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'There could soon be an Indian Taliban'

April 15, 2009 12:16 IST
Ahmed Rashid, one of the world's foremost experts on the Taliban, has predicted that with the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there could very well be an Indian Taliban in the near future.

Rashid exhorted India and Pakistan to resurrect their dialogue and cooperate in fighting terrorism and extremism together because if Pakistan fails to counter the sustained onslaught of the Taliban, New Delhi could be faced with a Taliban government as its neighbour.

"If you think infiltration into Kashmir is bad now, wait until the Taliban become your neighbour. Then you will see real infiltration not only into Kashmir, but into India proper."

Rashid, who was speaking at the Woman's National Democratic Club in Washington, DC, in a discussion and book-signing of his most recent book Descent into Chaos: US Policy and the Failure of National Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, under the aegis of the Asia Society, said, "In 2001, we expected after the US attack (in the aftermath of 9/11) that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, would be on the ropes, if not wiped out."

"Today, we have the Taliban as a role model for an entire region. We have not only the Afghan Taliban, today, we have the Pakistani Taliban, Central Asian, and very soon you may have the Indian Taliban. You may have the Taliban stretching into the Caucasus and even into the Middle East," he told the gathering.

Rashid, who first wrote the seminal book on the Taliban, reiterated that "it's become a role model for extremism, it is backed financially by Al Qaeda, and it's extremely dangerous. It is now controlling something like a quarter of Afghanistan and large tracts of northern Pakistan and they are coming now down into Punjab and Pakistan is faced with a very, very serious threat."

The Pakistani military, he added, "unfortunately, even today, remains in a state of denial about the threat that it faces in the country. It remains in a state of denial over the Taliban who are encroaching in Pakistan with even more power and tactics. It remains in denial about the other extremist groups who've been active in other parts of Pakistan -- in the south and the center of the country. It also remains in denial of the desperate means that the military needs to be re-aligning itself on a much more modern counter-insurgency strategy that it has so far applied in its action with the Taliban."

Rashid said the situation in Pakistan "is very dire," and that currently "there is a fragmentation in the leadership. There is no demonstrated leadership, either being shown by the politicians or being shown by the army right now."

With regard to the Obama administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly its regional approach, the Pakistani author and journalist argued, "The problem is all of the six neighbours have bilateral problems with each other and you cannot get them to agree on stabilising Afghanistan, unless you initiate a diplomatic process to get them to talk to each other about their bilateral issues."

Rashid said it was a no-brainer that "the biggest problem here is India and Pakistan," both of whom "are unfortunately now involved in a deep rivalry in Afghanistan."

"I call Kabul the new Kashmir in a way," he said, and noted that "Pakistan believes that the Indian presence in Afghanistan is undermining the western border of Pakistan and that the Afghan government is too close to India. There is a litany of complaints here. And, this is all being affected by the Americans, by the US military and the Indian-Afghan alliance is part of a US plan to help destabilise Pakistan."

Rashid said, "This is the kind of conspiracy theory which is very prevalent in the military, the bureaucracy, in government circles, within the elite in Pakistan."

"I certainly don't agree with that and Afghanistan is today a sovereign State and it has a right to have relations with every country in the world and no other country can dictate that you can't have relations with so and so and so and so."

But, Rashid asserted, that "at the same time, the Indians need to be much more flexible than they have been."

He acknowledged that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "has been very patient so far with the kind of strings of bomb blasts that had happened in India even before Mumbai. Mumbai was perhaps the icing on the cake and perhaps with elections looming, the Congress government couldn't really take it anymore."

"Anyway, the net result has been a total breakdown in relations, but I really think, a start should be made in trying to get India and Pakistan to discuss Afghanistan and to put an end to this covert war that both sides are mounting from Afghanistan or in Afghanistan, and the bad blood that exists between both countries and are threatened by the Taliban."

Rashid warned that if India doesn't let Pakistan "off the hook here," and doesn't help Pakistan out in this regard, India would be faced with two threats in the near future. India would be "faced with an Indian Taliban. We already have Indian Islamic extremist groups working in India, and secondly, if Pakistan slides even further, India will be sharing a border with the Taliban. You will not be sharing a border with the Pakistan state. You will be sharing a border with a Pakistan northwest frontier province that has fallen to the Taliban and even parts of Punjab fallen to the Taliban and then what are you going to do?"

"There is a real need for India to assess its national security needs and to understand that it is threatened by this," Rashid said. "It may be, for someone living in Kolkata or someone living in Madras, it may be an existential threat. But, it is very real and the kind of mayhem that was wracked in Mumbai recently is an example of what some of these groups are capable of doing."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC