India’s Afghan policy is at a crossroads.
A period of adjustment has become essential following US President Donald Trump’s unilateral announcement that he is pulling US troops out of Afghanistan.
The US withdrawal from Afghan not only affects Indian policy on Afghan but also changes the regional balance of power in fundamental ways.
The diplomatic mandarins of New Delhi are apprehensive about the growing influence of the Taliban in Afghan and the centrality of the Taliban in ensuing peace processes.
We should delve into the history of Afghan and India’s role in various stages of this history to grasp the complete relevance of Afghan’s stability for India.
Afghan – a ‘Graveyard of empires’
Afghan is considered as ‘Graveyard of empires’. The fall of Alexander (in Bactria), disintegration of USSR, and the decline of US hegemony were started in this region. There is an ever-growing perception that it is difficult to come out of Afghan quagmire.
The present US situation rings testimony to this quagmire.
History of India-Afghan relations
Relations between the people of Afghanistan and India can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Following Alexander the Great’s brief occupation, the successor state of the Seleucid Empire controlled the region known today as Afghanistan. In 305 BCE, they ceded much of it to the Indian Maurya Empire as part of an alliance treaty. The Mauryans brought Buddhism from India and controlled the area south of the Hindu Kush.
From the 10th century to the mid 18th century, northern India has been invaded by a number of invaders based in what today is Afghanistan. Some of them were Ghaznavids, Khaljis, Mughals, Durranis etc. During these eras, many Afghans began immigrating to India due to political unrest in their regions.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of Afghan was a prominent leader of the Indian independence movement and active supporter of the Indian National Congress.
India-Afghanistan Relations – Strategic, Economic, and Security Interests
India-Afghanistan: Strategic interests
- If we go by Mandal Sidhanth, Afghan is India’s natural ally.
- India is interested in retaining Afghanistan as a friendly state from which it has the capacity to monitor Pakistan and cultivate assets to influence activities in Pakistan.
- While India is keenly interested in cultivating a significant partnership with Afghanistan, Pakistan is trying to deny India these very opportunities.
- India’s interest in Afghan is more than mere Pakistan-centrist and reflects its aspiration to be and to be seen as a regional power.
- Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghan has deleterious effects in the domestic social fabric of India, as Hindu fundamentalism in India is triggered by these external developments.
- Afghan is also a center of ‘great games’.
- In Medieval times it was between Persian and Mughal Empire.
- During colonial times it was between Russia and Britain.
India-Afghanistan: Economic interests
- Afghanistan has a mineral wealth of about $1-3 trillion of Iron ore, Lithium, Chromium, Natural Gas, Petroleum etc.
- Safeguarding Indian investments and personnel in Afghan is utmost important to India as Indian investment in Afghan amounts to about $3bn.
India-Afghanistan: Security interests
- India faced many security challenges from the Taliban in Afghan during the 1990s.
- Pakistan has raised and supported several militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen/Harkat-ul-Ansar, and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami among others, which operate in India.
- All of these groups have trained in Afghanistan, with varying proximity to the Taliban and by extension al-Qaeda.
- Thus India is absolutely adamant that Afghanistan should not again become a terrorist safe haven.
- Radical ideologies and terrorism spreading in this region are a security threat for India.
- With Pakistan increasing its strategic depth in Afghan, it can reverse the gain of India in Afghan brought through much cost. Pakistan can incubate and move around various anti-India groups in Afghan especially in Loya Paktia.
- The golden crescent comprising of Iran, Afghan, and Pakistan is a worry for India, especially with respect to the issue of drug abuse in Punjab.
- Islamic State is using Afghan as an outpost in Asia as it comes under stress in Iraq and Syria.
History of Indian engagement in Afghan post Independence
- India has sought to establish its presence in Afghanistan from the early days of its independence in 1947.
- In 1950, Afghanistan and India signed a “Friendship Treaty.”
- India had robust ties with Afghan King Zahir Shah’s regime.
- Prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, New Delhi had formalized agreements and protocols with various pro-Soviet regimes in Kabul.
- While India’s role in Afghanistan was constrained during the anti-Soviet jihad, between 1979 and 1989, India expanded its development activities in Afghanistan, focusing upon industrial, irrigation, and hydroelectric projects.
- After the Taliban consolidated their hold on Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, India struggled to maintain its presence and to support anti-Taliban forces.
- However, Indian objectives in Afghanistan remained modest given the constrained environment. India aimed to undermine the ability of the Taliban to consolidate its power over Afghanistan, principally by supporting the Northern Alliance in tandem with other regional actors.
