The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the Durand Line, which has never been accepted by Afghanistan. However being weaker, Afghanistan has limited options. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, it was the Taliban which established the government in Kabul, much to the cheer of Rawalpindi, the Pakistan army HQ.
Benazir Bhutto, as Pakistan&’s prime minister, established an ISI cell well before the US entered the picture to deal with Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation. The aim of the cell was to unite disenchanted Islamists fleeing from Afghanistan, to Pakistan&’s advantage. This was the birth of terrorist organizations on Pakistan soil, which then began to haunt India, Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.
During the Soviet occupation, Pakistan continued to support the Taliban and al Qaeda with financial and equipment support from the US. Pakistan has always considered Afghanistan as part of its strategic depth, hence wants it dependent, weak and fragmented. India on the other hand always desired a stable and democratic Pakistan, to enable progress of talks to resolve pending issues.
9/11 changed the way the world looked at terror groups. The NATO operation in Afghanistan was swift and forced the Taliban into its safe sanctuaries in Pakistan alongside the Haqqani network. The al Qaeda was degraded. Governance and security in Afghanistan had to be recreated from the grassroots, due to the impact of Taliban rule.
Pakistan became a major ally in the war against terror, as it was the transit route for all equipment and supplies into Afghanistan. Hence Pakistan was emboldened into assuming that it could continue to play a major role in Afghanistan. However, the monsters it had created in the Taliban, al Qaeda and Haqqani network could neither be closed down nor completely controlled. It also realized that capture of any top leader of these groups alive would reveal its direct involvement, hence it sheltered them. The killing of Osama bin Laden by a surgical strike and subsequently of Mullah Mansoor, by a drone strike, on Pakistan soil, resulted in Pakistan being abandoned by the US and the west.
Geopolitically India-Afghanistan relations are natural. With Pakistan sponsoring terrorist operations in both countries, India and Afghanistan have to grow closer. Further, as US-India relations grew, so did India-Afghanistan ties. The next India-Afghanistan-US trilateral dialogue is scheduled on the sidelines of the UN general assembly this month. Therefore, India would always play a dominant role in Afghanistan.
Ashraf Ghani, who assumed the presidency in September 2014, initially tried to rely on Rawalpindi for bringing peace to his country. However, when nothing changed on ground and terrorist strikes only increased, he did what his predecessor, Hamid Karzai had done – turn to India. His visit to India last week follows the visit of their army chief and ex- president a fortnight ago. India presently supports Afghanistan economically and had constructed its new parliament building, the Salma Dam, also termed as the Afghan-India friendship dam and strategic roads. In fact during the Taliban era, India supported the anti-Taliban Afghan Northern Alliance, by providing it financial and medical support. Since Afghanistan&’s freedom from Taliban rule, India has invested over $10.8 billion in the economic reconstruction of the country. More projects are in the pipeline. In the meeting last week, Prime Minister Modi proposed to allocate a sum of one billion dollars for capacity and capability building in a variety of spheres.
While military cooperation was officially not mentioned, it would however have been discussed. The Afghan army chief and the president would have presented a wish list of equipment and spares to India. We are already training Afghan police and military personnel in our institutions. Militarily, India commenced its support by providing Afghanistan with three MI-25 attack helicopters. One more would soon be on the way.
With Western sanctions on Russia, for its actions in Ukraine, spare parts for Russian equipment operated by the Afghan army, cannot be obtained by the US or its allies. India is amongst the largest users of Russian equipment and hence would be in a position to supply. Further, the US is keen for India to become a provider of military equipment. It would ensure India has a major role to play in the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban has issued a statement condemning India&’s decision to supply military equipment. Logically, provision of equipment, spare parts and training would bring the two militaries closer as also open avenues for Indian military and intelligence advisors to be deployed in Afghanistan. This could open a new front against Pakistan and expose its weakest vulnerability, Baluchistan, to exploitation.
India&’s recent collaboration with Iran on the Chabahar port and the pursuant road connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia revolves around increased control by Afghan state forces. In Afghanistan, India is considered a friend while Pakistan is the enemy. After Prime Minister Modi&’s comment on supporting the Baluch movement, Pakistan flags were burnt on the Afghan side of the border, compelling Pakistan to close the border.
Increasing Taliban operations and dominance in remote districts as also its merger with the Haqqani network and resurgence of the al Qaeda and the ISIS has pushed the Afghan military to its limits. It needs equipment and force multipliers to alter the ground scenario. India has the ability and resources to provide the same.
Strategically, it is in India&’s interest that Afghanistan becomes stable, economically and militarily. Since Pakistan cannot bring the Taliban and the Haqqani network to heel, India can easily expand its dominance in Afghanistan. In reality, it would be Indian equipment, being employed by the Afghan military, to battle Pak-sponsored terror groups, involving India in a proxy war against Pakistan and its terror groups. This would alter regional dynamics as the nations would open another front of operations.
The signing of the Indo-Afghanistan terrorist extradition treaty is a positive step in the two nations coming closer in dealing with the common threat of terror organizations. Further, providing them with military equipment as also military advisors to train and maintain the equipment, would open gates for countering Pakistan&’s involvement in the valley. This tit-for-tat action could compel Pakistan to reconsider its support in the valley. It would compel Pakistan to reconsider actions like the Uri attack. India has to up the ante if it needs to continue to be a force to reckon with in the region. Hence Afghanistan in the long term may be a game changer in Indo-Pak relations.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.