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Tag Archives | Afghanistan

The Afghan conundrum and India’s national interest

India’s interest is to find a way to play the role of mediator to negotiate with Taliban towards  stability in Afghanistan

With the exit of US a fait accompli, there is a clear signal to engage with Taliban for an enduring peace in Afghanistan.  A meeting under the auspices of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World affairs was conducted on January 23-24, 2016 at Doha. This was not the first time that a solution was being sought by the concerned parties at Doha. In May 2015, