A Conversation with Professor Anuradha Chenoy about the Chaos in Afghanistan as the US Withdraws Troops–What is the impact upon India, Pakistan & China?

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Professor Anuradha Chenoy about the Chaos in Afghanistan as the US Withdraws Troops--What is the impact upon India, Pakistan & China?


Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman.

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to a special edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today, we are excited to be joined by Professor Anuradha Chenoy from New Delhi, India. Dr. Anu Chenoy is the retired former Dean at the Jawaharlal Nehru School of International Studies in New Delhi, India.

Soniya Gokhale (01:04):
Dr. Chenoy has been the Chairperson of Area Studies and Director in the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies. She has also written numerous books, monographs and articles in the domain of security studies, development studies, and gender. Dr. Chenoy has held short-term consultancies with the international committee of the Red Cross, UNESCO, Action Aid International, UN Women and UN Peacekeepers, to name a few.

Soniya Gokhale (01:35):
She has also evaluated the work of organizations like Focus on the Global South, and the Asia Europe Peoples forum. Anu has deep knowledge about Afghanistan and surrounding history, and she is joining us today to discuss the developing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, as the stunned world watches the Taliban’s rapid seizure of power in Afghanistan. And we will discuss a growing perception by many players in the region, that they can no longer depend upon the United States, as the power diminishes in the region. We will also review this from the perspective of India, Pakistan, and other countries impacted by these developments.

Soniya Gokhale (02:23):
Anu, welcome to the show.

Anu Chenoy (02:25):
Hi. Thank you.

Soniya Gokhale (02:26):
Well, we are so thankful to you for joining us today, and you really have a long-range view as it pertains to a lot of geopolitics and global issues, the Global South. But as it pertains to Afghanistan, obviously this is global news and making headlines everywhere. I am going to stay away from the politics of this issue as it pertains to the United States, if that’s even possible.

Soniya Gokhale (02:53):
But what I do want to emphasize is the ripple effect that the events in Afghanistan have had on a global basis. And in particular, as it pertains to India. I was shocked to find out how this so directly affects India. And outside the main gate of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, on August 18th, a group of Taliban fighters were waiting, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Soniya Gokhale (03:24):
Inside the compound were 150 Indian diplomats and nationals, obviously growing increasingly nervous as they watched news of the Taliban tightening their grip on the capital, which they took a day earlier, without a fight. I will also add, what is a bit staggering to read is the international headlines as an American. And I’m pulling this from a BBC news article. I’ll have this link in the podcast notes. “The Taliban’s victory will test India.” So this is absolutely being seen or perceived as a victory and a defeat of the United States, in some respects, and what they were trying to accomplish in Afghanistan.

Soniya Gokhale (04:02):
But I want to start at the very beginning, because you offer, as we chatted before we launched this podcast episode, we chatted about the origins of this very issue. And how, in your estimation, this was never going to be a winning proposition when the United States entered 20 years ago. And there’s so many reasons behind that. And so I’d like to start there, if we can, about your deep knowledge of Afghanistan the region, and why it’s quite complex. Many issues at play here.

Anu Chenoy (04:34):
Historically, Afghanistan has been a victim of geopolitics from across the region. So even much before the Americans actually came in, at colonial times, we know that the British always had an eye on Afghanistan when India was a colony, and they fought several wars with the Russians on trying to control Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is also key.

Anu Chenoy (05:03):
One, it’s at the underbelly of what was the Soviet Union. It’s close to China, it’s next to South Asia, it’s next to West Asia, to the Middle East, to Africa, Iran. So it has a major geo-strategic role. What happens in geo-strategic politics is that the people get forgotten. So the people remain backward, as different major powers around the region are trying to use Afghanistan to bolster their own national interest.

Anu Chenoy (05:38):
And in between then, let’s skip the old tradition, because we can’t go so deeply into history, but that has been the basis of Afghan history. And that is why they remained so backward, compared to even the rest of the Global South, because they were an eye to the desires of major powers around it.

