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Home / Opinion / Columns /  America’s troublesome self-deception over the Taliban

Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but he may have been on the dot when he said that history appears first as tragedy, and returns as farce.

The US government currently offers a $10 million reward for the capture of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who “leads the day-to-day operations of the Haqqani Network (HN)" (bit.ly/3taBZcB, accessed by me on 6 September morning). Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani has $5 million on his head. Sirajuddin is one of the deputy emirs of the Taliban and by the time you read this, may have become a senior minister in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Khalil is the Taliban-appointed head of security for Kabul. He controls who gets out of Kabul—his thugs, aided by lists the US helpfully provided, have been hunting down people who may have worked with Americans.

The HN, a Pakistan-nurtured band of Islamists that has close links with Al-Qaeda and is designated a “terrorist organization" by the US, has been responsible for some of the highest-profile terror attacks in Afghanistan on innocents and on US and Afghan government targets in the past decade.

But the US State Department has insisted that the Taliban are separate from the HN. Perhaps, after its hasty and messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US has little choice but to be wilfully blind to the fact that it lost the ‘war on terror’ that it claimed to be fighting for 20 years. And that Pakistan may have comprehensively duped Washington once again, just the way it has been doing for decades now.

The new Afghan government in Kabul will most likely be led by Taliban grandee Abdul Ghani Baradar. In 2018, when the Donald Trump administration wanted to talk to the Taliban about an American exit, Pakistan produced Baradar as the group’s chief negotiator. An early leader of the Taliban, Baradar was imprisoned by Pakistan in 2010 but shifted to an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) safe house in 2012, where he lived till recently. This man, who could soon be the next president of Afghanistan, is almost certainly an ISI asset.

Successive US presidents have stated that America’s primary objective in its war in Afghanistan was the destruction of Al-Qaeda and making sure that the country would not be used as a base for terror attacks on the US and its allies. But when Osama bin Laden was located and killed, it was in a house in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. On 30 August, 15 days after the fall of Kabul, Dr Amin-ul-Haq, who served as bin Laden’s security chief, triumphantly returned to his home in eastern Afghanistan in a convoy of heavily-armed men in brand new SUVs. He had last been heard of in 2011, when Pakistan released him from jail.

Last week, even as the Taliban proudly paraded captured US military equipment, car bombs and masked suicide attackers in Kandahar, with a seized American helicopter hovering overhead flying Taliban banners, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was saying that it was “possible" to work with them “to fight terrorism". A day later, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “There is an expectation that any government that emerges (in Kabul) now will have some real inclusivity." This is farce.

The first foreign dignitary to land in Kabul after the Taliban victory was Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed, head of the ISI, to mediate between squabbling Taliban leaders and make sure that Islamabad gets a controlling stake in the new government. According to some reports, the Taliban forces engaged in a brutal battle going on right now with the last pocket of resistance in Panjshir Valley have Pakistani air support.

As soon as it is formed, the Taliban government will seek Western aid in cash and kind to save the millions of Afghans who face destitution and death, and to ensure peace by keeping the allegedly wilder Islamist groups like the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) at bay. The Afghan regime will insist that all aid be routed through it, and Pakistan will step up as broker and facilitator. The Taliban leadership will only have to maintain a not-so-medieval façade at a minimum acceptable level. Minor slip-ups by their spokesmen—like asserting that Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with 9/11—will probably be ignored by the West.

This will suit many interests. Joe Biden and his party need some major face-saving damage control at home and could support this ‘good Taliban’ narrative; mid-term US Congressional elections—all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 Senate seats—are just 14 months away. Meanwhile, China, which clearly has some influence on Taliban 2.0, will try to advance its strategic ambitions in the region at America’s expense. Pakistan and the Taliban will look to rake in some moolah and use it for their own insidious purposes. Western contractors will rejoice at the rebirth of a market worth billions of dollars.

And no one will speak about one key issue—the tens of thousands of armed men milling around Afghanistan with no skills except killing and getting killed. This could bear lethal fruit in the coming years and the flavour could travel across continents.

India will certainly be on high alert, as it should, but even the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment may find that it had been too clever by half. The global-jihad genie, loyal only to one unalterable goal, does not care much about the hands its lamp passes through.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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