Afghanistan: An Arena of Indo-Pak Conflict
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US talks with Taliban with only Pakistan as the third participant have heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. An all-inclusive peace process as encompassed by the Moscow Peace talks may see the regional stakeholders such as India and Pakistan to bury their hatchets and declare truce in the Afghanistan sphere. But for this truce, can Kashmir be negotiable, is a question India will never allow to be even tabled. It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will give up its claim on Kashmir and dissolve its proxy armies. These proxy armies seek to compensate the growing imbalance of power between a fast-developing India and a struggling Pakistan.

In 1947, on the partition of India, Afghanistan found India, its Eastern neighbour of centuries, inaccessible by mere crossing of its Eastern mountain passes, as the British had carved out a new country from India by creating Pakistan. Since then, Afghanistan has been the centre of the power rivalry between India and Pakistan, and the latter has viewed Indo-Afghan ties as a threat to its territorial and ethnic integrity. The rivalry often manifests itself in the ongoing dispute over Kashmir. These two countries are caught in a web of mutual mistrust and in competition, in a deadly game being played on Afghan soil.

 The three players, interlinked by history, are today at crossroads as the United States (US) seeks an early exit from its longest campaign overseas. To achieve it, the US, aided by Pakistan, is pursuing talks with the Taliban. Although holding negotiations, the Taliban is not constrained by it in harming the US and its allies in Afghanistan, and today has regained 55 percent of it, making peace elusive. The US has not included the present Afghan government in Kabul or any regional players or groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in its talks with the Taliban, which makes their proposed peace talks with Taliban suspect.

India in Afghanistan

Since 2001, India has attempted to promote a stable democratic system in Afghanistan and attempted to counter and limit Pakistani influence. It has also attempted to thwart Pakistan-based militants from using Afghanistan as a recruitment ground to launch attacks on India. It views the present constitution-based sovereign and plural Afghan Government as an ally against its fight against terrorism. India has stated that democracy and constitutional order in Afghanistan are the major gains achieved in the past 18 years and are worth preserving.

India has not deployed any boots on ground in Afghanistan, but has instead worked to touch the lives of the Afghans through ‘soft power’. It has spent $3 billion in numerous infrastructure and human resources development projects. Notable amongst these is the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam) in Herat and the Parliament building at Kabul. It has developed health, agriculture, education, water management, housing, sports, and tourism sectors. India is training officials in the Afghan administration, military and law enforcement as well as offering education scholarships to a thousand Afghan students every year.

Since 2001, India has relied on building close relations with non-Pashtun state actors. During the presidency of Hamid Karzai, through his good offices, India had tried to establish herself amongst the Pashtuns, most of whom have family ties with their relatives in India even today. In the mixed results thrown up in the September 2019 Presidential elections, both candidates, namely Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are conducive to India’s interest, with latter more as his family resides in India. In the past, he has also served as the liaison between New Delhi and the umbrella group of Afghans who are opposed to the Taliban being in power. In a BBC – Gallup poll conducted in 2016, 62 percent of Afghans favoured India and a scant 13.7 percent were inclined towards Pakistan. The Islamic State found favour amongst 5.8 percent. Not surprising, as this reflects the historical ties between India and Afghanistan.

India has opposed Pakistani interference in Afghanistan. It has tried to strengthen the hand of the Kabul regime in its fight against terrorism. Since 1947, India had good relations with all the governments that ruled Afghanistan, from monarchy to communists. The period between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban held sway, was the low point in Indo-Afghan relations. In 1996, Taliban, backed by Pakistan gained ground and unleashed violence and India was forced to evacuate its diplomatic and other staff. Its Afghan allies retreated to their Northern stronghold and to a certain extent, Pakistan did achieve its aim of using the Taliban to evict India from Afghanistan.

This turn of events had serious repercussions on India’s internal security as Pakistan recruited Afghan mujahedeen and infiltrated them into Kashmir to carry out its proxy war. This boosted and gave Kashmir terrorism its present durability. In 1999, Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, a Pakistan-based terror outfit, hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar. Taliban, on India’s insistence, achieved the release of the passengers, in exchange for Massood Azhar, an extremist leader being held in India at that time. On his release, Azhar launched a terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) which, amongst many others, carried out the deadly attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, and on the Pathankot airbase in February 2016. Azhar has been declared a terrorist by the United Nations since then, but currently remains at large in Pakistan, under state patronage. The JeM’s link with the Taliban remains a matter of concern for India and will cast a cloud over Indo-Taliban relations in future.

