The American retreat from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power has raised a firestorm in India. Prime Minister Modi’s government is being severely criticised for this “reversal”. India’s strategic partner, the U.S., is also being blamed for “abandoning” Afghanistan and thereby undermining India’s geopolitical interests. What is even more galling from the Indian perspective is that “Pakistan has won” in Afghanistan. Some Indians have even made the ludicrous assertion that Pakistan used the Taliban to invade Afghanistan. Such an extreme, even hysterical, reaction to the Taliban victory underscores the perceived reversal of Indian strategic objectives in Afghanistan. These objectives need to be examined in-depth in order to evaluate the Indian response and the future course of action.
Indian Strategic Objectives in Afghanistan
Indian officials and analysts have argued that given the close relations between the Taliban and Pakistan along with their animosity towards India, a Taliban government will support “terrorists” in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK) or at least provide inspiration for their struggle against Indian occupation. Taliban rule will also prevent Indian access to Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan besides forcing India to focus on this “continental” threat and divert their efforts away from playing a leading role in the maritime Indo-Pacific zone as a member of the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Alliance. Resultantly, India will be forced to divert its resources away from confronting the threat from China and undermine its ambition of becoming a global power. In the words of Ashley Tellis, an American scholar of Indian origin, “There’s absolutely no doubt…. that one of the inadvertent consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is that we have compromised India’s security”.
While these perceived concerns may have merit from the Indian perspective, the fundamental reversal for India, emerging from the Taliban takeover, relates to its long term core strategic objectives concerning Pakistan. Ever since its independence, India has tried to use Afghanistan as an ally to encircle Pakistan and confront it with a two front security threat, pursuing the ancient strategy that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Accordingly, the Indian aim has consistently been to cultivate and support Afghan forces inimical to Pakistan so that Pakistan faces a security threat on its Western border with Afghanistan simultaneously with the threat on its Eastern border with India. This would weaken Pakistan’s ability to more effectively counter the Indian threat to its security. The emergence of a friendly Afghan government towards Pakistan, such as the Taliban, is therefore seen as undermining Indian strategic interests. In the present circumstances, that is exactly the reason for India’s hostility towards the Taliban and a key factor for New Delhi to view the Taliban takeover as a strategic setback. Consequently, India has already started taking several measures to reverse this outcome.
Implementation of India’s Afghan Strategy
Having refused to reconcile to Pakistan’s existence from the very beginning, coupled with the inherited legacy of disputes such as Kashmir, India has sought to weaken Pakistan directly by trying to sow dissension between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since independence, India has promoted the irredentist “Pashtunistan” bogey in both countries and encouraged the Afghans to question the legitimacy of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border along the Durand Line – which the Afghans had earlier accepted in their agreement with British India. With Indian encouragement, the Afghans even opposed Pakistan’s membership of the United Nations in 1947 but soon decided to withdraw their objection. Even so, several Afghan leaders, such as President Daoud Khan continued to reject the border with Pakistan and claimed Afghan territory stretching up to the Indus River. They also collaborated with India to promote separatist elements within Pakistan, such as Pashtun and Baloch groups, many of whom were given sanctuary in Afghanistan.
When India’s then strategic ally, the Soviet Union, engineered the Communist coup in Afghanistan, the so-called Saur Revolution of 1978, and then a year later invaded the country, New Delhi extended its full support to the Soviet puppet regime apart from justifying the Soviet occupation. With its Soviet allies on Pakistan’s Western border, India’s strategic objective had been achieved in full measure. To make matters worse, the Kabul regime conspired with India to denounce the border with Pakistan, expressing strong support for Pashtunistan and providing sanctuary, as well as assistance to Pashtun and Baloch separatist groups who launched a terrorist campaign in Pakistan throughout the 1980s.
