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India’s Role in Afghanistan

By Bhashyam Kasturi

Any study that seeks to understand the dynamics of India’s “presence” in Afghanistan with the application of soft power must realise that it is a carefully crafted piece of diplomacy—one that is riding high in the presence of the U.S. and the NATO forces in the region.

This, of course, does not mean that India and its entities are completely safe. The repeated attacks carried out on the Indian mission in Kabul—the last such attack was carried out in 2009—signals the inherent dangers of Indian involvement in Afghanistan and is testimony to the rivalry between India and Pakistan for strategic space in the tribal areas west of the Durand Line. The attacks on the Indians were carried out by the Taliban, and it is well known that behind the Taleb and its anti-India position is the ISI of Pakistan.

The fact that both Islamabad and New Delhi are fighting each other for space in Afghanistan makes India’s task more difficult. In other words, they are not steps taken to fulfil a simple foreign policy objective, aimed at providing Kabul with much-needed economic assistance and civil works. These steps, slow and incremental as they may seem, demonstrate to Pakistan that all is not well in its own backyard. And since this is happening under the security umbrella of the United States, it is but natural that the Taliban views any Indian initiative with suspicion. At the heart of the matter is the fact that Pakistan does not want India to become too entrenched in Afghanistan, a nation it has seen as its backyard since the Soviet army withdrew in 1989. Having supported the creation and operations of the Taliban, the military in Pakistan does not want to let go just now. “For Islamabad, Afghanistan is one element in a larger game: not only is Afghanistan part of its Indian policy, but it is also to some extent a component of its global standing.”1

It will take a great deal of explaining to the Pakistani establishment that India is there for basic reasons. It is not that India has not tried in the past, both directly and indirectly through U.S. voices, to tell Pakistan of its intentions, but Islamabad is clearly indicating to India to “back off.” One has to only read a recent statement made by former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. He states that if Pakistan perceives Kabul as getting too close to New Delhi, the ISI could be ordered by the government [read military] to take suitable “countermeasures.”2 The question is, what comes next? If India stays the course in Afghanistan, then what happens and, more importantly, what happens after 2014, when international coalition forces will be gone? But first, a look at the goals that India has set for itself in Afghanistan.

India’s Goals in Afghanistan

What are India’s goals in Afghanistan? First, India seeks to prevent the restoration of any form of a resurgent Taliban regime in the state. Moreover, India seeks to limit Pakistan’s influence over any emergent regime and ensure that no regime emerges in Kabul that is fundamentally hostile towards India. One major imperative of Indian policy in Afghanistan is to prevent the rise of the brand of Islamist militancy that has been prevalent over the past six decades. It is, therefore, a central concern of India to foster good relations with the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan, especially now as that majority holds at least nominal power in Kabul.

This is not simply to influence the Afghan ability to prevent the re-emergence of an anti-India militant milieu. The rise of Islamist militancy on both sides of the Durand Line also correlates strongly with the rise in militant capabilities in Kashmir and across the Line of Control. The Islamist militant groups supported by Pakistan, at least its clients, such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, are well known for coordinating training, resource allocation and logistical support with groups operating out of northwest Pakistan. Thus, as long as central control and legitimacy continue to elude Kabul, the conflagration in Kashmir will have a ready supply of tinder. India aspires to develop a sufficient diplomatic and intelligence network within the country to be able to monitor Pakistan’s activities within Afghanistan and, if necessary, to work to curtail them.

