External Affairs

The US Needs to Change its Attitude Towards Indo-Afghan Relations

Even as its current Afghan policy is to keep Pakistan happy, the US should remember why it went in to Afghanistan in the first place

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani share a lighter moment together at Ufa, Russia , July 10, 2015. credit: PTI

Washington’s Not Laughing: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at Ufa, Russia in July 2015. India has recently agreed to supply helicopters to Kabul for use by the Afghan army. Credit: PTI

Afghanistan has always been a frontline state. Alexander came in 327 BCE, Babar in 1504 and the British in 1836. In 1843, it became the first country in South Asia to get independence from the British –  more than a hundred years before India. In 1979, the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan and since 2001, United States and  NATO forces have been there. The country has always been a coveted area for strategic influence.

Until the end of the 1970s, Afghanistan had been low on the US list of priorities. Two events subsequently influenced American policy towards Afghanistan. The first was the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the second, the downfall of the Shah in Iran.

Till 9/11, US policy was described by Ahmed Rashid in his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia in the following manner

“Between  1994-96, the US supported the Taliban politically through its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Essentially, Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-Western.  Between 1995-97 support was driven by the UNOCAL oil gas pipeline project.”

During the 1990s, the US help to Pakistan and the Islamic Mujahideen groups was crucial. 9/11 changed everything. The principle US aim became the elimination of the threat it faced from al-Qaeda.

India, Pakistan and Kabul

India and Afghanistan have always been close friends.  India’s policy towards Afghanistan today is what it has always been: that there should be no outside interference and no export of terrorism/extremism from there. In practical terms, its emphasis in recent years has been on the reconstruction of the country.

Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, on the other hand, have always been troublesome. Rifaat Hussain, a Pakistani scholar, has described them thus: “Despite shared geography, ethnicity and faith, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have never been smooth, with the sole exception of four years of Taliban rule over Afghanistan. Successive governments in Kabul have displayed varying degree of disaffection towards Islamabad.”

In a nutshell, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has primarily been to resume Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan and to negate Indian influence.

After 9/11, the United States and India had common objectives in Afghanistan. What both sought at that time was an Afghanistan that contributed to – rather than undermined – international peace, security and stability, and which empowered its people rather than oppressed them. The smooth cooperation around the 2001 Bonn conference reflected their shared goal. However, soon thereafter there was again a feeling in New Delhi that the US cooperated with India only when it needed to, even for instance, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and distanced itself from India on Afghanistan when it did not need Indian support. In essence, Pakistan exercised a sort of veto on US policy on Afghanistan.

Several US actions even during those heady first days are indicative of this.  For instance, the Pentagon persuaded the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul on November 13, 2001, in order to give Pakistan two or three days to withdraw its assets. In fact, as James Dobbins confirms in his 2008 book, After The Taliban, “it had largely been at Pakistan’s behest that President Bush had pressed the Northern Alliance leadership not to enter Kabul until a UN or Pashtun force could be organised.” The Northern Alliance wisely felt that a vacuum after Taliban’s retreat was not desirable and they entered Kabul on November 16, 2001.

The US also wanted to ensure that Pakistan’s representation at the inauguration ceremony of the new interim government in Kabul on December 22, 2001 was the same as India’s; the 6+2 process (involving China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan plus the US and Russia) was revived at US initiative, to meet in Kabul in spite of the fact that at the Bonn Conference a few days earlier, three of the six did not even attend the conference  and the remaining  two were hardly seen. Even the subsequent international meeting on Afghan re-construction was not attended by them.  All, including Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Special Envoy, admitted that 6+2 had been a failure. Its revival was a US concession to Pakistan’s sensitivities as this pre 9/11 process excluded India. After one meeting it died a natural death because of its inherent weakness.

Some American eyebrows were raised when the Afghan leader Rashid Dostum made a private visit to India for medical treatment. Shortly thereafter, the US reportedly encouraged him to visit Pakistan. This was also when the US, at the behest of Pakistan, took the unusual step –  which it later regretted – of asking India not to re-open its consulates in Afghanistan. It is another matter that the Indo-Afghan Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed as early as January 4, 1950 provides for the establishment of consulates in different cities in each other’s country and India had traditionally maintained these in Kandahar, and Jalalabad. The US also did not want Indian assistance for the Afghan army on account of Pakistan’s sensitivities.   

