Rallying old friends: Adapting to an evolving Afghan theatre


India has been calling upon all sections across the political spectrum of Afghanistan — to work together — to meet the aspirations of all in the country, including the minority communities.

Casey Johnson — US Institute of Peace via Flickr

Within one month, New Delhi witnessed an increased number of visits from some of the top-cadre Afghan politicians. It started with former Vice President Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum’s arrival in New Delhi, followed by the visit of the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and finally ended with General Atta Mohammad Noor’s arrival in the capital, a former Mujahideen commander who personally took up arms against terrorists as the Governor of Balkh Province during the 2016 attack on the Indian Mission in Mazar-e-Sharif. These visits were marked by high-profile meetings with top-brass Indian officials and politicians which included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary H.V. Shringla, amongst others. These visits come at a crucial juncture as the Afghan Government and the Taliban are sitting across the negotiating table in Doha in an attempt to end the two-decade-long war.

All the three Afghan leaders who visited New Delhi recently have had a long-lasting friendly relationship with India. During the time of civil war, these political figures were associated with the erstwhile Northern Alliance in different capacities such as partners, advisors, or commanders and received substantial Indian support to build a resistance against the Taliban. Hence, these leaders expect India to engage in a pro-active role in Afghanistan, not just be a mere spectator of the developments.

India and the Northern Alliance

Post the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the region fell into a state of civil war with major Mujahideen factions competing against each other. During the 1990s, India started establishing links with certain Mujahideen groups regardless of their proximity with neighbouring Pakistan to cultivate a friendly government that was sensitive to Indian interests. New Delhi sought to build a relationship with the Northern Alliance, a Mujahideen front which was led by the late Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud. India’s covert assistance to the Northern Alliance ranged from providing ordnance and small armaments to food supplies and medicines.

While the civil war witnessed the Taliban gaining momentum in the region, India viewed the Taliban as a Pakistan-backed entity that could be a potential threat to its domestic security. Hence, the reluctance to engage with the Taliban was natural, so India continued to back the Northern Alliance. India had limited involvement in the security domain during the 1990s and the involvement remained mostly covert. India’s past legacy with the Northern Alliance helped New Delhi to secure the ability to be represented in Afghanistan after the formation of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 2001.

Marshal Dostum, who was known as the Emir of the North still enjoys great popularity in his traditional bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif where he maintains an active militia of 5,000 to 6,000 fighters. An ethnic-minority Uzbek, Marshal Dostum’s New Delhi visit revolved around discussing topics of constitutional order, rights of all sections of the Afghan society, and matters of bilateral importance. Dostum commanded around 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers in Mazar during the Soviet-Afghan War; as an administrator he kept his stronghold relatively insulated from the chaotic environment amid the civil war. Looking at his strong on-ground influence and his partnership with the Northern Alliance, New Delhi began consolidating a relationship with the warlord. This helped New Delhi maintain a sizable intelligence footprint in the region. Dr Abdullah, former advisor to Commander Massoud, was in New Delhi in October to garner India’s support in the ongoing peace process between the Afghan Government and the Taliban under his chairmanship. According to reports, he also discussed bilateral-development issues with EAM S. Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval. Dr Abdullah’s New Delhi trip followed by visits to Iran and Turkey came right after he visited Islamabad, as a part of his international effort to build a regional consensus over the peace process.

General Atta Mohammad Noor also shares a cordial relationship with India, and is known as among a selective-few non-Pashtun leaders who don’t nurture any mainstream political ambitions. An influential combat-trained commander turned politician, General Noor’s India visit came as a result of his fear over a possible collapse of the peace talks given that the peace process has not yielded any positive results while the Taliban continues its offensive military campaign across the country. General Noor describes India as a ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ partner and expects New Delhi to have an active and engaging role as a primary regional actor, second to none.

Though none of the leaders have shown any dissatisfaction over the intra-Afghan negotiations going on in Doha, there is a clear indication that in case of any altered scenario the leadership wants to be prepared, especially in the absence of foreign troops. India has been calling upon all sections across the political spectrum of Afghanistan to work together to meet the aspirations of all in the country including the minority communities. India is one of the biggest donor countries to Afghanistan and has a big stake in the region. Until now, New Delhi has been swift in establishing its infrastructural influence across the 34 provinces under the security cover of foreign troops. Under the changing strategic environment, protecting these advancements would require a comprehensive security measure that can be built only with the help of these regional allies.

Pakistan factor

Pakistan undoubtedly remains a prominent player in the region. Rawalpindi’s control and influence over the Taliban have brought the militant group to the negotiating table, yet Pakistan’s role in a post-US-withdrawal remains questionable. While the possibility of the Taliban becoming more powerful remains intact, Pakistan’s influence in the region is likely to grow given its leverage with the militant group. This can be counter-productive for India as it will put Indian stakes in Afghanistan at the disposal of Pakistan. India’s former partners in the region have been wary of Pakistan’s position of fuelling insurgency in Afghanistan over the years. Hence, these actors want India to develop an ardent presence and increased engagement in the country, which will not only counter Pakistan’s narrative in the region but also protect Indian interests of security and democracy.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami party has expressed his willingness to join hands with the Taliban. His entry should be seen as a rise of Pakistan’s power play in Kabul given his strong history with Rawalpindi and the anti-India stand he holds. Hekmatyar has been critical of the Indian position in Afghanistan and fears that a potential pro-India militia will hamper his interests at the behest of the Pakistan-Taliban nexus. India’s interest lies in the survival and prosperity of a Republic like the existing one which preserves bilateral commitments. Hence, India cannot let Afghanistan cede to Pakistan which will further endanger the existing democratic setup in the Afghan ecosystem.

‘Pro-active’ shift of policy

Recently, both the parties to the Intra-Afghan negotiations made a breakthrough development in agreeing upon the procedural flow of the talks, yet are far behind in discussing a comprehensive ceasefire. The Taliban has no desire to make compromises towards a genuine peace process as the hardline group is not just continuing its war effort but also ramping it up. India’s past engagement in Afghanistan during the resistance against the Taliban was restricted to shuttle diplomacy, which involved rallying anti-Taliban groups together and mobilising them under one umbrella. This made India develop a sizeable intelligence footprint in the region, especially in the North. As a result, India’s old friends in the region expect New Delhi to have a substantial role in forming a united resistance against the Taliban if the situation calls for it once again.

The possibility of another civil war in Afghanistan cannot be completely ruled out. India has been late in recognising the situation as far as engagement with the Taliban is concerned, yet stands a chance to be counted as a leading force in the region. This can only happen if the soft power diplomacy is turned into a hard-play engagement by mitigating the risks and broad basing its strategies. India has been sidelined in the Afghan peace process largely due to its own apprehensions, but has not been forgotten. These recent visits of Afghan interests have brought a lot to the table for New Delhi in terms of weaving together a more promising link in the near future. While other regional actors have established links with the Taliban, India’s reluctance will only reflect upon the strong commitment New Delhi shares with its old allies.

The author is Research Intern at ORF.


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