Pakistan’s response to these security threats involving the support for the Afghan Mujahideen with assistance from the U.S. and several other countries eventually forced the Soviet Union to withdraw in 1989. The Soviet installed regime of Najibullah subsequently collapsed in 1992. These developments were a severe setback for India, which had supported Soviet Union and their Afghan clients while strongly opposing the Mujahideen. However, Pakistan was unable to consolidate on these gains as the Afghan civil war broke out among various Mujahideen groups and eventually, Taliban emerged as the most powerful faction. Since the Taliban were mostly Pashtuns, they were opposed by rival ethnic factions comprising the Tajik dominated Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. As a result, the Taliban were unable to consolidate their hold over Afghanistan.
India viewed the Taliban as Pakistan’s protégé and, in cooperation with Iran and Russia, supported the Northern Alliance during the Afghan civil war. Even after the defeat of the Northern Alliance and the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996, India continued to provide military support to the Alliance from its Ayni Air Base in Tajikistan. According to the then Indian Ambassador in Tajikistan, Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar; “when Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.’’ In response to Massoud’s request for arms and monetary assistance, Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, told his Ambassador to convey that “he will have his requirements’’. The Indian Military Intelligence handled the procurement and delivery of funds and weapons, including 2 Mi-8 helicopters, which were supplied in Farkhor on the Tajik-Afghan border. The Indians also provided technical support and training apart from setting up a hospital to treat the Northern Alliance fighters, some of whom were also flown to India for treatment.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the the U.S., for which Washington accused the Afghanistan based al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden, provided a major opening for India. By then the Indo-U.S. relations had significantly improved and the terrorist attacks provided India with an opportunity to find common ground with the Americans against “Islamic terrorists” since the Indians claimed that they were also being targeted by jihadist groups in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir, allegedly sponsored by Pakistan. As a result, a strong anti-Taliban convergence emerged between New Delhi and Washington. Even though Pakistan joined America’s War on Terror and broke ties with the Taliban who were removed from power following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, American suspicions about Pakistan’s “links” with the Taliban persisted. India fully exploited these suspicions and used its growing relations with the U.S. to expand its role in Afghanistan. Indian assets in Tajikistan, in support of the Northern Alliance, were moved to Mazar-i-Sharif which assisted the Alliance’s takeover of the country. American backed Afghan governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani welcomed Indian assistance and the two sides concluded a strategic partnership agreement in 2011. Over the next twenty years, India provided USD 3 billion worth of assistance, invested in energy projects, built a dam, highways and trained the Afghan Army, Air Force and police. Thousands of Indian teachers, doctors and engineers also helped in the Afghan development projects. The Indian Embassy in Kabul and Consulates in Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif enabled them to ensure a formidable presence all over the country. More importantly, India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), developed a close partnership with its Afghan counterpart, National Directorate of Security (NDS), and with the collaboration of key Afghan officials, such as NDS Chief and later Vice President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, set up an extensive intelligence network in Afghanistan. Joint operations by RAW and NDS recruited, trained, funded and armed terrorists for attacks in Pakistan, especially from groups such as the TTP, BLA/BRA and ETIM, which were also connected to ISIS-K. These groups still continue to target Pakistan’s security forces, civilians, Chinese workers and key installations. Consequently, during the last twenty years, India was able to implement its strategic policy of creating an unprecedented security threat on Pakistan’s Western and Eastern borders while also trying to undermine Pakistan from within.
Impact of the U.S. Withdrawal
After unsuccessfully fighting the longest war in its history, the U.S. finally came to accept Pakistan’s consistent advice that there could be no military solution to its conflict with the Taliban. With Pakistan’s facilitation, President Trump concluded a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. However, the concurrent understanding for a peaceful transition through an intra-Afghan dialogue could not be implemented due to the intransigence of the Afghan parties, especially President Ghani’s refusal to step down. Sensing the impending change due to the decision for American withdrawal, India tried its best to scuttle the process. It lobbied Americans against their decision and encouraged Ghani’s government to hold firm and not negotiate for a transition with the Taliban, an effort in which India’s Afghan supporters, like Ghani and Saleh, were fully involved. New Delhi also promised continued military and financial assistance to the Ghani-led government.