Anu Chenoy (05:58):
Ultimately, before 1979, they had a kind of a progressive government, a kind of left secular government, which was not all that popular, but they did come into power. And they tried to liberate women themselves. And when that government started falling, the government of Najibullah, that is when the Soviet Union intervened, which was, again, I think a big mistake of the Soviet Union.

Anu Chenoy (06:28):
The other thing is when the Soviet Union intervened, the American geo-strategists, their argument was, “Oh, great. This is going to be the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, and they’re going to fall.” And the American geo-strategists were right in that. This was a quagmire that the Soviet Union had walked into, and it was going to help in their downfall. And that’s what it did.

Anu Chenoy (06:51):
So skip then from ’79, when the Soviet Union intervened, and three years or four years down the line, they couldn’t set up a steady government. They again had their own puppets. And at that time, the Americans, along with the Pakistanis, they encouraged Mujahideen to develop, who would overthrow the Soviet occupation. And there were a lot of takers.

Anu Chenoy (07:16):
You have to remember that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Durand Line is long, complex and open. No one has actually been able to close it. So Afghans keep going back and forth into Afghanistan. Pakistan suffered at that time, with a lot of refugees. But Pakistan has a great rivalry and conflict with India. And they thought this was a good thing, because India and Soviet Union were close friends at that time. And not really allies, but they had a lot of partnership agreements.

Anu Chenoy (07:49):
So you have the development of the Mujahideen over those years, and they played a crucial role in the overthrow of Afghanistan. And that is what happened when the Soviet Union left about in 1988/89. And a few years after, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. So again, it became a playing field for great powers, because now Afghanistan had a very weak government. It had the Mujahideen, Northern Alliance, which was supported by both the Russians and the Indians.

Anu Chenoy (08:26):
So India had a natural enemy with the Mujahideen and with their various cover groups, which developed later into the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and various terrorists, semi terrorist, political Islamist organizations. Whereas the people of Afghanistan had a kind of sympathy for India, because India did also give a lot of development assistance.

Anu Chenoy (08:56):
For example, the current parliament in India is because of Indian foreign assistance. They call it development assistance. They don’t call it foreign aid, because it is unconditional. So they did also assist in this kind of aid.

Anu Chenoy (09:10):
Now, meanwhile, then if we move to 9/11, the Taliban and the Mujahideen definitely had links with Al-Qaida. But Al-Qaida, as you know, was based in Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan. And yet, the Americans decided that they needed to occupy Afghanistan to stop terror groups. And that is how the whole American military intervention in Afghanistan started. And that is what led to what’s happened the last few days.

Anu Chenoy (09:48):
The Americans occupied in a sense, not directly, but they had their puppet regimes in Afghanistan. They tried to do development work, but they tried to develop an Afghan army, which could stand up to the Taliban. And the Taliban, which was comparatively weak in 2001 and 2, when the Americans actually came, got stronger and stronger over these last 20 years. Because they have a variety of tactics, which includes the use of fear, control, interpretation of Islam as how they want it, developed deals with local warlords. They deal in drugs. They are major poppy cultivators. So they got stronger and built basis around that area.

Anu Chenoy (10:40):
Also, if you understand about Afghanistan, it’s extremely multiethnic. So the Pashtuns, which are the majority, but not such a great majority, they have 47% of the population. After come the Tajiks, who are linked to Tajikistan and Soviet Central Asia, and now independent Central Asia Tajikistan. Then they have about 23% Uzbeks. Again, linked to Central Asia. But they’re Uzbek ethnically, but they’re Uzbeks in Central Asia and Uzbekistan.

Anu Chenoy (11:12):
Then there’re the Hazaras, who are Shia and very close to the Iranians, and they’re on the Iran border. And then a variety of smaller. So they have about 25, 30 small ethnic communities. And together, these ethnic groups form about 50% also, to the Pashtun 47. So any group which is trying to impose Pashtun rule, like the Taliban are, is bound to fail again. And there can be a civil war again, because of these identity politics that the Taliban play.

