The Indian establishment and the overwhelming majority of our strategic pundits are, in a manner of speaking, lucky blokes to have such clear-cut, one-dimensional view of the Taliban as the forces of darkness. Such high degree of faith made it possible for Delhi to maintain a remarkable consistency in policies over the years, no matter the gnawing doubts in the international community about Taliban ideology. Of course, this has always been a slippery ground insofar as one was never quite sure where the Talibanness of the Taliban ended and where Pakistan’s ISI took over. A Taliban representative approached me once soon after the demolition of the Bamyan statues and all but convinced me that it wasn’t really a Taliban act but was an ISI project aimed at driving the Indians up the wall and to squash any incipient contacts between Delhi and the Taliban. We are of course a clear-headed people who are unmoved by doubts on such issues and we keep insisting that the Taliban bore one hundred percent responsibility for the Bamyan act - as indeed for the Kandahar hijacking.
I have turned over in my mind again and again over the past decade-and-a half this syndrome and have even taken it beyond: How far would be Jalaluddin Haqqani’s clan or the Zadran tribe free agents in a chess game of immense complexity and high stakes? Afghans have a code of honour. What have we done to create a blood feud with the Haqqanis or the Zadran?
The troublesome thought resurfaced today when I read the BBC news report that Taliban is agreeable to providing education for girls. Indeed, if one is not incorrigibly one-dimensional, it isn’t possible to overlook that the Taliban is a many-splendoured thing. There was an LSE study an year ago which took note of a profound transformation happening in the Taliban ‘ideology’ in the post-2001 period. Apart from a radical shift away from Islamism to Taliban’s self-characterisation as a resistance movement (rather than as a charioter of Shariah), many tendencies have surfaced - Taliban’s abjuration of “anti-Shi’ite” proclivities and its overtures to Iran (including voicing support when UN security council voted on sanctions), its insistence that it is ‘Afghan-centric’, etc. Besides, there are notable departures with regard to Taliban’s attitude to music, technology, Bollywood films, etc. and their behaviour in the areas under their control is showing these new traits. There have been first-hand accounts of Taliban commanders having a whale of a time regaling themselves watching our scantily-clad Bollywood girls singing and dancing.
What I mean is that on the whole, we don’t see the Taliban anymore laying down severe prescriptions for personal morality. They don’t say men should keep beards. Ironically, they have become so pragmatic that they encourage poppy cultivation as a revenue-generating economic activity, although it is ‘haram’ according to the tenets of Islam.
How does all this add up? Without doubt, in western writings, there is already a remarkable openness toward the Taliban. Even well-known establishment figures in the US strategic community are today openly acknowledging that Taliban as such do not pose any threat to US national interests and that it is possible to get the Taliban disengage from al-Qaeda provided they are allowed back into mainstream life. In sum, a serious rethink is becoming necessary in Delhi. Apart from the acute regional isolation that India is facing over the Afghan problem, we may find ourselves completely out of sync with the most likely Afghan-settlement scenario that is emerging, which will be to accommodate the Taliban politically - including, perhaps, the Haqqanis. Our position will become completely untenable if we insist on parameters of settlement that go against the grain of the Afghan people’s wishes. Who are we to prescribe to a foreign country anyway? Afghanistan is not Nepal, either.