Groping in the dark in Afghanistan - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

Home Top Ad


Monday 2 September 2013

Groping in the dark in Afghanistan

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Sept 13

The self-congratulatory euphoria that surrounded India’s aid-driven Afghanistan policy for years after the Taliban’s eviction from Kabul in 2001 was as misplaced as the gloomy defeatism that is the current flavour. The Taliban’s resurgence and Pakistan’s growing role in brokering talks between the insurgents and President Hamid Karzai’s government, has sent New Delhi into an undisguised sulk.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, at a closed-door seminar in New Delhi on Aug 23, repeatedly lamented that Kabul was talking to the Taliban. “Certain elements in the (reconciliation) process are not very comforting to us,” said Mr Khurshid. “We are not sanguine about some of the armed groups that Afghanistan is talking to, but that is for Afghanistan to decide.”

Surely Mr Khurshid was not suggesting that President Karzai should confine his dialogue to groups other than the Taliban; the Irish Republican Army, for example. Nor did he differentiate between Taliban factions (though he should have) by indicating that reconciliation with Mullah Omar would be acceptable to New Delhi, while engaging the Haqqani Network would not. All that Mr Khurshid conveyed was that New Delhi was sore at being left out while Kabul played ball with Islamabad.

This suggests that India has no Plan B in Afghanistan. The Indian public narrative is already evincing tinges of paranoia, with wild talk of jihadi hordes flooding into Kashmir from Afghanistan after NATO thins out, leaving them without an enemy. The unspoken (and unspeakable!) part of this postulation is that an Afghanistan in turmoil keeps Kashmir safe! Never mind that, in a quarter century of militancy in Kashmir, the Indian Army has not encountered Afghan fighters in significant numbers. Our breast-beating xenophobes never let history, logic or fact come in the way of a nice doomsday scenario.

In fact neither Pakistan’s (probably temporary) new role, nor the NATO thin out, nor any power struggle in post-2014 Afghanistan is likely to seriously diminish India’s enviable position within that country --- that of a benign friend. With an overwhelming majority of Afghans, including Pashtuns, viewing India thus, the Quetta Shoora will struggle to justify enmity with India.

Not realising this truth has been New Delhi’s biggest policy failure in post-2001 Afghanistan, one that has locked it into needless confrontation with the Taliban. In the simplistic mind-sets of under-travelled analysts; over-protected and over-restrained diplomats; an over-cautious intelligence community; and a jingoistic media that reduces complex realities to a disingenuous binary, the Taliban has been painted as a monolithic clone of Pakistan. There is little understanding that, while the ISI-controlled Haqqani Network will do as Rawalpindi orders, Mullah Omar is a far more stubborn, independent leader who resents ISI bullying. Reams of public material, including accounts by top Taliban officials, eloquently describe the widening rift in the Pakistan-Taliban alliance of opportunity.

But Indian leaders, diplomats, spooks and soldiers have failed to constructively engage the Taliban, talk to its leaders, gauge its perspectives and look for common ground. Instead of regarding the Taliban as a potentially game-changing opportunity, New Delhi has confined it to an ideological framework that is loaded heavily against us. In how it has imagined the Taliban, New Delhi has consigned to itself the role of underdog.

Pakistan, knowing how much it is detested across Afghanistan, is engaging Afghans across the board. Nawaz Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, has reached out to non-Taliban groups, emphasizing that Pakistan would negotiate a settlement even-handedly. But India --- which enjoys far greater currency with Pashtuns than Pakistan does with Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazaras --- seems oblivious that any Afghan settlement must include the Taliban.

Has New Delhi not studied the Taliban before turning its face away? The astonishing truth is that India has never engaged the Taliban. Plenty of information about the Taliban flows in from the embassy in Kabul, all of it second-hand. With India closely aligned with the Northern Alliance, and the Karzai regime, those are its sources. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Kabul’s primary intelligence agency, produces copious information, but that is tailored to the expectations of an intensely anti-Taliban government.

