The bells have begun tolling in Afghanistan. With the 2014 deadline looming of an American and NATO troops withdrawal from that country, all those with an interest in Afghanistan have begun setting their pieces for a postcoalition existence. The time between now and then is crucial in terms of how the U.S.-led Western coalition shapes the field for the ruling regime and the Taliban to play.
All parties of the Afghan imbroglio are negotiating with each other, without any clarity about who is talking to whom and about what. The first off the block had been President Hamid Karzai, who struck out on his own, seeking “reconciliation” and “reintegration” of the “willing” Taliban under his own aegis. Pakistan resisted that and leaked the word about the negotiation.
In turn, the Taliban wanted several of its people to be released from Guantanamo and the Bagram air force base detention centre. But Karzai’s palace officials leaked the word about this U.S. contact with the Taliban, fearing that Karzai would be undermined in the later stages of these negotiations.
Pakistan too wants to be in the fray as General Ashfaque Parvez Kayani held an eight-hour meeting with Senator John Kerry, chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in an undisclosed Gulf country. During that meeting, Kayani claimed a larger share of the peace talk pie. How Kerry reacted is not known. But AP recorded, “A U.S. official familiar with the talks said Kayani made a pitch during his marathon meeting with Kerry that Pakistan take on a far larger role in Afghanistan peacemaking.”
The outcome of this meeting will be clearly watched by Karzai government in Kabul and their counterparts in New Delhi. The U.S. is out on a limb on this one. In fact, as the AP reported, the U.S., at the time of the leak, “had already offered small concessions as ‘confidence-building measures,’ . . . They were aimed at developing a rapport and moving talks forward . . . The concessions included treating the Taliban and al-Qaida differently under international sanctions. The Taliban had argued that while al-Qaida is focused on worldwide jihad against the West, Taliban militants have focused on Afghanistan and have shown little interest in attacking targets abroad.” It appears that after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban has been released from the tribal bondage of supporting al-Qaeda in good times and bad.
In the same vein, one should see Mullah Omar’s Eid message to the Taliban and the world. The message, despite the hyperbole, has three important elements. He first talks about how Afghanistan should have a “real” Islamic regime that is “acceptable to all people of the country.” “All ethnicities will have participation in the regime and portfolios will be dispensed on the basis of merits; [we] will maintain good relations with regional and world countries on the basis of mutual respect, Islamic and national interests.”
He then talks about his own vision of the country. “Since Afghanistan has vast arable land, rich mines and high potential of energy resources, therefore, we can make investments in these sectors in conditions of peace and stability and wrangle ourselves from the tentacles of poverty, unemployment, backwardness and ignorance, which give rise to other social and economic problems. Contrary to the propaganda launched by the enemies, the policy of the Islamic Emirate is not aimed at monopolizing power.”
He even accepts the reality of Afghanistan being a country of multiple ethnicities. He says, “Since Afghanistan is the joint homeland of all Afghans, so all Afghans have [the] right to perform their responsibility in the field of protection and running of the country. The future transformations and developments would not resemble the developments following the collapse of communism, when every thing of the country was plundered and the State Apparatus damaged entirely. Contrarily, strict measures will be taken to safeguard all national installations, government departments and the advancements that have been occurred [sic] in private sector. Professional cadres and national business men will be further encouraged, without any discrimination, to serve their religion and country.”
But above all that, Omar lays down the law about foreign troop presence in the country on a permanent basis. He says, “First of all, I would like to say that limited withdrawal of the invading forces can in, no way, solve the issue of Afghanistan. The Jihad will continue unabatedly, because superficial measures further complicate the issue of Afghanistan and can produce harmful consequences. The invading forces should seek a lasting and convincing solution to the issue by immediately withdrawing their forces.”
A striking feature of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s May visit to Kabul was the way it was viewed in Islamabad. The country’s newspaper Daily Times noted in an editorial on 16 May, “The timing of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Afghanistan and his address to the Afghan parliament as the first foreign leader to do so not only indicate the rising influence of India in Afghanistan but also the efficacy of soft power in pursuing foreign policy objectives in today’s world.”
In fact, the editorial signed off saying, “Not only has Pakistan been engulfed in the fire of extremist violence, the Americans are losing patience with Pakistan’s policy of promoting jihadis for use in Afghanistan and are threatening more drone strikes and other unilateral actions. India is succeeding in achieving its objectives in Afghanistan through soft power, which we have failed to do because of our reliance on hard power through proxies. It is time Pakistan revisited its Afghan policy.”
While that was almost embarrassingly laudatory of India’s labour in Afghanistan, it is also an acknowledgment of New Delhi’s parameters for engagement with the war-ravaged country.
