Image Credits: Graphics by Team Geostrata


Dr. Stanly Johny, the International Affairs Editor at The Hindu discusses his book, ‘The Comrades and The Mullahs’ with the Geostrata’s Pratyaksh Kumar. The interview broadly focuses upon the trifecta of Afghanistan; the takeover of Kabul and its implications, the emerging new Asian geopolitics with China eyeing up a more significant role in the wake of the American withdrawal, and addresses India’s options with the change of regime in Kabul, yet again.

Pratyaksh: Welcome viewers, in today’s session of The Geo Interview we are honored to host Dr. Stanly Johny the International Affairs Editor at the esteemed The Hindu. Dr. Johny has recently published his second book titled ‘The Comrades and the Mullahs’ which is also co-authored by Ananth Krishnan. In today’s interview we will be broadly focusing on the crucial and the important questions that the book raises and that it seeks to address. Welcome Dr. Johny!

Dr. Johny: Thank you! Thanks for having me.

Pratyaksh: It's an honor for us sir. Before we get into whereabouts, if you could please tell us and the viewers about the motivation that led you to write this book?

Dr. Johny: Interestingly, there is a backstory to the book, the idea of this book was born on Twitter. So in July 2021 you may know that the Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Baradar went to Tianjin to meet the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. So immediately after that the Chinese foreign ministry released photographs of Wang Li and Mullah Baradar together. That is apparently in the cover of the book, it’s in Tianjin. I had tweeted this photo with the caption ‘The comrades and the mullah.’ Swati Chopra, who is the executive editor at HarperCollins, responded to the tweet by saying that this could be the title of the book. Then Ananth Krishnan who is my colleague and the China correspondent at The Hindu, who has been covering China for quite sometime and has also written a wonderful book- ‘India’s China Challenge’, his first book, so he joined in asking me, “why can’t we do it, Stanly?” So that’s how the idea of this book was born and later on I recall a conversation I had with Ananth in which Ananth was telling me that there is a cracking book, basically understanding the China’s interest in Afghanistan also Afghanistan has a very complex history and I as a student of international relations have been writing about West Asia and the Islamic world in generals for the last quite some time. My first book was on West Asia and the Middle East, the ‘ISIS Caliphate.’ So yeah because if you look at Afghanistan, it has a very complex history you know. Its also called the graveyard of empires and why it is called so is because at least in the last 3 centuries Afghanistan saw great powers interventions, right: in the 19th century Britishers invaded Afghanistan, in the 20th century soviets invaded Afghanistan and in early 21st century the Americans invaded Afghanistan.

So in a way while the circumstances could be different, there is almost similar consequences, almost all great superpowers have pulled back from Afghanistan without meeting their strategic objectives, you know the mighty British empire of 19th century while the British troops were withdrawing in the mid 19th century all except 1 who was apparently a medical professional, everybody was massacred by Akbar khan's guerilla fighters… so the book actually starts with that introduction, the opening paragraph is about (3:48) the last surviving British man who made it to the fort in Ghazni. The same goes with the Soviets, the Soviets land into Afghanistan, they had their communist regime, their communist president, you know in the presidential palace, and the Soviets remained in Afghanistan for 10 years but they had to withdraw in ignominy 10 years later in 1989, which eventually led to the fall of the pro-Soviet regime.

Immediately after the soviets were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Soviets started facing setbacks in their immediate periphery(4.22) in the Eastern Europe as well where communist regimes started collapsing. The Americans were in Afghanistan for 20 years, they brought down the Taliban and helped in establishing the new regime, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, one hundred thousand American soldiers were at the height of the American presence in Afghanistan and then what happens 20 years down the line: American also had to withdraw from Afghanistan practically handing over the country to Taliban. So there is something interesting in Afghanistan history: why Afghanistan always resisted great power intervention, and why great powers always attracted towards Afghanistan, and now that the Americans are out and the Chinese are on the gates of Afghanistan and China is rising as the next major superpower, so what role China is likely to play in Afghanistan? So these are the potential questions that intrigued us, me and Ananth Krishnan, so then we and the book you know what we tried to do is we tried to reconstruct Afghanistan’s history in the simplest words in a very few chapters and then we tried to look at Afghanistan from a Chinese point of view. So this is the motivation and these are the broader ideas of the book.

