After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, India established diplomatic relations with the newly established government at Kabul to seemingly participate in relief and rehabilitation efforts. India’s diplomatic relations with Afghanistan improved tremendously under the Karzai regime and New Delhi invested heavily in developmental and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. In 2011, Afghanistan signed its first Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Karzai.1 After Karzai, India was again able to cultivate very close relationship with incumbent President Ashraf Ghani. Over the years, apart from providing aircraft to Ariana Afghan Airlines, India has been active in building roads, schools, hospitals, power and communication networks and parliamentary buildings besides training Afghan military and police personnel. The major project of strategic significance undertaken by New Delhi is linking of the Iranian port of Chabahar to Afghanistan through the Zaranj-Delaram road. India is also training approximately 1,000 Afghan officers every year and has provided Mi-25 and Mi-35 helicopters, along with 285 military vehicles to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). After dislodging Taliban, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) established very close linkages so as to share intelligence reports, while undertaking numerous terrorist activities across Pakistan. The main focus of these combined efforts has been to provide resources and expertise to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) (both declared terrorist outfits) to undertake sabotage, sedition, subversion and acts of terrorism inside Pakistan. Similarly, to exploit Pakistan’s ethnic fault lines, a so-called Pashtun’s rights movement was created and provided with full support with an agenda to further fragment Pakistan on ethnic lines.
While other regional players, including China, Russia and Iran, remained part of Afghan peace efforts, India did not participate in the process. Therefore, India thinks that the return of the Taliban to power corridors would enhance Pakistan’s clout in Kabul; hence, it is now acting as a spoiler for the peace process.
Political Situation in Afghanistan
At present Afghanistan is ruled by a democratically elected government. However, Taliban consider the U.S. backed government as illegitimate. Additionally, the government also faced internal strife due to delay in announcement of Presidential elections results. After months of delay, finally incumbent Afghan President Ghani was officially declared the winner of Afghanistan's presidential election in February 2020. Abdullah, his main rival and Presidential candidate, rejected the outcome of the elections, citing allegations of voting fraud. Against this backdrop, on March 9, 2020, after both claiming to have won Afghanistan's 2019 presidential election, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah held separate oath-taking ceremonies in Kabul. The dual ceremonies were held as the two leading candidates failed to reach a power-sharing agreement. Therefore, at present, there is a power struggle going on between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
The U.S. and Taliban Peace Agreement
America invaded Afghanistan with the stated aim of uprooting Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001. According to various security experts, the covert aims were to dismantle Taliban government, control the flow of oil, gas and mineral resources from Central Asia, while keeping Pakistan, China and Iran under check. Unable to sustain the rising costs of the ongoing conflict in terms of personnel and supplies, Washington decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. More than a year ago, the Trump administration started a peace dialogue with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. On February 29, 2020, after intense negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S., both sides reached a peace agreement regarding withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. The main contours of the peace agreement are:
• Taliban will halt all military operations against the U.S. and NATO forces. In the future, the Taliban would not allow Al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate, train, recruit or raise funds in Afghanistan which could threaten the U.S. or its allies’ interests anywhere in the world.
• The Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations with the Afghan government by March 10, 2020. The U.S., if needed, would facilitate the process.
• The U.S. will initially draw down its forces from 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days (with proportionate decreases in allied force levels) and withdraw all of its forces within 14 months.
• The U.S. will facilitate prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Up to 5000 Taliban prisoners and 1000 Afghan security forces prisoners will be released by both sides by March 10, 2020. By August 27, 2020 the U.S. would also remove sanctions on the Taliban members.2
Progress on Implementation of Peace Deal
On March 27, 2020, the Afghan government announced the formation of a 21-member committee, under former Intelligence Chief Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, to undertake intra Afghan dialogue with the Taliban. The committee which also has 5 women members was endorsed by the U.S. and other stakeholders including Abdullah Abdullah. On March 28, the Taliban said it would refuse to engage in peace talks with the negotiation team put forward by the Afghan government because it did not include “all Afghan factions.”
It is an established fact that in late 2014, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had visited Syria and Iraq on the pretext of assisting Indian External Affairs Ministry in the evacuation of stranded Indians. However, it was reported that the secret visit was used to create contacts with the leaderships of extremist groups. Meanwhile, the Indian consulate in Kandahar was utilized by the RAW for creating coordination between the TTP and ISIS elements.
Amid stalled peace talks on April 2, 2020, the Afghan government officially began the process of releasing 100 Taliban from jail in exchange for the Taliban releasing 20 Afghan security forces prisoners. However, no progress was made further due to Afghan government’s reluctance to free Taliban prisoners.
