Security personnel inspect a damaged vehicle which was firing rockets in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (Image: AP)
It’s ironic to recall as the world waits for the predicted apocalypse after the United States completely withdraws from Afghanistan that as late as the 1970s American newspapermen used "Afghanistanism" to mean dull and distant events of no consequence. As a New York Times writer put it, "who can check up on or take offence at news from Afghanistan?"
Things have moved on considerably since then. The spectre of Afghanistan again under the fundamentalist Taliban haunts global thinking. In an unrelated but simultaneous development, the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended for the second year running that India should be listed among "Countries of Particular Concern" for the worst violations of religious freedoms. The stricture coincides with the Uttarakhand high court’s warning that a civilisation is judged by how it treats its minorities. If that hints at fears of Hindutva smuggled in by the backdoor, a bastion of Hindu orthodoxy may have to find ways of co-existing with a fiercely bigoted Islamic regime beyond the virtual no-man’s-land of strife-torn Pakistan.
The recent admittedly accidental killing of a talented young Indian photographer, Pulitzer prize-winner Danish Siddiqui, in Kandahar further underlines the need to be prepared for that eventuality. Closing down two (or is it three?) of four consulates means that India, the "brother country" whose friendship "no enemy can hamper", as the Kabul foreign ministry put it, is scaling down its role in Afghanistan. How far that process is carried depends as much on New Delhi’s innovative diplomacy as on the Afghan/Taliban response.
India has dismissed as "completely false" reports of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, meeting the Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar. But his ministry did admit on June 10 that "we are in contact with various stakeholders" in Afghanistan. With a peripatetic minister roaming the world, there has been ample opportunity for both direct and indirect soundings. The ambivalent denial may be like the earlier rejection of rumours about 32 Indian consulates in Afghanistan. However great the exaggeration, India was the South Asian country with which Afghanistan had the closest ties. To quote Shaida Mohammad Abdali, former Afghan ambassador in Delhi, India "is the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and the fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance. India has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over 1,000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students". Such massive investment in the Salma Dam, the Parliament building, hospitals, roads and power stations may have called for numerous outlets which others might have given a diplomatic colouring.
Reports suggest that not all militants might be equally opposed to their kaffir benefactor. The network that the deceased Jalaluddin Haqqani founded, and which is now led by his son Sirajuddin and operating out of North Waziristan in Pakistan, is said to have "reservations about India’s role in Afghanistan", according to The Times, London. Indians blame it for the 2008 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. In contrast, Suhail Shaheen, Taliban’s political spokesman based in Qatar, acknowledges the need for external help in reconstruction. "However, India should remain neutral and should not support the current Kabul administration with military hardware which are ultimately used against the people of Afghanistan and the destruction of the country," he warns. "This is not good for their image and people’s perception of them".
However unyielding these statements may sound, the exigencies of protracted war and a power struggle that goes back to even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 does not make for constancy. The Haqqani Network was a prized asset of the Central Intelligence Agency during the war against the Soviet Union when former US President Ronald Reagan called Jalaluddin Haqqani a "freedom fighter". Other American officials thought he was "goodness personified" for directing a holy war by pro-Taliban militants. In 2016, Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. claimed that the US and Nato forces were not targeting the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan.
Given this pragmatism, it isn’t surprising that the Americans – more so the Trump administration than President Joe Biden’s -- have been pressing India to reach an understanding with the Taliban. Mr Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was especially keen because of the Doha Agreement of February 29, 2020 with the entity that calls itself the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan". India would naturally insist on guarantees that the Taliban will not act in concert with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence or terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayabba and Jaish-e-Mohammed or provide sanctuary to
wanted criminals. The Indian interlocutors can justifiably add that the Doha Agreement’s clauses have been openly violated.
Some in New Delhi may even be waiting for a return of the halcyon days of the Northern Alliance, officially the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, set up in late 1996 after the Islamists overran Kabul. Ahmad Shah Massoud’s 2001 murder days before 9/11 left the alliance in shambles but there is talk now of regrouping under the septuagenarian Ismail Khan, once the Herat strong man, and Massoud’s former vice-president, Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum. Much will depend on Pakistan and its ability and willingness to manipulate "non-state actors" to avenge its own sense of deprivation. In turn, Pakistan’s success in fishing in troubled waters is determined to a large extent by India’s domestic perceptions. The situation created by the sudden abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution by a presidential order in August 2019 and the equally sudden dismantling of the State of Jammu and Kashmir is not helped by continuing pinpricks like the restrictions on beef in Lakshadweep, the ban on meat and eggs in and around Haridwar and the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill’s feared impact in Meghalaya and Nagaland as well as on local Muslims.
If Kashmir is really the root cause of all problems, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his advisers need to ask themselves dispassionately why the obstacle has persisted these 74 years despite thousands of crores spent in welfare expenditure and thousands more on various forms of what is euphemistically called security. Even if Pakistan were the only spoiler, we would need to consider whether discontent at home is not a major catalyst.