Indo-Afghan Relations: A Turning Point

Analysis of an imperative change to India’s principled foreign policy in Afghanistan.


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More than 35,000 civilians killed, millions injured, and missing, Afghanistan has been a witness to decades of violence, and political instability. Despite the United States negotiating a deal with the Taliban, the end of this painful tunnel still seems far away. Questions are being raised on the ties that the self-proclaimed legitimate Taliban maintains with the terrorist factions such as Al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network, while the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - Khorasan has started appearing in Afghanistan. The Central Asian countries fear a terrorism spillage into their borders while India is Missing in Action (MIA).

India shares a long-standing historical and cultural relationship with Afghanistan, and for decades this relationship has transformed to include strategic, political, and economic elements that support the Afghan people and the government. India's principled foreign policy in Afghanistan does not solve the problem of regional instability and neither does it further the ambitions and interests of India in the region. With every major player in the conflict urging India to participate in the peace process, the ball is in the Indian court now.

In this paper, we will explore the dynamic relationship between India and Afghanistan, the present situation in Afghanistan, the hurdles that exist to the Afghan peace process, and suggest a renewed foreign policy for India and its implementation to solve the situation in Afghanistan while furthering the Indian interests.


Early Indo-Afghan relationship


With the birth of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1978, India's relations with the country strengthened in the years to come at a faster pace than ever before. This was also because India was the only South Asian country to have recognized the socialist government

which was backed by the Soviet Union then. India also supported the Soviet Union’s intervention in the region to support the socialist government and its fight against the US-backed Mujahedeen at the U.N. Debate. India continued to provide overwhelming support to President Najibullah's administration in 1986 through diplomatic relations and humanitarian aid. India's dynamic foreign policy also extended support to the coalition interim government that took power after the fall of Najibullah in 1992 following the Soviet withdrawal from the region. This smooth diplomatic shift was short-lived due to the rise of an Islamist militant organization, Taliban that started a strong insurgency in the country and came to power in Kabul through Pakistani support in 1996.

For the years that followed complete radio silence was maintained across all formal communication channels between India and the Taliban, and radical actions such as vandalism of Bamiyan Buddha monuments, and outright discrimination against the Afghan Hindus attracted heavy criticism from India and the international community. The hijack of Indian Airlines flight 814 on 24th December 1999 and its stationing in Kandahar, Afghanistan resulted in the release of Islamist radicals such as Masood Azhar in exchange for passengers of the 814 C. This hurt Indian interests the most as these very figures went on to coordinate and cause the 2001 Parliament attack, and the horrifying 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Following the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, India utilized the opportunity to liberate Afghanistan from terrorists and Islamist radicals by supporting the international coalition with intelligence and other forms of support while committing to support the democratically elected government in the country. The fall of the Taliban at the hands of the Coalition forces brought a new dawn for the Indo-Afghan relations. India quickly established its diplomatic relations with the democratically elected government and started contributing towards Afghan rebuilding and reconstruction efforts through aid immediately.


Blooming India-Afghan relations


The turn of the century brought India and Afghanistan closer than ever before owing to the diplomatic assistance that India provided to the signing of the Bonn Agreement along with the massive investment that it did into the country. India’s Ambassador S K Lambah was credited with bringing the Northern Alliance leaders to a consensus to accept Hamid Karzai as the Chairperson of the interim arrangement that replaced the Taliban. This further strengthened the Indo-Afghan Relations.

Since the beginning of this century’s first decade, India has greatly invested in the rebuilding and reconstruction efforts while also supporting Afghanistan diplomatically at forums such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India and Afghanistan share a long-standing commitment against terrorist elements and have supported each other in their fight against radical factions that cause and promote terrorism in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. The latter half of the 2000s witnessed two attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul within one year, however, this did not hinder India's resolve to support the Afghan government. At the 15th SAARC Conference India pledged an additional $450 million in addition to $750 million that it had already pledged for multiple projects in Afghanistan.