Increased Violence in Afghanistan after Signing of Peace Agreement
On March 6, 2020, gunmen attacked a ceremony commemorating the Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Kabul. The ceremony was attended by several high-profile politicians. At least 32 people were killed and over 60 injured, and both attackers were killed after a standoff. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-K) claimed responsibility for the attack. Again, on March 25, terrorists reportedly belonging to the Islamic State (IS) stormed Sikh Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in the city of Kabul, killing 25 people. Reportedly an Indian Abu Khalid al-Hindi was part of the four-member team that attacked the Gurdwara. A report by the IANS claims that al-Hindi belonged to Kasaragod in Kerala, India. Indian investigation agencies have confirmed that al-Hindi was the nom-de-guerre of twenty-nine-year old Muhammad Muhsin from Kasaragod in the southern Indian state of Kerala. They also suspect involvement of another young individual, Sajid Kuthirummal, in the attack.3
On April 29, 2020, a suicide bombing killed 3 civilians and injured 15 in Kabul Province. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but an Islamist group is suspected.4 On May 12, 2020, three gunmen wearing police uniforms carried out a mass shooting in the maternity ward of a hospital in Kabul. The hospital is located in the Shi'ite Hazara neighborhood of Dashte Barchi. The hospital is assisted by Médecins Sans Frontières personnel. The attackers killed 24 people, including two newborn babies and injured another 16. All of the attackers were killed by Afghan security forces and their mentoring Norwegian special forces. On the same day, an hour after the hospital attack, a suicide bombing took place in Kuz Kunar District, Nangarhar Province at the funeral of Shaikh Akram, a police commander who died of a heart attack a day before, killing 32 people. 133 others were injured, some severely.
On May 14, 2020, a suicide truck bomber tried to explode himself outside a military compound, near a court in Gardez, Paktia but exploded before reaching its destination. The attack resulted in the death of five civilians and at least 29 others were injured. On May 18, a suicide Humvee bomber affiliated with the Taliban killed nine intelligence personnel at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) unit in Ghazni, Afghanistan, also damaging the city's Islamic affairs office.
On May 12, 2020, without any solid proof, the Afghan government blamed the Taliban for the attacks, and immediately ordered the military to resume its offensives against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The Taliban, however, denied responsibility for the Kabul and Kuz Kunar attacks. Although they claimed responsibility for the Gardez and Ghazni bombings calling it revenge attacks in response to Afghan government’s ongoing military operations. ISIL-KP (Daesh-Khorasan) later claimed responsibility for the Kuz Kunar funeral bombing, but no armed group has yet claimed responsibility for the Kabul hospital shooting.
India who had facilitated induction and indoctrination of IS terrorist elements into Afghanistan are now using them to unleash a reign of terror across Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that Islamic State’s (IS) media group Amaq news agency released a video clip of an Indian national (Muhammad Muhsin) Abu Khalid al-Hindi.
In response to the high-profile attacks, the U.S., well aware of who the actual perpetrators were, accepted the Taliban's denial that they were not involved in the Kabul and Kuz Kunar attacks. Resultantly, the U.S. asked both Taliban and Afghanistan government to “cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice."5 Americans’ acceptance of Taliban stance over Ghani’s rhetoric of blaming Taliban clearly indicates the deepening rift between the U.S. and its allies in Kabul. Meanwhile, Chief Taliban negotiator Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai on May 17, 2020 has said in an interview that India has always supported traitors in Afghanistan.6
India – A Spoiler of Peace Deal
Indian quest for control and influence in Afghanistan is driven by several strategic imperatives which are unlikely to change in the near future. India considers Afghanistan to be a gateway to Central Asia and beyond. India, through economic and military engagement, wants to establish permanent presence in Afghanistan. Indian policymakers believe that while sitting in Afghanistan, India could counter growing Chinese influence in Central Asia and could control energy and mineral resources of the region. Similarly, India thinks that by consolidating its position in Afghanistan it could create a two-front dilemma for Pakistan while aiding and abetting insurgencies and terrorism deep inside Pakistan. New Delhi is also quite wary of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); India understands the completion of the project would make Pakistan economic pivot of the region. To derail the project, India, in concert with other regional and extra regional players, is working on an alternate route connecting Chabahar with Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics. To achieve all the above stated strategic aims the continuity of pro Indian government in Kabul is of paramount importance for New Delhi. At present, from Indian perspective, President Ghani is the most ideal friend inside Afghanistan. It may be recalled that the Taliban had requested the release of 5,000 prisoners as a prerequisite for participating in the U.S. brokered peace talks with the Afghan government. By halting the release of prisoners President Ghani is basically placing major obstacles in the implementation of peace deal. Frustrated by Afghan government’s behavior in March 2020, the U.S. cut $1 billion of aid to Afghanistan, and said it would conduct a review of all other projects and programs in the country to determine whether it would suspend an additional $1 billion of aid in 2021.
