New Delhi: Terming the new interim government in Afghanistan as “old wine in a new bottle”, former Indian diplomats on Wednesday said the cabinet formed in Kabul has dispelled “myths” of Taliban 2.0, and asserted that it has a strong Pakistani imprint on it which is a “cause of concern” for India.
The Taliban on Tuesday unveiled a hardline interim government led by Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, with key roles being shared by high-profile members of the insurgent group, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, a designated global terrorist of the dreaded Haqqani Network with a USD 10 million US bounty on his head, as the interior minister.
Though there are some voices in the government such as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, named as the deputy to the foreign minister, who has spoken of having friendly ties with India but they are much lower in the pecking order.
Former external affairs minister K Natwar Singh, ex-diplomats Meera Shankar, Anil Wadhwa and Vishnu Prakash noted that the new government had extremist elements and India must continue with its “wait and watch” approach going forward.
Rakesh Sood, a former Indian envoy to Afghanistan, said the interim government announced in Kabul dispels any myth about a Taliban 2.0. “This is clearly the same as Taliban 1.0 with ISI fingerprints all over it,” he asserted.
Shankar, who served as India’s Ambassador to the United States between 2009 and 2011, said one would have to wait and see what the development means for India in terms of the policies that the Taliban adopt.
“But it does not appear promising and indeed there is cause for concern because it seems to be old wine in a new bottle because many of the players who have been appointed are the same (that were there in the previous Taliban regime),” she told PTI.
The appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani to head the interior ministry is a cause of worry and the Doha group which presented the moderate face of the Taliban seems to have been marginalised to a considerable extent, Shankar noted.
Noting that it was a setback for India, she stressed that instead of looking at it (the new Afghan regime) in terms of India-Pakistan what was more important was that it will be a setback for the people of Afghanistan.
She also noted that the presence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General (DG) Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed while the cabinet formation was being discussed, clearly showed that there was an “overt” Pakistani interference and not a subtle one anymore.
Wadhwa, who served as Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs before retiring in 2017, said it was quite expected that the government will not be an inclusive’ government as people expected it to be.
“The Taliban factions have found their own balance and the extremist elements are prevalent there; the others are sidelined, so basically the Doha faction has been sidelined. To have expected an inclusive government for an outfit like this especially when Pakistan is playing a very strong hand was not really up to reality,” he told PTI.
“What has happened is along the expected lines and it is of course a setback for countries like India, the US and the West in general. But I have a feeling that since these countries (West) are far away from the action in Afghanistan, they will gradually over time come to live with it. But the country that will face the brunt of it would be possibly India, perhaps later on countries like Iran and Russia, but not so much China,” Wadhwa said.
He asserted that the new government had the imprint of Pakistan’s ISI and pointed out that the Haqqani faction holding the Interior ministry, speaks volumes.
Agreeing that it was rhetorically a case of “old wine in a new bottle”, he said, “right now, yes we are not going to recognize this kind of government but I don’t see why we should not have a channel of communication with them.”
Echoing similar views on keeping a channel of communication open, Prakash, who has been India’s envoy to Canada and South Korea, said that does not mean recognition or endorsement but it just means “we are having a channel of communication” so that Pakistan does not get a free run .
Prakash said what was surprising was that even the Doha group had been eased out because they were not considered to be hardline enough, and asserted that “Rawalpindi (a reference to Pakistani Army) was calling the shots”.
“I would say that the bottle is old and the wine is old when you have people like Mullah Hasan Akhund, who was the person who ordered the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha, or you have Sirajuddin Haqqani who was instrumental in attacking the Indian embassy, these are the people who know only one language and that is the language of the gun,” he asserted.
Talking about Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan now, Prakash said he does not think that anyone in the know of things had any doubt that Pakistan was “holding all the aces”.
Pakistan has put its own nation at risk by cultivating the Taliban, supporting them, and the entire fight was masterminded by Rawalpindi, he said.
“Pakistan’s imprint was writ large. You have to be in denial to state that Pakistan’s role was limited. It is a different matter whether the Taliban, once it consolidates itself, it will carve out an independent course only time will tell,” he said.
Singh, who was the foreign minister in UPA-I and also served as India’s Ambassador to Pakistan besides holding other senior diplomatic positions, said the one responsible for the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas is part of the government and pointed out that there were extreme Islamists who were part of it.
“I think for a couple of months we must just wait and watch as we do not know what actions will follow. One does not know what their priorities are,” Singh said.
He also said Pakistan financed and armed the Taliban but could face a problem as they could turn against Islamabad going forward.
“We would like to have good relations with them but at the moment it doesn’t seem that they are interested,” he said.
Former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha on Tuesday said India cannot and should not do business with the government formed in Afghanistan.
Akhund has been named as the Interim Prime Minister, while Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had led talks with the United States and signed the deal that led to America’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be one of two deputies to Akhund.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted by media reports as saying that Amir Khan Muttaqi will be Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister while Mullah Yaqoob, son of Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar, will serve as the acting defence minister.
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