The year 2011 saw a closer strategic relationship between the two countries when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and President Hamid Karzai both visited each other and signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. Following this visit, India's contribution to rebuilding Afghanistan through its extensive developmental assistance program increased to $2 billion. This partnership was brought to fruition when India donated three Mi-25 helicopters to Afghanistan to assist the government in their efforts to counter the Taliban in 2015. This partnership has also resulted in important projects for the mutual benefit of India and Afghanistan such as the Zaranj - Delaram road that connects major Afghan cities on the historic Garland road such as Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Delaram to India’s Chabahar port in Iran.

This road is extremely important for Afghanistan as it allows India-Afghanistan trade to flourish without relying on Pakistan that stands as a geographic roadblock between the two countries. This coupled with the Afghan-India air corridor that opened in 2016 opens up the massive Indian market to Afghan goods which are popularised by the government through initiatives such as the Afghan-India Trade Show. Afghanistan is also opening a variety of its sectors to 100% Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), this has stirred a massive interest amongst Indian businesses and firms to invest in the country, provided the nation attains stability soon. This project is important for Indian interests in Central Asia, and its relationship with Russia as well. The Zaranj-Delaram Highway paves the way for realizing the Indian dream of connecting St. Petersburg in Russia to Mumbai through a network of roads snaking through Central Asia, known as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).


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With the eyes of Central Asian countries with whom India shares a warm and cordial relationship set on the situation in Afghanistan, India's massive role in developing and supporting Afghanistan does not go unnoticed in the region and the larger international community. Participation in the INSTC remains an important hope for these Central Asian countries as it creates trade alternatives that are independent of the People's Republic of China for them, and the geography makes stability in Afghanistan a necessary prerequisite to achieving this dream. India's Act West Policy needs to consider this as a means of providing a much-needed counterbalance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in this region.


Situation in Afghanistan


Taliban, now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan claim to be the pioneers of a political movement that aspires to build a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan from the rubble left behind by its decades-long civil war. Following the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul by the coalition in 2001, the Taliban has gained considerable momentum and now controls more than 70% of the territory. The last two decades have witnessed the rise of Taliban as a military power following their regrouping in Pakistan on the eastern Afghani border; a political power, evident by the people's support that they receive in large parts of the country; a diplomatic power which is clear by its recent handling of the Afghan Peace Process in Doha.


The United States of America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, tired of fighting a foreign war for over three decades are now looking for a peaceful way out without repeating the failures of Iraq and Somalia. The U.S — Taliban Peace Deal signed in February this year is a revolutionary step towards long term peace in the country. This deal requires the United States to reduce its troops and eventually withdraw them completely. This provision hinges on the condition of a long term ceasefire being established and Taliban severing its ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits in the region while also undertaking various counter-terrorism assurances for ending the threat of terrorism emanating from the Afghan lands. The deal also involves a release of 5000 Taliban leaders taken prisoner by the Afghan government, which would be followed by negotiations between the government and Taliban, names as the Intra-Afghan Negotiations for a power-sharing agreement and putting an end to the civil war.

Following the Afghan elections in March of this year, when Incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his opponent Dr. Abdullah Abdullah both held their very own swearing-in ceremonies in light of a contested election decision where the incumbent had secured a narrow victory, it resulted in months of political stalemate in the region thereby putting a roadblock in the complete and successful implementation of measures necessary to begin the Intra-Afghan Negotiations.

This stalemate was resolved in May where a shared cabinet was agreed between the parties of President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah who would now lead the National Reconciliation High Council along with his team, who would also serve in the Afghan cabinet. This move is extremely helpful to solving the political crisis in the country as Dr. Abdullah Abdullah shares warm ties with the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban organization and can bring the Taliban and the Alliance closer along with the government to ensure the prerequisites to the intra-Afghan negotiations are met and the talks are held peacefully.

Regional actors are observing this deal very carefully while formulating their respective roles. India, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Russia have distinctive objectives attached to this peace process. All the regional actors, barring India have begun negotiating with the Taliban and are building ties for the near future. In an attempt to woo India, the Taliban publicized a non-interference based foreign policy while firmly supporting India's stand on Kashmir by deeming it an internal matter of the Republic of India.