Second, India is seeking to develop long-term diplomatic ties and economic arrangements with a stable, popular and pro-Indian regime in Afghanistan, which then enables India to leapfrog Pakistan and build robust strategic and economic ties with the energy-rich states of Central Asia. In what Stephen Blank characterises as a “great game” strategy, India’s goals reflect the desire to control overland routes to maritime ports for Central Asian resources by denying both China and Pakistan the ability to threaten Indian assets in the region.3 It is highly unlikely that India will curb its activities, humanitarian or otherwise, anytime soon. This is primarily due to the fact that for the first time in recent history, the interests of India and the United States in Afghanistan dovetail. Both states seek a peaceful, secure and non-Talibanised Afghanistan. In order to further these goals, the U.S. has agreed to mediate back-channel talks between India and Pakistan regarding the regional war on terror and “the establishment of a ‘fair bargain’ between India and Pakistan over their respective interests in Afghanistan.”4

In October 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s said that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”5 What exactly does this imply? Does it mean that Indian army troops will be there to protect Afghanistan? Or does that indicate a greater role for India in the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan, including that of its political institutions? There are three reasons for India’s continued and intensified involvement with Afghanistan. First and foremost are the historical links, links that predate the creation of Pakistan and that have deep roots. Second, these links are aimed, as a foreign policy tool, to reduce the influence of Pakistan west of the Durand Line. And finally, in the real world, with the withdrawal of Western forces (read the U.S. and NATO) from Afghanistan, the instability factor tends to increase. This will require a regional solution to the Afghan issue, one that should involve India. In fact, stability in Afghanistan is a must for India because Pakistan will continue to remain unstable in the years to come.

The Historical Link

The historical links between India and Afghanistan predate the creation of Pakistan and have colonial memories. In the case of the latter, the memories are bitter; that of a free country being attempted to be brought under control by the deployment of colonial military power. The ostensible reason was the fear of Russia, the great bear, coming to the doorstep of British India.

The past links of the two countries and recent initiatives by India to be a player in Afghanistan are rooted in that reality. The first important landmark since India’s independence was the signing of the friendship treaty in 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru signed the friendship treaty, which laid out a broad framework for bilateral cooperation at a time when Kabul was coming to terms with the partition of the subcontinent and a new neighbour on its eastern frontiers—Pakistan. The treaty provided that each signatory should be able to establish trade agencies in the other’s territory.6 The treaty would last for five years in the first instance, and at the end of that period, it would be terminable at six months’ notice. The strategic partnership agreement signed by India’s prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai in October 2011 recalls with great warmth the importance of the 1950 treaty and its commitment to “everlasting friendship” between Delhi and Kabul.7

Since 1950, India has signed various agreements and protocols with pro-Soviet regimes in Afghanistan to promote cooperation. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 saw India increase its investments in developmental activities by cooperating in industrial, irrigation and hydro-electric projects. While India was the only South Asian country to recognise the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1980s, relations dipped in the 1990s at the time of the Afghan Civil War and the Taliban government from 1996 to 2001. India aided the overthrow of the Taliban and became the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the Afghan foreign ministry stated that India was a “brother country” and that the relationship between the two is one that “no enemy can hamper.” Bilateral relations between India and Afghanistan received a major boost in 2011, with the signing of a strategic partnership agreement.8

The lessening of India’s influence in Afghanistan can be attributed to the rise of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet invasion and, subsequently, the withdrawal of Soviet troops in February 1989.9 This coupled with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the formation of a government led by the mujahideen after the pro-Soviet regime of Mohammed Najibullah in Afghanistan was overthrown in April 1992 led to lessening of Indian influence in Afghanistan. India, however, had cordial relations with the pro-Soviet government of Najibullah as he was a former chief of Khadamat-e Etela’at-e Dawlati (KHAD), the Afghan intelligence service. Later, in 1992, when Burhanuddin Rabbani established a predominantly non-Pashtun government, India again became active in Afghanistan and provided humanitarian and technical assistance.

The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the removal of the Rabbani government in September 1996 again marginalised India. India did not recognise the Taliban government and closed its embassy in September 1996. During this period, the non-Pashtun groups opposing the Taliban regime formed the Northern Alliance and controlled areas in the north of Afghanistan bordering the Central Asian States of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India then chose to support the Northern Alliance.

