India’s Afghan Predicament: Waning Influence and Ascending Threats

Image result for India’s Afghan Predicament:
rime Minister Narendra Modi with Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi; image credit asianlite.com

by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 12 June 2019

Afghanistan peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban interlocutors on the one hand and talks hosted by Russia to facilitate the peace process under the Moscow-format including the Taliban and Afghan opposition on the peace table on the other indicate the peace process gravitating toward the insurgent group’s demands. The Afghan government has been sidelined in the entire gamut of the process due to the Taliban’s insistence that it is merely an American puppet. India has been confronting complex security challenges emerging from unfavorable and complicated security scenario evolving in Afghanistan largely because of its long-standing anti-Taliban stance which is based on the argument that there could be no distinction between good and bad Taliban. Adding insult to the injury, the Taliban have been demanding complete withdrawal of international forces before proceeding further in the peace process and this proposal has been floated by the Taliban and Russian interlocutors alike in the last meeting in Moscow. Earlier, to India’s reservations, peace offers by the Afghan government have been ignored by the Taliban whereas direct talks with the US were demanded by the insurgent group as its territorial control and influence kept expanding. Although the Trump Administration tried to stem this tide by adopting an offensive gesture through measures like increasing the number of American troops and resuming drone strikes, it palpably failed to do so and was pushed to pursue direct talks with the Taliban (M. Mashal and E. Schmitt “White House Orders Direct Taliban Talks to Jump-start Afghan Negotiations”, The New York Times, July 15, 2018, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/15/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-direct-negotiations.html). The peace process is gravitating toward the Taliban’s demands is also perceptible from the Afghan government’s release of at least 170 Taliban inmates from the Pul-e-Charkhi jail and reportedly, 130 others are expected to be freed soon. As a peace gesture on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the release of 887 prisoners as part of his efforts to persuade the resurgent group to engage in intra-Afghan dialogue. The flipside is, the insurgent group will be strengthened further by such measures even while it continued to insist that the Afghan government is kept out of the peace process. 

Apart from a spate of attacks on the Indian embassy, consulates and reconstruction sites allegedly executed by the Afghan Taliban, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has emerged as another non-state actor contributing to instability in Afghanistan. ISIS’s claim that it perpetrated the attack on July 1, 2018 in the form of a suicide bombing in the Afghan city of Jalalabad which killed 19 people and 17 of the dead were from Sikh and Hindu communities points to the fact how the radical Islamic group would be a threat to India’s presence in Afghanistan given the religious dimension of the attack (O. Wheaton, “ISIS claims deadly suicide bombing on Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan”, Independent News, July 2, 2018, Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/isis-suicide-bomber-jalalabad-afghanistan-islamic-state-sikhs-hindus-dead-a8426476.html).

The presence of ISIS in the city of Jalalabad in the eastern Afghanistan attests to the fact of rising influence of the group beyond Iraq and Syria into adjoining Islamic states which could eventually pose a threat to India’s territorial integrity. The American position on the peace talks so far indicates that it is seeking guarantees from the Taliban that the group would not allow Afghanistan to be used against other countries. However, it remains doubtful whether the Taliban have complete control over other militant groups considering continuing menace perpetrated by groups like ISIS. Meanwhile, a US report has also confirmed that at least 300 fighters from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) –a group which usually operates across the border areas of Pakistan and perpetrate cross-border terrorism against India are also active in Afghanistan. The report says that among the 20 prominent militant organizations active in Afghanistan LeT ranks fifth in terms of fighters along with al Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

