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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 50, New Delhi, November 28, 2020

India’s Policy Lapses and Security Concerns in Afghanistan | Manoj Kumar Mishra

Saturday 28 November 2020

by Manoj Kumar Mishra *

India has been confronting complex security challenges from unfavourable and complicated security scenario in Afghanistan which are characterised by the apparent failure of American-led war as well as peace and reconciliation efforts. The American stress on an exit policy fixing a specific time-line did not bring expected results in terms of peace dividends rather the Afghan Taliban became more resilient over the years and demanded complete withdrawal of international forces before the beginning of peace talks. Peace offers by the Afghan government were ignored and direct talks with the US were demanded by the Taliban 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 clearly failed to do so and was forced to pursue direct talks with the Taliban.

The security challenges notwithstanding, India’s security footprint in the war-torn country has been limited to the area of training the Afghan army and supplying military equipments. For instance, the Indian government under Narendra Modi’s leadership supplied four Russian-made fighter planes to Afghanistan- and expressed its willingness to train Afghan police force whereas the security challenges facing the country have been enormous with Pakistan-propped militant groups with the alleged support from Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI), the Haqqani network, Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups operating from across the border. For instance, several militant groups propped by Pakistan are active on the Afghan soil to undercut India’s presence and interests. A US report 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.

In July 1 2018, a suicide bombing in the Afghan city of Jalalabad which killed 19 people and 17 of the dead were Sikhs and Hindus pointed to the increasing sway of radical Islamic elements within the Afghan territory. While ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) claimed that it perpetrated the attack, killings of people from Sikh and Hindu communities pointed to the fact how the radical Islamic group could be a threat to India’s presence in Afghanistan given the religious dimension of the attack. [1] Previously, there were cases of attacks on the Indian embassy, consulates and reconstruction sites. However, with the rising influence of ISIS, the level of threat reached the domains of educational institutions, media and different civil society groups. While many experts argued that the influence of ISIS had been dented by the American drone strikes, Marine General Frank McKenzie, who heads the U.S. Central Command, told media, on June 12, 2019 that even though he did not believe ISIS in Afghanistan has expanded its capabilities but that it does still represent a dangerous presence in the country.

India’s declining Influence in Afghanistan

Looking at the historical developments in Indo-Afghan relations, despite strong cultural bonding, India could not render unambiguous support to Kabul over the demand of self-determination for the Pashtun population spreading across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area (the Durand Line) to form Pashtunistan. The Pashtunistan issue had enormous strategic importance for the Pashtun population in Afghanistan. Being influenced by other considerations and developments in the international arena at the time, New Delhi failed to grasp the geopolitical interest underlying the Pashtunistan movement, which was to find an egress to the sea. As all the trade routes to Afghanistan’s south run through Pakistani territory, access to the sea was needed for Kabul to find an alternative route that would make it less dependent on Pakistan. New Delhi’s failure in rendering unambiguous support on issues vital to Pashtuns compromised its Afghan policy. The pattern of ethnic distribution of Afghanistan’s population tilts in favor of Pashtuns with their population being 42% of the entire population, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, 4% Aimak, 3% Turkmen, 2% Baloch and 4% falling into an unspecified “other” group. However, India’s Afghan policy tended to ignore the significance of these statistics.

After the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, India’s response was shaped more by the need to maintain strategic relationship with the Soviet Union than to understand the problems and concerns of non-aligned Afghanistan. It is to be noted that during the decade-long stay in Afghanistan of Soviet Union, no serious attempts were made by policy makers in New Delhi to explain its policy or to establish contact with the mujahideen groups. This distanced it from the dominant international anti-Soviet front that was more interested in pushing Moscow out than ensuring a stable and independent Afghanistan. Pakistan, the principal member of the anti-Soviet front, was observed being extremely active in keeping India out of any important negotiations involving Afghanistan. New Delhi’s ambiguous stance following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan only helped drive a wedge between India and the Pashtun population. For instance, India was denied a major role in Afghanistan during the civil war because of its perceived pro-Soviet role during the Soviet occupation. India was increasingly seen 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 Prevention of Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs corroborated such perception. [2]

India’s humanitarian and military support to the Northern Alliance and its anti-Taliban stance further eroded India’s influence 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 but that ignored the significance of statistics that the Taliban drew sympathy and support from the majority community — the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. [3] Further, India’s Afghan strategy suffered from logistic constraint in the absence of a contiguous border with Afghanistan. Second, while India believed in the resilience and staying power of Northern Alliance, the Taliban was regarded by many Afghans as an indigenous movement and therefore contributed to its strength and success. Third, India was getting diplomatically marginalised both in the regional and international context. As the American and Pakistani interests converged in promoting the Taliban as factor of stability to find an outlet for the Central Asian energy resources to the world market through Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan 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. [4]

