The Snows of Kandahar: India and Afghanistan

By: Bill The Butcher

He used to be a familiar figure in the India of yore: the itinerant Afghan merchant or skilled labourer or moneylender, the Kabuliwallah as he was called (and so immortalized in a story by Rabindranath Tagore), bearded, turbaned, and full of the mystery of the untamed hills of his native lands.

Once, before the Mughals came down from Central Asia, his forebears had ruled in Delhi. But the British had followed the Mughals, and even though he had defeated them, they had carved his homeland in two, with their imperial boundary, the Durand Line, keeping a large number of his people as part of the subjects of British India, as part of the “Great Game” between Imperial Russia and Britain. And then independence had come, and the nations split again, and those of them who had migrated further in search of employment or education or for other reasons found themselves, many times, as the citizens of yet another new nation – India. There are Pashtuns here in this town, on the other side of the subcontinent from Afghanistan.

I wrote that introduction, basically, to explain that India and Afghanistan have had links going back many centuries, and to this day, Indian music and Bollywood are extremely popular in those parts of Afghanistan where such things as movies and music are allowed. But the links are, of course, all cultural. India is a South Asian nation, not part of Central Asia. It is not directly concerned in any way with Afghanistan. It has no strategic considerations there.

But India’s great rival, Pakistan, has such strategic considerations; or thinks it does. Pakistan is a narrow nation, much narrower than India, and most of its cities and industry are at modest distances from the Indian frontier. Many times over the years, Pakistani strategists had dreamed of “strategic depth” against India, a space in which Pakistan could operate with impunity and this more than anything else is the reason why the then Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq practically fell over himself in accommodating the United States’ proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. And, most especially, this is why the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) helped set up the Taliban in 1995-6, with American connivance; it was supposed to be a pliant Pakistani tool which could replace the brutal warlords battling for power and wealth in Kabul and let Pakistan do more or less as it wished.

Alas for the best laid plans of mice and men, it didn’t quite go that way. The Taliban couldn’t quite take over all Afghanistan, and their incompetent and brutal regime made itself hated all over the world. Even the Americans, who had been negotiating with the Taliban for pipelines bringing oil and natural gas from the new Central Asian banana republics down to the Arabian Sea (vide Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Story Of The Afghan Warlords), finally gave up and turned against them when they began sheltering an old US protégé-turned-foe, Osama bin Laden.

And then the incident of 11/9/2001 happened. For the purposes of this article it isn’t significant who was actually responsible for the episode or where the planning and preparations were conducted, or whether one or more intelligence agencies were directly or indirectly complicit in allowing it to happen. What matters is that it was seized upon by the US as a reason to launch an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, arguably an invasion and occupation which had nothing whatsoever to do with the ostensible cause. The alliance of warlords called the Northern Alliance, which had been supported by Russia, India and Iran all these years, came storming into Kabul, with Indian magazines proudly proclaiming victory. Hamid Karzai, a former employee of the American oil firm UNOCAL (which had earlier lost out to Argentina’s BRIDAS in the battle for the pipeline deal) was parachuted into Kabul as the new President, and Indian businessmen and engineers descended on the capital too, contracts in hand. Bollywood music again played from shop windows, and it seemed India was back, and Pakistan had lost all it had.

But that was back then. A few years later, things have changed a fair bit. The Taliban are back in force, the Americans have their backs to the wall, and the Karzai regime is in bad trouble. Pakistan seems to have decided that its lost strategic depth is again within its grasp. And India, which poured in money and effort to build schools and hospitals and roads (while its own languished) for Afghanistan, finds itself suddenly isolated, ignored, and increasingly targeted.

As can be seen on the list provided below (see “further reading”), India’s efforts on the ground have been extensive and expensive, but have produced little or nothing of lasting value. Of course we Indians can congratulate ourselves on how much the Afghans love us, but the fact remains that it is to Pakistan that Afghanistan is now turning, not India, to find a way out of its problems. And the fact also remains that India’s efforts in Afghanistan are shrinking, not expanding; India’s presence has fallen by half in recent months.

A fundamental question, then: why is India involved in Afghanistan? Should India be in Afghanistan at all?

Unlike Pakistan, as I said, India has no direct strategic interests in Afghanistan. At the most, it served under the Taliban as a training ground for some anti-Indian terrorist groups, but such training camps were usually run by Pakistanis and could have been hosted just about anywhere, including the Pakistani-run part of Kashmir. And since there was not a thing in hell India could have done about those terror camps except grin and bear it, all that it could do was block the terrorists from entering, or if they had already entered, to kill them. This applied wherever the terrorists had been trained, in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and this is something that the Indians managed to do, on the whole, rather well, especially in the early to mid nineties when Pakistan was pouring trained insurgents into Kashmir and Punjab.

Therefore, India gained nothing, whatsoever, from all the effort it poured into Afghanistan in some kind of new Great Game. While it may have got some popularity because it has not sent military forces and because its reconstruction efforts have been more successful than the incredible corruption overseen by NATO and the US, this remains on the street and has nothing to do with any actual diplomatic or political advantage. Arguably, in the villages of Pashtun Afghanistan, where American drones and high-flying aeroplanes have made a habit of bombing civilians, all India has done is show itself as aligned with – if not the occupation forces – at least with the government propped up by those same occupation forces.

