Why Afghanistan Is A Bigger Problem For India Than What Is Made Out To Be?

by Sanjay Kapoor

Not only in terms of the American squeeze on Jammu and Kashmir, or troop-deployment at the Pakistan and China border, there is a lot to watch out for as US troops prepare to leave the landlocked country

A group photograph of top security officials from SCO members in Tajikistan. India and Pakistan NSAs Ajit Doval (second from left) and Moeed Yousuf (third from right) do not want to be seen closer.

India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, flew to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and took part in a conference of security secretaries of the member countries of Shanghai Cooperation Countries, also called the Asian NATO. Before he discussed the evolving security scenario in the region, including how the situation in Afghanistan will play out after the US troops leave the country, there were predictable fears that this meeting may not happen. It was believed that India, like in the many such multi-lateral meetings that were held in the past in which Pakistan also participated, would walk out.

Most hysterical panellists and ‘hyper-nationalist TV news anchors who were expecting a messy repetition of past events, whereby India walked out accusing Pakistan of fomenting terrorism in the region, with Islamabad giving it in kind by accusing New Delhi of smothering the rights of the people of Kashmir — were proved wrong. India’s NSA sat together with his counterparts from Pakistan and other countries to discuss Afghanistan, and, also, how to fight terror in the region.

Confirming that the tectonic plates of geo-politics had considerably and transparently shifted in South Asia, NSA Doval hastily returned from Dushanbe to attend a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and 14 Kashmiri leaders. Most of these Kashmiri leaders had been incarcerated for prolonged periods after the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35a in Jammu and Kashmir. These included mainstream politicians and former chief ministers like Farooq Abdullah, his son, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti (under whose leadership the BJP had formed the last elected government in Srinagar).

They were all put away as a ‘threat to public order’, while they had been consistently condemned and demonized on various fictitious charges — including hobnobbing with hostile foreign powers to subvert Indian democracy.

A group photograph of 14 Jammu and Kashmir participants in the All Party Meeting that Prime minister Narendra Modi hosted on June 24, 2021, at his official residence. The photograph marked the beginning of the meeting.

Interestingly, given this backdrop, the three-and-half hour-long talks went off without too much acrimony — surprising many on three counts.

Firstly, why did the central government invite Kashmiri leaders for talks, when in the reckoning of the BJP, the leaders had lost influence and relevance; and, secondly, why did the Kashmiri leaders choose to attend the meeting called by Modi? And lastly, what assurances were given to them to take part in the talks?

Indeed, answers to these questions come more as inferences, rather than circumstantial evidence; but, they were quite compelling.

The government of Narendra Modi that abrogated Article 370 on August 5, 2019 reportedly kept the then United States President Donald Trump and his administration in the loop about this important decision that could have serious implications on the South Asian region. Trump did not really object to it, but came to India’s rescue when the matter was raised by China in the UN Security Council at the behest of Pakistan.

The unilateral and harsh ‘Kashmir decision’ of the Indian government that saw 213 days of internet shutdown, total military clampdown, all-round curfew, and a claustrophobic and repressive lockdown that resulted in the annulment of constitutional and fundamental rights of the entire people of the valley, came for severe criticism from the senior leaders of Democratic

Party in the US like Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasia Cortez, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Indeed, Biden and Harris, then the party candidates for president and vice-president, also supported the Kashmir cause.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump

As a thanksgiving gesture for his support to the Kashmir issue in the Security Council and elsewhere, Modi, during a visit to the US in September 2019, organized a ‘Howdy Trump’ spectacle at Houston with rich Indian NRIs, mostly from Gujarat. Fed on wrong Intel and analysis from his trusted Rightwing friends and advisers, much to the dismay of his advisors, Modi grandly announced, “Abki baar Trump Sarkaar” (This time, Trump government).

This was unprecedented. Foreign leaders do not stick their necks out in the internal affairs of elections of another country. Consequently, Trump lost and Biden became the president of the US, with Harris his deputy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US Vice President Joe Biden during former’s US visit a few years before Biden was elected as the President of USA

In the last six months since the change in Washington, Modi’s raucous appeal in favour of Trump’s re-election has been haunting India and its troubled foreign policy. After the Democrats have come to power, there is a discernible change in the way Washington countenances India.

Quite visibly, the hand of the Democrat progressives is apparent in many of the moves by the US State Department that are putting the inevitable squeeze on India.

The US decided to give shape to Quad and build it as a counterpoint to China and its expansionist designs in Asia. New Delhi had earlier displayed reluctance in aligning itself with this four-member grouping led by the US that has Japan and Australia. Reservations in the strategic community include the fact that it would unnecessarily provoke China, which is militarily and economically far superior.

Chinese premier handing over a handmade portrait to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 during his India visit.

It is a different matter that China, after its open and deep intrusion in 2020 in the Ladakh region, has fewer sympathizers among the think tanks and chattering classes in India. Hysterical jingoists in TV channels vociferously support the Quad and they see it as an opportunity to give a black eye to the Chinese government who deserve a strong response.

Mercifully, the Modi government is more circumspect and has not started calling names or instigating China as yet — even when they have banned many Chinese apps — including Tiktok. Modi has been overtly silent or oblique on the issue — he has not even mentioned China in his speeches on the issue, even in Ladakh while addressing the troops.

Meanwhile, American officials have been taking ownership of how ‘normalization’ has been happening in the Kashmir valley. A US official explained to a congressional committee that 4G internet has been restored due to their persuasion. UAE played a part in this as it had when it brokered the mysterious 2003 ceasefire.

