Venkataraman Mahalingam is a retired brigadier general in the Indian Army and a prominent political analyst who writes extensively about security issues in South Asia. He contributes regularly to notable Indian think tanks like the New Delhi-based Center for Land Warfare Studies and the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. The Diplomat recently conducted an interview with Mahalingam on security challenges in Afghanistan. The transcript of this interview is below:
The Diplomat: India decided to participate in the November 9 talks on Afghanistan in Moscow, which included Taliban representatives. In your view, does this event signify a major shift in how India views the Taliban? And do you foresee India engaging in bilateral talks with Taliban representatives in the future?
Venkataraman Mahalingam: Definitely not. There is no shift in India’s policy towards the Taliban. India was represented in the “Moscow Format” not by officials of the Indian government, but by two “non-official” members who were retired Foreign Service officers. They did not make any statement or interventions during the conference but remained mere observers.
The Taliban is Pakistan’s creation and it continues to nurture these forces as it uses its strategic assets to manipulate the situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan hopes to seize power and rule the country through its surrogates and thus create so-called “strategic depth.” On the other hand, irrespective of what the Taliban and its representatives may say, the larger aim of the Taliban resembles that of other extremist groups operating in Afghanistan. The Taliban seeks to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan and beyond, governed by “Sharia Law.” The presence of radical outfits like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network within the Afghan government’s power structures threatens the security and stability of the region. This instability has serious negative implications for India.
Russia has been accused by numerous U.S. and Afghan officials of providing covert military assistance to the Afghan Taliban. From your experience, are these allegations taken seriously in India, and if so, how are they impacting the Russia-India relationship?
There have been reports, especially in the Western media, suggesting that Russia is providing military assistance to the Taliban as a counterweight to ISIS [the Islamic State]. No substantial proof has been provided to substantiate these allegations. These allegations may be an attempt to offset accusations against the U.S. for providing materiel and financial support to ISIS and other radical groups fighting in Syria against Bashar al-Assad.
These allegations have not been authenticated and as such they do not impact India’s relationship with Russia.
The Trump administration has called for increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan, but these calls have been controversially received in India. How do you think the United States wants India to be more involved in Afghanistan? And in what ways is India prepared to expand its role in resolving the conflict?
Though nothing has been said officially, the United States may want India to support it in its military operations in Afghanistan by putting boots on ground. Such a demand, if made, will be an impractical call, as the geography of the area would make it impossible for India to logistically support its forces deployed in Afghanistan. Having said that, India’s larger aim in Afghanistan is limited to helping the Afghan government address the needs and priorities of its people. This assistance aims in the long term to ensure that Afghanistan is governed by an inclusive and a stable government that is free from foreign influence, and capable of formulating its own foreign, domestic and security policies.
India would not hesitate to provide training to Afghan forces and military equipment from its own resources and capabilities. India has already spent over $ 2 billion on infrastructure development in Afghanistan. India has promised 1.1 million tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan on a grant basis and is following through on dispatching this wheat. India has assisted the reconstruction of Salma Dam in Herat Province which has the capacity to irrigate 75,000 hectares of agricultural land. This serves as a benchmark for future similar assistance projects that India will conduct with the Afghan government.
India recently received a waiver from Iran-related sanctions to construct the Chabahar port. Do ongoing tensions between Iran and Afghanistan pose a threat to this project, or do Indian policymakers believe that this port project will help normalize Tehran-Kabul relations?
There are essentially two areas of conflict between Afghanistan and Iran. First, though there is no direct evidence, there are suggestions that Iran may be backing the Taliban especially in its assault on the Western Farah province. The latest example of Iran’s support for a Taliban offensive surfaced in May 2018. The second area of conflict pertains to the Helmand River’s water supply to Afghanistan, which is shared under a 1973 treaty that assigns 820 million cubic meters of water a year to Afghanistan. The intensity of the conflict associated with these areas appears to have been mitigated to a large extent after the meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of June’s SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] summit in Qingdao, China.
Notwithstanding the areas of tension between the two countries the advantages that emerge from the Chabahar port to all the three participants are overwhelming. The port is critical to Iran’s efforts to diversify its access beyond Bandar Abbas, which presently handles over 70 percent of the country’s seaborne traffic. Chabahar would enable Iran to realize its potential as a transit hub, as major economic corridors, such as International North South Trade Corridor (INSTC) pass through it. It would further diversify Iran’s economic engagements, enabling it to compete with China and Russia in the export of crude oil and petrochemical products.
As for landlocked Afghanistan, it makes it possible for the country to break its reliance on Pakistani ports. For India, Chabahar provides secure transit land access to Afghanistan, which bypasses Pakistan, and allows Indian goods to reach Central Asia and beyond. This creates greater trade opportunities in the Afghan and European markets, and will result in expanded economic integration across the region. Therefore, it is quite obvious that the port project will help Iran and Afghanistan normalize their relationship.
Pakistan has been frequently accused of providing military support to the Taliban and Haqqani network in Afghanistan. In your opinion, how extensive and impactful is Pakistan’s assistance to these groups?
It is a misnomer to state that Pakistan is merely providing military support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network. ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency] created them as its proxies. The argument that the Taliban and Haqqani Network are two different organizations is yet another folly. To exemplify this point, I will quote the announcement of appointments posted in the Taliban’s website “Shahamat” by Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s governing body. It declared Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s former judiciary chief, and Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of Haqqani Network and the son of its founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, are the two deputy heads of Taliban. How can the leader of Haqqani Network become the deputy leader of Taliban if they are two different outfits? Pakistan owns these terrorist outfits.
Pakistan has provided safe havens to these terror organizations, and many others in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Most of these organizations have now been driven out of Afghanistan after Operation Zarb-e-Azb. During his March 1, 2016 speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister on foreign affairs, admitted that Islamabad has considerable influence over the Taliban because its leaders and their families live in the country and have access to medical facilities in Pakistan. Mullah Mansour, the Taliban leader appointed under Pakistan’s directions, while Mullah Omar was still alive, was living in an open unrestricted complex known as Satellite Town in Quetta.
The war in Afghanistan is entering its 18th year. Why has progress been so stagnant and how can this dismal situation be rectified?
Despite having 100,000 troops on ground in Afghanistan in 2010, and expending enormous money and resources, the U.S. has not been able to win the war in Afghanistan. Why? In my opinion, the U.S. failed to engage in effective combat beyond the Durand Line, where terrorist hideouts were located and terrorists were operating inside Afghanistan. This created an impossible military situation. In my view, Pakistan needs to be restrained internationally, the movement of terrorists, and weapons from across the borders should be halted, and Afghanistan must be pressured militarily by an international force that makes the Taliban surrender. Elections must be held and a democratic government should be established in Afghanistan.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2.