While India took up a major role in the construction activities to project its soft power and earn goodwill of Afghans and it assumed a low-key security role in Afghanistan. Its security footprint was limited to the area of training the Afghan army, supplying military equipments – Indian government under Modi’s leadership supplied four Russian-made MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan- and India also expressed its willingness to train Afghan police force (M. Pubby, “MI-25 attack helicopter gifted by India to Afghanistan reaches Kabul, 3 more to follow”, The Economic Times, July 14, 2018, Available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/mi-25-attack-helicopter-gifted-by-india-to-afghanistan-reaches-kabul-3-more-to-follow/articleshow/50275035.cms). However, India’s projection of soft power with meagre hard power abilities was no match to Afghan Taliban’s power projection and fragmentation of the Northern Alliance group which used to receive India’s support also made enhanced military role meaningless. Apart from the ethnic attachment with the Pashtuns who constitute the majority in Afghanistan; the Afghan Taliban’s strength was also contingent upon continued support from Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI), the Haqqani network, Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups from across the border.

Waning of India’s of Influence in Afghanistan during the Civil War period

With the Cold War ending with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US lost interest in Afghanistan (L. P. Goodson, Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban, University of Washington Press, Washington, 2001, p. 147). It was apparently more interested in the Gulf War to set the tone of a New World Order than in the crisis-ridden Afghanistan for which the superpowers were largely responsible. In this context, Pakistan developed independent strategies to enhance its influence in Afghanistan in collusion with radical Islamic groups. It continued to support the mujahideen group led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar and India was denied a major role in Afghanistan because of its perceived pro-Soviet role during the Soviet occupation. India was looked upon as pro-Najibullah regime. Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, a leader of the Islamic Interim Council warned India against any intervening role when they were battling the government forces in Jalalabad, near Pakistan’s border in March 1989. Najibullah’s visit to New Delhi in August 1990 and signing of an agreement on the Prevention of Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs corroborated such perception (Annual Report 1990-1991, Ministry of External Affairs, External Publicity Division, Government of India, New Delhi, 1991).

Infighting between the various resistance forces allowed the communists to remain in power till 1992. Mohammad Najibullah was the last communist to step down in favour of a mujahideen coalition led by Sibgatullah Mujadedi. But the mujahideen coalition could not remain in power for long time and was soon ripped apart by brutal factional struggles. An uncertain phase of civil war ensued characterized by fight for personal power bringing most part of Afghanistan under local commanders and warlords. Kabul was seized by the Tajik dominated Jamiat-e-Islami of Barhuddin Rabbani and his commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. During the civil war, Pakistan rendered all kinds of support to Hekmetyar but he failed to capture power despite repeated attempts and havoc and fear that he generated among the people by executing indiscriminate rocket and artillery attacks. Heavy fighting ensued between different ethnic factions like Tajik dominated Jamiat-e-Islami, Pushtun dominated Hizb-e-Islami, the Hazara dominated Hiz-e-Wahdat and Uzbek dominated Jowzjan militia in the absence of superpower role in the region.

Emergence of the Taliban and Sharp Decline of India’s Influence in Afghanistan

The Jamiat-e-Islami (JUI), an Islamic organisation in Pakistan which turned into a political party later, organised the rural madrassahs in the Pashtun tribal areas in Afghanistan and the network of madrassahs in Pakistan, where millions of Afghans took refuge after the communist coup in Afghanistan in 1978. After becoming a political party the JUI remained in political opposition to the governments elected after President Zia’s death in 1988. After the 1993 elections, however, it became a part of coalition government of Benazir Bhutto, and its leader, Fazlur Rehman, played an instrumental role in laying the pedestal of the Afghan Taliban (A. Rasanayagam, Afghanistan: A Modern History, I. B. Tauris, London, 2009, p. 180).

India’s humanitarian and military support to the Northern Alliance and its anti-Taliban stance further eroded India’s influence in Afghanistan as the Taliban drew sympathy and support from the majority community – the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. New Delhi revealed that it had supplied the Northern Alliance military hardware worth around 8 million US dollars, and military advisors and helicopter technicians to maintain Soviet-made MI-17 and MI-35 attack helicopters (S. Akbarzadeh, “India and Pakistan’s geo-strategic rivalry in Central Asia”, Contemporary South Asia, Vol 12, No. 2, 2003, p. 224).