- Working with Iran, Russia, and Tajikistan, India provided important resources to the Northern Alliance, the only meaningful challenge to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
- Since 2001, India has relied upon development projects and other forms of humanitarian assistance.
Debate on India’s role in Afghan
There is a debate among major players in Afghan on the optimal role for India in Afghanistan’s reconstruction in light of the enduring security competition between India and Pakistan.
- Expanding India’s presence in Afghanistan through increased Indian training of Afghan civilian and military personnel, development projects, and expanded economic ties.
- Caution against India’s involvement.
- Indian and Pakistani competition in Afghanistan is seen as a new “Great Game” and argues that Afghanistan can be pacified only through a regional solution that resolves once and for all the intractable Indo-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir.
Phase I – until the end of the cold war
Monarchy under King Zahir Shah lasted till 1973 and was overthrown by a coup led by Mohammed Daoud Khan. He declared Afghanistan as a republic. Against his repressive rule, protest became widespread leading to Communist Revolution or Saur Revolution in 1978 and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan came into being. The event proved to be the catalyst for decades of unrest and bloodshed in Afghan. There were protests against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and to stabilize the communist regime, USSR intervened in 1979.
The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, renamed in 1987 to the Republic of Afghanistan, commonly known as Afghanistan, existed from 1978 to 1992, during which time the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) ruled Afghanistan.
- India had an upper hand as the diplomatic and cultural ties were strong with the Afghan regime during these periods.
- India was the only South Asian nation to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union’s military presence in Afghan territories.
Meanwhile, US-Pakistan interest coincided in Afghan. After the Iranian revolution, Iran came out of US influence in the Middle Eastern region. So the US was apprehensive of growing Soviet influence in Afghan. Thus CIA-ISI worked together to destabilize the communist government in Afghan, which led to USSR intervention in 1979. The intervention lasted from 1979 to 1989.
Mujahadeen succeeded in toppling communist regime in Afghan in 1989. Mujahadeen was Pakistani supported alliance by seven Afghan Mujahideen parties fighting against the Soviet-backed the Democratic Republic of Afghan forces in Soviet-Afghan war.
India, however, recognized the Mujahadeen government. Following the withdrawal of the Soviet armed forces from Afghanistan in 1989, India continued to support Najibullah’s government (Mujahadeen government) with humanitarian aid.
Taliban to power
- Even though the Mujahadeen government came into power by the backing of US-Pakistan, the government comprised of different warlords. This lead to the power struggle between them and there was a law & order crisis.
- Moreover, the then president, Najibullah, become pro-India.
- This lead to the promotion of Taliban by Pakistan.
Who are the Taliban?
- Taliban means students.
- They are refugees of Afghan civil war and are located in NWFP in Pakistan.
- They were educated in Madrasas financed by Saudi Arabia and indoctrinated with Wahabism-Salafism.
- Wahabism is a puritan movement in Islam who wants Shariat rule.
After fall of Mujahadeen government, India together with the international community supported the coalition government that took control, but relations and contacts ended with the outbreak of another civil war, which brought to power the Taliban. The Taliban regime was recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha monuments by the Taliban led to outrage and angry protests by India. In 1999, the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 landed and stayed in Kandahar in Afghanistan and the Taliban were suspected of supporting them. India became one of the key supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Phase II – since the end of the cold war
- India tried to repair the relations since the 1990s. But the emergence of the Taliban with Pakistan’s support limited India’s options. India continued to support anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghan (2001-present)
- Meanwhile, post-cold war scenario changed the regional dynamics and US war on terror in 2001 lead to the defeat of the Taliban.
- US war in Afghan was started in 2001. The war’s public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power
- The US demanded extradition of Osama-bin-Laden from Taliban post 9/11. Taliban didn’t comply and the US launched the war on Afghan under the war on terror. Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban since the 1990s, offered assistance to the US in this endeavour. Thus all the powers, including India, Russia, the US fought against the Taliban. Taliban was ousted and went underground in Pakistan.
- India offered assistance for the US in this endeavour. India sensed an opportunity to re-establish itself in Afghanistan in this different international and regional framework. India began assistance for reconstruction and nation-building in Afghan.
- Zaranj–Delaram road in 2009.
- Salma dam.
- Construction of Afghan parliament.
- After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the concentration of US was shifted to Iraq. This lead to Taliban insurgency in 2005 and they regrouped from Pakistan hideouts.
- Since then the US is looking to come out of the war in Afghan but the war is being protracted without an end in sight.
- Recently US-Taliban talks were held in Doha and US announced that there has been an in-principle agreement on key issues: US troop will leave Afghan and in return, the Taliban promised that Afghan will not be used by terrorists.