The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) is a terror group created by Pakistan in its anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. On July 07, 2008, the LeT had carried out an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, which left 58 dead including the Military Attaché. In November 2008, the LeT attacked multiple targets in Mumbai resulting in the death of 166 persons. The LeT is an extension of the Taliban. Its founder, Hafiz Sayed too is under UN sanctions, but at large in Pakistan, again under state patronage. The LeT did not claim responsibility for the attack on the Indian embassy. However, US intelligence agencies confronted Pakistan with evidence of their involvement, and this has further queered the pitch for India in its future dealings with the Taliban.

From 2004 to 2014, India maintained cordial relations with the Karzai regime. Even today, it has good relations with the Ghani regime, but is sceptical of its overtures to deepen relations with Pakistan with respect to intelligence sharing.

India and Taliban

The initiation of US-Taliban peace talks, aided by Pakistan, excluding the Kabul regime and regional countries too has upset India. It has rightfully stated that this has endangered the gains of the nearly two decades of relative peace in Afghanistan and did not include the intrinsic needs of the Afghan people. India heaved a sigh of relief when the US walked out of an Afghan deal with the Taliban in September 2019, but this was short-lived as the talks have since been resumed.

It is noteworthy to mention here that India had established discreet ties with Taliban in 2008, aided by its centuries old ties with Pashtuns and had also participated as a member in the Moscow-led peace talks between Afghan players. Due to their common interest of security in the region, China and Iran too have developed notable links with the Taliban and have hosted talks with Taliban officials, in their efforts to bring about peace. All these are pointers of a tacit acknowledgement that the Taliban may yet again prevail in the Afghan conflict.

India, however, is unlikely to favour an Afghan solution which does not include all the players including the neighbouring SCO nations. It has been stung in the past by terrorist groups such as JeM and LeT which are based in Taliban-held areas or are aligned with the Taliban. Instead, it prefers that the Taliban should pledge alliance to the constitution of Afghanistan and join it as a mainstream party. From the Taliban’s point of view, in its new avatar, it has expressed desire to establish friendly relations with all its neighbours including India, though it does not favour India’s continued support to the Kabul regime. It will be foolhardy to expect the Taliban to acknowledge India and seek its assistance if and when it does come to power. Even if it is inclined to, it will not be able to, under pressure from Pakistan, a tit-for-tat to retain its safe havens in Pakistan, lest it is again ousted, as it was in 2001.

The nebulous plans of the US for its stay in Afghanistan further makes India’s position tenuous. Till now, on ground, it had relative security to display its soft power. With US exit, all its assets created through its soft power, will be under threat, if not from the Taliban, from Pakistan’s proxies such as LeT and JeM. India’s lack of direct access to Afghanistan is a major block in its desire to protect its assets there. US withdrawal will see US airpower, intelligence and logistics depart and pave way for a Taliban sweep. It is against India’s stated policy of non-intervention in foreign countries to fill in the void left by the US by deploying its security forces. India also cannot sustain its troops without sufficient air power and real, time intelligence, all of which will be cost prohibitive and also involve Iran for a supply route.

Therefore, the current Indian policy of supporting the present system of administration and its desire to co-opt the Taliban into it, combined with the inclusion of all intra- and inter-state players in the peace talks appears to be the right and pragmatic approach.

Pakistan’s Reservations

In 1947, the newly created state of Pakistan was confronted by a demand for independence by the Balochis and the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns inhabit the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Afghanistan, a traditional ally of India, is viewed with suspicion by Pakistan. Since 1947, it has the perceived a sense of ‘encirclement’, a fear that has been driving its policies concerning Kabul. It has since then justified the domination of Afghanistan by overt and covert means, a necessity and called a favourably poised Afghanistan as its ‘Strategic Depth’.

Irrespective of the labels and jargons, Pakistan aims to promote a friendly and submissive Afghanistan to achieve success in its hostile aims against India. Recently, in January 2019, Pakistan categorically stated, “India has no role in Afghanistan.” Pakistan fears that India will use Afghanistan as a springboard to support the Balochis and the Pashtuns, and weaken the nation. It is difficult to assess these fears and claims by Pakistan, as there is hardly any credible proof of India’s involvement in the internal unrest in Pakistan, which is aggravated and perennially alive since 1947, because of its ham-handed brutal approach which instead of integrating these restive populations into the mainstream, has only further alienated them. In February 2019, the Supreme Court in Pakistan rapped the government on its knuckles asking for accountability of over 20,000 persons missing from these regions due to state action.