Apart from being politically important, economically too Afghanistan is important in that it is a gateway for India to the oil- and mineral-rich Central Asian republics. Also, the massive reconstruction plans for the country offer a lot of opportunities for Indian companies. Strategically, an actively pro-Delhi regime in Kabul would be discomforting to Islamabad, which has traditionally seen Afghanistan as its backyard.

From a strategic perspective, Afghanistan offers the best example of India following the principles of Mandala prescribed by Chanakya in the Arthashastra. Kautilya said: “A ruler with contiguous territory is a rival. The ruler next to the adjoining is to be deemed a friend.” In that sense, Indian policy reflects the realist principle in engaging Afghanistan both for bilateral relations and for counter-intelligence purposes vis-à-vis Pakistan. This aspect is explored in further detail below.

Afghanistan’s frontier with British India was drawn by Mortimer Durand, a British civil servant, in 1893 and agreed upon by representatives of both governments.10 After Pakistan’s independence from Great Britain in 1947, their leaders assumed that they would inherit the functions of British India’s government in guiding Afghan policy. But soon thereafter, Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s admission to the UN. At that stage, Kabul argued that Afghanistan’s treaties with British India relating to its borders were no longer valid since a new country had been created where none existed at the time of these treaties.

Although India did not publicly support the demand for “Pashtunistan,” Pakistan’s early leaders could not separate the Afghan questioning of the Durand Line from their perception of an Indian grand design against Pakistan. Therefore, it became policy to try and limit Indian influence in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan from being “crushed by a sort of pincer movement” involving Afghanistan stirring the ethnic cauldron in Pakistan and India stepping in to undo the partition of the subcontinent. Pakistan’s response was a forward policy of encouraging Afghan Islamists that would subordinate ethnic nationalism to Islamic religious sentiment.11

The second historical aspect of importance is that India understands the Afghan situation in military terms, given the British experience, and demonstrates the dangers of getting involved in a complex tribal society combined with the recent growth of jihadi terrorism. There is another angle to this historical link. No one could better understand the Soviet invasion of 1979 than India for it had seen it from precisely that perspective. Little wonder then that Mrs. Indira Gandhi told President Brezhnev in Moscow in September 1982 that “The Way in Is the Way Out.”12 It took the Soviets a decade to understand the simple logic of the message that India’s prime minister gave to the USSR. The military experience of the Soviets in combating the mujahideen backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s ISI is also an important factor in comprehending India’s reluctance to send troops to Afghanistan.

Thus far, India has shied away from a military commitment in Afghanistan. There are two major reasons for this. The first is the American reluctance to permit Indian military involvement in Afghanistan out of deference to Pakistan army sensitivities. The second reason is the political and strategic timidity of India’s political leadership, who have yet to recognise that being a big power would involve shouldering military responsibilities to reorder in India’s favour the security environment in South Asia.13 The first rationale is understandable, but the second, one feels, has less to do with timidity and more to do with strategic reality.

The Security Link

The Afghanistan-Pakistan complex has been a security concern for India since the time of the rise of the Afghan mujahideen and subsequently the Taliban. The trajectory of jihadi violence in India, particularly in Jammu & Kashmir, is linked to the political and security situation in Afghanistan and is borne out by the sequence of events. The exit of the Soviets in 1989 coincided with the rise of militancy in J&K, and the sustained high level of violence by foreign terrorists in India coincided with the reign of the Taliban in Kabul 1996 onwards. The decline in violence and the return of normalcy to J&K occurred after 2001, when U.S. and NATO forces displaced the Taliban regime in Kabul. With the possible pull-out from Afghanistan of these troops by 2014, the chances are that Pakistan will attempt to retake control of Afghanistan using the Taliban and restarting the proxy war against India. Therefore, the link between India’s security situation and Afghanistan is quite clear and obvious.