India desires that Afghanistan get back control of its own destiny; become secure and stable, without any externally sponsored (read Pakistan) “jihadi” politics; and become a gateway for the country to resource-rich Central Asia. It is also India’s expectation that Afghanistan not be made to choose sides in South Asia, be it Pakistan or India.
A fact that stands out in all this is the recognition in New Delhi’s South Block that the U.S. and allied military operations have outlived their utility. Manmohan Singh’s call for the time of “reconciliation” given out while being in Kabul is an acknowledgement that every insurgency requires a political solution to complement the military actions.
The Wikileaks diplomatic cables show that the U.S., at least in 2005–2006, desired that India get wedded with its military coalition by providing humanitarian assistance under its aegis. India was then having the problem of securing its personnel working on these projects. So the country was amenable to Washington’s plan.
But Pakistan was the United States’ preferred choice between the two as it provided a staging post for its supply trains, crucial for its troops on the ground across the Durand Line. It also needed Islamabad’s help to monitor the Af-Pak border so that the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, fleeing from the Western troops, did not find sanctuary in Pakistan.
While President Pervez Musharraf had assured the American envoys in the wake of 9/11 that Pakistan was willing to be a frontline state in this war too, as it as in the 1980s against the Russian forces, Pakistan’s army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence played a duplicitous game. They allowed most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership to find sanctuary within the confines of Pakistan’s borders.
While the U.S. understood Islamabad’s strategic hedging, it was initially powerless to do much about this short of expanding the war into Pakistan. Eventually, of course, it pressed a few nerves of the country’s civilian and military leadership and was able to target some of the Islamist leadership.
India, at that time, was fully supportive of U.S. leadership. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was also not averse to militarily supporting the Western coalition. But this proposition was quickly scotched by the opposition parties in and outside parliament.
India’s quest at that time was to limit Pakistan’s ability to use Afghanistan for “strategic depth.” Many of the anti-India terrorists were connected with groups having training camps in Afghanistan and were establishing connections with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The IC 814 hijacking in December 1999, which led to the release of three leaders of terrorism to Taliban in Kandahar, had underlined that fact. India wanted these activities to be stopped.
These issues still remain on the Indian agenda of desirables.
India had always shown the intent to be involved in Afghanistan. The country had a cordial relationship with the last monarch of the country, Mohammad Daud. Even after the rebellion against him succeeded, led by the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1978, and the next year, when the Soviet army invaded, ostensibly to prop up the socialist regime, India remained engaged.
Between 1979 and 1989, till the Soviets returned home, India executed many project-connected public works. New Delhi was castigated by various countries aligned with the U.S. for not condemning the Russian invasion; the Indian ambassador then posted in Moscow, Lakhan Mehrotra, recalled that the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited India in early years of the incursion to get India’s endorsement but failed because a strong-willed prime minister, Indira Gandhi, held back.
The departure of the Russians from the scene in Afghanistan was followed by a break out of internecine battles between the various warlords, some enjoying the support of Pakistan. India willy-nilly had to take a backseat. But when the dust began settling down and Pakistan succeeded in foisting a marginally better organised Pashtun regime at Kabul and Kandahar (southern Afghanistan) of the Taliban, India got involved in securing the interest of the Tajik and Uzbek ethnic minorities in the country, bound together in a Northern Alliance.
This Northern Alliance was bolstered with Indian arms and, sometimes, Indian military advisers, including air force pilots. In this venture, New Delhi was supported by the postcommunist Moscow and Tehran. This is the same alliance that helped the U.S. armed forces and the CIA paramilitary to gain ground in the initial days of the American invasion post 9/11, even in the absence of their most celebrated commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Massoud was killed the day before 9/11 by al-Qaeda fidayeens.
Through the 1990s, India showed the linkage between Afghan mujaheedins and the Islamist violence in Kashmir under the control of Pakistan government’s agencies. Not till 9/11 did the U.S. appreciate the Indian viewpoint. So when Washington eventually made the connection between Afghan terrorism of the Taliban and al-Qaeda with Pakistan’s stratagem of asymmetric warfare, instability in South Asia came full circle.
The fact that India intends to break this cycle of violence in South Asia is evident in its size of aid to the Karzai government. The $2 billion aid package reflects New Delhi’s intention to get to the top of the situation. In the same vein, the country’s opposition to the U.S. and its Western allies’ desire to cut a deal with the Taliban and run is implicit in much of what India does these days.
India will like to see a deal in Kabul that does not lead to a situation of complete confusion and mindless violence as seen after 1989. As Manmohan Singh and Hamid Karzai reiterated, albeit in a muted manner, they do not want to see Pakistan exploiting the departure of the U.S. and allied forces to trigger another civil war in Afghanistan that upends all the gains of the past one decade.
