‘See Afghans as brothers and sisters with whom we have ties since Mahabharata, not some distant aliens’

The second and final part of DTE’s interview with former ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya, where he discusses the situation in Afghanistan, the Talibans and what to look out for

By Joyjeet Das
Published: Monday 06 September 2021

You can read the first part of the interview here.

Afghanistan has gained a reputation of sorts for being the graveyeard of empires — the first were the British, then the Soviet Union and now the post-Cold-War United States. In the process, what remains downplayed is that the country has been a literal minefield for its own citizens.

Afghans were known to be hardworking and amiable people; but their lot has been in one turmoil after another for almost half a decade now. And now, after relative peace for almost a couple of decades, the Talibans have returned like a bad déjà vu.

What happens next? Where do they go from here? Where does the global community go from here? Which way would the moral compass point to? Down To Earth took a set of questions to former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and several other countries Gautam Mukhopadhaya. Here’s the second part of the edited excerpts: 

Joyjeet Das: The US exit from Afghanistan and subsequent developments have come amid a raging pandemic. Will it be possible to contain it now? Is there any chance of vaccination to a degree that will help stem the spread of COVID-19? 

Gautam Mukhopadhya: The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a pandemic. It cannot be eliminated or controlled unless is controlled everywhere.

So far, the pandemic does not seem to have affected Afghanistan as badly as most other countries in the region. Perhaps, the conflict has just driven it to second priority, but we have not heard of waves and deaths in the hundreds as it has happened in India and Myanmar.

I do not know the Taliban attitude to vaccination. In the past, they have been opposed to polio vaccination in Pakistan.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) and others should engage the Taliban as and when they form a government to extending its vaccination program to all of Afghanistan, even if it comes at a cost of some legitimisation. This will be an important indicator of their change in attitude compared to the past. 

JD: What other healthcare-related challenges do you foresee in Afghanistan? Is the WHO justified in its assessment that the region “has not become so unstable as to warrant a mobilisation of resources for displaced people”? 

GM: That is surprising. Perhaps that assessment was before the Taliban offensive since May. An estimated 400,000 people are already reported to be displaced even before the Taliban entered Kabul. Thousands have since left their homes and taken shelter at safer places. Most of them lack access to basic services or are afraid to step out.

If I am not wrong, the United Nations itself and its humanitarian arm, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has issued an appeal for emergency funding for humanitarian assistance for the internally displaced.

Besides them, there will be a large number of refugees in neighbouring and other countries. They will all have to be catered to.

I am not conversant with the morbidity profile of Afghanistan. Delhi’s hospitals would have a good idea of it. Over the last 20 years, there has been a fairly impressive improvement in infant and maternal mortality indices partly owing to better access to women health workers.

Women’s and reproductive health are likely to be affected by Taliban strictures and restrictions. Women medical workers will very likely face challenges.

One of the challenges will be that international medical non-profits — who have done excellent work in Afghanistan on various kinds of health issues — moved out over the last year or two; and would certainly do so now, amid the evacuation of foreigners.

Another area to examine is that quite possibly a large number of Afghan medical staff would have left the country in the face of the Taliban advance.

All in all, health — especially women’s health — will be one of the most affected areas unless the Taliban have really changed with the exposure of some of their leadership to health facilities in Pakistan and the Gulf.

This will be another area of engagement to gauge whether the Taliban have changed. 

JD: Afghanistan was already under drought when the political changes occurred. At the same time, there were also reports of flood. Climate change may play havoc in the broader region. How aware would a force like the Talibans be in combating such exigencies? 

GM: Nothing in the make-up of the Taliban or their supporters suggests that the Taliban would have any awareness and commitment to climate change. This would be another test of Taliban openness.

The entire area from the Hindu Kush to the Pamirs and Himalayas form one of the biggest water towers of the world. Any negligence in monitoring the impact of climate change will come at a great cost to the region and the world.

But I think we are going too fast. These issues will arise if and when there is some stability and acceptance of Taliban rule.