Thus from 2001 to present, the Taliban has emerged as an important central player in the Afghan peace process. Now major players like US, Russia, China have accepted this centrality of the Taliban. Since only Pakistan has influence over the Taliban, this turn of events can be considered as a diplomatic victory of Pakistan whereas India is increasingly being sidelined in these proceedings.
Pakistan’s policy on Afganistan
- India’s engagement is a cause of insecurity for Pakistan.
- Pakistan is an unnatural nation that suffers from a crisis of nation-building. Since the beginning, it has been witnessing ethnic conflicts between Punjabis-Sindhis, between native inhabitants and Muhasir, Shia-Sunni, Baluch etc.
- Its biggest fear is the possibility of the creation of greater Pashtunistan. NWFP, south & central Pakistan is * *dominated by Pashtoons. They don’t recognize the legitimacy of the Durand line and treat it as a colonial boundary. The Pashtoon government of Afghan is inspired by integration of the region in Afghan.
- Pakistan wants a strategic depth in Afghan – it wants whosoever rules Afghan is completely controlled by Pakistan. Pakistan is not ready to tolerate even the minimum presence of India (diplomatic also).
- Pakistan has tensions over India’s presence in Afghanistan and the presence of India is seen as a provocation in Islamabad and as evidence of an Indian strategy of encirclement.
Indian policy on Afghanistan
- Afghan is India’s natural partner, not just to balance Pakistan but also for the fulfilment of energy-economic interest.
- Indian policy in Afghan can be described as the dichotomy between its aspiration for a larger role in its northwestern neighbourhood and the real constraints on it.
- In 2011 India became the first country Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement. Until then India was following US demand of India’s limited cooperation with Afghan.
- India has repeatedly stressed that its relationship with Afghan is independent of Pakistan.
- India argues that the tripartite relationship between India, Pakistan, and Afghan are mutually independent:
- In both the 1965 and 1971 wars, Afghanistan was non-committal and did not support India.
- On the Kashmir issue, Afghanistan has not publicly supported India
- India has not entered the debate on the Durand Line.
- In 2018, in a first major offensive military platform to Kabul, India gifted a Mi 25 attack helicopter.
- The delivery marks the first time India has gifted offensive combat capability to Afghanistan, a sensitive topic in the past due to strong objections by Pakistan.
- Under the agreement, India will also train Afghan defence personnel on operations.
US policy on Afghanistan
- US policy on Afghan had not been consistent. On the one hand, the US thinks that it needs the assistance of Pakistan to solve the issue because of the geographic proximity of Pakistan to Afghan. On the other hand, the US is also wary of Pakistan’s double game of supporting the US and Taliban at the same time.
- Because of this inherent inconsistency of US policy regarding Afghan, US has not been able to decide what should be the extent of India’s role in Afghan.
- India’s reconstruction program in Afghan is inconvenient for the US for the fear of provocation of Pakistan.
Under the Obama government
- Obama policy was of regional diplomacy along with providing additional troops in Afghan.
- The aim was to draw down forces from 2011 and by 2014 Afghan will take over security.
- But Taliban increased attacks thus exposing the weakness of Afghan capability to take over.
Under Trump government
- Donald Trump endorsed that the Afghan war should be ended at the earliest possible time.
- But hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum as the ground situation had become more complicated with various terrorist outfits including ISIS and al-Qaeda gaining space in Afghan.
- Followed Obama policy of a modest increase in troops.
- Initiated New Afghan policy.
New Afghan strategy of US
- Military commitment without a deadline.
- Open acknowledgement of Pakistan’s role in providing sanctuary to Afghan-based militant groups.
- Acknowledgement of India’s’ role in stabilizing Afghan.
- US.’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan-India policy builds India’s economic assistance into its own strategy for Afghanistan.
Under the strategy, the US held back its aid to Pakistan until Islamabad demonstrates action against terrorist groups. However, China came in aid of Pakistan by arguing that Pakistan has also been affected by terrorism.
After the US released this new Afghanistan strategy, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited the US. India put forward its Afghan strategy:
- There will be no Indian boots-on-ground in Afghan.
- India will provide economic assistance and capacity building.
- India will sign MoU with Afghan to train its police force.
- India will assist Afghan in its own way and not the way desired by the US, that is boots-on-ground.
- Countered the argument of Pakistan Prime Minister that India has zero political and zero military role in Afghan.
However, President Donald Trump now appears reconciled to Pakistan’s centrality to the endgame in the region. He unilaterally announced his plan of pulling US troops out of Afghan. A “framework” deal between the US and Afghan Taliban signed at Doha. Washington’s hasty timetable of 18 months to disentangle itself from the Afghan quagmire has narrowed the US’s options. Due to this India is trapped in a strategic blind-spot in Afghanistan.