Pakistan’s spurious claims not only overestimates the capabilities of Indian intelligence agencies, but also disrespects India’s policy of not stoking trouble in foreign countries, by clandestine means, a form of warfare which Pakistan has mastered and practised to perfection since 1947. For India, aiding Balochi or Pashtun freedom fighters makes little strategic sense as this threatens its relations with both Afghanistan and Iran. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, (TTP), an insurgent group within Pakistan since 2007, is again a creation of Pakistan state’s heavy-handed approach in dealing with dissent in this restive Pashtun region. It has been wreaking havoc in Pakistan. The TTP has good relations with Kabul and has sanctuaries in Eastern Afghanistan. India’s good relations with Kabul have made the former the prime suspect in aiding and arming the TTP. Perception matters and for Pakistan, armed dissent by its citizens is sufficient evidence of Indian perfidy.

Taliban Strategy

After its ouster in 2001, the Taliban could not have survived but for patronage from Pakistan. Despite persistent tensions between Islamabad and the Taliban, the latter’s survival, consolidation, and growth as an insurgent organisation is completely owed to Pakistan’s benevolence. In its quest to negate its ‘encirclement’, Pakistan has pursued a policy of developing relations with Kabul regime and simultaneously providing sanctuary to the Taliban. In this, it has played a double game with the US and the West which have aided it financially, expecting in return its support in their ‘War on Terror’.

Although the Taliban is not openly hostile to Delhi, its dependence on Pakistan for its survival makes it suspect in the latter’s eyes. In 2015, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf did admit that Pakistan had proxy armies as, “…Hamid Karzai had stabbed Pakistan in the back, to aid India.” On being asked to oust the Taliban and Haqqani group from Pakistan, Ashfaq Kayyani had bluntly stated that ousting these would turn them into their mortal enemies and that Pakistan’s future strategy in Afghanistan was hedged on these groups. Pakistan is not in complete control of the Taliban either. During the Taliban regime, Pakistan’s request to settle the border issue as per its diktat was refused by the former.

In its desire to be free from Pakistan’s dominance in peace talks with the US and in demonstration of its political autonomy, the Taliban opened its office in Qatar. As the Taliban gains ground in Afghanistan, its reliance on Pakistan reduces. Taliban has displayed political wisdom too by joining the Moscow peace talks and discussing the future of Afghanistan with two key regional players, China and Iran. Despite this, Pakistan remains key to the survival of the Taliban, and the latter acknowledges this fact. Even if it comes to power in Afghanistan, it will always be sceptical of holding power in coalition with so many factions, especially the Northern Alliances. Pakistan and its military establishment will always provide a safe haven, guidance as well as all kinds of aid to tackle any rising armed challenge to the Taliban. This makes Pakistan a very key player in the future of Afghanistan. US’ keenness to hold talks with the Taliban and with Pakistan as the only outside participant, defines its importance. Pakistan, in turn, must be very satisfied by the success of its strategic hedging, as it today is important for both the Taliban and the US. If the Taliban comes to power, then Pakistan will have a significant voice in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This portends ill for India.

Kashmir’s Interplay in Afghan Conflict

On August 05, 2019, under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, India incorporated Kashmir into its mainstream by revoking its special status of semi-autonomy. Pakistan, since 1947, has launched four wars and many skirmishes to wrest Kashmir from India. It has also launched a proxy war in support, employing Afghan Mujahideen, and has since then reached out to the world fora, asking them to force India to rescind its orders for the annexation of Kashmir. This has mainly fallen on deaf ears. The US, China, Russia and most nations including the UN recognise the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan, as a bilateral issue. In the October 2019 Xi–Modi meeting at Mahabalipuram, the issue of Kashmir was conspicuous in its absence during the Summit.