Afghanistan's neighboring countries in the west and the north are hoping India participates in these talks as they hold considerable credibility and support from the factions present in the country and the region. India's counter-terrorism, training, and capacity building measures for the Afghan Security Forces make India a primary stakeholder in this region's terrorism problem. The rise of ISI-K in Afghanistan has further put the Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in the high-risk zone where the terrorist elements from Afghanistan could slip into their countries and cause a massive terrorist problem in the heart of Asia.

Recently published United Nations Security Council report from the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UN Security Council on Afghanistan reveals continued ties between the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaeda. The U.S. - Taliban Peace deal was contingent on the condition of severed ties between these factions, and the compromise on the same showcases the fragile nature of this deal. In addition to this, it also portrays the deep-rooted connections between the terrorist factions of Afghanistan and the Taliban which claims itself to be an Islamic Emirate now.

In light of India's large scale global anti-terrorism stand and efforts, these continued ties disincentivize India from negotiating with the Taliban. However, considering India's value proposition as a regional stabilizer in contrast to Pakistan makes it an attractive partner for both the US and the Taliban to ensure the implementation of this peace deal. This situation puts India on a leadership podium in Asia, and their “Wait and Watch Policy" could be unhelpful if not more harmful for regional stability and India's interests in the region.


Hurdles in the Afghan Peace Process


The biggest hurdle to the Afghan Peace Process is their inability, or the reluctance, or both to sever ties with terrorist elements such as Al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network. According to the Part Two of the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America", popularly known as the US-Taliban Peace Deal requires Taliban to ensure that Afghan lands are not used to threaten the security of the United States, and its allies while preventing entities, and groups such as these from recruiting, training, and fundraising while not hosting them in Afghanistan.

Taliban has been unable to contain the radical elements in Afghanistan such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) from conducting widespread and gruesome attacks on medical facilities and schools in Afghanistan. Reluctance to contain Al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network stems from the deep cultural ties based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy, and intermarriage. Further, even if the agreement is made binding through accountability measures and some form of leverage then containment of these radical elements would be difficult as it will prompt a split between pro- and anti-Al-Qaeda camps amidst the Taliban ranks.

Another prominent dispute over the deal roots from its interpretation across the Taliban, Afghan Government, the United States, and NATO camps. The report from the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team states that differing interpretations of this agreement would cause the Taliban to further increase the violence against the Afghan Security Forces. Taliban interprets the deal such that they can continue their attacks against the Afghan government while not provoking the United States, and thereby not violating the deal. The United States and NATO have also stated that they will not cease to provide the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces support if they come under attack.

These varied interpretations of the peace deal leave the situation in Afghanistan in a place no better than before in terms of violence. The ceasefire might not be present in hindsight but certain Rules of Engagement (RoE) could be established between the warring factions and the intra-Afghan negotiations could go through following the prisoner release. This hope originates from the possibility of a reconciliation process between the armed factions of Afghan National Defence and Security Forces and the Taliban, but the plausibility of its success is grim without proper incentive for both sides on the table.

India's opposition to the Taliban stems from its over-dependence on Pakistan, and its ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits that train the terrorists fighting in Kashmir. India is concerned that the Afghan lands would be used to base terrorist launchpads, and its resources to fund terrorism in Kashmir. These concerns are due to the Taliban's close ties to Pakistan and the entrenchment of fundamentalism in their ideology. Pakistani support with a safe haven for the Taliban after getting ousted for the first time along with financial and ammunition support to capture Kandahar and other regions made their support to the Taliban imperative and strong. However, these relations started turning sour owing to the Talibani refusal to endorse the Durand Line, Pakistani interference into the Taliban's policies and to publicly oppose India.

Today, the Taliban is at a crossroads between India and Pakistan. The United States and other regional actors such as Iran, and Russia along with the government of Afghanistan urged India to take up an active role in the Afghan peace process. Realizing the instrumental role that India could play in negotiating a political solution, the Taliban urged India to get involved as well.

India's principled policy of supporting an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan controlled process for peace in Afghanistan has prevented them from openly supporting the U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal, which the democratically elected government of Afghanistan barely controls.