New Delhi’s failure to engage the Taliban has placed its Afghan strategy in a quandary considering the resilience of the group, which has raised the possibility of its prominence in a future political scenario in Afghanistan and India’s lack of a coherent strategy to deal with it. On the contrary, India has been counting on an uncertain American presence in Afghanistan. Some scholars point to the overwhelming indigenous character of the Afghan Taliban and tend to argue that New Delhi must not view the group only from a Pakistani perspective. For instance, it has been argued that the Afghan Taliban under the late Mullah Omar were an indigenous movement unlike many other jihadi groups that undertook anti-Indian activities. 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”. [5] The Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen remarked that India’s fears, as well as reservations over the Taliban’s intentions, are not grounded in reality. He said: “It is not a genuine fear, it is not a reality. Why [should we] turn our fighters towards India when we need to reconstruct our country after its liberation? We need to have [relations] with other countries to help us in reconstructing and developing our country. We do not have any policy of interference in any other countries; rather, we want to have good relations with every global partner.” [6]

Lost Opportunities 

India’s willingness to contribute military troops to fight radical groups in Afghanistan following 9/11 by the former Indian Prime Ministers A.B Vajpaee and Manmohan Singh did not receive green signal from the US and New Delhi took up a proactive role in terms of projecting its soft-power image by contributing in the areas of infrastructure, health, education and capacity building. India’s interest in building transport corridors and investing in energy projects also aimed at gaining access to the Central Asian energy resources. Its support in critical socio-economic areas earned good will of Afghans. Many opinion polls suggested that India is one of the favorite countries for the Afghans.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had asked India to take up a larger military role in Afghanistan by supplying weapons and training Afghan security forces. India did not show much interest in hard power and confined its role in promoting soft power in Afghanistan. For example, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, India became the fifth largest bilateral donor country behind the US, Japan, UK and Germany having pledged US $750 million, committed US$701.67 million and disbursed US$204.26 million in diverse areas, including infrastructure, communications, education, health care, social welfare, training of officials, including diplomats and policemen, economic development and institution-building. These are the sectors which have been identified by the Afghan government as priority areas of development and by working through consultations with local communities; Indian aid projects have generated tremendous goodwill among the Afghans.

However, India’s enhanced soft-power image does not increase its abilities to shape Afghan situation following the American withdrawal. India entered into strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan in 2011 and raised the possibility that it might train, equip and build the capacity of the Afghan army in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Further, the Indian government’s expressed willingness to supply Russian-made helicopters to the Afghan army is not enough to ensure stability in Afghanistan with the dwindling American military assistance. In the absence of a military footprint in Afghanistan and ability to effectively project hard power beyond its borders, India’s Afghan policy is likely to suffer unless compensated by robust regional engagement.
In reality, India was unable to expand its soft-power resources to the larger region in so far as it failed to evolve and engage other countries surrounding Afghanistan around common views and ways of fighting terrorism and ensuring a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. India’s over-dependence on American military strategy is largely responsible for its predicament. India failed to observe how the Central Asian strategy of the US ever since the Soviet disintegration did not co-opt Indian interests. The US considered the Taliban a stabilizing force in Afghanistan which could help it secure a pipeline bypassing Russia and Iran and thereby could end their possible monopoly over oil supplies. It is not far-fetched to believe that the Americans would not have taken on the Taliban if the latter had not turned away from the US orbit of influence.

Afghan Peace Process and India’s helplessness

While any long-term resolution to the Afghan problem must directly engage the Taliban on the details of a comprehensive ceasefire as well as the group’s status and role in the post-conflict system of governance, the Taliban have been insistent on a date for US withdrawal along with the release of all Taliban detainees in Guantánamo and Afghanistan before any agreement is materialized. However, many complicated issues are to be addressed if any sustainable plan on the resolution of the conflict has to be on the table.

India’s hope to see an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process was dashed by the exclusion of the Afghan government in the entire gamut of the peace process due to the Taliban’s insistence that it is merely an American puppet. The insurgent group’s territorial control and far-reaching influence restricted the leeway of the external powers in nudging the Taliban from its firm position. Exclusion of the Afghan government from the peace process not only indicated cornering of the present political institutions representing the country’s fledgling democratic multi-ethnic structure, the Taliban’s intentions remain unclear as to whether the group would work with others to take whatever socio-economic and political gains have been accrued all these years ahead. The exclusion from the peace process so far means that the process is gravitating toward the Taliban’s agenda which largely remains unclear.

To India’s disadvantage, parallel peace-making efforts by major powers in Afghanistan showing disagreement among the significant stakeholders surfaced. While Afghanistan peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban interlocutors were continuing, Russia hosted the Taliban and Afghan opposition for talks to facilitate the peace process under the Moscow-format. Similarly, China also hosted a Taliban delegation and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman acknowledged in the media that Abdul Ghani Baradar — the Taliban representative in Qatar, and some of his colleagues made a visit to China. 

India must insist 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.

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.

Further, it is also believed that any comprehensive dialogue process must involve the complicated exercise of discussing the political future of the group’s local commanders and foot soldiers apart from that of the leaders. Ignoring this may lead to endless fragmentation of the group which in turn would generate ceaseless concerns of insecurity and instability.

The US representative Zalmay Khalilzad is seeking guarantees that the Taliban will not provide safe haven to terrorist groups and work toward ensuring that Afghan territory is not be used to launch strikes against the US by transnational groups such as al-Qaeda, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and ISIS in future.