India, however, is apprehensive that if the Taliban and the US do ink a peace deal, Pakistan, having successfully rehabilitated the Taliban, may again attempt to infiltrate Afghan Mujahideen into Kashmir to stoke trouble, and may also aim to de-stabilise Kashmir and mainland India through the LeT and JeM. This will be done in order to coerce India to restore the pre-August 2019 status to Kashmir. Pakistan has few choices. Pakistan is already considered a pariah by many for its involvement in exporting terrorism and for being a nation often on the brink of bankruptcy and failure. If it resorts to exporting Afghan Mujahideen and its proxy armies into Kashmir and India, it will, in all likelihood, face global boycott. In this case, it could be declared a ‘terrorist state’ which will lead to its financial isolation and thereby spell doom for its struggling economy.

The dynamics of Pakistan’s politics, however, dictate otherwise. Being unable to do much for Pakistan’s “jugular vein” or for the “unfinished agenda of 1947”, as Kashmir is often described in Pakistan, and to remain relevant and powerful in public perception, the Pakistan armed forces, the country’s “deep state” will seek to redeem themselves then by hurting India’s interests in Afghanistan. To achieve success in Kashmir, concurrently, Pakistan will through its proxy armies and a conducive environment under the Taliban regime (or even without it), raise the ante for India, by attacking its assets and citizens in Afghanistan, thereby building pressure on India.

In earlier instances, the Indian government has showed restraint when faced with violence perpetrated by Pakistan’s proxy armies in Afghanistan and on its mainland. Now, in Delhi, the current regime has zero tolerance for Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks. In retaliation, it has launched its armed forces to seek retribution. India’s attack on Balakot in February 2019 is a case in point proving its stand. Therefore, Pakistan’s coercive action may just find the situation spiralling into a full-fledged conflict with India, which both can ill afford, economically. It is hoped that the world will not tolerate any further Pakistani intervention in Kashmir which will bring these two nuclear-armed traditional enemies to war.


US talks with Taliban with only Pakistan as the third participant have heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. An all-inclusive peace process as encompassed by the Moscow Peace talks may see the regional stakeholders such as India and Pakistan to bury their hatchets and declare truce in the Afghanistan sphere. But for this truce, can Kashmir be negotiable, is a question India will never allow to be even tabled. It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will give up its claim on Kashmir and dissolve its proxy armies. These proxy armies seek to compensate the growing imbalance of power between a fast-developing India and a struggling Pakistan.

However, this situation of Indo-Pakistan rivalry playing out in Afghanistan may be negated if the SCO as a group, in accordance with its Dushanbe Declaration, steps in to assure coordination between the Taliban and other Afghan power players, to ensure long lasting peace and development in this war-torn nation, with whom all SCO nations have historical ties. SCO members, namely Russia and China, will not want an important member like India being harmed by a fellow member, for its angst on the loss of Kashmir.

If the US leaves Afghanistan in a phased manner, to ensure smooth power transition and continuance of governance as per the present Afghan constitution, coupled with adequate provision of international aid to rebuild Afghanistan for at least the next 20 years, the Taliban, in its new avatar or the coalition government, both of which have now seen the progress the world has made, will be keen to develop Afghanistan. An attack on India’s interests, an acknowledged well-wisher of Afghan people, may not be tolerated as it will adversely impact development. Peace is essential for development, and the Afghan government may just put Pakistan on notice, to prevent it from harming Indian interests on Afghan soil.

The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan will throw up many challenges for India in sustaining its development mission in Afghanistan. Post US withdrawal, India will be keen to participate in rebuilding Afghanistan. In this, it will be facilitated if Pakistan opens the overland routes. This is a remote possibility and India will have to rely on costly air transportation. To circumvent Pakistan, India is developing the Chahbahar port in Iran and an overland rail link from Chahbahar to South-Western Afghanistan. India will need to hasten this development in order to emerge as a key player in the Afghan rebuild story. Tempting as it will be for Pakistan to attack Indians and Indian assets in Afghanistan post US withdrawal, this may spiral out of control and draw both these two nuclear armed nations into an armed conflict.

If India opts for restraint against increasing attacks on its interests in Afghanistan by Pakistan’s proxy armies, then it will have to scale down its participation in Afghanistan to 1996 levels. But since 1996, India has come a long way and today, it is a powerful regional power in South Asia to reckon with. It is impossible to visualise that India will forego the goodwill it has painstakingly built up in Afghanistan with its humane $3 billion investment and its historical ties, and all due to the machinations of Pakistan. Afghanistan, therefore, may continue to be an arena of conflict between India and Pakistan.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col RN Ghosh Dastidar

is a keen follower of Geo Strategic events around the globe and is today a Freelance Journalist.

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