Pratyaksh: Yes, thank you so much sir and I must say that’s the very interesting name for the book indeed because when I saw the title I was very intriged, and I believe it is much more realistic in nature because for whatever the western world would like to call the Taliban a ‘ragtag militia’ or the islamic terrorist organisation, essentially they called themselves Mullahs and for you to include that in the title is very realistic perspective. And it's fascinating how the so called ragtag militia has destroyed the greatest empires the world has ever seen, be it USSR or US-led nation-building efforts. Sir, my next question follows as: in your opinion what are likely to be the major implications of this takeover the way it was done, strictly from the Asian perspective, for instance when Taliban took over Kabul again, Pakistan’s saw it as a major geopolitical win and even the highest officials of Pakistan they came on twitter and they sort of made it very clear how Pakistan has now gained the strategic or geostrategic depth that they have always desired. And there were also fears in the Indian echelons of policymaking that the Taliban coming to power in Kabul would raise many security issues for us in Kashmir and how China's challenge will play out. What do you think about it from the Asian perspective?

Dr. Johny: If you look at it from India’s point of view, the development in Afghanistan in August 2021 is actually a tactical subtect for Indian interests. Because ever since the Taliban were brought down in 2001 after the American invasion of Afghanistan, India had stepped up its engagement with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. India has invested almost $3 billion and developed very close ties with Afghanistan’s new rulers, and the people to people contacts as well improved a great deal. And if you look at India’s engagement with Afghanistan from historical point of view, India has always decided to deal with the regime in Afghanistan, the government of the day in Afghanistan, except in 1990’s when the Taliban was in power you know from 1995 to 2001, except this peak period, India’s policy has always been driven by pragmatic realism where it decided to engage with the government of the day because you have the monarchy, as India became independent until 1970s there was monarchy in Afghanistan and then you have Dawood Khan’s republic and then you had a communist coup and then Soviet republic in Afghanistan so you have this communist regime and then the Mujahideens came to power so throughout this period including the Mujahideen's government, India retained the terms of the engagement and the bilateral relationship etc.

But this policy changed only when the Taliban were in power, because the Taliban captured power in Kabul posed a security challenge in India and in Kashmir violence was going up at that time and secondly India saw the Taliban as the Pakistani proxy and so the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan would offer some kind of strategic depth to Pakistan which India saw would be a setback to Indian interests. And we also know the story about the hijacking of the Indian aircraft which landed in Kandahar and the role the Taliban played etc. So India has legitimate concerns about the Taliban. So what India did in the 1990s was to support the anti-taliban forces, namely the Northern Alliance, so India was cooperating with them, coordinating with the Russians, the Central Asians Republic,etc. So this was the policy in the 1990s. Now after staying invested in Afghanistan for 20 years, after investing billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and after developing very deep ties and combats with the people of Afghanistan, India saw the Taliban return to power again. And this time again the Taliban were directly supported by the Pakistanis and the Americans were out of Afghanistan so this actually posed some kind of challenges, tactical challenges to India which I think is a fact and I think India also knew this. But when you compare it with the 1990s, India has taken a different approach this time because the Taliban on the one side has appeared to be stronger inside Afghanistan and the regional dynamics have changed. If you look at the Asian dynamics because in the 1990s India was coordinating with Russia, Iran and Central Asian Republics in propping up the Northern Alliance that was fighting up in the Afghan Civil War.

But now, there is no Northern Alliance. There is a rump of guerrilla army in Panjshir but they are nowhere to the size or influence of Ahmad Shah Massoud wielded in the Panjshir valley in the 1990s. And secondly, look at Iran; Iran almost went to war with the Taliban in the 1990s and established terms of engagement with the Taliban. The Russians are also ready to at least engage with the Taliban. The regional and internal dynamics have changed. So the Indian approach has also evolved. Because in the 1990s India if had5 taken a completely hostile line towards the Taliban. In 2022 you can see the government of Narendra Modi sent a diplomatic delegation to Kabul to meet with the leadership of the Taliban. So, India was forced to take a different approach because the regional and internal dynamics have changed. And when it comes to Pakistan, I think the Pakistani assessment is that, as you rightly pointed out, Pakistan has got some strategic depth because the Taliban in the last twenty years were completely dependent on Pakistan. It was Pakistan that helped the Taliban regroup at Quetta and then stage counterattacks inside Afghanistan and ISI’s departments were propping up the Taliban and helping it take back territories in Afghanistan which eventually led to the Taliban takeover of the whole country. But at the same time, there are fault lines in Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban as well.