Anu Chenoy (11:47):
So actually, it’s a terrible mess. Terrible, terrible mess, because one, the Americans spent $2 trillion. And the whole world has been watching this unfold. It’s not just American media. It’s every media, all over the world, watching in real time how the American rule fell, how the whole ruling elite tried to escape. And there were stories on the television that they escaped with cash, and how the Taliban has taken over a huge cache of American weapons, which the Americans just had to leave behind.

Anu Chenoy (12:25):
So now, what you have is not just a brute force, you have a brute force who can have a modern mechanized army with American weapons, which they’ve captured. And this Taliban 2.0, as opposed to Taliban 1.0 in the first phase, is much cleverer and sharper, because they are media savvy. So they are telling the media that we’re not going to stop women from working. We are going to have an inclusive government. So they’ve learned these words, but they don’t mean it, I’m sure.

Anu Chenoy (12:58):
And they said, first thing they did was they changed the name of Afghanistan Republic to Afghanistan Islamic Emirate, which means it’s not democratic at all. Any semblance of any elections will not even be held. It will be a complete control by fear and threat by the Taliban. And now, as the Americans have left, enter who? Guess who? Of course, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, they all have interests in that region.

Anu Chenoy (13:38):
China and Russia have been having talks with the Taliban for some time. And clearly, clearly they’re going to recognize Taliban, anyone else does, and develop deals with them. So they’ll sustain Taliban, because they see it as a power vacuum, which is again, terrible for the Afghan people. Because again, they’re left high and dry.

Anu Chenoy (14:00):
Of course, you might have 50,000 who will be given refuge. But the millions obviously can’t become refugees, whether in Europe or anywhere else. India has said, for example, they will take some Afghan refugees. But the Indian government wants to take in the Hindu minorities and the Sikh minorities, and a few other kind of liberal, secular Afghans who are at risk. A huge amount of migration will go into Pakistan again, into all the region around it.

Anu Chenoy (14:34):
Already, the reports I read that 25,000 Afghans are crossing into Pakistan every day. And Pakistan, given the fact that they have a highly militarist and pretty Islamic government themselves, they’re saying this is a victory for the Taliban, and it’s a victory against India. So you can see the discourse over there. This is a victory against India, meaning that Pakistan will have strategic depth in Afghanistan, that they can use. They’ll have undue influence over the Taliban, and they can leverage it to work against India and any other country also.

Soniya Gokhale (15:17):
Well, I do want to add that it does appear, and again, I’m quoting from an article from the BBC, I’m going to have this in the podcast notes, that Pakistan would want the Taliban to accept the border, as you stated, that runs lengthwise, quite a distance. And thus far, it’s never been recognized by the Pashtun-led Taliban. So that’s going to be a priority.

Soniya Gokhale (15:40):
But also, the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan does give Pakistan strategic depth against India, as you stated. And in some respect, the perception is Islamabad has gotten what it always wanted. This, according to Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Wilson Center Think Tank in Washington. And Pakistani officials may show this off as India’s loss, but then there are bigger strategic goals for Pakistan. And right now, it sees itself as the biggest regional winner at the moment, which you alluded to.

Soniya Gokhale (16:14):
And what I find interesting is that if we take a look at the word Taliban, I just want to define this, because many of us may be wondering, what are the origins of this? It’s actually the plural. It’s a noun. And the singular is Talib, which means student or seeker from Arabic languages. And so there’s some irony in that.

Soniya Gokhale (16:36):
I do want to pivot to women and women’s rights. In spite of their claims that they will be more progressive and offer more freedom to women, leaders such as yourself, thought leaders and those familiar with the region and this particular faction, indicate there’s really no chance of this occurring. And it might be garnered on paper, but little to no chance of existing freedoms continuing at all for women.

Soniya Gokhale (17:06):
And so I would like you to speak to that just a little bit. We did note, when looking at the horrific images of people fleeing the country, some in United State-led flights, hundreds of people jam-packed into a plane that is only meant to accommodate a fraction of that number, three quarters of those appeared to be men. And so I just want you to speak to that, and some of what can be expected in this region for women.