The reason Afghanistan is relevant to India’s foreign policy is that Pakistan sees the former as giving it “strategic depth”—a notion that has led Islamabad to treat Kabul as its backyard.14 This feeling was reinforced when its creation, the Taliban, captured Kabul in 1996. But the security link with Kabul predates the coming of the Taliban. India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) has enjoyed a close working relationship with KHAD, which was an important source of information on Pakistan. This relationship has been resurrected with links to the National Security Directorate under Hamid Karzai. The main reason for the links in the 1980s was that many of the training camps for Khalistani terrorists were based in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. Arms and ammunition for these camps came from Pakistan army stocks and were monitored by KHAD, which kept India informed.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the CIA started supplying weapons and equipment to the Afghan mujahideen, it transpired that the ISI was secretly transferring some of the equipment and weapons meant for the mujahideen to the Khalistani terrorists. Access to such information lay at the heart of the R&AW-KHAD and KGB relationship.15

India’s relations with Kabul have improved steadily since the fall of the Taliban for a number of reasons. The fact that both countries do not share a contiguous and contested border combined with the Pakistan factor have steadied the ties. At the same time, it must be recalled that India’s support for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s strengthened its position in Kabul after 2001 as many alliance members have come to hold key governmental or provincial posts. New Delhi has also tried to balance its engagement with different ethnic groups and political affiliations and has used its support for President Hamid Karzai to demonstrate its keenness to revive its close ties with the Pashtuns. On the other hand, it has supported the Afghan government and the reconstruction of the country’s economic and political order.16

The then top NATO commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, in his August 2009 “COMISAF’s Initial Assessment,” opined: “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”17 While India’s presence in Afghanistan has Pakistan-specific utility, it is also about India’s emergent ability to influence its extended strategic neighbourhood. Pakistan’s main concern that India is trying to encircle it by gaining influence in Afghanistan has in part led to its continued support for the Taliban.

The U.S.-led invasion after 9/11 marked a turning point in the Indian investment in Afghanistan, and it has been able to steadily re-establish its presence. The greatest benefit of the current situation is that New Delhi has employed the soft-power approach as it has the tacit cover of U.S. and NATO security forces. This means that New Delhi has stuck to civilian rather than military matters while getting involved in Afghanistan. In consonance with the priorities laid down by the Karzai government, Indian assistance has focused on building human capital and physical infrastructure, improving security and helping the agricultural and other important sectors of the country’s economy. The Indian government is building roads, providing medical facilities and helping with educational programs in an effort to develop and enhance long-term Afghan capabilities.

New Delhi is the sixth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan, having pledged some US$1.3 billion on various projects. Important infrastructural projects undertaken include the construction of electricity transmission lines, the Salma Dam power project in the Herat province, and the construction of the Afghan parliament building. India will also help in the expansion of the Afghan national television network and undertake several smaller projects in agriculture, rural development, education, health, energy and vocational training. The 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway, enabling Afghanistan to have access to the sea via Iran and providing a shorter route for Indian goods to Afghanistan, was completed by India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in 2008 despite stiff resistance from the Taliban. A 300-strong paramilitary force ensured the safety of the Indian workers and allowed the project to beat construction and monetary deadlines.18

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh used his visit to Kabul in May 2011 to send the message that, unlike the West, New Delhi has no “exit strategy” from Afghanistan. His first trip to Kabul in six years came at a crucial time—with the U.S. preparing for a troop drawdown and U.S.-Pakistan relations strained by the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the killing of 24 soldiers by a NATO air strike at the end of November 2011. Apart from the usual pledges about giving Afghanistan more money for its economic reconstruction, the two new developments that underscored the importance of the visit were India’s support to Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s peace efforts with Taliban insurgents and the announcement of a “strategic partnership.”