More than a coincidence

India was the first country whose delegation was received by the new Afghan administration on November 21, 2001, five days after the retreat of the Taliban. The Afghan government, the UN and the US, who controlled the Afghan airports at that time, were all  consulted. The Americans were not keen on the visit, but New Delhi decided to go ahead as the Afghan authorities wanted it. The visit was quietly arranged via Iran.  Interestingly, in her well researched book The Struggle for Pakistan, Ayesha Jalal writes about what happened on the same day when the US tried to discourage the Indian delegation’s visit to Kabul. “On November 21, 2001, the United States halted air strikes on Kunduz to allow Pakistan’s military planes to airlift more than 1,000 Pakistani soldiers and agents who had been fighting alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the besieged city. The ISI is known to have used the opportunity to fly out senior Al Qaeda members as well as Chechens, Uzbeks and Afghans considered to be strategic assets.” This speaks for itself.

During his visit to India in March 2006, President George W. Bush, in his speech at the Old Fort acknowledged India’s contribution towards the development of Afghanistan. This was the first time the US publicly recognised India’s positive role in Afghanistan. Later, during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the US was keen to closely involve India in finding a solution to the problems facing the country.

As regards current US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is nothing new in the situation in the region that should surprise India. We are once again witnessing the spectacle of the US trying to keep Pakistan happy. India has welcomed the US decision to delay its draw down in Afghanistan but remains concerned about the continuing efforts to create space for Pakistan, despite obvious Afghan disappointments over failed attempts to get Pakistan to change its course. Now the US, in its hurry to leave, appears willing to give China an expanded, if not leading role in any political settlement in Afghanistan and in managing Afghan-Pakistan relations.                  

The myth of a strategic triangle

Three's Not Really a Crowd: The leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015. Though Western analysts are quick to blame Indo-Pak rivalry for Afghanistan's problems, the reality is very different. Credit: PTI

Three’s Not Really a Crowd: The leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015. Though Western analysts are quick to blame Indo-Pak rivalry for Afghanistan’s problems, the reality is very different. Credit: PTI

It is intriguing that an attempt is made now and then to link the Afghan issue with India-Pakistan relations. There is no connection, except in the eyes of those who wish to blame India for their own failures.

Consider the following:

  • It is well known that Indo-Pak relations, whether good or bad, have not impacted on Pak-Afghan relations. 2004-07 was a good period in Indo-Pak relations but it is in this period that the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan worsened. Where then is the co-relation?
  • India and Afghanistan had never exploited their excellent bilateral relations to harm Pakistan. This is clear from the fact that (i) during the 1965 and 1971 wars, Afghanistan was non-committal and did not support India; (ii) on Kashmir, Afghanistan has never publicly supported India; and (iii) India has not supported Afghanistan against Pakistan on the Durand Line.
  • When Pakistan decided to shift over a hundred thousand of its troops from its eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan in 2010, India did nothing to harm Pakistan.
  • India, or Indo-Pak relations were not responsible for the situation which prevailed in Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviet troops, which took Afghanistan back to medieval times.
  • Neither did India have any hand in bringing the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, or in helping Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in their activities in the region.
  • India had nothing to do with the situation which led to US/NATO intervention in Afghanistan. No extremist group – Taliban, Haqqani, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba – is based in India or receives Indian assistance.
  • The US had to take drastic action to kill Osama Bin Laden and use drone attacks in the Af-Pak region. This was on account of the situation prevailing there and had nothing to do with India or Indo-Pak relations.

And finally we should not forget the reasons why the international community went to Afghanistan in 2001. It went in because at that time Afghanistan, under the influence of a few foreign countries and an extremist ideology, had become a sanctuary for international terrorism. It affected the region, including India and the rest of the world including the US, culminating in the 9/11 terror attack. Together it was decided that this threat of extremism and terrorism had to be overcome.

