Kabul Calling (A Case for an Indian Initiative in Afghanistan)

Kabul Calling (A Case for an Indian Initiative in Afghanistan)
January 2002


After having been left out of ‘Operation enduring Freedom’- the anti-Taliban. Anti-terror initiatives led by the United States, it was not long before that there was a recognition of possible role that New Delhi can play in the reconstruction of Afghanistan for which the international coalition stood committed. When end of the campaign became apparent in Afghanistan, there was a sort of a race to help rebuild the ravaged country. This time round, India read the equations there better than any other country, thought on its feet and came out on top of the political situation to be back on the Afghan center-stage.

New Delhi moving with unprecedented alacrity and signaling its keen desire for a diplomatic presence in as well as humanitarian assistance programs for, Kabul, makes it appear that the wheel has come a full circle. The move speaks about changing equations, for India it is the first major opportunity it has had in Afghanistan since it found itself not so hot with the Afghans for backing the invasion of the country by the Soviets and was quick to cease upon the role it can play in rebuilding Afghanistan by way of political and humanitarian support to the war-ravaged country. For Pakistan, the last country to keep up official ties with the discredited Taliban, the victory of the Northern Alliance implies diplomatic isolation for the present. Soon after Satinder Lambah was named special envoy, he flew to New York to participate in the G-21 meeting on Afghanistan via Rome where he met the former Afghan king Zahir Shah. New Delhi was also in touch with several key non-Taliban Pashtun groupings in eastern and southern Afghanistan, perhaps to wrest any Pakistani initiative in its own strategic backyard. India also made its presence felt at the UN-sponsored meeting of Afghan political groups at Bonn as part of a search for a broad-based regime.

There was official Afghani acceptance of the role as its President Hamid Karzai would say; “India should play a greater role than other countries in the reconstruction of his war-ravaged country.1” Its record of consistent developmental assistance, particularly in the health and civil engineering sectors made it possible for New Delhi to have the head start. So much so that there was a flurry of official visits to New Delhi making it appear that the two countries were trying to make up for lost time. This turn of events is apt to please New Delhi, particularly as US’s Islamabad preference was of much annoyance and embarrassment. But this gives no reason for complacency. Pakistan has clearly not reconciled itself to the collapse of its Afghan policy and has already started fishing in troubled waters, trying to take advantage of the traditional rivalries among Afghanistan’s many ethnic, tribal and religious groups. Much would depend on the Interim Government overcoming internal tensions and initiating nation building. India must, therefore, press ahead with consolidating its position in Afghanistan. The decision to open consulate-generals in Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazhar-e-Sharif, besides the embassy in Kabul are steps in this direction which need to be followed up with perceptible programs of humanitarian and developmental assistance2.

Curious as it may appear, terrorism remains Afghanistan’s biggest problem which caused deaths injuries and destructions for the war torn country. New government’s priority is therefore directed toward fighting terrorism till the last. In this resolve it expected help of India- a country much subject to this common scourge along with other like-minded nations of the world. India, Kabul expected can help framing a stringent anti-terrorism law3. It was in this context that Afghan foreign minister designate Abdullah Abdullah took the opportunity of his brief meetings with Indian leaders to convey Afghanistan’s gratitude to India for its support, condemned the attack, terming it a terrorist act, and conveyed his condolences. The people of Afghanistan who had faced the ravages of terrorism understood what it meant4. The level of expectations of India can be seen from the fact that apart from the request to fit Afghanistan out with good medical services and other social infrastructure, there was also requests for India’s help to set up a good schooling system especially for the much deprived Afghan women5.

There was international acquiescence to India’s role as well specially after India took initiative in breaking Bonn deadlock over the formation of the new interim government in Afghanistan. The United States acknowledged the persuasive efforts of representatives from Russia, the US, Germany and Iran with India that coaxed different Afghan groups signed the power sharing agreement6. There was recognition also for the part New Delhi got to play in the rebuilding process. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca lauded New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan, saying, “India has also suffered from Taliban-inspired terrorism and we recognize not only its offers of support to the coalition, but also their generous plans to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people7.”