So where is the unbiased information, obtained from the ground in Afghanistan? Our diplomats there --- amongst the most threatened people in that country --- can hardly be out and about, reading the Afghan street. Street-level intelligence operatives from the Research and Analysis Wing must gather those inputs. But the heavily bureaucratised R&AW has almost no covert operatives in Afghanistan. And functioning from an embassy under diplomatic cover makes an agent into just another babu.

Another crucial input for Indian assessments is the state of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). But, despite our privileged position as trainers of Afghan National Army (ANA) officers, India has only second-hand insight into its capabilities. Until New Delhi starts getting operational insights from people who go into battle with Afghan units, this will remain an (military) intelligence failure.

New Delhi’s reluctance to engage the Taliban is similar to the “okay, talks are off” style of diplomacy that it follows with Pakistan. India has responded to Pakistani outrages by breaking off talks --- and then meekly restarting after realizing (yet again) that creating a vacuum is hardly a punishment. No doubt the Taliban and India have hurt each other. The Taliban played a dubious role in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar in 1999. New Delhi, on its part, has sided with the communists, the Soviets and the Northern Alliance at various points in Afghanistan’s history over the last four decades. But today, there is enormous advantage to both sides in a dialogue. New Delhi must set the ball rolling.


  1. I don't know why India thought that we could play a bigger role in Afghanistan than Pakistan.

    1)We do not not share any common boundary with them,

    2)Pakistan culturally is closer to Afghanistan,

    3)Pakistan has access to all elements in that region and can broker deals. Make them or break them.

    4)Afghan government is not independent in decision making.

    5)Unlike US we can't put boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

    6) US is not going to stay in Afghanistan for ever.

    Our policy should have been realistic, then we would have not faced any disappointment.

  2. taliban or otherwise... not even pakistan... will be toletated... to stay put and invest... in afgan society... pashtuns... tajiks... hazaras... uzbeks... what more currency... you need...

  3. I think I agree with this.

    1. RAW to get more operative on the streets.
    2. Talk to everyone. Including Taliban. Without a high handed attitude. With a benign attitude (taking a word you used)...which will serve to broad-base, the only current strength we have in Afghanistan: An impression that India is a benign friend. A goos impression but which is not broad-based enough (not shared by the Taliban). Knowing their ideology....getting the Taliban to share this view is a very tall ask. But that's the challenge India to take on.

    Now that's a good!

  4. Three conditions for talks that have been set out by the Afghan Peace Council for talks with Taliban are
    1) Cutting ties with international terrorist organizations (hopefully includes the ones used against India)
    2) Accepting Afghan Constitution
    3) Abjuring violence.

    Talks under these conditions are in India's interest. Leaving Taliban intact as a quasi military organization in autonomous control of southern Afghanistan bordering with Pakistan is not in our interest. Punishing the ISI stooges responsible for the numerous Indian embassy attacks, backers of IC814 hijackers and the people who sent Afghan terrorist in J&K in past should be our goal. Peaceful democratic Afghanistan which is free of violent ideologies is in our long term interest. Yes Kashmir and Afghanistan are definitely linked. Those who don't see the link are living in make believe world.

  5. The various groups be they, kashmiri, pakistani, afghani, checnian, yemani, uzbek,tajik are all linked. Kashmir is a battle ground where there is a clear dispute. There are multiple UN resolutions to the effect. Like it or not the muslims of Kashmir have no love for india. Infact its quite the opposite. when these groups see what indian soldiers do to muslim's there, there is only one thing for it. In this they will get lots of support from the population in pakistan and all the countries mentioned. If you meet the young men from these countries they have a certain mentality and behaviour. What is also important to note is that this solidatory is increasing across the ME and CA. Kashmir issue is discussed now across these regions.

    What ajay understands is that the way to afghanistan is through kashmir. Unless peace is made that satisfys kashmiris, body bags will be in greater demand.

  6. Anonymous @12:27

    Unfortunately, it is people like you who cause maximum damage to India's position in the name of realpolitik. It remind's me of Savarkar's comment on the Peshwa but let's save that for another day.