Anu Chenoy (17:33):
Yeah. You raised two questions. One about Pakistan and the Durand Line. You’re absolutely right on that, because this is going to be a double-edged sword for Pakistan. They think they have strategic depth that they can use the Taliban, but the Taliban is a ruthless and a very clever force, and they can use anyone. They can in turn, want to Islamize Pakistan even more.

Anu Chenoy (18:00):
They would link up with the Pakistan fundamentalist groups, of which there is no shortage. And destroy the small liberal group in Pakistan, which is pro-peace, which is for a more equity, which is anti-poverty. Whereas these guys, basically, they just rely on religion in politics to oppress people. So it can backfire, as they say, into Pakistan in the wrong way. And Imran Khan himself can lose out, because of the Taliban.

Anu Chenoy (18:34):
Also, the Durand Line, yes, there’s no agreement between the Taliban and Pakistan on the Durand Line. Number one, it’s disputed, because Afghanistan would want more land, whereas Pakistan accepts the colonial idea of the Durand Line. So there is a conflict of interest there. And second, Pakistan might want to close that line. They don’t want any more refugees. They cannot cope with more refugees, as the Taliban gets harsher. And if there are inter-ethnic wars, like with the Uzbeks and with the Tajiks, or the Hazaras, they’ll just cross over.

Anu Chenoy (19:08):
Earlier, Pakistan had millions of refugees. And exactly what you said, Talib was a word for students. They were taught to be Mujahideen, and that’s why they became the Taliban. Initially, it was the Mujahideen and then it became the Taliban.

Anu Chenoy (19:23):
Your second point on women is also absolutely correct. The Taliban, they’re very misogynist. They need to have women as chattel, literally as slaves confined to the house, confined to secondary positions, confined to reproduction and care work. And if they’re saying they want women to continue work or to study, it will be continue work as they dictate, to study what they want. That second part of the sentence is incomplete.

Anu Chenoy (20:01):
When they’re saying, “We want women to continue with university and schools,” it will mean according to the Taliban Sharia syllabus, according to they’ll be taught what their real place is. That is within the homes, behind closed doors, behind barred windows. I mean, you could even see when the CNN correspondent was interviewing them, they said, “No, cover your face. Move aside. You’re a woman.”

Anu Chenoy (20:32):
This is the Taliban from the top to the bottom. They are misogynists. They are medieval in their thinking, and they will not change. And now they’ve got complete power. So it is really a shame, and it can lead to Afghanistan literally falling off the map, as far as Afghan people are concerned, because they’re not going to like this.

Anu Chenoy (20:56):
Afghanistan ultimately was a place of multiculturalism, of multiple identities, of Buddhism. And 20 years ago, the Taliban had blown up the Buddha statues. It hurt Indians a lot, the way they did it. So there’s really very little hope for women, I think, in Afghanistan. Of course, women over there will resist. There are women in many places, but these are the elite women. In the villages, the women will be confined to domestic work labor, to rural kind of employment.

Anu Chenoy (21:34):
Meanwhile, China would liken to exploit as many minerals and economic assets. And so will the other countries around it. Iran will like to secure its position, so that the heat from its back from the Americans is off. So there’re going to be a lot of intense and terrible, on the one hand, geopolitics, geo-strategies. And on the other hand, I feel like a humanitarian disaster for Afghan women, and minorities, and the liberal-minded Afghan people who want an education, who want an open society. It’s like drums are beating against them, really. They will resist, but Taliban is ruthless when it comes to control.

Soniya Gokhale (22:25):
Well, and I do want to bring up, it’s very interesting in this article that I will cite. China’s economic interests in Afghanistan pertained to minerals. They have an ever-growing need for minerals. And more importantly, they can pressure the Taliban to ban the East Turkistan Islamic movement, ETIM, which China blames for unrest in its Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province. Which to me, there’s so much irony on that. I’ve done a couple of podcasts regarding the Uyghurs and their atrocious conditions they’re facing in the Xinjiang region. And so you have Muslims that you would expect perhaps to take up for these oppressed people, and yet it’s all politics.

