We're Live Bangla Monday, June 05, 2023

India’s ambitions towards Afghanistan receive a jolt

Fighters for the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban militia, headed to the front lines near the besieged Taliban stronghold of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in November 2001.Credit...James Hill for The New York Times

When the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked on 11 September 2001, it was more than just the Twin Towers that collapsed. It was the beginning of the so-called War on Terror. And Afghanistan bore the brunt. An intrepid Bangladeshi journalist Anis Alamgir analyses the present state of Afghanistan in the context of the region, based much on first-hand experience. 

In the turbulent year of 2001, while the forces of the American-led alliance conducted the War against Terror in Afghanistan, I was captured by the Taliban militants in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. I imagined that my end was near. But to my surprise, my captors did not force me be with them. A Taliban commander drove me to a hotel in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman in Baluchistan because they were convinced that I was a journalist and a Bangladeshi national to boot. 

Coincidentally, a few days earlier, a Taliban fighter had seen a picture in a Pakistani newspaper showing Bangladeshi mullahs in Dhaka protesting against the US invasion of Afghanistan. That helped me earn the Taliban’s goodwill. My capture made me bold and inspired me to go to Baghdad in March 2003 to cover the Iraq war.

A year later, when I returned to Kabul to see war-torn Afghanistan, I had a different experience. I was flying from Islamabad to Kabul on a small plane of Ariana, the national flag carrier of Afghanistan. My Pakistani journalist friends warned me saying: “Kabul is not safe for Pakistani nationals.” As I look a lot like a Pakistani, I should be careful when going out, they advised.

On the second day in Kabul, some people detained me on a crowded street in the center of the town. They belonged to an anti-Taliban group - supporters of the Northern Alliance. After the change of regime, Kabul had become their kingdom. 

They said that I was a Pakistani and asked me in Urdu why I came to Kabul. I knew a little Hindi-Urdu. But I didn't think it was wise to use it. The warning given to me by my journalist friends in Islamabad was always in my mind. Using Urdu to talk might make people suspect me as a Pakistani. Some people were asking me: “Hindi, Hindi?” … which indicated that I was thought to be an Indian. And I would be released. Of course, I showed my passport but the idiots didn’t recognize it. They couldn’t read it. With great difficulty, I persuaded them to take me to the nearest police station where the police confirmed my identity and let me go. 

The purpose of my telling this story was to remind us of the dominance of Indians in US-occupied Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. In the War on Terror, led by the USA, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was with President George W. Bush against the Taliban government, though the people of Pakistan were in favor of the Afghan government led by Mullah Umar. But soon after the fall of Taliban rule, Pakistan became the enemy of Afghanistan and India became its close friend.

With the help of the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, India dominated trade and commerce and created an anti-Pakistan atmosphere, which lasted for almost a decade. The two neighbors, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are embroiled in various quarrels, the relations swinging between being hot and cold. The Kabul government leaned towards India to get rid of its dependence on Pakistan. But this effort has not helped Afghanistan attain economic and political stability.

On the other hand, whatever the government policy, Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI has always been in touch with the Taliban. The Taliban enjoyed free movement in Pakistan. The Taliban government lost power in 2001 but has been occupying a large area of the country for the last 19 years. The Taliban have fought against US-led NATO forces and the government forces, killing at least 2,300 soldiers, wounding 21,000, and killing 57,000 Afghan government security forces. The financial expenditure of the USA is a whopping two trillion dollars.

The United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. The United States set to withdraw all its troops by mid-2021. But the deal did not work because the Kabul government refused to release all 5,000 prisoners on Taliban’s terms. The Taliban too did not stop attacks as promised. Although the Taliban have already released all prisoners (1,000 members of the Afghan security forces) in phases, the Kabul government has kept four hundred Taliban prisoners.

Finally, China came forward to end the stalemate by working behind the scenes to bring the Kabul government, the Taliban, and Pakistan together. Pakistan invited a delegation of Taliban leaders and the Chinese Special Envoy to Afghanistan Liu Jian for talks in Islamabad on August 26, 2020 to pave the way for intra-Afghan negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the 19-year war, which has ravaged Afghanistan.

The Sino-Pakistani presence has shaken India's ambition for regional hegemony. China wants to attract Nepal or Bangladesh with economic assistance. China has an economic package for Afghanistan also. And by showing that, they have brought Pakistan-Afghanistan and the Taliban on to one platform.

Finally, the Taliban have been able to convince the world that it is not possible to exclude it in Afghanistan's development, formation, and the peace process. Neighboring Iran, China, Russia, Central Asia, and Pakistan all agree that the Taliban have a future role to play in nation-building. It cannot be avoided. Therefore, New Delhi's diplomacy and role in Kabul have failed miserably.

After meeting a delegation led by the head of the Taliban's political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, without naming India, said his eastern neighbor did not want progress on the peace talks in Afghanistan. 

Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani is said to have been in Pakistan's security custody for more than eight years. He was released in 2018, possibly to set the stage for China's meeting with the Taliban.

US President Donald Trump has acknowledged that the Taliban will take over the capital, Kabul, by removing the Western-backed government when the American military leaves. On its part, the Kabul government is trying to make the upcoming inter-Afghan meeting a successful one that will probably meet the conditions set by the Taliban. This deal will not be very different from the template of the peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States.

Every month, 20 out of 22 Afghan government troops leave to join the Taliban. This has escalated since the signing of the peace agreement with the Americans. High-ranking officials are also joining. At the time of the agreement with the Taliban, the size of the US military had dropped from about 13,000 to 8,600. Trump said earlier this August that 4,000 to 5,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the November 2020 US presidential election.

Before the peace accord between the Taliban and the US the Taliban leaders sat with their Pakistani counterpart for ensuring peace in the region.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had refused to release 400 Taliban members, citing their involvement in serious crimes, including those involved in attacks on foreign embassies. But in the second week of August, the Afghans’ traditional parliament, the Loya Jirga, advised him to release the rebels so that inter-Afghan talks could begin immediately.

After the conquest of India, the British had made many attempts to occupy Afghanistan only to fail miserably. In the eighties of the last century, even Soviet Russia could not occupy Afghanistan. Despite such examples, the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after al-Qaeda's terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The government of Mullah Omar was in power in Kabul at the time, supporting Osama bin Laden and his organization al-Qaeda.

I think the decision to end the 19-year long war through the intra-Afghan talks is going to be fruitful. If not, more bloody attacks and an uncertain future for Afghanistan and the region can be predicted. 


Anis Alamgir is a journalist and columnist, famed for live reports from Iraq and Afghan wars. He can be reached at anisalamgir@gmail.com