However, India’s Afghan strategy suffered from logistic constraint in the absence of a contiguous border with Afghanistan. Secondly, while India believed in the resilience and staying power of Northern Alliance, the Taliban was regarded as an indigenous movement by many Afghans and therefore treated as a legitimate political voice. Thirdly, India was getting diplomatically marginalized both in the regional and international context. As the American and Pakistani interests converged in promoting the Taliban as an instrument of stability to find an outlet for the Central Asian energy resources to the world market through Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamabad was assured of a better position in the future negotiations by the US. Pakistani diplomacy succeeded in keeping India out of the UN meetings by insisting on the “great powers and neighbours” formula for participation. This is how India was kept out of the 6+2 group on Afghanistan (S. D. Muni, “India’s Afghan Policy: Emerging from the Cold”, in K. Warikoo (ed.), Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities, Vol. 1- The Crisis, Himalayan Research and Cultural Foundation, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2007, p. 345).

Despite Pakistan’s role in propping up the Afghan Taliban, the group was believed to have indigenous roots and emerged as one of the powerful radical groups during the Afghan civil war to claim power in Afghanistan. New Delhi reached out to the new government formed by Burhanuddin Rabbani following the fall of Najibullah government in 1992 and continued to recognize and deal with it despite the fact that the Taliban were making advances in extending their sway in Afghanistan.

A former Indian diplomat observed that India by taking an anti-Taliban stance hindered its interests in Afghanistan and instead pandered to the western interests. According to him “the Indian strategic thinkers should not have been such incorrigible fundamentalists to fail to appreciate the shades of political Islam or discern the western propaganda about the Taliban. Mixing up the Taliban completely with the adversarial mindset of the Pakistani security agencies was equally wrong. Overlooking the indigenous roots of a home-grown movement was always injudicious” (M.K. Bhadrakumar, “The Audacity of Afghan Peace Hopes”, The Hindu, February 4, 2010). Some scholars maintained that the Afghan Taliban imbibed Afghan nationalism and concentrated more on driving foreign forces out of Afghanistan than on insurgency in Kashmir and the Taliban government like all other previous governments had not taken any anti-India stance on the Kashmir issue. New Delhi’s perspective on the Afghan Taliban and its military support to the Northern Alliance were largely shaped by India’s concerns pertaining to Pakistani ambitions underlying its support for the group rather than the Taliban’s objectives. With the Afghan Taliban’s rise in influence, India anticipated growth of a corridor of radical Islamists, illegal trade of drugs and strengthening of insurgency in Kashmir with Pakistani collusion and support from other radical religious groups functioning in tandem.

India’s Afghan Role following the War on Terror: Expectations and Debacles

The ‘War on Terror’ aroused Indian expectations to beat Pakistan’s strategies in Afghanistan. New Delhi swiftly responded to the American call for support in executing the ‘War on Terror’ and the Indian government quickly offered all kinds of logistic assistance to the US. The Indian External Affairs Ministry revealed that New Delhi had expressed its readiness not just to give logistic help but also provide the staging ground for the US military operations (P. Dutt, “India and US Involvement in Afghanistan”, in Salman Haidar (ed.), The Afghan War and its Geopolitical Implications for India, Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 2004, p. 85).

