The Taliban Story: India and Afghanistan: Dealing with Taliban 2.0 (Part 29)

By Arun Anand

 The Taliban Story: India and Afghanistan: Dealing with Taliban 2.0 (Part 29)

Source: India Today

This is the 29th part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at Contact@thenationalistview.com. Here is the 29th part-

 Historical background

India and Afghanistan have a historical connect. In its pre-Islamic days, the modern-day Afghanistan experienced deep influence of Hindu culture.

Afghanistan had traditionally been a Hindu Kingdom. The year 980 C.E. marked the beginning of the Muslim invasion into India proper when Sabuktagin attacked Raja Jaya Pal in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is today a Muslim country separated from India by another Muslim country Pakistan. But in 980 C.E. Afghanistan was also a place where the people were Hindus and Buddhists.

The name “Afghanistan” comes from “Upa-Gana-stan” which means in Sanskrit “the place inhabited by allied tribes”. This was the place from where Gandhari of the Mahabharat came from, Gandhar whose king was Shakuni. Today the city of Gandhar is known as Kandahar. One view is that, Pakthoons are descendants of the Paktha tribe mentioned in Vedic literature. Till the year 980 C.E., this area was a Hindu majority area, till Sabuktagin from Ghazni invaded it and displaced the ruling Hindu king – Jaya Pal Shahi. Shiva worship was widespread in Afghanistan. There was a time when the entire region was replete with hundreds of Shiva temples celebrating Shiva – Parvati worship and abuzz with Shiv chants, prayers, legends and worship. Archaeological excavations in this region conducted by Sir Estine (an East India Company official) led to the recovery of uncountable shrines and inscriptions. He has authored four books on that topic featuring photos of icons, icons and inscriptions discovered. The photos show a sun temple and a Ganesha statue too. An Islamabad University professor Abdul Rehman has authored two books on those finds recalling the glory and prosperity of those times. Regimes of two Hindu rulers “Kusham” and “Kidara” lasted for fairly long periods. During their rule a number of Shiva temples were not only in Afghanistan but in other West Asian regions too.1

Gandhara’s capital was the famous city of Takshashila. According to the Ramayana, the city was founded by Bharata, and named after his son, Taksha, its first ruler. Greek writers later shortened it to Taxila. The Mahabharata is said to have been first recited at this place. Buddhist literature, especially the jataka stories, mentions it as the capital of the Gandhara kingdom and as a great center of learning. Its ruins may be visited today in an hour’s taxi ride from Rawalpindi (Pakistan).2

  India’s Reconstruction Efforts (2001-2021)

Between 1996 and 2001, India was staunchly against the Taliban regime and supported anti-Taliban United Front (UF), popularly known as Northern Alliance.

With the entry of the coalition military machine in 2001, India started engaging with all Afghan political factions. It also started investing substantially in the post-war reconstruction efforts in the war -ravaged country. Over a period of next two decades, it invested around US $3 billion in sectors ranging from health to infrastructure.  It also provided more than US$2 billion in aid. India strongly believed that a developed and economically prosperous Afghanistan is necessary for ensuring stability in this region. So even as Pakistan diverted its resources and energies towards resurrecting the Taliban, India focused on rebuilding Afghanistan.

India and Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2002 which made India the first ‘strategic partner’ of Afghanistan in post-Taliban regime.  India also actively assisted Afghanistan in setting up a political establishment. With its political experience, India not only helped train Afghan staff in electoral process, it also provided Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) to facilitate the election. India and Afghanistan also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation of Local Governance in 2008 to train Afghan local government officials.3

India provided Afghanistan with large amounts of humanitarian assistance and loans for the construction of projects like power generation plants and roads. India became Afghanistan’s fifth largest donor after US, Japan, UK and Germany providing more than US$2billion aid from 2001 to 2014. India helped Afghanistan build the Zaranj-Delaram Road, Salma Dam Power Porject and Pul-e-Khumri Transmission Line. Many hospitals and schools in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif were also aided or funded by Indian companies and government. For example, the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University in Kandahar was constructed and funded by India. Steel Authority of India Limited, National Mineral Development Corporation and Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited were some of the major Indian companies that engaged in Afghanistan.4

One of the major milestones in India-Afghanistan relations was the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed between the two countries. The agreement outlined India’s major role in reconstruction of Afghanistan. In 2013, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Kabul Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) organized the India-Afghanistan Innovation Partnership Fair in Kabul to showcase innovations of industries from India and Afghanistan and facilitate trade between the two countries and different Indian companies. …Since 2001 more than 10,000 Afghan students studied in India with scholarships offered by Indian government and universities, another 8000 pursued self-financed degree courses in universities and institutions across India.5