Because, the Taliban themselves are a very complex organization; you have the Afghan Taliban which is now in power in Afghanistan. And you have Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Pakistani Taliban, which are predominantly based in Pakistan and fighting the Pakistani establishment. The Afghan Taliban established the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan twice; in the 1990s and now. And what the Pakistani Taliban want to do is to do the same. They want to turn Pakistan into an Islamic Emirate. Because the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are practically ideological brothers. There could be organizational differences but they are ideological brothers; they want to do the same thing. But Pakistan which is backing the Afghan Taliban because of its strategic interests is fighting the Pakistani Taliban. Because the Pakistani Taliban is posing a direct security threat to Pakistan’s establishment. So, even Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban as a whole is very complicated. So at this point in time, Pakistan might be thinking that they achieved strategic depth but my assessment is that it would only get more complicated going forward. Because once the Taliban mobilizes or stabilizes, if at all, its governance within Afghanistan, it would not like to be reliant on the Pakistani establishment forever, no nationalist force would like to do that, right? So there are fault lines here as well.

The Comrades and the Mullahs by Dr. Stanly Johny.

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Pratyaksh: Thank you, sir. Since you mentioned a lot of Indian imperatives and the things that concern India’s national security, I want to put forward this question to you. Despite the stint that the Indian government had with the first phase of the Taliban, this time the Taliban seems to be much more realpolitik oriented in nature, unlike the last time wherein they were largely bound by their ideological confines. And there has been a significant line of communication between India and the new government of the Taliban. Sir, but do you think China will allow India and Afghanistan or the Taliban to foster deeper relationships with each other, or how does China see India and Afghanistan together?

Dr. Johny: Yeah, so let's first look at it from the Taliban’s point of view. There was a lot of discussion about whether the Taliban 2.0 have changed from the 1990s Taliban. So if you ask me, ideologically or organisationally or in terms of governance the Taliban haven't changed much in the last twenty years. So, the new regime of the Taliban is imposing the same kind of restrictions the old one did. The secondary schools for women haven't been opened yet. There are restrictions on women traveling alone. The government in Afghanistan is pretty much a dominantly Pashtun, a men-only government. And its ideology also hasn't undergone any major changes. But at the same time, the Taliban’s foreign policy, its relationship with the outside world has changed. My assessment is that the Taliban have realized it is not the internal repression of the people of Afghanistan that led to the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. It is the Taliban’s decision to host Al-Quaeda; The Taliban’s decision to host Osama Bin Laden, who orchestrated the terrorist attacks, which drew in the Americans into Afghanistan and eventually led to the fall of the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan.

So it is not the domestic policies or domestic repression, but it is the foreign policy of the Taliban that led to the Taliban’s fall in 2001; the Taliban has realized it. So this time what the Taliban had done, they haven't changed much domestically, but in terms of its foreign policy the Taliban have reached out to the world; it reached out to the Chinese, it reached out to the Russians; it met even the Iranians. It is receptive to even India’s outreach. The Taliban’s selling point is that back in the late 1990s the Taliban was blamed by all regional countries for hosting militant organisations.The anti-India organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba etc. and ETIM, which is the Uyghur militant group of China and the Uzbek Islamist groups. So the Taliban-run Afghanistan became a safe haven for all these regional militant or terrorist organizations back in the 1990s. So this time the Taliban’s selling point is that ‘we have cut ties with all these groups. We are not going to host terrorist organisations anymore. What we want is better government-to-government, country-to-country ties with all the regional players.’ So this is the Taliban’s selling point.

So the Taliban is also telling India, China, Russia and other countries that Afghanistan still has terrorists. Afghanistan has the Islamic State Khorasan and other militant organizations. And these organizations put forth challenges to you and to deal with these organizations you will have to deal with the government of Afghanistan and we are the government of Afghanistan. So what the Taliban are plainly doing is that the Taliban wants to have a relationship with the regional countries. The Taliban want international legitimacy. And the Taliban want to achieve these goals without making any meaningful changes in their domestic governance. As part of that, the Taliban is reaching out to these countries. So, look at India’s interests now, and look at the whole scenario from an Indian point of view.

So Indians have invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and India wants to protect its interests and investments. Secondly, India would not like Afghanistan to be a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups like what happened in the 1990s. So how do you achieve this? For that, at the end of the day, we have to engage with whoever the ruler of Afghanistan is. And thirdly, from a broader strategic point of view, India should also explore the possibility of the Taliban’s autonomy from Pakistan. Because it would not be in India’s interest for the Taliban to remain permanently reliant and dependent on the Pakistani Security Establishment.

