India and the Afghan transitions

(Moscow conference on Afghanistan, Nov 9, 2018)

Political transition has been a recurring feature of Afghanistan’s modern history. Once in every 10-20 years, transitions appeared – the coup d’etat against King Zahir Shah in 1973, the violent takeover by the communists in 1978 (“Saur Revolution”), the collapse of the communist government and its replacement by Afghan Mujahideen in 1992, the takeover in Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

We are now at the threshold of another transition as the Taliban are slouching toward Kabul. The international community with hardly any exception recognizes the imperative need of ending the war by reconciling the Taliban (who control more than half of Afghan territory.)

Conceivably, the Taliban may be back in power in Kabul by 2019. India once again faces the challenge of coping with an impending transition.

This has created much angst among uninformed sections of opinion in our country. The government’s decision to depute a “non-official” delegation of two diplomats with experience on the “Af-Pak” track to the Moscow conference on Afghanistan, which was attended by Taliban representatives, has met with some flak.

However, the new kids on the block do not realize that the government’s decision is consistent with the manner in which New Delhi has previously coped with the Afghan transitions.

While Zahir Shah’s overthrow was a “palace coup” and the Saur Revolution was a geopolitical earthquake that became part of Cold-War folklore, the three transitions that followed the “Afghan jihad” in the 1980s fall into a different category, which directly impacted India’s security interests.

It is useful and necessary at the present juncture to go back into time past and jog memory as to how Delhi coped with the traumatic Islamist transition in 1992 against the backdrop of another raging insurgency in J&K and tense relations with Pakistan.

The stunning thing about the 1992 transition was that it was the first time the spectre of an Islamist regime in a neighboring country came to haunt India. But the broad similarities with today’s situation are striking.

In 1992, too, Delhi had no previous dealings whatsoever with the Afghan Mujahideen groups who occupied Kabul, dominated by the Shura-e-Nazar (Northern Shura) led by Ahmed Shah Massoud under the broad canopy of Jamiat-i-Afghanistan based in northern Afghanistan.

Equally, Delhi had no line open, either, to any of the three principal Mujahideen groups based in Peshawar – Hezbe-e-Islami, (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and Ittihad-i Islami (led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf) or the Mashaad-based Shi’te group Hizb-i-Wahdat, which fought Massoud in the ensuing violent civil war that lasted till 1996, destroying Kabul city.

(Afghan Mujahideen among ruins of Kabul, 1992)

Some of them were viscerally hostile toward India, as evident from the ransacking of our diplomatic establishment in Kabul in June 1992 and the closure of our mission.

Interestingly, our mission in Kabul had to be shut down thrice in the fluid period between 1992-1995 due to security threats. But, amazingly, what must be underscored is that thrice we also sent back our personnel and reopened out shut-down mission.

Now, doesn’t that convey something? Simply put, our diplomacy always factored in the criticality of keeping a presence in Kabul and in talking with all Afghan groups, no matter their past attitudes toward India.

Fundamentally, we dealt with the legitimate internationally recognized governments in Afghanistan even when they were contrarian to the democratic, secular, plural values that India cherished.

Evidently, we learnt to deal with the governments in power and were never prescriptive or interfering in the transitions – supporting the transition or opposing it.

The only exception, perhaps, was when the illegitimate Taliban regime was ousted by force by the Northern Alliance militia but the Americans sought our help (and Iran’s) at the Bonn conference in December 2001 to persuade the successor NA government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani to abdicate from power in Kabul so that a US-sponsored interim government led by Hamid Karzai could assume power.

The 5 policy templates appearing in the above narrative hold good even today. They are:

One, Delhi never intervened in an Afghan transition.

Two, India came to terms with the ascendancy of Islamism in Afghan mainstream politics as far back as early 1990s.

Three, Delhi kept lines of communication to open all Afghan groups – arguably, it eagerly sought out contacts – irrespective of past negative attitudes toward India.

Four, India worked with the international community during Afghan transitions.

(Russia & regional states at peace talks, Nov 9, 2018)

Five, Delhi realized that it is possible to constructively engage any Afghan group in an environment where it is no longer under the thumb of foreign mentors, given the vast reservoir of goodwill among Afghan people toward India and their keen desire to explore the potentials of a mutually beneficial relationship with India.

Of course, Delhi made tragic mistakes too. The funding of the so-called anti-Taliban “resistance” groups in the second half of the 1990s was a serious mistake and departure in policy. We should never have fuelled what was at its core a fratricidal strife.

Delhi probably squandered away hundreds of millions of dollars. The gossip in the Central Asian bazaar in the late 1990s was that much of that money had ended up as the loot of NA warlords salted away in Dubai and elsewhere.

It was plain to see that the anti-Taliban resistance had no future but then, the great game can create heady, delusional notions.

Importantly, therefore, we need to clinically, dispassionately assess at some point how far Taliban have been congenitally hostile toward India and how far their perceived hostility would have been in retaliation against some of our own activities on Afghan soil through the past decade.

(Taliban heading to peace talks, Moscow, Nov 9, 2018)

My own assessment of the Taliban has all along been that their movement is quintessentially Afghanistan-centric and it is possible to engage with them constructively once they are in power in Kabul in a government enjoying international recognition.

The bottom line is that the Taliban are a compelling reality and it is about time Delhi defines its interests realistically in the emergent situation.