However, there were a host of factors that impeded Indian influence in Afghanistan. As Pakistan declared its participation in the US-sponsored ‘War on Terror’, India’s importance significantly dwindled in the American eyes. The US relied on Pakistan to ensure military and non-military supplies for the Afghan operation given Russian resistance to use Northern Distribution Network for supplies of lethal goods and poor communication facilities between Central Asia and Afghanistan also hindered the development of these alternative routes and adversarial relations with Iran prohibited from laying down any alternative route from Tehran. Lack of dialogue, discussions and consultations between US on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other led to American irreversible dependence on Pakistan. Moreover, the US was aware that Pakistan has had the potential to use coercive measures in order to multiply its support for the radical groups (S. Gregory, “US is paying for Pak protection racket”, The Times of India, December 12, 2010). The US also perceived failure of Pakistan-a nuclear power- as a state would lead to a vacuum that would be filled in by radical religious groups acquiring state armaments and nuclear weapons. Geopolitically, the American projects of ‘Greater Central Asia’ and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan and Pakistan (TAP) pipeline which later included India and turned into TAPI intended to firmly place Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Central Asian geopolitics. It is argued that while India was considered instrumental in containing China and central to Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, Pakistan was perceived vital in promoting the American interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Therefore, despite American reservations and apprehension over Pakistan’s role as a sincere partner in executing the war against terrorism and until the Trump Administration suspended military assistance, the US granted enormous ‘war aid’ to the latter over the years which significantly outweighed the ‘developmental aid’ meant for Pakistan’s socio-economic development (A. S. Zaidi., Who benefits from US aid to Pakistan?, Policy Outlook, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 21, p. 4, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/pakistan_aid2011.pdf, 2011).

In order to increase its influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, India entered into agreements on military cooperation with Central Asian states and expressed its willingness to train Afghan army by entering into strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan in 2011. India took upon itself a major reconstruction and development work in Afghanistan to earn good will of Afghans (M. K. Mishra, “India’s Contribution to International Peace and Security: A Human Security Perspective”, World Affairs, Vol.18, No.2, 2014, p. 27). It has by now committed more than $3 billion towards reconstruction of primary sectors of the Afghan society including health, education and building of political institutions.  Many opinion polls conducted to rate India’s popularity in Afghanistan projected it is one of the favourite countries for the Afghans. However, India’s enhanced soft-power image did not enhance its abilities to shape Afghan situation according its objectives as rising cases of terrorist attacks on India’s diplomatic presence and abduction of Indian engineers engaged in reconstruction works pointed to. Anti-Taliban stance considering the resilience of the Afghan Taliban which is now projected to be exercising control over large swathes of Afghan territory would indicate immature diplomacy in case of India. Earlier, India’s exclusion from many important regional conferences such as meetings held in Pakistan, Turkey and Russia to discuss security issues concerning Afghanistan pointed to New Delhi’s stark diplomatic failure to foster ties and partnership with other regional powers sharing common concerns and stakes in Afghanistan. However, India decided to share peace table with the Taliban albeit unofficially later considering the changing power dynamics within Afghanistan.

While the Trump Administration might be poised to end the 18-year long Afghan war to shelve it as a foreign policy victory and enhance its popularity to win the upcoming election in November, 2020 and conclude a peace deal with the Taliban, Russia to safeguard its Central Asian backyard and China to protect China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) might unite their efforts to deliver a peace deal with the Taliban. In this light, India must not witness the peace talks in askance and must endeavor to invigorate regional diplomacy to win Russian, Chinese and Iranian support as a way to defend its stakes in Afghanistan which can only be ensured by supporting a peace process which is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. India must strive to diplomatically engage US and other significant stakeholders in Afghanistan such as Russia, Iran, and China to ensure that the Taliban’s commitments to human rights including women’s rights specifically, to containing the illegal production and trafficking of opium and to help rehabilitate almost 2.5 million refugees from Afghanistan as a result of the prolonged conflict must be ensured before any steps at removing military, financial and diplomatic restrictions placed on the group by the international community are undertaken (M. K. Mishra, “Challenges to Securing A Peaceful and Stable Afghanistan”, Eurasia Review, May 18, 2019).

New Delhi must pursue these powers that the Taliban’s aspiration of establishing a “pure Islamic government” must be deliberated and common ground must be developed as a way to accommodate the principles of pluralism, power-sharing and election-based politics and the achievements made in the areas of state-building, democratization and pluralism must be strengthened further if the peace process has to succeed.

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