Dr. Johny: So, these are India’s broad strategic goals in Afghanistan and to pursue these goals, we will have to engage the Taliban. I think this realistic assessment is what is driving India's policy towards the Taliban and from the Chinese point of view, again, how the Chinese look at Afghanistan. First of all, like India, China also doesn't want Afghanistan to be, or atleast the border, the Chinese-Afghan border to be a safe haven for ETIM. And secondly, groups like Islamic State Khorasan, are gaining more ground in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the regional security architecture. Thirdly, under China’s Belt and Road and other investment initiatives, there are thousands of Chinese nationals across Central Asia and Pakistan etc. So China doesn't want any kind of security threats to its nationals operating in Central Asia and South Asia as part of its investment initiatives.

So China also wants security, and China would also like to explore the possibility of making investments in Afghanistan, tapping its natural resources because Afghanistan has huge natural resources in terms of gold, copper, oil, lithium, rare earth minerals etc. So, these are the Chinese interests. So, my point is that here, all three actors, be it the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, India or China, are all driven by their own interests. So, at this point of time, I think it is in the Taliban's interest to have better ties with as many regional powers as possible. The regional powers also, driven by their own limited interests, also would like to establish some kinds of engagements with the Taliban. So right now it is too early for India or China's official or diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime, you know, it's still in the very early stages, but at the same time you can see that the stage is set, because unlike in the 1990s, the regional powers this time, are more inclined towards engaging the Taliban rather than teaming up against the regime in Afghanistan, so that's what we're witnessing right now.

Pratyaksh: Thank you, sir. Since you mentioned this very important fact and because it's the Indian national interest that concerns us primarily, I have to put forward this question: as you rightly mentioned that Taliban is not a very homogenous organization and even though now they've realised that they need to cut ties with almost all of the terrorist organizations that threaten regional stability, so do you think that in because Afghanistan or in Taliban, there are many anti Indian elements which form the core of the Taliban, the ones who have control over Kabul. So do you think that Taliban as an organization will be willing to not support terrorist organizations that are anti Indian in nature, given that some of the core of the Taliban happens to be very Pakistan-dependent and very anti-Indian in their nature.

Dr. Johny: Yes, it's a very complex situation because the Taliban are not a monolithic organization, and within the Taliban framework there is the Haqqani network, and the Haqqanis have very deep ties with the Pakistani security establishment. So, Pakistan would always have some amount of influence over the Taliban, which would definitely be the

case. But at the same time, my point is that, you know, for the Taliban it is almost existential to at least convince the world that it has cut ties with these terrorist organizations. Whether they would actually,completely, hundred percent cut off ties is a different question, but it at least has to convince the world, that it has, or at least it's not, it's no longer hosting them, it's no longer hosting organizations that are fundamentally against the security interests of the regional powers, because Taliban still haven't got international recognition. In the 1990s at least 3 countries had recognized them: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE. This time, no country has recognized the Taliban, you know, including Pakistan, which hasn't offered official recognition. So, there is some amount of international pressure on the one side, and the Taliban is very keen to get international recognition, because the Taliban know that it needs financial support, it's reserves are frozen by the Americans, if it's not from the international community, it atleast needs financial support from regional powers.

Secondly, it wants official recognition. Since the Doha agreement was signed in 2020 February, the Taliban's approach is that it would cut ties with these militant organizations. So, this whole Taliban approach has been institutionalized by the Doha agreement, because in the Doha agreement, the Taliban said that We will sever ties with Al-Qaeda, and we will fight the Islamic State.’ So the Americans said ‘Okay, thank you very much, we are leaving.’ That's what happened in the Doha agreement. So the whole Taliban approach has been institutionalized by the Doha agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. So, this has also become the major selling point of the Taliban. So, yes it's true that the Taliban have a very complex structure, it has multiple factions within. But at the same time, I think, for the Taliban's own survival, because this time the Taliban are in Kabul for a longer run: they haven't captured Kabul to rule Afghanistan for five years, like last time. Because the Taliban realized that, you know, Emirates and Islamic Republics or Islamic regimes have survived longer periods, you look at Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia, at its inception was much more brutal, when Saudi Arabia was founded in the 1930s, or during the conflict in the 1920s.

So the Taliban realized that they can also have a longer run if they become a little more pragmatic at least in its foreign policy without making any fundamental changes in its domestic policy, you know, so I think that is what is the overwhelming policy approach of the Taliban. So, to achieve this goal of survival, the Taliban would be ready to cut these regional powers on promises that it would take action against regional militant or terrorist organizations. That's what my assessment is.