Terror attacks against Indians in Afghanistan

India has been deeply concerned about the terror attacks it suffered in Afghanistan during the last two decades. It is difficult to overstate the depth of India’s opposition to Afghanistan-based militancy that bears a Pakistani signature, and India’s corresponding commitment to fortify Kabul as a counterterrorism partner. The era of Taliban rule (1996–2001) was the nadir of India-Afghanistan relations. India had reasonably good ties with Afghanistan’s monarchist, republican, and communist regimes preceding the Taliban’s ascendancy. New Delhi hastily evacuated its embassy after the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996, and the Taliban, with military backing from Pakistan, forced India’s Afghan allies to retreat into an embattled northern redoubt. Veteran journalist Abubakar Siddique writes that Pakistan’s military establishment envisioned the emergence of the Taliban “as a fortification against India to the east.” Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became a training ground for Islamabad-sponsored militants waging a guerrilla war in Jammu-Kashmir in India. During the late 1990s, Pakistan’s principal intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), relocated many of its Kashmir-focused proxies into eastern Afghanistan to evade US pressure on Pakistan to curb militant infiltration. The last publicly known negotiations conducted between the Taliban and New Delhi in 1999 also cast an enduring shadow over Indian perceptions of the group. At the time, militants affiliated with the Pakistan-based outfit Harakat-ul-Mujahideen hijacked an Indian commercial plane, eventually forcing it to land in the Afghan province of Kandahar. The Taliban government mediated a hostage exchange that led to the release of extremist leader Masood Azhar—a swap that continues to haunt India to this day. Shortly after his release, Azhar founded Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a group that attacked the Indian parliament building in December 2001. In 2016, JeM reportedly carried out a major attack on an Indian air base, and in February 2019 it claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist act committed in Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades. The UN later sanctioned Azhar for supporting terrorism, yet he remains at large in Pakistan and probably shielded by its security agencies. JeM played a minor role in the Taliban’s war against Kabul, and the group splintered soon after Pakistan backed the US invasion of Afghanistan. in 2001. Still, JeM’s long association and ideological kinship with the Taliban remain of grave concern to India. Moreover, India is alarmed by the presence of another anti-Indian terrorist group in the Afghan conflict, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT). LeT, a loyal proxy of the Pakistani military more cohesive andlethal than JeM, was forged in the crucible of the anti-Soviet war. In 2008 the group carried out multiple attacks in India’s financial capital of Mumbai that left 166 dead, including six Americans. In Afghanistan, LeT has attacked Indian diplomatic facilities, government employees, and aidworkers. LeT augments the Taliban’s capabilities with expertise and fighters. Yet LeT does not claim responsibility for the violence it perpetrates in Afghanistan to avoid provoking international pressure on Islamabad, according to former State Department intelligence analyst Tricia Bacon. Stephen Tankel, another terrorism specialist, writes that in addition to striking Indian interests, LeT’s influx into Afghanistan enables ISI to gather intelligence on the “militant state of play across the border.” Indian security officials estimate “hundreds” of LeT militants are fighting in Afghanistan.6

According to various security analysts India did develop some deep assets in Afghanistan after 2001 that helped them to communicate with some of the factions in Taliban which were not apparently controlled fully by Pakistan’s spy agency ISI. It helped them to negotiate deals for getting free some of the Indians who were kidnapped in Afghanistan after the spate of kidnappings and attacks started against Indians in 2003. However, India never engaged fully with the Taliban as US and some other countries did.

India avoided engaging the Taliban for decades as it perceived the insurgent group to be a protégé of Pakistan. New Delhi has been particularly opposed to the Haqqani Network, as it has been functioning as Pakistan’s “sword arm” in Afghanistan and has carried out attacks on Indian interests and nationals there at the behest of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The July 2008 suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, for instance, which killed 54 people, including two top Indian officials, was executed by the Haqqani Network but orchestrated by the ISI. This makes it difficult for New Delhi to recognize or even deal with the new regime in Kabul.7

However, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan started reaching out to the Indian government within days of recapturing Kabul on 15 August, 2021.

In addition to asking for the reopening of commercial flights between the two countries, it wanted New Delhi to facilitate the travel of scholarship students to India. The first official communication from the Taliban came a day after the interim government was announced. In a letter dated September 7(2021) to the chief of India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation Arun Kumar, Afghanistan’s new interim Minister for Civil Aviation and Transport Alhaj Hameedullah Akhunzada said that Kabul airport, which was “left damaged and dysfunctional by American troops before their withdrawal” was operational now. He sought the resumption of flights operated by Afghan carriers Kam Air and Ariana Afghan Airline to and from Delhi and asked India to “facilitate their commercial flights”.8

On August 31, in a significant development, Ambassador of India to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the Head of Taliban’s Political Office in Doha. The guarded approach of India can be gauged from the official communique issued after this meeting which read:

“The meeting took place at the Embassy of India, Doha, on the request of the Taliban side.

– Discussions focused on safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan. The travel of Afghan nationals, especially minorities, who wish to visit to India also came up.

-. Ambassador Mittal raised India’s concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner.

– The Taliban Representative assured the Ambassador that these issues would be positively addressed.”

India’s cautious approach is apparently an outcome of her concerns about the sizeable presence of Pakistani proxies like Sirajuddin Haqqani and other Haqqani Network leaders in the interim government announced by Taliban as well as significant presence of terror group LeT on Afghan soil.

(To be continued)

References:

  1. https://www.sanskritimagazine.com/history/peep-afghanistans-hindu-past/
  2. https://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/gandhara-became-kandahar/
  3. The US and NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan Ed. by Musa Khan Jalalzai (Vij books, ed.2021) (Pp 162)
  4. The US and NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan Ed. by Musa Khan Jalalzai (Vij books, ed.2021) (Pp 162-163)
  5. The US and NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan Ed. by Musa Khan Jalalzai (Vij books, ed.2021) (Pp 163)
  6. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/sr_462-the_india_pakistan_rivalry_in_afghanistan.pdf
  7. https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/should-india-accept-the-talibans-invitation/
  8. https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/should-india-accept-the-talibans-invitation/

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