- China’s role in Afghanistan is gradually evolving towards more engagement in various areas. China has evolved into a notable though not yet major player in Afghanistan in the areas of investment, economic and humanitarian assistance.
- This increasing engagement reflects both China’s concerns about the deterioration of security in Afghanistan and its interest in benefiting from a reconstructed Afghanistan.
- Afghan’s geographic location at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, between India in the South and Russia in the North, is of great strategic value to China. In addition, Afghanistan’s vast natural resources are also an attraction.
- China’s interest in ensuring stability in Afghan reflects its growing worries about an eruption of insecurity that could endanger its security of its border province Xinjiang, its investments in the Central Asian region and also its OBOR initiative.
- Beijing is concerned about possible links between its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and the Taliban, as well as other Islamist groups in Afghanistan.
- Beijing remains reluctant to consider a security role in Afghanistan but has made major diplomatic efforts to promote the Afghan peace process.
- China is holding talks in Islamabad since early 2016 along with Afghanistan, the US, and Pakistan (the Quadrilateral Coordination Group). China is also holding peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
- China’s role as a mediator and confidence-builder may be crucial, as its pressure has kept Pakistan peacefully engaged.
- What Afghanistan needs is long-term and sustainable support – and China would be in a position to provide it, be it in the frame of its OBOR scheme or other initiatives.
- There may also be several areas of common interest for China to explore with other countries that are present in Afghanistan already.
- This could include joint infrastructure projects and training and professionalization for Afghans.
- India and China have agreed for joint projects in Afghan in the Wuhan summit in 2018.
- Like India, Russia, China, and the U.S., Iran would want to see a steady hand at the helm in Afghanistan.
- Iranian Revolution 1979 can be seen as a precursor to Afghan turmoil. Iranian Revolution led to two developments in the region:
- Iran came out of US influence. The US thus intervened in Afghan to counter USSR influence in the region. This lead to USSR intervention in Afghan in 1979.
- Iranian Revolution consolidated Shia sect in Iran. This threatened Saudi and UAE lead by Sunni sects. This, in turn, led them to finance Wahabism-Salafism and thus Taliban.
- Since Saudi was promoting Wahhabi Islam through the Taliban, Iran supported the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
- After deterioration of US-Iran ties, Iran began to support the Taliban in its borders to ward off US presence from their borders.
- Amidst the crippling sanctions on its economy, Iran can benefit from a stable trading partner in its neighbourhood. In 2017 it supplanted Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner.
- Russia has increased its involvement in Afghanistan.
- Russia established ties with the Taliban in 2007 to discuss the issue of drug trafficking through the central Asian region.
- Moreover mutual fear of IS has brought the Taliban and Russians closer.
- After the Syrian crisis, Russia is trying to flex its muscle in this region to boost its global power status.
Peace conferences and processes
There are many peace conferences and processes to solve the crisis. Bonn Agreement 2001 was the first international pact on Afghanistan for peace and reconciliation. Let us look at some of the important among them, their consequences and India’s role or stand in them.
There are two major international peace efforts that are currently underway – the American push for peace led by Zalmay Khalilzad (Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Khalilzad) and the Moscow-led consultations.
Zalmay Khalilzad has held talks with different stakeholders – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Taliban with the intention to deliver a deal in six months. Appointment of Khalizad indicates the US urge to get out of Afghan at the earliest possible time.
Moscow consultations are called ‘Moscow-format consultations on Afghanistan’. Moscow consultation is one of the few peace processes which have managed to get the Taliban and Afghanistan at the same table of talks notwithstanding its inconclusiveness.
Heart of Asia Conference, Kabul process etc. are some of the other peace conferences.
India’s stand in the Peace Conferences
- In peace conferences, India’s stand is that it should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled and with the participation of the government of Afghanistan. India is also wary of talks with the Taliban and the distinction of ‘good Taliban-bad Taliban’.
- Much to India’s chagrin, U.S. and Russia have accepted the idea that peace in Afghanistan is not possible without major concessions to the Taliban. Taliban has become the centre stage in all the peace conferences.
- This is evident in the talks facilitated by Russia in Moscow in February 2019, with mainstream Afghan politicians sitting around the table with Taliban leaders and recent U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar.
- The U.S. and Russia have, in their respective peace processes, agreed to sidestep the Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul, and accepted the Taliban’s condition that it will not negotiate with the elected Afghan government at this stage.
- And both the Russian and U.S. processes are dependent on cooperation from Pakistan, which retains its influence over the Taliban leadership.