The US State Department has referred to Russia, and China joining with the US calling for intra-Afghan talks which urged a ceasefire as well as supported “an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process.”

It must be noted while the regional powers have been stressing on an “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-led” peace process, their specific geopolitical concerns propelled them to assume roles that were at odds with the US peace moves. For instance, Pakistan, Iran including Russia conducted a number of meetings and expressed their Afghan concerns implicating the US for a unilateral role.

While Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed Islamabad’s willingness to see the Taliban give up their refusal to talk to the Afghan government and participate in the political settlement of the long-drawn Afghan conflict, Pakistan’s sincerity in seeking a stable and peaceful Afghanistan has been questionable.
On the other side, Pakistan’s Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, asserted that Pakistan was taking action according to a National Action Plan formulated in 2014 and decisions taken by the National Security Committee of the country in its efforts to fulfill the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — a body that works to combat money laundering and terrorism financing and comply with the UN Security Council resolutions on counter-terrorism measures.

However, reservations regarding Pakistan’s sincerity in taking on terrorism have been expressed in several quarters. The US and the Afghan government have held Pakistan responsible for continuing insurgencies and instabilities in Afghanistan on several occasions.

The Trump administration failed to deal with Islamabad in a way that could help it achieve breakthroughs in Afghan peace efforts. The US continues to depend on Pakistan’s ground and air supply routes to supply goods to American forces in Afghanistan despite its apparent offensive gesture towards Pakistan.
Although the deterioration in Islamabad’s relations with Washington did not lead to blocking of the ground and air routes through Pakistan for ferrying supplies to the US-led international forces stationed in landlocked Afghanistan, it was believed any further deterioration in US-Pak relations could lead to blocking of these channels.
Islamabad very often rebuffed Washington’s frequent charges that it has not been serious in taking on terrorism. For instance, foreign minister Qureshi said Pakistani security forces have dismantled “the safe havens” and anti-Pakistan “safe havens” that exist today in Afghanistan “under your [U.S] watch” are a concern for Islamabad.
On the other side, bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were marred by mutual suspicions despite their apparent willingness to move ahead with the peace process. Kabul not only blamed Islamabad very often on the charges of sabotaging Afghan peace process and interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani went to the extent of appointing hard-line opponents of Pakistan to two top security posts which was believed to complicate US efforts at reviving peace talks with the Taliban ahead of withdrawal of American troops.
Further, Pakistan perceived India’s non-military and developmental role in Afghanistan as a policy of New Delhi’s strategic encirclement and viewed India’s enhanced diplomatic presence in the country with suspicion and alleged it with involvement in promoting anti-Pakistani elements. Thus, the peace efforts must address security concerns of Pakistan in order to register its unambiguous support.

The US strategy of containing Iran and Russia has not only prevented Washington from working on alternative routes other than supply routes made available by Pakistan, Moscow and Tehran have reportedly maintained contacts with the Afghan Taliban to safeguard and promote their interests in Afghanistan.

Washington cannot hope to move ahead with the peace process only by courting Islamabad’s support while simultaneously pursuing containment strategies toward Moscow and Tehran.

The far-reaching sway of the Taliban in Afghanistan has enabled it to move in the peace process with relative flexibility. For instance, the Taliban have been refusing to deal directly with the internationally recognized government in Kabul considering it an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

Even if the Taliban’s political leaders were willing to show flexibility, its military commanders still decide the negotiating red lines. The peace process has not been able to address the questions of democracy and pluralism so far and this can be inferred from Zabihullah Mujahid — the Taliban’s spokesman’s remark that “Our goal is Islamic government,” and “How this Islamic government will come about is something we cannot decide now. On this issue, the clerics, analysts, and authoritative Afghans make decisions in its right time.” [7] If the Americans would withdraw completely anytime soon, they would leave behind an Afghanistan which is weaker and more fragile than ever before. However, given the complexity of the Afghan situation with the US withdrawal, India may have to redefine its role in Afghanistan.

(* Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha)


[1O. 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

[2Annual Report 1990-1991, Ministry of External Affairs, External Publicity Division, Government of India, New Delhi, 1991.

[3Shahram Akbarzadeh, “India and Pakistan’s geo-strategic rivalry in Central Asia”, Contemporary South Asia, Vol 12, No. 2, 2003, p. 224.

[4S. 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.

[5M.K. Bhadrakumar, “The Audacity of Afghan Peace Hopes”, The Hindu, February 4, 2010.

[6“Afghan Taliban dismisses fear of attacks on India after US troop withdrawal, says neighbourhood’s support vital to rebuild country”, Firstpost News, October 15, 2019, Available at https://www.firstpost.com/world/afghan-taliban-dismisses-fear-of-attacks-on-india-after-us-troop-withdrawal-says-neighbourhoods-support-vital-to-rebuild-country-7499341.html (Accessed on March 10, 2020).

[7M. Mashal, “What Do the Taliban Want in Afghanistan? A Lost Constitution Offers Clues”, The New York Times, June 28, 2019, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/28/world/asia/taliban-peace-talks-constitution.html

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