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India in Afghanistan After the Soviet Withdrawal

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India in Afghanistan After the Soviet Withdrawal

India’s tough experience in post-1989 Afghanistan could hold lessons for weathering a U.S. troop withdrawal.

India in Afghanistan After the Soviet Withdrawal

A Soviet tank regimental commander gestures to Afghan leader Najibullah during ceremonial limited military withdrawal ceremonies in Shindand, Afghanistan on Oct. 25, 1986.

Credit: AP Photo/Carol Williams

In 1989, Soviet forces, India’s ally in Afghanistan, made a full withdrawal from the country and left India in a precarious position. Thirty years down the line, India is now facing a similar situation — the possibility of a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, under whose security umbrella India had built its presence in Afghanistan through largely developmental investment and soft power initiatives.

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan earlier in 1979 had put India in a tough spot. While India was averse to the idea of a superpower meddling in the domestic affairs of a small independent country, New Delhi was equivocal in condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the UN debates during an emergency special session, India in fact broke ranks with its nonalignment partners and openly supported the Soviet position. India’s strong relations with the Soviet Union and Cold War geopolitics, where the United States alongside India’s rival Pakistan was propping up the Afghan resistance, were instrumental in prodding India to take the Soviet side in Afghanistan.

Soviet Withdrawal and India-Najibullah Bonhomie

In the late 1980s, as the war simmered in Afghanistan, India looked to play a key role in mediating peace between various parties. It also wanted to postpone or slowdown the process of Soviet withdrawal before the country had stabilized. But with the situation being untenable, Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately ordered the Soviet troops to withdraw. Before the complete withdrawal, the Soviets installed Mohammed Najibullah, a member of the Parcham faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and former head of the dreaded KGB-influenced Afghan intelligence agency KhAD, as the head of the Kabul government. Moscow hoped the strongman would be able to reconcile with the recalcitrant rebel leaders and effect a peace settlement between the various Afghan factions. India was supportive of Najibullah, in whom New Delhi saw a strong Afghan leader who was wary of the growing Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. It is alleged that KhAD, through its contacts in Pashtun regions of Pakistan, helped increase India’s covert profile.

Moreover, then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Najibullah shared a close personal bond. The aftermath of Soviet withdrawal and the unsteady support coming from Moscow only strengthened India’s ties with Najibullah as their relations became more symbiotic.

However, Najibullah, as a former intelligence head of the infamous KhAD and a pro-Soviet figure, didn’t enjoy much popular support among the masses and in the absence of Soviet ground forces it was difficult, if not impossible, to push back the Mujahideen’s onslaught. India, showing tremendous commitment to Najibullah, threw its lot in with the pro-Soviet regime, but New Delhi didn’t have the wherewithal to singlehandedly safeguard the Najibullah government. Thus when Najibullah’s government fell, India was without any “friends” in Afghanistan – on the contrary, the Mujahideen government of Burhanuddin Rabbani and other war lords had a negative view of India, given its support for the pro-Soviet regime.

Reaching out to the Mujahideens and the Rise of the Taliban

Pakistan, having helped in setting up the (largely dysfunctional) Mujahideen government after playing the role of the key mediator in the Peshawar Accords of 1992, had brought about a favorable balance of power for itself in Afghanistan. To ameliorate India’s situation in Afghanistan, New Delhi under the Narasimha Rao government brought changes to India’s Afghan strategy and started reaching out to all the Mujahideen factions in Afghanistan, irrespective of their ideology or relations with Pakistan. It was decided, as former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar later put it, that India should deal “strictly with the government in Kabul, no matter its proximity with Pakistan or its security agencies” and “deal with whosoever was in power in Kabul and focus … on cultivating a friendly government that was sensitive to India’s vital interests and core concerns.” Rao’s policy on Afghanistan also focused on building people-to-people relations and winning goodwill in the country through contributing “towards Afghanistan’s economic welfare.”

Though it has been claimed that a few Mujahideen commanders maintained covert ties with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s intelligence agency, even during the Soviet era, under Rao’s leadership, India’s diplomat and bureaucrats, who were previously in the firm embrace of Najibullah, soon started building overt and tangible relationships with Mujahideen leaders. Medical and humanitarian supplies were provided to key war lords. Surprisingly the Mujahideen leadership was not averse to Indian outreach.  Rabbani, the then-president of the Mujahideen government, in 1992 made it clear that the Afghan Mujahideen would not look to interfere in the Kashmir issue. He had said, “We hope the Kashmir issue is resolved on the basis of UN resolutions and talks and negotiations.” Good relations with India benefited Mujahideen leaders not only as a source of aid and supplies but, to some leaders, also as a counterweight to balance their overdependence on Pakistan.

When in the midst of intra-Mujahideen fighting a little-known militia called the Taliban reared its head, Indian policymakers saw it as a fringe group and a lesser player in the overall fratricidal conflict in Afghanistan. In 1994, when the Taliban forces captured the strategic border post of Spin Boldak and made significant advances with direct Pakistani help, Indian strategists did not react in haste. Intel about the Taliban mostly came to Indian intelligence through friendly Mujahideen contacts. India had no engagement with the Taliban directly and had no deep understanding of their prowess and sway over the Pashtuns, who were suffering from instability and brutality under Mujahideen war lords. So when in 1996 Taliban forces marched victoriously onto the streets of Kabul, it was a massive shock for India.