Soniya Gokhale (23:08):
And in addition to that, China and Pakistan could piggyback on each other in Afghanistan. Now, what’s fascinating that you mentioned as well, regarding women’s rights, I think in the West or from a global perspective, perhaps there’s not insight into the fact that we cannot use the same lens or yardstick that we use for women’s rights in the West, or even in India in some respects. Because historically, and I guess I’d ask you to speak to that, have there ever been equal rights, or gender equality between men and women in this region of the world? It does not appear that is the case.

Anu Chenoy (23:46):
Correct. You, again, address two issues. And I’ll address them separately. One was about China and yes, their interest is in minerals, in developing their belt and road initiative into the region, connected into… Because there is a connection from there into Turkmenistan, which is a huge gas producing area, and Uzbekistan. And a connection with Pakistan, because they have that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also, CPEC.

Anu Chenoy (24:15):
So China would be very interested and is very interested, but they’re also interested in a stable Afghanistan, because they know that with conflicts, you cannot really have economic development. So that is China’s understanding also. As far as the Uyghurs are concerned, Taliban is not interested in Muslims outside of Afghanistan. Their politics is about Muslims inside Afghanistan, and how they can strategically use them to increase their leverage.

Anu Chenoy (24:47):
China, my own submission here, and we have to see how it plays out, is that they will do a deal with the Taliban. The Taliban does not export terror into the Uyghur Xinjiang region. And in exchange for that, they will make a deal to do development in Afghanistan. But that development in Afghanistan will be linked to extraction, and they will give it some financial stabilization.

Anu Chenoy (25:20):
But of course, they call it mutual assistance and win-win. These are the Chinese words. But of course, it will be in favor of China. Pakistan will be somewhat of a beneficiary. That this is going to be China’s economic politics over there. And China is likely to have a small force to protect their economic interests, or they might use a Pakistani force also, for that.

Anu Chenoy (25:47):
Pakistan actually is a client state of China. And that’s why they can say these things about Afghanistan’s being liberated from slavery, as Imran Khan said. Because now, they’re balancing China with the United States. Earlier, they were a client state of the United States, but now they have China as their backup also. So United States has to get its policy clear, vis-a-vis both China and Pakistan.

Anu Chenoy (26:15):
As far as your second point, and I agree with that also, that surely you can’t measure women’s rights with the same yardstick world over. And in the Global South, women have their own cultural bindings, their interests, which are different from Western women. But rights are rights. I believe in a universalization of rights. And even with cultural specificities, women can have equality, like equality in pay. And that men should also assist in domestic work and domestic labor and unpaid labor, which falls squarely on the hands of women.

Anu Chenoy (26:57):
But these are debates which take place in India and other places, where there’s an awareness of rights, even though there is still wide-ranging patriarchy. But at least there’s a debate and discussion on women’s issues. The constitution gives women equal rights in India. And even in Pakistan, women are getting more rights than they had earlier.

Anu Chenoy (27:21):
But Afghanistan and the Taliban are not going to give women these rights. And in fact, these will impact the rights of women in the region of South Asia. Because on the one hand, you’ll have this new kind of Taliban-ised Islam. On the other hand, you’ll have Islamophobia. People saying that, gosh, all Muslims may be jihadis. The extreme right-wing saying that of all Muslims, let’s say in India or in Indonesia or elsewhere.

Anu Chenoy (27:55):
Because remember, conflicts spill over to other regions, and terrorism also. So there will be these spills. And in these kinds of situations, women suffer most, because they have to be protected. This conflict can flow into Kashmir, for example, which Pakistan is interested in doing. And Afghanistan may not mind helping doing some kind of deal.