In this context, Mullah Omar’s Eid message gains significance. Even though it is believed that he is living under the clandestine care of Pakistan, Omar appeared to oppose any attempt by Islamabad to impose a regime in Kabul, be it even his own. Working in favour of Afghanistan’s national interest seems to be the new mantra he is spouting now.
India, like China, seems to be gearing towards futuristic investments for extracting Afghanistan’s reportedly huge mineral wealth. Considering that harnessing items like minerals are long-drawn-out processes, clearly China and India are ready to invest in the future of Afghanistan. While the U.S. Department of Defence had triggered these activities, now the two Asian majors seem to have been voting with their money in favour.
India also intends to train Afghan human resources, including the Afghan police and the Afghan National Army. These are, however, kept at a low key so as not to raise the hackles of Pakistan. Since 2007, India had been sending batches of civil servants to create training modules for their Afghan counterparts, But the Indian officials are strictly not taking on daily functions of the Afghan bureaucracy as New Delhi wants the programme to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
The number of fellowships offered to Afghan students to come to India for academics is increasingly going up under the supervision of the Indian Council of Cultural Research.
One of the biggest problems India faces in Afghan relief work is one of access. Since the two countries do not share a border and Afghanistan is landlocked, the best way for India to reach it is via Pakistan. Considering the latter’s animosity towards India and its suspicions about India’s involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan tries to tie India up in a series of antiaccess regulations.
So India has developed an alternative circuitous route via Iran. This increases the cost of transportation and delays its arrival. The Iranians too get a veto right on what India can or cannot send to Afghanistan.
But New Delhi has still been on the job of undertaking important public works like the highway from Zaranj to Delaram, the electrification of Kabul with a power transmission line from Pul-ki Kumri, and Salma dam. The problem here lies with the security of the Indian personnel working on these projects. India had initially begun with the deployment of 80 Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel. After the attacks on its personnel, the country raised the number ITBP forces to 120. And another 120 were added later.
During 2005–2006, the U.S. goaded India to provide military equipment to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police. In turn, very quietly, New Delhi supplied many pieces of the equipment the latter wanted. The American embassy in Kabul coordinated the exercise between Indian mission there and the Afghan government.
But the Americans were wary of having the Indian government deploy military troops—”boots on the ground” as they were dubbed. They felt that if India heightened its Afghan engagement in such a fashion, the other neighbours of the country might raise demands for inducting their own troops, which would complicate the situation for the U.S. government and its allies.
India, on the other hand, became too dependent on the U.S. for its own Afghan engagement. Though occasionally the former made some forays for coordinating with regional partners like Russia and Iran, the actions lacked conviction.
The Americans consciously kept India out of the major international conferences held to plan for the future of Afghanistan. Washington did this primarily on account of Pakistan, as Indian inclusion in those jamborees could raise the pulse rate of Islamabad. This, in turn, could have jeopardised the United States’ already combative collaboration with the country.
Pakistan had been raising constant objections about the rising Indian footprint in the Afghan theatre. They pointed at the number of consulates India had opened right up to the provinces bordering with Pakistan. Islamabad also charges India for covert action from an Afghan launch pad aimed at Pakistan’s rebellious Baluchistan province.
India is also in the process of correcting its earlier exclusive dependence on the Northern Alliance for exercising its leverage in Afghanistan. This meant that the majority Pashtuns were inimical towards Indian influences amongst them. The country has now opened some channels with the Pashtun leadership on account of its unalloyed backing of President Hamid Karzai.
Afghan intelligentsia is quite enthralled by India’s “soft power” in the country. The humanitarian projects in Afghanistan—not just of the big-ticket projects like the Zaranj-Delaram road, but also the smaller swift impact projects—have left the people applauding. It had even triggered a U.S. desire that India launch a provincial reconstruction team under the former’s aegis so that the Western alliance could gain some of the goodwill that is India’s preserve.
Nevertheless, considering the scenario in strategic terms, India’s biggest hindrance in Afghanistan is its lack of easy access. Under American pressure, the country had down-scaled its engagement with Tehran to such an extent that the latter was no longer a committed friend who could support New Delhi’s efforts at keeping any Pakistan-instigated threat from Afghanistan at a benign level.
Post 2014, this could well become an Achilles’ heel ready for exploitation. And this one inability could affect India’s outreach to the central Asian countries. New Delhi needs to quickly begin thinking about ways and means of creating a strong regional bond of goodwill that could carry weight of India’s national interest.
India also needs to impress upon the American interlocutors that they should not leave Afghanistan in a state that does not fulfil their original strategic objective of having a regime in Kabul that is strong enough to withstand the pressures of having volatile immediate neighbours. This regime should not get suborned once again by an assertive Islamabad seeking to use its own “strategic assets”—the Islamist terrorists.