    1)We do not not share any common boundary with them,
    WRONG. The last time I checked we haven't written of POK. India does share a border with Afghanistan.

    2)Pakistan culturally is closer to Afghanistan
    WRONG again. There is a big difference between Pashtun culture and Punjabi culture. If it weren't so, the Pakhtoonistan idea would have been long dead

    3)Pakistan has access to all elements in that region and can broker deals. Make them or break them.
    What stops us from getting access to most if not all elements -- precisely the point that Ajai is trying to make in this article

    4)Afghan government is not independent in decision making.
    More the reason why we need to speak to the Pashtuns

    5)Unlike US we can't put boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
    WRONG. We still haven't reached the point where not doing so would be a bigger problem for us. Technically speaking, we would lose less people than what we lose today in conflicts within India from the NE to Maoists.

    6) US is not going to stay in Afghanistan for ever.
    Why do we want to them to take care of our mess? This reeks of the NAM mindset and perpetual fence sitting. We have to defend our interests

  7. Anonymous @12:27... Anonymous @22:44... point (3)
    when mughals... enslaved ravaged and destroyed India... only afghans... fighting alongside... hemu...

  8. @anon 12:27

    what you have written is bang on!!!
    But most of us do not live in reality, we prefer to dream and be critical. Its much easier.

    India played a good hand in Afghanistan but it was on the tail of USA & NATO. India could off course send in 200+K of their army to show that they are men. There is nothing more that the pakistani and their twin brothers (quoting Karzi here) would like ;-).

    Question is how many of these keyboard warriors will be prepared to go there too.

  9. Anonymous 22:44

    What I actually wanted to say is we should not really put our head into Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan are not the major cause of trouble in our nation today.

    "When there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world" - (Abdul Kalam, quoted from another Tamil poet)

    Hum apna dhol nahi baja parahe hai, aur nikle hain doosro ko dhol bajane.

    Lets put our house in order first and then reach out to the world

    1) POK is (Pak occupied Kashmir)-You ain't going to get that back any time soon. Be realistic. Hence we do not have a common boundary and nor is there any sea port in Afghanistan. Hence the cost of engagement is very high.

    2) Afghanistan is not made up Pashtun people alone, they are only about 40% of all ethinic groups.

    3) We should get access to all the elements only till it serves our purpose and not someone else. And it very difficult with out the state support. Why do you think US relies so heavily on Pakistan state. Do you think Indian agency have not been trying to get entrenched.

    4) Who within Pashtuns would you want to speak with. Its all fragmented without any real leader.

    5) What do you mean from "NE to Maoist", are you comparing entire population of the seven states to maoists? And if so many people are dying because of insurgency, then isn't it right to spend our time addressing the root cause of it. They are our very own people....something might have antagonized them?

    6) If Afghanistan is not Americas mess whose mess is it? It isn't ours for sure. Today if we have any standing in the world today its because of NAM. Isn't it better India standing alone than being part of a defence block? We should sit on the fence until we have learn t to sought our issues first.

    And to your first point of people like me "causing maximum damage to India's position in the name of realpolitik" its not me alone, its us as a nation. What is so great about our nation that other nations will look forward to and try to emulate? What have we achieved in 21st century? Any great inventions that changed the course of human history? Apart from Mahatma Gandhi what have we given to the world (now don't come back and say zero, it very ironic we invented zero). Heck we even abandoned Gandhi's philosophy. We are unable to feed our own people, not able to provide them with clean water, medicine and sanitation, unable to eradicate corruption, have not achieved 100% literacy, gender inequality is poor, environment is degrading, law and order situation is bad, religious intolerance is on the rise, unemployment is rampant. My friend what are you proud about and what will we teach the world. Lets get these things in order and then be proud of what we have achieved, after that we can go reach out to the world and teach them a thing or two.

  10. Strategic issues aside your English and writing are brilliant.


Recent Posts

Page 1 of 10412345...104Next >>Last