Anu Chenoy (28:20):
So the Taliban for a long time is going to also be transactional, where they will want to rule. They will want some international legitimacy, so they can have a free flow of funds. So they’ll make all kinds of statements. So they have to be watched very carefully. I think all assistance to Afghanistan should be conditional. Conditional on women’s rights, on protection of minorities, on inclusion. So we have to hold them on their rhetoric, whatever they’re saying, and not let them get away with it. Thank you.

Soniya Gokhale (28:54):
Yeah, and as we come to the close of this podcast, I just want to offer some background information. Because again, I’m not really doing this podcast from the perspective of the United States and all of the politics involved around that. I think that nobody would disagree that this is so complex, and we question why we entered that country some 20 years ago. And I would like to have a follow-up podcast with you about that at some point, as these events continue to unfold and are very fluid.

Soniya Gokhale (29:24):
However, I do want to quote former Indian Diplomat, Jitendra Nath Misra. And as he states, “India find itself in a very, very precarious situation. What can India do now?” And the answer is there are bad, and then there are worse options, according to him. The biggest challenge that India is going to face, I want to see if you agree with this, is whether to recognize the Taliban government or not. The decision will get tough, especially if Moscow and Beijing decide to acknowledge the government in some form. And experts say Islamabad is likely to officially accept the Taliban government, as it did in 1999.

Soniya Gokhale (30:06):
The backdrop to all of this is fascinating. It’s going to be an uneasy relationship between India and the Taliban, considering that the Taliban gave a safe passage to the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane in 1999. And this is an incident that remains etched in the collective memory of Indians, and truly unbeknownst to me, until I stumbled upon this article. So Delhi has always kept close ties with the Northern Alliance, a group of Afghan warlords that fought the Taliban between 1996 and 1999. So just want to see if you have comments upon that.

Anu Chenoy (30:43):
Yeah. Well in India, there’re going to be two views. One view already says that one has to have a transactional relationship with the Taliban, because now it’s state power. And you’ll have to, at some point, recognize it. The other view is that we have to go with the alliance of democracies. That is we wait until the United States and European countries, and we work with them and recognize them only when they recognize them. So these are two views about the issue of [inaudible 00:31:15] and de facto Taliban, and the sovereignty of Taliban.

Anu Chenoy (31:20):
The second is that the Taliban has already made some connections, and they have asked India to continue with the development assistance and the projects. And they have said that Indians will be safe. But India has to watch and see that if they let all the Indians out peacefully, whether they respect Indian citizens, and whether they respect minorities, because that will be an issue in India. Especially the Sikhs who are there, and the Buddhists and others, and the Hindus there. There are lots of them also. And they’ll have to watch.

Anu Chenoy (31:57):
But my own position is that India should not get involved in the geo-strategic politics. They should look at the human security aspects of Afghanistan, like they had done earlier. If the Northern Alliance resists, I think they will fall very soon, given the kind of power the Taliban has now. There’ll be a slaughter of Rashid Dostum’s son, who’s now the head of the Northern Alliance. So India can’t afford to back the Northern Alliance, and I doubt if they’ll back any one group now. They’ve learned a lesson.

Anu Chenoy (32:33):
What they can do is give conditional development assistance. Bring students into study, which is a very favorite place, Afghan students to study in Indian universities. To assist in health, which is again, of a tradition where many Afghans come to India for health support, because India has these huge and fantastic hospitals, which obviously Afghanistan doesn’t have.

Anu Chenoy (33:02):
So they can focus on these issues, and I think that will go down better with the Afghan people and maybe even with the Taliban, because it’s different having a war and different governing. For governance, you have to deliver. You have to deliver health, employment, education, none of which the Taliban can do on their own. So I think that’s where India can come in, and I hope the EU does something similar.

Soniya Gokhale (33:30):
Wow. Well, thank you so much for all of these insights. Extremely illuminating, and it just demonstrates we’re a global community. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the entire world is watching and will be affected by this. And prayers and thoughts go to those affected in Afghanistan. And we thank you so much for joining us today, Professor Anuradha Chenoy.

Anu Chenoy (33:54):
Thank you.



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