The Northern Alliance and India’s Efforts at Clinging on to Afghanistan

India, like most of the world, was averse to the Taliban, which it saw as a radical extremist Islamic organization with a strong misogynistic mold. It endorsed UN Security Council Resolution 1076, which censured Taliban for its severe violations of human and women’s rights. Further, India chose not to recognize the Taliban regime. In that moment of crisis, India had almost zero clout in the vast majority of areas in Afghanistan that were ruled by the Taliban and New Delhi instead sought to build up relations with the Northern Alliance (United Front), which still controlled a small slice of the country. It has been credibly reported that India provided covert help to the forces of the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban. India’s airbase at Farkhor in Tajikistan was critically important in delivering goods to the group.

Though India did not recognize the Taliban regime and supported their rivals in the north of the country, the Taliban did not take overtly anti-India positions, nor did it engage in anti-India rhetoric. In 1999, when a hijacked Indian Airlines plane was taken to Kandahar, the Indian government was forced to open talks with the Taliban. Despite the safe return of Indian passengers from Afghanistan, after the release of three Indian-held terrorists, it was alleged that the Taliban took a favorable position toward Pakistan in the entire episode. While India had had no formal contact with the Taliban before the incident, Pakistan had solidified its patronizing relationship with the Taliban by then.

The tide shifted yet again in 2001. With the U.S.-led war on Taliban, India found its way back into Afghanistan. However, in the overall geopolitical calculations, Pakistan emerged as an all-important country due to its proximity to the Taliban heartland and its strong leverage over the militant group. Many times it has been alleged that, to cater to Pakistani wishes, India’s active involvement in Afghanistan has been discouraged – even though India and the United States share common goals and principles in relation to democracy and development in Afghanistan. In 2001, India was not invited to the Bonn conference, where the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan was discussed. Though eventually India joined as an observer and engaged in informal negotiations, it had to move its support from its old allies like Qanooni and Abdullah from the Northern Alliance to the United States’ favored Pashtun candidate, Hamid Karzai. In helping to bring about a consensus around the Pashtun leadership of Karzai, India also lost its existing clout among the non-Pashtun leadership, its friends in the erstwhile Northern Alliance.

The Pro-Pashtun Tilt

The Northern Alliance leadership disintegrated after Bonn and India looked for better ties with the Pashtuns. Despite India’s support, Karzai at the start of his tenure didn’t have a favorable outlook on India’s involvement in Afghanistan. Moreover, as suggested by author James Dobbins, the United States was keen to keep India at a distance from Afghanistan so as to allay Pakistan’s fears. India faced a bleak picture, but then Karzai’s outreach to Pakistan failed. With the Taliban having made a comeback, Karzai looked toward better and closer ties with India.

India’s relation with Afghanistan improved markedly under the Karzai presidency and New Delhi invested heavily in developmental and infrastructural projects in Pashtun regions to forge better ties with the Pashtun people and their leadership. Under the Small Development Project Scheme, India has invested in a disproportionately high numbers of projects in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan so as to reach out to the people living in these regions. The Durand line that divides the Pashtun heartland between Afghanistan and Pakistan lends the region great importance, as Pashtun linkages can lead to strong leverage across the border too. It is also vital for India to keep a strong presence in the Pashtun region as it links to the Greater Balochistan region. Doing so also keeps Pakistan  wary over India’s  increasing linkages with the Pashtun leaders and people.

In 2011, Afghanistan signed its first Strategic Partnership Agreement with India — after Karzai had rejected a similar offer from Pakistan. After Karzai’s term ended, though, India faced similar issues with his successor, Ashraf Ghani, who also reached out to Pakistan in hopes of bringing the Taliban to an Afghan-led negotiation. But when Ghani’s rapprochement to Pakistan failed to deliver, India again found itself in the good books of the leadership in Kabul.

Since 2001, India’s investment in Afghanistan has increased many folds. Apart from investing in developmental, educational, and capacity-building projects, India has also made a geostrategic outreach toward Afghanistan by linking the Iranian port of Chabahar to Afghanistan through the Zaranj-Delaram road. A tripartite agreement to ease the exchange of goods from India to Afghanistan and vice versa through the Iranian port of Chabahar has been signed by India, Iran, and Afghanistan. India trains approximately 1,000 Afghan officers every year and has provided Mi-25 and Mi-35 helicopters along with 285 military vehicles to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). India’s engagement with Afghanistan has only increased over the years, but with the sixth round of Doha talks on peace settlement in Afghanistan currently underway, a total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may be imminent in the near future.

Are Talks With the Taliban a Possible Way Forward for India?

In a fragmented polity like Afghanistan, India has often based its engagement on one or a few particular factions and thus, due to the treacherous nature of domestic politics and strife, often risked losing its stakes in the country. This has changed significantly in the current scenario but India maintains a strong Pashtun tilt and still officially is not ready for talks with the Taliban.

In today’s Afghanistan, the Taliban form both the problem and the solution. The group has emerged as an ethno-nationalist force with various factions stitched together through tribal-ethnic allegiances rather than a mere Islamic extremist organization. There are groups and subfactions within the Taliban that do not view their overbearing dependence on Pakistan favorably.

The Taliban are players in Afghanistan and India needs to engage with them, even if only with the subfactions that may be motivated to accept the Afghan Constitution. Unlike the Taliban period, India may not avail itself of the full support of Iran and Russia, as both countries have had limited ties with the Taliban and their interests are not wholly congruent with India anymore. In a post-U.S. Afghanistan, India can safeguard its interests through an approach that is balanced, nuanced, and conciliatory in nature, but also moderately partisan when and if required. There are possibilities for India to build a stronger consensus among Afghan stakeholders (Pashtun and non-Pashtuns alike), through largely conciliatory approaches, to present a united front against the Taliban while simultaneously also engaging in or facilitating negotiations with the Taliban.

Avinandan Choudhury is a doctoral fellow in the department of Politics and International Studies in Pondicherry University.