Mahabharata Musings: Why Afghans and the Taliban are the New Pandavas and Kauravas

raja ravi varma painting
A painting by Raja Ravi Varma depicting the scene of Pandava-Kaurava negotiations from the Mahabharata. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Another round of Intra-Afghan talks has begun – finally! The government as well as the people of Afghanistan have once again demonstrated their willingness to cooperate with the Taliban to restore peace in Afghanistan; the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) signed the resolution to release the last batch of Taliban prisoners last month. President Ghani approved of the decision, and the Taliban have confirmed that almost all the prisoners have been released. The entire process of prisoner release was one of the most democratic processes of the present times and is bound to determine the future of Afghanistan.

However, peace is not guaranteed; in fact, the more I observe the situation unravelling in Afghanistan, the more I find it sharing similarities with the Indian epic the Mahabharata, in which the Afghans, regardless of whether they are a part of the Afghan government or the Taliban, are all sons of the soil, yet in clashes, much like the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

The Afghan government’s grand gesture of realising Taliban prisoners can be traced back to the peace deal signed which the US and the Taliban signed on 29 February 2020. The Afghan government wasn’t even a party to this treaty. Moreover, Taliban’s stand has been contradictory; on one hand, they agree to talk with all Afghan factions, on the other, they have stated time and again that they do not recognize Kabul administration and called them as an ‘American puppet’.

Despite being elected, the Afghan government was kept out of the peace deal and was pushed to a corner. Since the peace deal was signed and till date, the Taliban has continued attacking the Afghan government and the people. Yet, even after the US outpowered them and the Taliban vilified them, the Afghan government agreed to release the most dreaded Taliban terrorists just so that peace could prevail in Afghanistan.

I had been following all of these developments, but to get a real sense from the ground, I spoke to an Afghan friend who, for the sake of his safety and our friendship, I will refer to as Shahrukh. Shahrukh is an ethnic Pashtoon from the Mohmand tribe, working in the financial sector for over a decade and also as a part-time lecturer. He is a highly educated person with multiple credentials in the financial sector.

Shahrukh minces no words when I ask his opinion on the peace deal.

“Common Afghans have no benefit from the peace deal,” he says. “The US and the Taliban are playing each other, and the US clearly has interests in this region, so most probably it will never leave Afghanistan fully.”

Afghanistan is very similar to India considering its multi-ethnic makeup and diversity and for such nations, democracy is the best model as it is closest to ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. When I ask Shahrukh what he thinks of excluding the Afghan government from the peace deal, he shakes his head. It’s not right, he says, but he also concedes to the fact that them being party to the talks wouldn’t have mattered much.

I prod further – does he support democracy or the Taliban? “Always the Afghan government, the Taliban will take us back 5000 years,” pat comes the reply. I wasn’t sure whether the US leaving Afghanistan is a good decision, but Shahrukh had no doubts; as far as he was concerned, whether US stayed or left didn’t matter as much as security and how the Afghans achieved it.

Whatever happens in Afghanistan will surely affect India. India supports the Afghan Government while Pakistan supports the Taliban, and with US leaving Afghanistan, a vacuum is likely to be created which Pakistan will surely try to exploit for its own interests. The Taliban gaining greater prominence in the days to come will surely be a bad omen for India.

I recall another Afghan friend of mine once telling me that the Afghan society is inherently opposed to any kind of foreign involvement in their matters, and four decades of war and terrorism has only brought out the worse. I wonder if Shahrukh feels the same and ask if India should increase its involvement in Afghanistan (like other countries have).

To my surprise, Shahrukh says, “Of course!”. According to him, if countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the likes are already using their influence in the Afghan scenario, India should too. “Moreover, India supports the Afghan government and is a friend to the Afghan people. But at the same time, while holding its fort, India should speak to the Taliban as well.” Quite a realist!

While I do believe that India should increase its involvement in Afghanistan (and we don’t need Pakistan to extend its deep state over there any further), the real onus of Afghanistan’s future lies in its citizens supporting their government and not the Taliban.

The entire peace process is thus fraught with friction between the Afghan government – and ostensibly, the people – on one side, and the Taliban on the other. The resemblance with Mahabharata (which I alluded to earlier) lies in these internal disputes: the Afghan government, much like the Pandavas, wants to live by Dharma (righteousness, but in this context, nation building with democratic values) and peace, unlike the Taliban, much like the Kauravas, who are egoistic, driven by greed and drunk by power.

Like the Kauravas, the Taliban too does not want to cede land “that would fit on the tip of a pin” of Afghanistan to the Afghan government. Just as this episode of the Mahabharata cast doubts on the temporarily prevailing peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, so is the Taliban’s attitude rendering the peace deal shaky. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna was, at first, the Pandavas’ ambassador to negotiate with the Kauravas, and then the Pandavas’ guide in the battle of Kurukshetra; current Afghanistan has no such entity.

Yet, just as the battle of Kurukshetra had to be fought for peace to finally rule, so it seems for the Afghans too, for only then peace could ultimately prevail in the land of Afghanistan.

Mark Kinra

Mark Kinra is a corporate lawyer by profession and geopolitical analyst at heart. He primarily works on South Asia, specializing in Pakistan.

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