Delhi has made civil reconstruction central in its efforts to prevent the return of Taliban rule and of the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven for anti-India terror groups, and the latest promise of aid will bring the total since 2001 to $2 billion. What was really new during Singh’s visit was his public support of the Afghan peace plan for reconciliation with the Taliban. At the official banquet on the evening of his arrival on 12 May 2011, prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said: “We strongly support the Afghan people’s quest for peace and reconciliation.” Addressing parliament the next day, he acknowledged that “Afghanistan has embarked upon a process of ‘national reconciliation’ and wished the members well in the enterprise.”19

In October 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kabul and signed a strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai. It paves the way for India to train and equip Afghan security forces to fill what the Afghanistan government fears will be critical gaps as NATO troops leave in the years ahead. India and Afghanistan share a mutual suspicion of Pakistan’s role in fomenting recent violence in Afghanistan. The new partnership comes just two weeks after the assassination of former Afghan president and peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the significant remark that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”

When the strategic partnership agreement was signed in October 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the significant remark that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”20

The strategic partnership agreement has three notable provisions that probably set the tone for Prime Minister Singh’s statement. First, India will help train Afghan National Security Forces. India will train and mentor Afghan army and police personnel in Afghanistan, and Afghans will attend training academies in India. India will also assist in equipping the Afghan forces. This is very much in line with India’s regional foreign policy objectives and creates the ground for intensification of bilateral relations.

Second, India will furnish Afghanistan with economic aid and assistance. The agreement provides an additional $500 million on top of the $1 billion India has already spent since 2002. In addition, India and Afghanistan will cooperate in the development of mining and energy production. At the end of November came the announcement that President Karzai’s government had awarded India mining rights for the country’s biggest iron deposit. Three of four blocks at the Hajigak ore deposit were awarded to seven companies that bid with support from the government of India. Afghanistan expects to attract $14.6 billion in foreign investment over 30 years, including $10.7 billion from India. Further, Kabul is soon going to start negotiations with an Indian consortium for investment that includes the building of the nation’s first steel mill for $7.8 billion, a power plant and facilities for ore extraction and processing,

And finally, the agreement states that Afghanistan and India will establish a strategic dialogue between their respective national security advisers “to provide a framework for cooperation in the area of national security.” This opens up a new chapter in bilateral relations in that it allows both countries to discuss both strategic regional and global issues—read Pakistan.21

Yet despite being the largest regional donor, India has had its share of challenges while operating in Afghanistan. There have been two suicide bombings of its embassy in Kabul, the first of which killed two senior Indian diplomats, two security personnel and 50 Afghans. Just last month, a terror plot targeting the Indian consulate in Jalalabad was foiled. Since 2001, twenty Indian nationals have been killed. Crucially, no new major construction project has been initiated in the past two to three years. There is no doubt that the drawdown of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces in the absence of sufficiently trained and capable Afghan security forces will adversely impact Indian projects and personnel in Afghanistan. And there are fears that India’s influence could be eroded as President Karzai seeks a peace deal with Taliban insurgents aided by Pakistan.22

The Future of Afghanistan

Key to success in Afghanistan lies in understanding the Afghan mind-set, and that means understanding their culture and engaging the Afghans with respect to the system of governance that has worked for them in the past. A successful outcome in Afghanistan requires balancing tribal, religious and government structures. There are also models that believe that the future of Afghanistan lies in smaller units/countries. This model views the breakup of Afghanistan along ethnic lines and takes the task of divide and rule to its logical conclusion. Proponents of federalism for Afghanistan would like to see the country divided on ethnic, linguistic or economic basis. This would give ethnic groupings the freedom to shape their own social and cultural affairs, without the need for national coordination of the same. It would also mean dividing the country geographically into perhaps north and south or east, south and the west, along with the northern division.23

Ten years after its initial intervention, the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan is now being heavily influenced by an ISAF-agreed 2014 deadline, when plans to transfer security and civilian control back to Afghans are due to come into force.