Jammu and Kashmir assembly hall in Srinagar

There have been a few more commitments that were made by the Indian government to ‘normalize’ the situation between the two countries. This included preserving the demographic composition of the contentious valley, which has been repeatedly threatened by an aggressive BJP that want to settle non-Kashmiris in the valley while pushing for the sale of local land to outsiders. The BJP also wants to increase the seats of Jammu region to turn the so-called ‘restored state’ into a Hindu majority one.

All these demands by the UAE and other intermediaries were premised on an important assumption that the Afghanistan issue cannot be solved till the two South Asian neighbours stop fighting. The Pakistani military establishment has managed to convince the US that it needs a friendly government in Kabul to ensure that in the event of a war with India, its top leadership and army top brass could ‘move’ to Afghanistan. Fancily packaged as a ‘strategic depth’ argument, it has found some takers in the White House.

Barack Obama in Delhi in a tight embrace with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

In 2013, when President Barack Obama was in office, he lent great credence to a work of faux history by William Dalrymple for the Brookings Institute: Deadly Triangle — Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The policy inferences that were drawn by the White House under the Democrats from this report was that US troops cannot draw down from Kabul till there were guarantees given to Islamabad that Indian troops will not mount an attack on them.

In other words, the argument went as follows — if India lessens its troop deployment at the Pakistan border suggesting that it was not going to war with them — then Islamabad could deploy its troops along the Durand line and prevent military and other forms of logistic assistance to the Taliban. This suggested shift in troop strength of the three armies was meant to be the basis of the solution to the protracted Afghanistan crisis.

So what is happening now in the Deadly Triangle?

Certainly, the Indian government does not readily own ‘policy shifts.’ However, the changes are starkly visible.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE Foreign Minister, with his counter Dr S Jaishanker in Delhi on February 26, 2021.

In February 2021, India and Pakistan surprised everyone by reviving a ceasefire of 2003. Why 2003 and why not a new one? And how did it come about?

It was only later discovered that the UAE government, which has influence disproportionate to its size, got the NSAs of the two countries together.

So, how was this ceasefire between the two countries crafted, and why did Modi agree to it?

The UAE is a signatory of ‘the Abraham Accord’ initiated during Trump’s rule; however, it has continued working closely with the Biden administration as well! The purpose of the ‘ceasefire’ between the two South Asian neighbours was not limited, as stated above, to maintaining peace at the border — but in assuring Pakistan that India will not attack their country when they are busy with Afghanistan.

The US has been pressurizing Pakistan in the past – that, it should not support the Taliban; but its efforts have not paid off. Now that the Americans are leaving Afghanistan, the US has handed over the running of the country to the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan.

An Intra Afghan meeting in Russia. Rashid Dostum is seen. Interestingly he had gone wearing a Marshal uniform which the Taliban did not permit. Dostum, a former Vice President is a major leader of the Northern Alliance.

Indian analysts do not say this in as many words, but the withdrawal of the US troops and the legitimacy that the Taliban has got is a ‘major victory’ for Pakistan. They have also got a bonus in the form of Indian troop withdrawal from its border. Most of these 50,000 troops are going to be deployed at the China border.

It is easy to see the hand of the West and the US in the way the troops have been juggled from one sector to another. Will the beefing up of the troops at the China border lead to escalation of hostilities between the two big Asian neighbours? Seems unlikely, but going by the angry noises emanating from Washington and Canberra over the outbreak of the pandemic from Wuhan and the belligerence shown by Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region, that nothing can be really ruled out.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad with and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, after the two signed the peace agreement at Qatar in Doha on February 29, 2020. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Modi-led Indian government is still searching for a role after US forces leave the landlocked country. Past governments in Delhi have worked in building an enduring relationship. However, the government in Delhi realizes that with the US gone, there is nothing it can do to influence the course of events in Kabul. The US had asked India to put its boots on the ground, but it had refused.

It’s worries have been sharply compounded due to reports of Turkey offering to look after the Kabul airport. Turkey has friends in Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and it enjoys good relations with the Pakistan army and Iran. All these countries are trying to build a counterpoint to Saudi Arabia -led Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). Turkey is also a patron and promoter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political ideology that Obama promoted after the Arab Spring in 2010-11 in Egypt and other countries.

Egypt’s President, General Sisi, with the support of Saudi Arabia, fought off Muslim Brotherhood and its growing popularity in the region. Brotherhood, though, still nurses ambitions to strike roots in many turmoil-ridden Muslim countries like Afghanistan. Interestingly, Qatar is happy to bankroll such enterprises.

So, surely, there is a lot to watch out for after the US troops leave the landlocked country.

The Taliban, with whom India has had some early negotiations, has been trying to enlarge its presence in Afghanistan. Sources in Afghanistan claim that the Taliban is being helped by the Special Forces commandoes of the Pakistan army, who are keen that they take control of the arc, beginning from Kunduz. These sources claim that Pakistan is particularly interested in this geographical terrain — for the sake of China that is fighting hard to neuter militancy in Xingjian province, where mass-scale human rights violations and replicas of ‘concentration/labour camps have been reported, and which is under the American and Western radar.

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Afghan and Taliban representatives in Moscow ahead of a conference for the centennial anniversary.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan’s incumbent President., Ashraf Ghani

All these reports are truly worrisome for India that is not exactly sure how to leverage its enormous and historic goodwill in Afghanistan, and also how to protect its investments and infrastructure in the country. Many of its assets in the Northern Alliance that India so painstakingly propped up during the 1990s are crying out for help, but, as New Delhi under the current government, do not have an end-game in mind — it is dithering on what it should do with them.

The bitter reality is, and it’s transparently clear — India’s Afghan problem is bigger than what is made out to be!

(A senior journalist, Sanjay Kapoor is editor of Hardnews magazine. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.) 

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