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India's Afghan policy

March 07, 2003

The Hindu

India's Afghan policy
By T. Sreedhar

India should make a long term investment in ensuring that a Taliban-type of government never comes to power again in Afghanistan.

THROUGHOUT THE 1980s and the 1990s, India looked at the developments in Afghanistan with a certain amount of dismay. It could not fathom the former Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Initially, the policy makers in New Delhi initially tried to find a political way out — gently persuading the Soviet Union to withdraw. India even offered to work with Pakistan to find a political solution. But Pakistan's Zia-ul-Haq refused to oblige. The Cold War politics practiced by the Great Powers in Afghanistan was too complex for India to intervene effectively.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, India kept a close watch on Islamabad's game plan. New Delhi's moves such as helping Burhanuddin Rabbani met with extremely limited success. Alarm bells began ringing with the Taliban's arrival on the scene in 1994. India saw a link between the developments in Jammu and Kashmir, the Taliban's creation and the way it was consolidating its position in Afghanistan. India's efforts to sensitise the great powers about this development had no success. After the capture of Kabul in September 1996, India closed down its mission there.

However, as a goodwill gesture to the Afghan people and its long-standing relationship with Kabul, India maintained contacts with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance forces and continued humanitarian assistance to both factions.

The hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar on Christmas-eve in 1999 brought a swift change in India's policy towards the Taliban. By the spring of 2000, Pakistan's game plan of trying to divide Afghanistan on ethnic lines was known in the rest of the neighbourhood — Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and India were quick to evolve a commonality of interests. India set itself two tasks: not to allow Afghanistan's territorial integrity to be disturbed under any circumstances; and to strengthen the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. India then decided to make its presence felt to beef up the forces of the Northern Alliance. Strategically, making the Turkmenistan capital, Dushanbe, a staging post made a lot of sense as it is close to the Northern Alliance stronghold, Panjshir Valley. A field hospital at Farkhar, near Dushanbe, was established in early 2000.

Simultaneously, the airfields in and around Dushanbe were made operational to ferry equipment to the Northern Alliance. India also began coordinating efforts with the Central Asian Republics. They agreed to be part of the broad front being proposed by India along with Iran. They readily opened their stores of Soviet vintage arms and ammunition and aircraft to the Northern Alliance.

This was also the period during which Ahmed Shah Masood made unannounced visits to India, the last being in May 2001, to refine his strategy in combating the Taliban. In his assessment, the Taliban could not last a single day without Pakistan's military support; and India having fought four wars with Pakistan understood the latter's military machine better than anyone.

Though not conclusively proven, circumstantial evidence shows that the Taliban-Al-Qaeda leadership assumed that eliminating Masood would automatically result in a collapse of the Northern Alliance. In spite of warnings from friendly countries such India, Masood decided to give an interview to an "Algerian" television network during which he was killed. That was on September 9, 2001.

The Taliban-Al-Qaeda underestimated Masood's vision and foresight. Anticipating an eventuality of this type, he groomed three of his close associates — Mohammad Fahim, Abdullah Abdullah and Qanooni. The assassination of Masood did dampen spirits to a certain extent. The September 11, 2001, attacks by the Taliban-Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon woke the U.S. from its slumber. The triumvirate — Mr. Qanooni, Mr. Abdullah and Gen. Fahim — proved brilliant in preparing their forces to synchronise their attacks with that of the U.S. They were also aware that the U.S. was unlikely to seek their help.

As late as 2001, one U.S. diplomat in Islamabad dismissed Masood as irrelevant, adding that Washington saw him as part of the problem and not as part of the solution."

As the U.S. war, Operation Enduring Freedom, started on October 7, 2001, though India extended complete support to it, things did not move the way it expected. One of Afghanistan's neighbours, Iran, was more or less excluded from the alliance; and India's intelligence inputs were seen by the U.S. war-planners through the spectrum of India-Pakistan relations.

The Northern Alliance was seen as an appendage of India. The first three weeks of bombing, from October 7 to 28, 2001, produced no tangible results to the U.S. on the ground. The widespread criticism of aimless U.S. bombing and high civilian casualties brought the whole operation under severe criticism. At this point, Indian and Russian intervention made the U.S. war planners see the logic of cooperating with Northern Alliance. In the crucial meeting on October 30, 2001, between the U.S. theatre commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, and the Northern Alliance, an agreement was reached on cooperation between the two. In the subsequent nine days, the Northern Alliance was able to capture Mazar-e-Sharif, and reach the outskirts of Kabul. During this Northern Alliance campaign, nine battalions of the Pakistani armed forces were either decimated or made to flee southwards to safer places. One version of the events was that Pakistani GHQ in Rawalpindi issued orders to its men to rush back to safer places. If this is true, the exodus of so-called Taliban soldiers from Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and other areas in early November 2001, as Northern Alliance troops marched in can be attributed to it.

By this time everyone associated with the Northern Alliance including the U.S. itself realised what good fighters the Northern Alliance men were and started admiring Masood's vision in training such a formidable force. On November 13, against the protests from Pakistan, Northern Alliance troops entered Kabul. India on the success of its subtle diplomacy immediately announced the reopening of the Embassy in Kabul.

On the Government that should come in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, India and the Afghan neighbourhood (with the exception of Pakistan) had well defined objectives from the beginning — it should not have any Taliban or any of its allies/friends/sympathisers anywhere near the corridors of power.

Though some of the extra regional powers and Pakistan try to make the Taliban movement synonymous with the Pashtuns, India always refused to buy this theory. In fact, the Indian debate during that period was that there were lots of groups among the Pashtuns who opposed the Taliban from the beginning. Instead of looking at Afghanistan through the spectrum of ethnicity, all the forces that opposed the Taliban-type of rule should be in the new Government; it should be as broad-based as possible.

This concern remains even now. India should make a long term investment in ensuring that a Taliban-type of government never comes to power again in Afghanistan. In whichever sector the present Afghan Government seeks help, India should respond positively.

(The writer is a Visiting Professor, School of International Studies, JNU.)

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