Democracy over security: India's role in Afghanistan

India needs to drastically reformulate its policy in Afghanistan and adopt a more long-term political strategy based on the principles non-alignment, democracy and development, argues Jamal Kidwai
Jamal Kidwai
3 February 2011

The Indian Foreign Minister, S M Krishna, recently made a two-day visit to Kabul where he met his counterpart Rasool Zalmay as well as president Hamid Karzai. The visit indicates the anxiety that India is facing with regard to its future in Afghanistan after a US withdrawal. Upon returning to Delhi, Krishna expressed concern over the security situation there. He said, “What is happening in Afghanistan is something which is very disturbing. [...]The Taliban are an umbrella organisation which shelters LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] and other terrorist organisations.”

His statement reiterated India's policy towards Afghanistan which has been security-centric for nearly three decades. This is for two reasons. Firstly, India does not want a Pakistan-friendly regime in Afghanistan because it feels that this will give Pakistan's military and intelligence agency, the ISI, a greater influence in the region. This will, in turn, provide Pakistan with a larger base to recruit Islamic radicals who could be used as “freedom fighters” in Kashmir or to conduct terrorist attacks in the rest of India. Secondly, the road to the rich oil and gas reserves in Central Asia runs through Afghanistan. To get access to these reserves India will need a sympathetic Afghan government. In order to achieve these objectives, India is desperately negotiating with the US to ensure that it curbs Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

Past experience of India’s role in Afghanistan underlines that such a security-centric strategy is bound to fail. What is required instead is a more long-term political engagement with Afghanistan, a policy which upholds the values of democracy, tolerance and freedom, values which distinguish India from the rest of its South Asian neighbours.

“Those who forget history are bound to repeat it” goes an old saying. Three decades ago, at the height of the cold war, the Indian government was a close collaborator of the now non-existent Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan to support a communist regime led by dictator Mohammed Najeebullah. India's intelligence agency, the RAW, worked closely with its Soviet counterpart, the KGB and the brutal Afghan intelligence agency KhAD. Former RAW officer Bahukutumi Raman states in his memoirs that the KGB and KhAD carried out assassinations and sabotage in Pakistan and RAW found its collaboration with them useful, in particular for gathering intelligence on Sikh groups’ training in military camps. One of the main reasons India collaborated with the KGB and KhAD was to contain Pakistan's influence in the region which was aligning with the US and training the Mujahideens in hundreds of madasras in Pakistan. After ten years of war, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving India not only high and dry in strategic terms but very unpopular with the Afghan people, who despised the Soviet Union for its support of the tyrant regime.

What followed in Afghanistan during the 1990s was a brutal civil war and subsequently a Taliban rule, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The security-centric Indian policy then tried to counter the Taliban and Pakistan by aligning itself with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (NA). This was a group made up of various ethnic militias comprised of warlords like the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan from Herat, Karim Khalili from Hazara and the charismatic Tajik commander late Ahmad Shah Masud, also known as the Lion of Panjshir. India, along with Russia and Iran, gave huge funds and weapons to the NA and looked the other way when these warlords carried out large-scale human rights violations. Once again the Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group of Afghanistan who at that time were largely supportive of the Taliban, saw themselves pitched against an alliance that was backed by India. This period ended with the 9/11 attacks, the US invasion of Afghanistan and the formation of the Karzai government.

This was followed by a brief period of two years (2001-2003) in which Indo-Afghan relations were at their best. All top positions in the Karzai government such as as those in defence and foreign affairs were held by ministers from the Panjshir Valley and belonged to the former NA. Up until a month prior to their appointments they were fighting the Taliban, with financial and military support from India. However, this period was short-lived and the subsequent government largely consisted of people that were more sympathetic to Pakistan.

Today India is again at a dead end. It should realise that the US is going to leave Afghanistan in a complete mess. The sole objective of the US is to ensure that the jehadis do not threaten the West. At the same time it cannot antagonise the Pakistani military because it needs them for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan.

India should therefore drastically reformulate its policy towards Afghanistan, adopt a more long-term political strategy that is based on the principles and values of non-alignment, democracy and development. It should consider interventions that are based on non-violence and reconciliation. It should recall that the most popular movement ever in Afghanistan was the Khudai Khidmatgars led by Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi. The movement fought the British in the region by advocating non-violent protests and justified their actions through an Islamic context. It believed Islam and non-violence to be compatible and was intrinsically non-sectarian. On more than one occasion when Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in Peshawar, Khidmatgar members helped protect their lives and property. When Ghafar Khan died, thousands attended his funeral and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan had to allow mourners to freely cross the border, rendering the Durand Line temporarily irrelevant.

India needs to revive such traditions and initiate, identify and support groups in Afghanistan that uphold such values. At the same time India should carry on with the development interventions it has made in the form of building roads, hospitals and power structures. Over the post-Taliban era, India has donated a total of $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, making it the fifth largest donor nation after the US, Britain, Japan and Canada. More importantly it has aided the construction of democratic symbols such as the new parliament building by donating $83 million. And finally, India must insist that external interventions, political reform and dialogue are directly monitored by institutions like the United Nations and that individual countries with short-term vested interests are kept out of Afghanistan. Such a policy may sound highly idealistic. But if there is one thing that we could learn from the past it is that security-centric approaches have fueled conflicts rather than resolving them.

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