India should tie up with allies to play the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan
It came as a shock for the Indian intelligence community. Firstly, the body of the lone suicide bomber found at the Sikh gurudwara on March in Kabul was said to be a Malayalee, Muhamed Muhsin. Secondly, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) quickly took responsibility for the suicide attack.
Once the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies swung into action, it didn’t take long before an entirely different picture emerged. The Taliban keeping a low profile was part of a Pakistani ploy. And a huge question mark also hung over whether Muhsin was the bomber.
Then, on May 12, during Ramzan, came the chilling attack on a Medecins Sans Frontieres-run hospital in a Hazara –Shia neighbourhood of Kabul that killed hapless newborns and their mothers. It was also notched up to ISKP, and not the Taliban, which once again denied responsibility.
Afghanistan’s Vice-President Amrullah Saleh refused to give the Taliban or anyone else, a free pass on this. The Afghan intelligence wing, the NDS, quickly traced the involvement of the Haqqani network, an arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. (Mr. Saleh publicly referred to them as a “regional intelligence agency”). When NDS operatives tracked down ISKP leader Abdullah Orakzai, aka Aslam Farooqi, a Pakistani national, and the IS chief Abu Omar to their Kandahar hideout, far from their hunting ground along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Pakistan’s active backing for IS operations was out in the open.
Veiled message to Pakistan
From an Indian point of view, the two attacks were a not so veiled message from Pakistan to Kabul -- and also to Delhi -- that any move to engage with the Doha Taliban, even at the behest of the Americans, would be fraught with consequences.
Pakistan’s unhappiness stems from the fact that the Doha based Islamic Emirate led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar that is involved in the negotiations with the U.S. Special Representative for Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, in the Qatari capital is a faction that’s not trusted by the Pakistanis.
Mullah Baradar, who leads the talks, was sprung from a Pakistani jail after his release was personally sought by Khalilzad. Few know that he was picked up and detained by a joint ISI-CIA team in 2010 at Khalilzad’s nod, when he was negotiating directly and covertly with then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Negotiations, that did not have U.S. backing, as it does today.
Pakistan had little choice but to go along with the U.S. request for Baradar’s release. Aware that the goalposts are shifting, Islamabad knows that once the Trump administration, with one eye on the October 2020 polls, reduces its forces in Afghanistan, it would have no cards left to play. Certainly, not the violent Taliban card - on which it has now been outed - that it has repeatedly played to wreck the February peace deal.
Pakistan’s geographical advantage where it provided safe land access to U.S. troops going in and out of Afghanistan, will also be no longer as vital.
New power-sharing deal
Equally important, Islamabad can see that the new power-sharing agreement in Kabul that anoints Dr Ashraf Ghani as president but places Dr Abdullah Abdullah as head of the high council that will be in charge of talking to the Doha group, gives the latter, a pro-India Tajik leader, more heft. Once the Doha Taliban Council is given a place alongside the newly elected Afghan government so that it stays invested in a peaceful Afghanistan, Pakistan’s advocacy of Pashtun pre-eminence in a government in Kabul, may no longer be the call to arms that it once was.
Ambassador Khalilzad, who has dealt with the Taliban over the years, believes that in Mullah Baradr, he has a trustworthy interlocutor, and not Islamabad’s man in Kabul.
That’s a leap of faith that few in Delhi or Kabul, and some say, in Washington, are ready to make as yet.
Pakistan does have other so-called ‘Taliban’ factions at its command that it could still use to scupper the emerging power sharing arrangement.
Disquiet over ‘new taliban’
In Washington, there is lingering disquiet over whether the so-called ‘new Taliban’ can hold off the pressure. The Doha Council is after all only one of many Taliban factions, including the pro-Pakistan Quetta and Peshawar Shura.
Pakistan realised, before most players in the ‘Great Game’ did, that with Khalilzad’s open call to India to talk to the Taliban, during his recent lightning visit to India, the dynamics of the peace process were set for change.
This is why, India must re-examine its ‘won’t talk to the Taliban’ stand. First, the quibbling by India’s Afghan experts over whether Delhi should reach out to the new Taliban before it holds an official position in Kabul, is semantics. Talking to Doha will not stop the attacks on Indian assets.
Its embassy and consulates, its infrastructure projects and businesses run by Indian nationals will always be vulnerable. And, it is not Mullah Baradar who has India in its gunsights. It is Pakistan.