Pratyaksh: Thank you so much sir. This is going to be one of the last questions that I have to put forward to you. Energy security is one of the most important themes of the 21st century, we see it in the Indo Pacific, and there are countless instances, even in your book wherein you have mentioned how much China values energy security, and how it formulates one of the very core motivations behind the Belt and Road Initiative. Sir, in the that context, how much do you think the West is accountable for it, in the sense that to secure Ukraine, don't you think they have fostered deeper ties between Russia and China which helps China not only secure the essential natural resources that it needs, but now we also see that Chinese people or the Chinese corporations are moving into and they are putting a lot of investments Siberian hinterlands. Following that question, because of the Russian-Ukraine war, the world has seen, how important energy is to the 21st century and given that, what now Germany is doing is that, now Germany is shutting down its nuclear power plants, and now it's reverting back to coal, and given that it forms the core of G-20, and it's such a developed country, don't you think the world should end, or the developed countries should join hands and they should end this anti-nuclear wave that is raising across the West, because if we revert ourselves back to the natural resources, we're going to be dependent on Russia, and that will further embolden China, which at the end defeats the longer game of the West or America itself.

Dr. Johny: That's true, in the sense, if you look at the whole American-Chinese contest, which most scholars call the most important geopolitical contest of the 21st century. If you look at it realistically, what the United States should do, the United States should focus its resources on China, right, instead, what the United States is doing is focusing its resources on Russia. So, this is what Ambassador Shivshankar Menon says, to his mind it looks like the United States is more comfortable with Russia as an enemy or as a rival than China, which is the actual rival. China is already the world's second largest economy. At no point during the Cold War the Soviet Union had attained the kind of economic resources, the economic power which China has now. China has set to become the world's largest economy within a matter of time. China has already established the world's largest Navy. China is the world's 2nd largest military superpower, and it's very clear that China is the country, as what Rush Doshi has written in a book ‘The Long Game’ which is in an effort to upstage the United States as the world's most important superpower, to displace the superpower. So China has a grand strategy according to though Doshi’s analysis.

So whatever that grant strategy may be, my point is that it is claimed to any student if IR that the most important geopolitical contest of the 21st century is between these two countries, but that's not what is happening actually, and other countries in the East and then thirdly it's driving Russia further into the Chinese embrace, which is strengthening the Russia China untolds right and this could eventually weaken the existing global order so but somehow this is not I mean this realistic assumptions analysis are not driving Western policy, makers in this case so this is a very complex situation because they are also the Western policy makers are also I think their options are also limited by the structural challenges because once the war began, how are you going to know, stop the war if you remove now all the sanctions it would be called a placement or it would be called once you started a maximalist approach and the you can't just withdraw those you know your policies if you end live to the sanctions for the sake of the global economy, everybody would say that the Western approach failed so this is now a very complicates situation.

The Russians have already launched the war and the West has already taken a very maximalist approach to weak and Russia according to their own policy makers were saying that they want to weaken Russia, that's their goal so while these maximalist approaches are playing out on the one side in the larger global spectrum, if you look at it the pressure China faced during the last American administration is off right, so that entire West is now focused on Russia, so then there best the Americans basically particularly when they got stuck in the Middle East and other regions China was rising steadily so now again the West is focused on Russia the pressure is of China and the conflict and the West responses towards the conflict is actually driving Russia into the Chinese embrace so what we see is a lot of realignments are already happening in the world and I can certainly say that this is not in the long run. I don't think that the conflict which is now going on is going to help or going to serve the Western interest in the long run, when you look at the most important geopolitical contest of the 21st century.

Pratyaksh: Thank you so much sir. I have one last question that doesn't concern the book per se but since you have been in this series of international affairs journalism and foreign policy for such a long time, what has been your personal experience and what advice would you have for students of IR?

Dr. Johny: I consider myself a student of IR so this is a long run and we would remain students of IR, it's a very interesting field because you would know the learning process never ends, the world is huge and there are multiple dimensions to IR, you can learn the theory and you should also understand history you should also update yourself with the contemporary developments so to my view the theoretical framework, as well as the historical background, are very important. You should also have a sense of the map, because as we say geography is your destiny, you can't change that.

In every country, there could be some amount of continuity in their foreign policy because when you formulate your foreign policy, that factors in some basic realities which include your geography so that's what, politics is all about, so there are multiple different layers, multiple elements and so you can have your own approach towards it but be inquisitive, keep learning, go back into history. Because when Russia attacks Ukraine, you should also look at what the Russians were doing in the 19th and 18th centuries, why President Putin took Crimea you should ask yourself why did he take Crimea, then you might also find in history that Catherine the Great had also taken Crimea in the 18th century. So there are interesting similarities and there is interesting connectivity, from the past to the present. I think the historical framework, the historical context and the theoretical framework are very important in understanding IR.

Pratyaksh: Thank you for speaking with us, sir!

Dr. Johny: Thank you for having me!

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