The agreement about the formation of a broad-based interim government headed by Hamid Karzai portended mixed implications for India’s security interests. Though it kept any obvious Pakistani influence rather remote, the settlement giving opportunity to Islamabad to co-opt three ministers into the interim government from the so-called “Peshawar Process” which General Musharraf hastily formed out of Afghan refugee elements after the US launched its air offensive on the Taliban could give India reasons for concern8. However, India made its strong reservations against inclusion of Taliban – moderate or otherwise – in the arrangement loud and clear. “The phrase ‘moderate Taliban’ is an oxymoron and subsequent developments in Bonn have proved India’s position that a broad-based government cannot have a Taliban member in it.” ( Jaswant Singh Indian Minister for External Affairs Minister, speaking in Indian Parliament.) New Delhi’s fears were also based on certain hard-hitting ground realities. It was obvious that the possibility of getting rid of Al-Queda or Taliban root and branch was very remote as there were chances for these elements melting into the background. Anti-India sentiments were still rife in the southern and eastern Afghanistan with large bands of erstwhile Taliban cadre taking shelter in the Pashtun heartland. Though common Pashtuns were nostalgic about centuries old historic ties with New Delhi, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements amongst them, made sure that any bonhomie is short-lived. Often open threats were held out to clear off the area. Some Indian journalists who dared to undertake a perilous five-hour arduous journey from the Afghan capital to erstwhile Taliban stronghold of Kandahar described the travel as a nightmare, with every ten km stretch, a narrow shave from being gunned down9. Nevertheless, India pledged total support to the government in Kabul the focus being on to prevent the spread of terrorism in the region. “India’s support to the government in Afghanistan will be unconditional ….The export of terrorism which was there during the Taliban period will stop now and that is significant10.” India was also in favor of extending the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Afghanistan even going to the extent of expressing its willingness to support the candidature of the country into SAARC, provided Kabul is willing and meets the criteria. All these were over and above the offer of $100 m assistance for long-term reconstruction11.

Kabul’s India preference is being seen in the context of its concerns vis-à-vis both Islamabad and Washington. Islamabad’s past relations with the hated Taliban will keep it a suspect for long time to come. Interestingly however the United States is being treated the same way as the Soviet Union during latter’s Afghan occupation back in 1979: a necessary evil. The younger generation of Afghanis who are now managing to make their voice heard and opinion counted appear to be favorably disposed towards India where some of them went to college and where they had the families living during the Taliban days12.

Thus though initially it appeared unsolicited and with few takers, India’s support to the US-led crusade against terrorism seem to be paying off with signs that India’s foreign policy is firmly on track for a change. Brisk decision-making as demonstrated by the setting up of missions in Afghanistan, coercive diplomacy and the wait-watch strategy have earned international approval for New Delhi. There is also a sense of balance in being able to combine diplomacy with firm articulation of national interests and concerns13. There further need for India to build on the commonality of concerns such as ethnicity with which India is long familiar and which is raising its murderous head in Afghanistan that has prompted a CIA report that the ethnic tensions in Afghanistan provide an uneasy mix that could easily blow up into violent chaos again if steps are not taken to restrain the competition for power among rival warlords14. In this India can provide very valuable input.

With this background New Delhi greeted Hamid Karzai chief of Afghanistan’s interim administration. Though billed as a good will gesture, his visit combined hard statecraft as well on issues relating to security and economic cooperation with Karzai utilizing the occasion for exploring business opportunities. In an address to Indian captains of industry Karzai stressed that two decades of war had done nothing to dim the Afghan entrepreneurial spirit and urged businessmen to see the opportunities presented by his country’s program of reconstruction15. The Afghan leader was pragmatic however in admitting that his country needs international security contingents for quite some time more to weed out terrorism from there and any help from India, military support included, certainly comes within the ambit of considerations of his government as India remains an important partner in the global campaign against terrorism and religious extremism everywhere16. “India and all other neighbors can contribute towards stability and peace in Afghanistan so that the people of the country are able to get a responsible government.” (Karzai speaking to reporters in New Delhi)

Afghanistan has had a long stint with violence, deceit and treachery, murder and massacre. Its future will depend on how determined are the various sects of Afghans to fight for freedom against every odd17. As the world watches with hope, the non-military initiatives, such as what New Delhi has taken the lead to make available for Afghanistan will be of deterministic value. This puts India a step ahead – in times of the need it’s the tested friend that counts.

1PTI The Hindu 31 December 2001.

2Edit: The Pioneer 25 December 2001

3PTI: Hindustan Times 25 December 2001

4The Times of India 15 December 2001

5Hindustan Times 12 December 2001

6S. Rajagopalan Hindustan Times 9 December 2001

7Chidanand Rajghatta The Times of India 7 December 2001

8Udayan Namboodiri Hindustan Times 7 December 2001

9PTI Hindustan Times 4 January 2002

10Satinder K. Lambah quoted by AFP in The Times of India 7 January 2001

11PTI The Times of India 8 January 2002

12Kuldip Nayar The Indian Express 29 January 2002

13Nivedita Mukherjee The Statesman 22 February 2002

14Siddharth Srivastava The Times of India 26 February 2002

15AFP The Times of India 27 February 2002.

16Dawn 28 February 2002

17Kuldip Nayar The Indian Express 29 January 2002

Compiled from media sources


Arabinda Acharya