India's emphasis on state sovereignty and control of the peace process through noble does not have a lot of supporters in the region. This discontentment over the policy has locked India out of prominent agreements and conferences such as the one that negotiated the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan in 2001, and then the London Conference on Afghanistan 9 years later. India's investment and support to the Afghanistan government and its principled approach to state sovereignty make it one of the prominent friends of the Afghan government, and also hold prominent sway in the region with its international commitments under the "Act West Policy".

Crossing this chasm of opinion difference between India, and the regional countries along with the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the United States necessitate diplomatic efforts from the Indian diplomatic mission through reinforced support from the Afghan government, and interest towards Indian inclusion from Taliban, which was made clear through their policy on Kashmir, and India.


India in the Afghan Peace Process


India cannot be left out of the Afghan Peace Process anymore. The stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia by extension are heavily contingent on the successful accomplishment of this peace process. India's $3 billion investment, aid, and massive capacity-building support to Afghanistan along with the reconstruction efforts, all would be reduced to rubble without a successful peace process. India's current non-involvement with the Taliban is perceived as a lack of interest that it holds in West Asia's regional stability. India hoping to act as a viable counterbalance to China needs to stick with the regional countries through thick and thin. India needs to portray both capability and interest in regional stability by utilizing every diplomatic tool in its kitty. US withdrawal from the region creates a vacuum for India to step in and do better than the Americans.

The openly interpretable peace deal along with an unstable President in the United States risks the peace deal to be nothing more than a piece of paper, especially if the POTUS decides to withdraw all the American troops from Afghanistan without consolidating peace in the region. The spillage effects of this would greatly devastate India's investments, its future prospects, and above all the regional stability turning Central Asia into a terrorism hotbed that is ridden with unstable governments and massive violence.

With Indian experts already training Afghan Security Forces, and the government trying to improve their trade and economy, along with a circle of trust that India has built amongst the regional powers north, and west of Afghanistan, it could play a massive role as a mediator in the region. These efforts would be nothing short of its heroics from 2001 when India's efforts created a consensus in the Northern Alliance for an interim government with President Karzai. India's principled foreign policy also makes it a staunch supporter of the Afghan government, however, India's inclusion to the process requires certain conditions to be met to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't turn into a terrorism launchpad and a rather unstable entrée for India into Central Asia.


A renewed Indian Foreign Policy in the region needs to be based on the pillars of Regional integration, Anti-terrorism, Afghan ownership of the entire process, a Multi-level reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and Afghanistan's post-conflict recovery. Taking into consideration the numerous calls of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled peace process by the Ministry of External Affairs, India would only function as a facilitator, guarantor, supervisor, and monitor of peace in the region while engaging in the reconciliation process by helping create conditions and infrastructure for the same through the government and its support for the same.

India will have to bring the neighbors such as Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and numerous other Central Asian Region countries together to help the Afghan government negotiate peace at the Intra-Afghan peace negotiations directly with the Taliban. Regional integration can help the government dissuade the farmers away from opium farming that serves as a huge source of income for terrorist networks and towards growing crops that can be traded in the region for the better economic growth of the country and the people. Talks between the regional powers in Central Asia and India on Afghanistan would be based on the foundations that were laid in March 2018 when Uzbekistan hosted a conference on Afghanistan and that paved the way for intra-Afghan talks. This regional integration can be built on the incentive of joint efforts to commit to anti-terrorism amongst these countries by utilizing Indian support, and resources.

The anti-terrorism step of the peace process is two-pronged with the first being regional cooperation against terrorism that would work to halt the recruitment of nationals from respective regional countries into ISIL-K, Al-Qaeda, or other terrorist groups, along with funding, and movement of terrorists and logistics to the terrorists in Afghanistan. The second prong of the anti-terrorism step is to ensure containment and eradication of terrorist networks inside the borders of Afghanistan through the Taliban and their other political factions. To achieve this, India and other regional countries need to negotiate with the Taliban and although public negotiations have never taken place between India and the Taliban previously, a reliable backchannel has existed between the two, since 2005. This backchannel could be used to conduct unofficial negotiations that would be aimed at formulating joint plans and operations to ensure that Afghanistan does not turn into a terrorist safe haven while taking decisive steps to prevent the export of terrorism to Kashmir. These steps would play a significant role in ensuring a peaceful West Asia while