- Current talks with the Taliban are not Afghan-led, owned or controlled, and the Taliban has not abjured violence, or sworn allegiance to the Afghan constitution before joining talks.
- For India, which has built on its centuries-old ties with Afghanistan with $3 billion in development assistance over the last 10 years, the spectre of a Pakistan proxy in power in Kabul is now looming large.
- Holding no trump cards in this game, India is now engaging with China and Iran, and with a range of Afghan actors including former President Hamid Karzai, who is said to be playing a key role in the US-Taliban process.
- India aims to secure its own strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan while backing the position taken by the government in Kabul on the talks.
- According to foreign policy experts, India may have to think of reaching out to the Taliban in near-future, at least sections of it that are independent minded.
Trade and Connectivity between India-Afghan
- India wants to improve transport connectivity and economic collaboration with countries in Central and South Asia through Afghan.
- There is a land route through Waga Atari route. But Pakistan doesn’t allow India-Afghan trade through this route.
- India and Iran inked a transit agreement on transporting goods to landlocked Afghanistan.
- Indian investment in Chabahar port in southeastern Iran will serve as a hub for the transportation of transit goods.
- India builds Deleram- Zaranj highway in Afghan.
- India-Afghan established two air corridors to facilitate bilateral trade.
- India helped Afghans in the reconstruction of Salma Dam in the Herat province.
- India has also constructed a new Parliament complex for the Afghan government.
- There is an India Afghan joint working group on trade, commerce, investment.
- India ratified UN TIR (Transports Internationaux Routiers or international road transport) Convention in 2017.
- TIR facilitates trade and international road transport by permitting customs sealed vehicles and containers to transmit nations without inspected at borders.
- Afghan Pakistan are contracting parties of TIR
- TIR may boost trade between India-Afghan through Pakistan.
- Under Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, Afghan can use Pakistan territory for transit trade and vice versa.
- But Pakistan did not allow the agreement to be used by India for transit.
- Afghan is in favour of India joining the agreement, but Pakistan rejected this proposition.
Donald Trump is the third US President who is trying to end the Afghan war. However many experts opine that the announcement of drawdown before getting anything concrete from the Taliban is a strategic blunder for the US. It will lead to instability in Afghan that will not only affect India’s interest but also regional stability.
The current US move has been a diplomatic victory for Pakistan. The US will require Pakistan’s support to implement the interim deal as only Pakistan has influence over the Taliban.
Fully aware of the deadline, the Taliban are trying to secure maximum concessions from Zalmay Khalilzad without offering anything meaningful in return.
With the US withdrawing from Afghanistan, India must find ways to maintain its presence. Despite being an important stakeholder in Afghanistan, India finds itself increasingly marginalized in negotiations involving the key regional players. New Delhi is concerned about the vital role that all the powers are giving to Pakistan. Iran and Russia, two of India’s closest allies during the Northern Alliance’s battle against the Taliban regime in the 1990s, seem out of sync with New Delhi’s interests.
India’s developmental approach has earned it immense goodwill among the Afghan people. However, the “soft power” strategy has limitations. The recent mocking of Donald Trump of New Delhi’s role in war-torn Afghanistan is a manifestation of this limitation. However, there is a domestic consensus in India that boots-on-ground is not an option. Thus India is in the dilemma between continued soft-power or to aggressively push its hard power.
Trump’s recent strategy of engaging with the Taliban without the consideration of India has cast a shadow over the US’s role as a strategic ally of India in the region.
- While India’s principled position that it will not directly or publicly talk to the Taliban until it engages the Afghan government remains valid, it is necessary that India stays abreast of all negotiations and isn’t cut out of the resolution process.
- It is hoped that a robust channel is open between Indian intelligence agencies and all important groups in Afghanistan*, *including the Taliban, in order to ensure that Indian interests, development projects, and citizens are kept secure.
- New Delhi should leverage the goodwill it enjoys among the Afghan people. India must intensify its dialogue with regional and global stakeholders, and impress upon them that any dialogue with the Taliban must not come at the cost of the hard-fought victories of the Afghan people in the past two decades: on establishing constitutional democracy and the rule of law, and securing the rights of women and minorities.
India’s army chief, General Bipin Rawat, recently asserted that India “cannot be out of the bandwagon” because if “you are not sitting on the high table you will not know what is happening”. It is time for New Delhi to engage the Taliban to secure its interests. India also needs to reassess its policy choices in close coordination with Russia and Iran, constantly reminding them that complete surrender to the Taliban’s demands will be detrimental to their own security.
References: The Hindu, Indian Express, The Diplomat, The Wire, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, Does The Elephant Dance
Article by – Sethu Krishnan M