Second, Taliban governance also needs to be established and tested. Nothing suggests that they have thought of anything other than their social and political agenda.

Everything suggests that one set of problems, one kind of instability, one set of protagonists, will be replaced by another. 

JD: How will a prolonged Taliban rule affect the livelihood of people and the economy in general? 

GM: Again, it depends on how they govern. Although one may be sceptical, we should not prejudge the issue.

Past record is not encouraging. During its last turn at power, there was hardly any governance outside the security, social and judicial sphere.

I re-opened our embassy in Kabul within a week after the fall of the Taliban. During that time, there was no — repeat, no — development in Afghanistan. Even Kabul was left as it was at the end of the intra-Mujahideen fighting of the first half of the 1990s. There was simply no reconstruction.

Pakistan ensured that Afghanistan was pushed back to some pre-independence, pre-Amanutallah Khan, pre-Zahir Shah days. The few charities from the Gulf whose presence could still be discerned, were focused on religious indoctrination — not development.

This time the Taliban are speaking a different language: Of international economic cooperation and assistance; Pakistan is speaking of ‘geo-economics’ bringing in China’s economic muscle; and China is tempted to expanded its Belt and Road Initiative and sphere of influence into Afghanistan and connect to Iran and exploit Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources, including rare earths.

Whether this will happen amid the revival of international and regional terrorism, conflict and instability — when it did not happen over the last 20 years of relative peace and stability — is doubtful.

But predatory and unsustainable Chinese economic policies, mining and infrastructure do not augur well for Afghanistan. The country will be used again at the expense of the Afghan people. 

JD: Is there anything you would like to highlight that could not be captured in the questions? 

GM: Yes. The Afghan people have been betrayed time and again:

First by the United States and the West, who neither defeated terrorism emanating from Pakistan nor enabled Afghanistan to stand on its feet. The country was kept dependent on them and their pull-out has abandoned it once again to Pakistan — as was done after the Soviet withdrawal — regardless of the impact on Afghanistan and Afghans.

Second, its own government and the political class that has fed off the US gravy train. They did not dig roots among the Afghan people nor discern the Pakistani and US plots against them; they put their personal ambitions and egos ahead of the Afghan people and left them at the mercy of terrorist groups and Pakistan.

India too should be wary that some of its actions do not betray the Afghan people after having regained their trust and love after being on the wrong side of Afghan aspirations during the Soviet intervention.

In dealing with the Taliban, India should be guided by its support for the hard-won rights and freedoms of the last 20 years that the Afghan people crave as much as anyone else; as well as the imperative of maintaining and preserving its historic people-to-people relationship with Afghanistan.

It should tread carefully on legitimising Taliban terrorism and takeover of Afghanistan by force and recognising the Taliban government against the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan while there is still some resistance to the Taliban left in Afghanistan.

In my view, this will grow, along with a rise in extremism.

India should not make the mistake of thinking that it does not have strategic stakes in Afghanistan and can, therefore, shrug off developments there. This will only hand over strategic depth to Pakistan that it has always craved.

Instead, it should look at the new Afghanistan. It should not look at Afghan visa and temporary asylum seekers from the prism of religious affiliation or stereotypes, but from the prism of the values of rights and freedoms that they yearn for as much as us.

It should keep the idea of the republic alive by welcoming Afghan media, think tanks, scholars, women’s rights groups, artists, musicians, sportspersons and the civil society to operate from India.

Otherwise, after having invested $3 billion (nearly Rs 22,000 crore) in Afghanistan and getting emotional return on investment from it in terms of goodwill, love and affection of the Afghan people, we will squander it over issues of life and death and freedom.

Whatever else the world may do (again), we should not abandon the Afghan people. We should preserve and sustain the idea of a united and strong Afghanistan, free from terrorism, in which the people of Afghanistan can live in the freedoms, including freedom from fear that we and other parts of the world enjoy.

We should see them as brothers and sisters with whom we have historic ties going back to the Mahabharata and the Buddha, not some distant aliens.

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