stress due to pandemic related curtailment of flights as they must take circuitous routes. It would also deprive Afghanistan of revenue generated through air navigation charges.

Sanction is expected from the Western countries although China has cautioned G7 group against it. UN sanction committee established by resolution 1988 since 2011 is still alive. It covers asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo. Would there be any consensus among permanent members of Security Council regarding imposition and relaxation of sanction?

India must increase its vigilance as Taliban and other extremist elements and terror outfits from Afghanistan would have liberal access to Pakistan occupied Kashmir now under the same political party as that of Imran Khan. Security apparatus of India must be strengthened necessitating more deployment of India’s financial resources which have been strained due to pandemic related contraction of economy.

At the present juncture we should wait and watch how events unfold. Very rightly the first priority would be to ensure that nationals of the involved countries are safely evacuated and those who would like to escape are given safe passage.

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