A federal system for Afghanistan would make it closer to becoming a Yugoslavia. Although the religious divide in Afghanistan is not between faiths but within the one faith of Islam, ethnic groupings are diverse. However, throughout Afghan history, the ethnic makeup of the society has led the Afghans to cherish their status as Afghans rather than members of the ethnic groupings. The name “Afghan” has become synonymous with a freedom-loving nation that has never accepted foreign rule.24 Afghanistan has been a nation state since 1761, and even though Afghanistan has suffered severe internal wars and coups, the country and its people have shown remarkable resilience.

Robert Blackwill, a former official in the Bush administration and a former U.S. ambassador to India, is one of the advocates of the partition of Afghanistan. Blackwill recently wrote that since the U.S. cannot win the current war in Afghanistan, it should consider a de facto partition of the country, handing over the Pashtun south to the Taliban and propping up the north and the west, where Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras live. Such a partition, he writes, “is now the best that can realistically and responsibly be achieved.”25

Today, there are more Pashtuns and Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Pakistan and Tajikistan, respectively. This situation has given rise to a political fear in Afghanistan’s neighbours. On the other hand, the mostly Shiite Iran eyes a strong influence over the minority Shiites of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Baluchis live in the three neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid argues that a federal system in Afghanistan may make it easier for Afghanistan’s neighbours to further intervene in the affairs of the country in favour of the ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities that they support and want to befriend. That in itself would create the danger of disintegration. It is best that the international community works together for a centralised strong but just system of government that would guarantee unity of the nation and maintenance of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

One of the most recent initiatives towards a political solution to the Afghan issue has been attempts to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The idea of talking to what the British euphemistically called “moderate” Taliban arose two years ago, and since then efforts have been made to get the Taliban to shed the gun. Most recently, the Americans have got into the act as honest brokers, aiming to get the Taliban to talk to the government of Hamid Karzai and lay down arms.26

At the end of 2011 came news that the talks had reached a critical juncture and it will soon become clear if the Taliban is serious about talks. The Taliban has indicated that talks are of no use till such time that foreign troops withdraw from Afghan soil.27 The U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. It has been reported that in mid-2010, Karzai had a face-to-face meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of a prominent Pakistan-propped terror network, in the presence of Pakistan’s army chief of staff and the ISI chief.28

At the close of the year came reports that Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, in a note to foreign missions, had set out ground rules for engaging the Taliban. This happened after the United States and Qatar, helped by Germany, secretly agreed with the Taliban to open an office in the Qatari capital, Doha.

With a view to setting the ground rules for any engagement, the High Peace Council said that negotiations with the Taliban could only begin after they abjured violence against civilians, cut ties with al-Qaeda, and accepted the Afghan constitution, which guarantees civil rights and liberties, including rights for women. The council also said any peace process with the Taliban would have to have the support of Pakistan since members of the insurgent group were based there. Reuters reported this month that the United States was considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay into Afghan government custody as part of accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy.29

Whatever the future governance structure in Afghanistan, it is obvious that factoring the ethnic and tribal system of the country into a working democratic system will be the best bet. Towards this end, does it make sense to talk to the Taliban? Despite India’s recent statements supporting the moves by the Karzai government (read with U.S. backing) about the dialogue with the Taliban, history tells us otherwise. Both the U.S. and India know who created the Taliban and to what purpose.

One U.S. scholar has this to say about Pakistani support for the Taliban. “Although the Taliban has a strong endogenous impetus, according to Taliban commanders the ISI orchestrates, sustains and strongly influences the movement. They say it gives sanctuary to both Taliban and Haqqani groups, and provides huge support in terms of training, funding, munitions and supplies. In their words, this is ‘as clear as the sun in the sky.’” If that is not evidence enough of the backing by the ISI, one is not sure what is. For India to have first taken the stand, quite correctly in 2009, that there is no such thing as “moderate” Taliban and now to propose that Afghanistan should be talking to the Taliban appears to be a move to fall in line with U.S. moves.

