As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Indian capital of New Delhi to spend what became an uncharacteristically long trip, the developments in and around his visit as far as India and Afghanistan are concerned were perhaps the most important outcomes.
In Afghanistan’s Helmand province, not far from the southern infamous bastion of Kandahar, a battle between the Taliban and government forces is raging, one that perhaps could sketch the future of the current government in Kabul, which is resting on a fragile framework of power sharing between former political rivals President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah.
The circle around Kerry’s visit as far as Afghanistan is concerned was encompassing. Only days earlier, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in New Delhi, and gave a host of interviews both backing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invoke Pakistan’s oppression in Balochistan and reiterating the call for greater military assistance from India for the Afghan armed forces (India gave Afghanistan four Russian made Mi 25 attack helicopters in December last year).
While Kerry was in New Delhi, Afghanistan’s Army Chief, General Qadam Shah Shahim, met with his Indian counterpart General Dalbir Singh Suhag. Shahim was in the capital “against the backdrop of enhanced military and defense cooperation” between the two countries. He also met 135 Afghan cadets out of around 800 undergoing training in India. Earlier in August, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, was also in New Delhi to talk to his counterparts in the Indian defense establishment for further Indian military assistance and potential roles in the country.
In a press conference with Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, Kerry also announced an Afghanistan-India-U.S. trilateral dialogue at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. According to analysts, this news would have been treated with considerable disgruntlement in Pakistan, specifically within its military complex, which actively works to undermine Indian interests in Kabul.
The security situation in Afghanistan is precarious. In the country’s south, the Taliban has made significant inroads in Helmand, the largest province in the country. Here, Afghan police and the army have been battling to contain what could be a complete collapse of the region back into the hands of the Taliban. The fight for Helmand comes after other areas such as Kunduz faced similar losses of both territory and people, so much so that for the first time in more than a decade, the U.S. had to deploy its frontline long-range B-52 bombers over the Afghan skies to help local armed forces. Beyond the Taliban, there have been spurts of Islamists aligning themselves with ISIS, specifically around the region of Nangarhar. It is, however, widely believed that most pro-ISIS terrorists in Afghanistan are in fact disgruntled former Taliban and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters and commanders.
The offensive capability of the Taliban comes on the back of the rearrangement of the Taliban leadership, with the group’s high council, also known as the Quetta Shura, working towards assimilation of its various factions after internal strife caused by the death of former Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Last month, the powerful Taliban faction known as the Mullah Dadullah Front (MDF) reconciled with the Quetta Shura under the organization’s new chief, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, who is believed to have brought the notorious Pakistan-based and ISI-backed Haqqani Network to some prominence within the Taliban structures. Between the appointment of Mullah Mansour, the news of Mullah Omar’s demise being made public last year, and Mullah Mansour’s death in a drone strike, the Taliban leadership went through great internal realignment. Mullah Mansour Dadullah was named the military chief of the Taliban after his brother and founder of the MDF, Mullah Dadullah Akhund, was killed in 2007 by British forces. However, the churn within the shura has continued, with Maulvi Ibrahm Sadar, a former close aide to Mullah Omar, now being announced as the new military chief for the Taliban. Much of the churn within the Taliban’s top brass is about one topic: whether to negotiate a long-term political settlement with Kabul or not.
A Stronger India-US Partnership in Afghanistan?
India’s Afghanistan policy is one of its biggest successes, surviving changes in government and remaining possibly the country’s most important endeavor outside its borders. India has spent in excess of $3 billion on aid and developmental projects in Afghanistan, and plans to do much more. In June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the much-delayed Salma Dam on a visit to Herat, a trip that reportedly kept his security apparatus on its toes. In December 2015, Modi visited Kabul to open the new, India-funded, parliament building. Ghani thanked India for its “valuable assistance” as his country weathered “hard times.” “We are bound by a thousand ties,” was Modi’s answer.
Even as India has backed Kabul in almost all of its political endeavors, there have been times under both Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai when New Delhi and Kabul have not seen eye to eye. Under Karzai, India and Afghanistan were at odds during the then Afghan president’s overtures towards Pakistan, a bid to bring peace on its porous and fraught borders on the Durand line. In 2011, Karzai called India a “friend” but went a step further and called Pakistan Afghanistan’s “twin-brother.” “Pakistan is suffering from the same menace (terrorism)…it suffers even more than us. India, fortunately, suffers from this only occasionally,” Karzai said in New Delhi at an event attended by India’s then Foreign Minister SM Krishna and Pakistan’s then High Commissioner to India Shahid Malik.
Ghani began his time in office with additional positive overtures towards Islamabad, although relations quickly went south as attacks in Kabul and elsewhere became more frequent. Ghani has in recent months been blunt in calling on Pakistan to take the Taliban head on instead of trying to bring it to peace talks.
In the meantime, India started consolidating its own diplomatic position, putting further pressure on Pakistan. Along with the Afghanistan-India-U.S. trilateral, New Delhi is also holding trilateral discussions with Afghanistan and Iran, where projects such as Chabahar Port have been on the agenda. These trilateral discussions are also aimed at another partnership in the region, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), where Beijing is planning to invest in every vein of the Pakistani economy stretching from Gwadar Port in Balochistan to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). For India, raising the issue of Balochistan (whether an actionable policy is in place or not is a different question) and reminding Pakistan that it occupies PoK is akin to hitting two birds with one stone, but only time will tell how well prepared New Delhi is to take both of these points to the next step.
India needs to do more in response to some of Kabul’s military demands, at least those that do not require heavy weaponry transportation, such as mobile bridges, trucks, armored vehicles and even light aircraft. There is no denying that even though the U.S. and India may not converge in all aspects of their respective Afghan policies, Washington opening the door further for Indian influence creates a much bigger canvas for bilateral cooperation for the stability of Afghanistan and at the same time even countering the Pakistan-China nexus.
For example, the recently signed Indo-U.S. Logistics Embrace Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which will allow both countries to use designated military bases for “refueling and replenishment,” comes at a time when the Indian armed forces have more and more in common with their American counterparts operationally. After the U.S., India is now the largest operator of the C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift planes. Along with this, it also operates the C-130 and will also incorporate the CH-47 Chinook and the AH-64 Apache helicopters. This arrangement can also help both countries play a greater role in Afghanistan. For the U.S., specifically, it means it can service its aircraft operating in the region at designated bases in India.
All of these diplomatic overtures seem to have paved the way for a cautious yet robust and actionable future. It is now up to New Delhi to decide how willing it is to bite into the pie being offered by both Kabul and Washington.
Kabir Taneja is a journalist and researcher specializing in foreign affairs, energy security and defence.