Let me say something here. The Americans are going to lose in Afghanistan. You can’t win a guerrilla war by pouring in troops and by bombing weddings from drones. Even if you kill the guerrillas opposing you at the rate of ten thousand to one, even if you kill every guerrilla you can find, as long as the reasons for the existence of those guerrillas persists, they will be replaced. The guerrillas don’t even have to win a single battle outright to win the war. All they have to do is outlast you, and wait for you to bankrupt yourself fighting them. It’s clearly happening already.

Therefore, India finds itself backing the losing horse, and badly at that. It supports one the one hand, Hamid Karzai, who has no real political base and is derisively known as the Mayor of Kabul, a man whose brother is a drug warlord and who presides over one of the most corrupt governments in the world. At the same time, it aligns itself with the erstwhile Northern Alliance, warlords who are quite as brutal – and a great deal more corrupt – than the Taliban they claim to be fighting. And also it is, by association if not by deed, identified as well with the occupation forces, who are, of course, hated.

At the risk of repeating an oft-told theme, let me make the point once more: the Afghans hate foreigners in their territory. Just because the foreigners build roads and power stations doesn’t make them loved and welcome with opened arms; check what happened to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The only reason they tolerate India is that India is far away and no direct threat. Put Indian soldiers on the streets of Kabul and Kandahar, and Indian tanks rolling down the potholed Afghan highways and you’ll see just how fast that love of India turns to bitter hatred.

The arguments for an increased Indian role in Kabul, such as they are, fall under a few headings:

First: India can’t “abandon” the Afghans.

India hasn’t a stake in Afghanistan, at least not now. The Afghans aren’t looking up to India as a big brother, and to arrogate to oneself the role is presumptuous and insulting.

Second: India’s interests demand that Afghanistan remains friendly to us and hostile to terrorists.

Aligning yourself with a hated foreign occupier, a puppet president and venal warlords isn’t the way to ensure that the nation is friendly. And when the nation is basically a giant real-action training ground for guerrilla fighters, basic blowback will ensure you’ll get it in the neck in future. Besides, as India has already demonstrated before 2001, terrorists can be fought without hitting their training camps (which in any case are mere yards and cabins) – and has equally demonstrated after 2001 that an Afghanistan under occupation doesn’t insulate oneself to terror strikes.

Third: A Taliban government would be aggressively expansionist and hard-line Islamic, and try to turn the world into an Islamic Caliphate.

The Taliban are a semi-literate bunch of Pashtun thugs whose interests are strictly village-to-province-level. They have no pan-Islamic ambitions; they can’t even control the non-Pashtun contiguous areas of Pakistan. The pan-Islamic bunch isn’t Taliban; they’re, among others, Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is a decentralized organization of scattered cells, almost none of whom are in Afghanistan any longer. And as for the Islamic Caliphate, don’t make me laugh.

Fourth: We have already poured too much money and effort into Afghanistan to back out now.

Throw good money after bad: a classic formula for success.

Fifth: India’s new-found friend the US has to be supported.

Even if one believes the idea that the US is a friend, one does not need to cut one’s own throat to oblige a friend who has begun a knife-fight on his own account.

Sixth: The strategic depth Pakistan lost after the US invasion will be restored if the Taliban return to power.

A Talibanised Afghanistan, one that isn’t looking for survival support to Pakistan, is liable to view the Pakistanis with dislike and suspicion at the least and – if Pakistani involvement gets overt – with visceral hatred. Certainly an Afghanistan with the Taliban in complete command of the southern half of the nation will want the re-integration of the Pashtun-inhabited areas of Pakistan with it, and this is going to be a major headache for Pakistan, not for India. Surprise: a Taliban Afghanistan could actually be an ally of Indian interests, even if by accident…

Seventh: The Taliban have an awful human rights record.

Yes. So? Most of the Taliban’s human rights violations are crude and overt in the extreme (remember those women being shot between the goalposts during football matches?) and if we know anything about history, it is that crude and overt violations are the ones that get set right most easily. The west no longer burns witches at the stake, for instance. Also, if the Taliban are so odious, they aren’t markedly worse than, say, Saudi Arabia and are in some respects less bad. Only they don’t have oil. Therefore they are pariahs (I bet you they wouldn’t have been, though, had they given UNOCAL that pipeline contract). Besides, who’s India to talk about human rights violations? One can write volumes about India’s own skeletons in the cupboard.

This also bypasses the point that the Taliban of today are a bit different from the men of Mullah Omar, and in fact the term no longer has much meaning (“Taliban” means “students,” specifically religious students). It’s extremely doubtful if a new Taliban government would have much in common with the old one.

Advice to India, therefore: get out while the going’s good. Maybe at some future date, just maybe, we can return. But until then, leave Afghanistan to Pakistan, the US and the Taliban to fight over; we already know who’s going to be the victor.

Further Reading: http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264838