While other regional players, including China, Russia and Iran, remained part of Afghan peace efforts, India did not participate in the process. Therefore, India thinks that the return of the Taliban to power corridors would enhance Pakistan’s clout in Kabul; hence, it is now acting as a spoiler for the peace process. It is an established fact that in late 2014, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had visited Syria and Iraq on the pretext of assisting Indian External Affairs Ministry in the evacuation of stranded Indians. However, it was reported that the secret visit was used to create contacts with the leaderships of extremist groups. Meanwhile, the Indian consulate in Kandahar was utilized by the RAW for creating coordination between the TTP and ISIS elements.7 India who had facilitated induction and indoctrination of IS terrorist elements into Afghanistan are now using them to unleash a reign of terror across Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that Islamic State’s (IS) media group Amaq news agency released a video clip of an Indian national (Muhammad Muhsin) Abu Khalid al-Hindi (who placed explosives in the Gurdwara) dressed in military camouflage in the back of a moving car, seeking blessings in Hindi with a heavy Malyalee accent. “My brothers and sisters, I’m going to accomplish a mission for you all, Inshallah. I’m nearing it soon and you all will hear the good news… about the humiliation of the Kuffars… Inshallah very soon.”8 The aim of this endeavor is not only to create animosity between Sikhs and Muslims in the region but is also aimed at painting Taliban and Pakistan as villains globally. The last few years have seen an exponential rise in the deceit and guile practiced by the Indians in Afghanistan and elsewhere, under the guidance of Ajit Doval, who is notorious for thriving on situations linked with escalating terror. Pakistani media must take cognizance of Indian maneuverings and denude the heinous designs of India in the region.
The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, have met India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, recently and discussed the situation in Afghanistan. “Officials and diplomatic sources say one of the reasons the U.S. has reached out to India is because it fears that New Delhi is creating impediments in the way of intra-Afghan talks. These sources believe India was behind President Ashraf Ghani’s reluctance to abide by the peace deal including the prisoners swap agreed in the U.S.-Taliban deal”.9
President Ghani’s launching of an offensive against Taliban likely to scuttle the peace deal can sooth India but is unlikely to receive any support from the U.S. or its Western allies. The U.S. has decided to leave Afghanistan for good. In these circumstances India does not have the wherewithal to play any significant role in support of any Afghan group. It is an established fact that the Taliban have the ability to conduct high-profile urban attacks as well as swift difficult terrain operations with impunity. The Afghan government’s adoption of more aggressive stance is unlikely to change the on ground reality. It is believed that with the shrinking American support, the Afghan government and security forces would find it extremely difficult to counter the growing Taliban political and military influence in Afghanistan. The longer the fighting continues, the more dangerous it is for peace in Afghanistan. By unleashing terrorist groups such as IS and its affiliates, India at best would be able to create chaos and anarchy in Afghanistan, however, Indian dreams of using Afghan warring groups in its favor will never materialize. The day is not far that the Afghan people and government will understand the true nefarious Indian designs and reject those. Contrarily, Pakistan and Afghanistan are two brotherly Muslim countries and together both will forge a lasting peace.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy. He has also served as the Ambassador of Pakistan to Maldives.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. India, Afghanistan sign strategic partnership deal, Newspaper Dawn, October 4, 2011. https://www.dawn.com/news/663805
2. Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief Updated May 1, 2020, Congressional Research Service https://crsreports.congress.govR45122
3. Kabul attack: Overseas Indian fighters haunt India’s interests abroad, by Shweta Desai, Atlantic Council, April 18, 2020. https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/kabul-attack-overseas-indian-fighters-haunt-indias-interests-abroad/
4. Bombing near Afghan capital kills three amid unabated violence, Reuters World News, April 29, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-attacks/bombing-near-afghan-capital-kills-three-amid-unabated-violence-idUSKCN22B0HD
5. US asks Taliban, Afghan government to bring perpetrators to justice, Arab News, May 14 2020. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1674331/world
6. India always supported traitors in Afghanistan: Taliban negotiator, by News Desk, The Express Tribune, May 17, 2020. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2223509/1-india-always-supported-traitors-afghanistan-taliban-negotiator/
7. India building contacts with ISIS, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, The News, newspaper, October 12, 2015 https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/15137-india-building-contacts-with-isis-al-qaeda-in-afghanistan.
8. Kabul attack: Overseas Indian fighters haunt India’s interests abroad, by Shweta Desai, Atlantic Coucil, April 18, 2020. https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/kabul-attack-overseas-indian-fighters-haunt-indias-interests-abroad/
9. US wants India to shun role of Afghan peace spoiler by Kamran Yousaf, The Express Tribune, May 12, 2020 https://tribune.com.pk/story/2219345/1-us-wants-india-shun-role-afghan-peace-spoiler/
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