Second, India’s concerns on being kept out of intra-Afghan talks while Pakistan and all the other key players were given a seat is a matter to be resolved between Delhi and the new powers in Kabul.
The first red flag
It is the existential threat posed by Pakistan to the Indian nation that is a far graver issue. Naming an Indian as the Kabul gurudwara suicide bomber was the first red flag. Particularly since our National Investigative Agency says that Muhsin, who was named as the bomber, may actually have died several months ago in a US drone attack.
Pakistan’s long game is to feed the narrative of a homegrown resistance in India, under the newly crafted banner of The Resistance Forces. This is the name being used by terror groups, as opposed to earlier tags of the Pakistan-based Hizb ul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, that are under increasing international scrutiny
The strategy to up terror in J&K, post the Narendra Modi government’s controversial abrogation of Article 370, also feeds into Pakistan’s game to radicalise Indian Muslims beyond Jammu & Kashmir. They are looking to home in on Kerala’s Muslims. It’s a gameplan that has been in play since 2015-16, when a handful of radicalised educated young ‘Moplahs’ surfaced in various IS-KP/Taliban attacks on western forces in Afghanistan. India has cause for concern over the new weapon in Pakistan’s armoury, even if the stepped up Wahabbisation of India’s Muslims, has not yet taken root in the non-Urdu speaking states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Pakistan is using the same playbook in Afghanistan, calling on Pashtuns from its Khyber Pakhtunkwa province to step up attacks on Afghan forces. It pays little heed to its own intel that the Pashtuns it uses to destabilise its neighbour could come back to bite them. Either way, the repeated attacks by the ISKP/Taliban/Tehreek-e-Taliban/Islamic Movement of Uzebkistan, or whatever false flag they fight under, and which the Qatar-based Taliban Council avers it has nothing to do with, is designed to derail the Khalilzad-Barader agreement.
President Ashraf Ghani has already declared war on the Taliban after the maternity hospital attack. That has not gone down well in Washington. If US forces exit the Afghan quagmire without an agreement between the Taliban and the civilian leadership, impoverished Afghanistan, which despite billions of dollars in international aid remains without a credible armed force deterrent, could be Pakistan’s for the taking.
Mr Khalilzad, who initially reached out to Pakistan to play honest broker, has reportedly arrived at two conclusions. One, that the Doha-based Taliban will have no truck with Pakistan. And second, that as the clock starts ticking on the 14-month timeline to a US exit from Afghanistan, Islamabad is unlikely to remain a neutral observer. It will work to negate western and Indian influence in its backyard by playing the old Pashtun card.
Khalilzad’s ‘talk to the Taliban’ plea is predicated on India’s longstanding ties to the Panjsheri clique led by Tajik leader Abdullah Abdullah which dates back to support for the anti-Taliban mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massood. But Delhi’s links to the powerful Pashtun lobby concentrated in the preceding pro-India Hamid Karzai dispensation is also a powerful tool that it has not used so far. Khalilzad recognizes that it is.
The Doha Taliban leaders share Pashtun ancestry with both Karzai and incoming president Ghani, but that could reduce lone wolf Dr Ghani to irrelevance. With the US unhappy with Dr Ghani’s growing closeness to Islamabad, the Ghani clique may no longer be able to trade on his Pashtun credentials to stay on.
Simply put, the U.S is having second thoughts on leaving Afghanistan to Pakistan whose violent pressure tactics to install its own puppets in Kabul, did not help its case. It is turning to India to step in and limit Pakistan’s ability to influence events.
While the Abdullah Abdullah coalition, alongside Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqiq and a host of powerful Pashtuns such as Karzai, speak to the aspirations of a new generation of young Afghans, the US is prodding Delhi into opening a channel with Doha in the hope that Indian interlocutors can arrive at a broad consensus among Afghans of every persuasion on the way forward.
India has been steadfast on not wanting to squander the goodwill it enjoys. Even without boots on the ground, it has kept itself in the equation.
But, while India’s Afghan experts are wary about opening political channels with the ultra-conservative Taliban, they must also factor in that in growing into the role of influencer, it will no longer be the dispensable backroom boy. It will have a stronger voice in Afghan affairs, not enjoyed since the 2001 Bonn peace agreement.
That’s when Ambassador Sathi Lambah proposed Hamid Karzai’s name for president, and set the ball rolling for the first interim government.
The only question is, does Modi’s government have the stomach – and a credible Afghan policy - to play such a role? Time to step out of the shadows and into the light?
(The writer, an expert on South Asia, is the author of The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Opinions personal)