However, when it became clear that President Biden, who defeated Trump in the 2020 U.S. elections, would also push ahead with the withdrawal to be completed by September 2021, India tried to build up support against the Taliban from Iran and Russia – countries that had earlier cooperated with India against the Taliban. When this initiative failed as well, India started making belated attempts to reach out to the Taliban themselves to salvage their interests as far as they could. They were met with a lukewarm response.
With the American withdrawal underway, the Taliban began to increase their control over Afghanistan and fears grew about another Afghan civil war. The Indians welcomed this prospect and as remarked by former Foreign Secretary of India, Shyam Saran, a civil war was preferable to the Taliban government. Fortunately, a protracted civil war was avoided as the Afghan government forces quickly collapsed and Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, 2021. Some resistance continued for a few days in the Panjshir Valley by the remnants of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and the remainder of government troops. India again tried to use this opportunity by militarily supporting the resistance through its base in Tajikistan. Huge caches of arms and ammunition, including those from India such as missiles, were discovered by the Taliban forces in Panjshir, apart from large amounts of Pakistani currency from NDS offices that were to be used by the terrorists.
Responding to Pakistan’s concerns about Indian sponsored terrorism from Afghan soil, Taliban leaders have acknowledged these legitimate concerns and set up a three-member commission to dismantle this infrastructure. Valuable evidence of RAW-NDS collaboration, including PKR 3 billion have been recovered from NDS office in Spin Boldak, an area close to Pakistan’s border. Several terrorist camps have also been removed, especially in the Kandahar area.
Despite this major strategic reversal, Indian machinations in Afghanistan will not end. Every effort is now being made to demonize the Taliban and undermine Pakistan’s interests. This approach will be centred on India’s close partnership with the U.S. and manipulation of American fears about Afghanistan based terrorism; Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban; denial of human rights by the Taliban and China’s future ingress in the region.
The chaotic final act of the American withdrawal, which was nothing short of a debacle, and the formation of an all Taliban government has led to massive criticism in the U.S. But, instead of recognizing their collective failure, most Americans have sought to use Pakistan as a scapegoat for their defeat. In recent Congressional hearings, Pakistan has been accused of double-dealing, duplicity and betrayal, along with demands for denial of assistance and imposition of sanctions. There is no doubt that the powerful Indian lobby in the U.S. has encouraged this angry response.
American anger towards the Taliban has led to freezing of the Afghan reserves in the U.S. worth USD 9 billion, and denial of crucially needed assistance by Western countries as well as the IMF and World Bank. Any help to stabilize the country has been linked to the formation of an inclusive government, respect for human rights especially women’s rights, crackdown on terrorist organizations and eliminating drug trade – measures that even the U.S. could not fully accomplish in their twenty years of occupation. Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis looms over Afghanistan for which international assistance is woefully inadequate. The Americans also fear that their retreat from Afghanistan will encourage the Chinese to step into the power vacuum and increase its influence in the region.
These are the conditions that India is fully exploiting. The threat of terrorism from Pakistan’s side is being vociferously propagated, whereas India’s own sponsorship of terrorism against Pakistan is being covered up. India has become the guardian of human rights in Afghanistan despite its own massive repression of the Kashmiris and Indian Muslims. China is being projected as an aggressor even though it was India’s own action of August 2019 in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir that provoked a Chinese reaction. Meanwhile, clandestine Indian efforts to promote anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan elements in Afghanistan continue as evidenced by continuing terrorist incidents in Pakistan and demonstrations in Afghan cities.
Unfortunately, the negative Indian narrative against Pakistan and the Taliban has largely been accepted by the U.S. and its allies. Not only official statements but media reports, such as by CNN and BBC, have echoed the Indian line. Even fake news spewed out by the jingoist Indian media, such as the ridiculous claim that Pakistani forces enabled the Taliban takeover of Panjshir, has been widely accepted as evident from the questions posed to Prime Minister Imran Khan by a CNN anchor recently.
In conclusion, it can be said that while India’s strategic interests have definitely suffered a reversal as a result of the Taliban victory, New Delhi will continue to pursue policies to salvage its interests by using its alliance with the U.S. to destabilize Afghanistan and increase American animosity towards Pakistan. Therefore, India’s Afghan strategy will continue well into the future.
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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