There are two aspects to the present situation. For the U.S., it has little policy choices in terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan. But at the same time for the U.S. is the Pakistan factor. Therefore, it is trying to find peace in Kabul through Islamabad. Second, for India, the worry is what happens to its policy when the U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from Afghan soil. This is precisely where the recent statement by Dr. Manmohan Singh about supporting the Afghan people even after 2014 comes into play. Careful analysis shows that India is playing it very carefully.

What India envisages is strengthening of the political democracy in Kabul to the extent that the withdrawal of international troops will not have a destabilising effect. Given the fact that New Delhi is backing Karzai at the moment and hopes to do so beyond 2014 is a sign that sudden changes are foreseen. Islamabad may not exactly think along the same lines! This also means that in the next three years, India will have to invest very heavily in Kabul so that institutions and structures are strong enough to withstand the postwithdrawal scenario in 2014.

The experience of such incidents suggests however that India will have to be prepared to play a much more proactive role in supporting any government in Kabul, both physically and ensuring the safety and security of its assets. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, there was turmoil. A brief period of stability was again disturbed by the Taliban in 1996, which lasted till 2001. At the core of the matter lies the tribal and feudal structure of Afghan polity. Basically, history shows that the tribes have played an important dual role in establishing order in terms of who rules the nation and maintaining control in those areas where the reach of the government in terms of security and governance is low or nonexistent. This has to be interwoven with the concepts of qawm and manteqa, both of which form the basis of society. The former can be seen as societal networks while the latter signifies the place or region from where people come. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Qawm (or people belonging to one tribe and region) has prevented the inroads of modernity into society, at the same time giving shape to a form of resilience to face any external or internal shock.30

The place from which a person originates or in which a person resides is known as manteqa, and it is composed of several villages or cluster settlements/hamlets where solidarity is shaped amongst the local population. The manteqa shapes the identity of a person in Afghanistan. In order to take the best advantage of this societal situation, it is necessary for both the West and India to analyse development and peace initiatives from this perspective. In terms of development, the focus has to be really on the villages of Afghanistan. The decentralisation of power using the Indian model may be a good starting point, and alongside, the devolution of financial power will have to take place. This of course is dependent on the strength of the central government at any given point in time.

Given the complexity of the tribal situation, it is but natural that challenges will arise in the distribution of power. Ahmed Rashid aptly stated in 2001, “Over the centuries, trying to understand the Afghans and their country was turned into a fine art and a game of power politics by the Persians, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets and most recently the Pakistanis. But no outsider has ever conquered them or claimed their soul.” This is an indication of the difficulties involved in acquiring a sense of purpose and direction in Afghanistan.31

From the U.S. perspective, Afghanistan has to be rid of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That is why operation Enduring Freedom was launched. But domestic compulsions in the U.S. are creating grounds for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. This also means that political support to President Hamid Karzai or any other candidate is going to be a problem. The only possibility is that the U.S. continues its operations in Afghanistan using the CIA, as it did prior to 2001. For Pakistan, the stakes are higher. For Pakistan, its creation, the Taliban, and by default its control over Afghanistan, cannot be allowed to wither. For India, the stakes are high in terms of a stable Afghanistan constituting a counter-poise to Pakistan; that is why the soft-power approach has provided some gains for New Delhi.


If history shows that political stability is a mirage in Afghanistan, it also shows that if one works the system through the traditional systems of power sharing, like the shura and the jirga, the chances of finding a political solution are greater—that is, if at the national level, there is consensus that stability is a factor in the continuance of Afghanistan as a nation state. Otherwise, it will be argued that it is better to split Afghanistan along ethnic and tribal lines and give everyone his share of the cake.

India will continue to be in Afghanistan whether or not the 2014 withdrawal happens. It is more likely though that planning for a military presence in Kabul is envisaged and thought out without being announced. After all, who knows what tomorrow might bring!

Dr Bhashyam Kasturi (Dehli University), an Indian academic who has written extensively on terrorism, intelligence systems and special forces, in Indian and international journals/newspapers. He is the author of the Book Intelligence Services: Analysis, Organization and Function.

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