In 2015, we have to again ask ourselves if the safe havens and sanctuaries from where terrorism was emanating have been eliminated and whether the Afghan security forces can handle the situation. Viewing the recent events  in Afghanistan, the statements of its government and media reports, it is evident that the answer is ‘no’. This answer should decide the nature, level and changes in respect of long-term engagement with Afghanistan instead of repeating old mistakes.

It must be said to America’s credit that their diagnosis of the situation is correct. The treatment, however, has been wrong.  Dobbins, the chief American negotiator on Afghanistan after 9/11, wrote in his book:

‘The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 diverted American manpower and money from Afghanistan. More important, it distracted American attention from what is the true central front in any war on terror.  The central front is neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan but in the border regions of Pakistan. Al Qaeada, after all, is now headquartered in Pakistan. The Taliban also operates out of Pakistan, as do several other terrorist groups seeking to expel international forces from Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Pakistan assisted the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes. Potential terrorists in western societies still travel to Pakistan – not Iraq, not Afghanistan – for inspiration, guidance, support, and direction.”

These concerns are still relevant and should determine the policy of the international community towards the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Satinder K. Lambah is Chairman of the Ananta Aspen Centre. As Special Envoy of the Vajpayee government, he led the first Indian delegation to the post-Taliban Afghanistan and to the 2001 Bonn Conference. Later, as Special Envoy of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he represented India at all important international meetings on Afghanistan till 2014. The views expressed are personal.

  • rohit g chandavarker

    The author has had a ring side view on the happenings in Afghanistan for years & hence, the analysis is bound to be impeccable.
    However, a few points of note. The present situation within Kabul is far from pretty & has not been rosy over the years. Nepotism & corruption has taken its toll & continues till date. The infighting within the Cabinet is a well known fact. The elevation of Ghani has not been smooth as he tended to lean towards Pakistan after assuming office, much to the displeasure of many of his senior officials & ministers. The brief warmth extended by Ghani towards Islamabad turned into a nightmare with Taliban increasing its attacks & taking over Kunduz. Ghani reverted back to blaming Pakistan & rightly so. However, damage was done. Pakistan is adept at playing this dangerous game smug in the belief that the Taliban under Mullah Akhtar Mansour(presumed injured or dead) & the Haqqani network do their bidding, regardless of US & international pressure.
    The flip-flops in Us strategy has been confusion confounded with little coherence. Successive Governments in US have extened unflinching support, notwithstanding the shrewd policies adopted by Pakistan which has often been at the expense of American lives being lost.
    The ludicrous suggestion that the Taliban be divided into good & bad was a US idea doomed to fail. Similarly the recent Chinese attempts at initiating talks with the Taliban was an exercise in futility. China, undoubtedly, had high stakes in the success of the talks but the idea of rapprochement with the hardened fighters was never going to bear fruition. The US decision to extend its stay in Afghanistan seems like a Pakistani ploy to keep US engaged. By doing so, the US is bound to depend on Islamabad given the logistics support it requires through Pakistan. for its troops stationed in Afghanistan.
    The recent Heart of Asia conference did precious little to give the Afghans confidence & Kabul will continue to be wary of Islamabad’s intentions.
    India has stood solidly behind Afghanistan much to the displeasure of Pakistan. Pakistan feels a deeper relationship might be to the detriment of its interests and there is a gnawing fear that it could get encircled by forces inimical to its future. These fears are misplaced but Islamabad disagrees.
    The only way forward is for the US to read the writing on the wall that is screaming, lose its dependence on Pakistan & act tough with the deep state within Islamabad. Any other path is bound to keep American forces rooted in Afghanistan & make the already volatile situation worse & complicated.

  • ashok759

    After close to forty years of strife bestowed upon it by the rest of the world, Afghanistan needs domestic peace and harmony to develop. Its women especially are entitled to modern education, economic empowerment and greater freedoms. It could very easily become a theatre of proxy conflict between India and Pakistan. The extensive global presence at the Heart of Asia conference ensures that the rest of the world will not allow Pakistan to play games or turn the clock back. That should be good enough for us. We have much less of a stake in Afghanistan than is often portrayed. President Ghani has indicated early in his term that India lies in the outer concentric circles of his nation’s diplomacy.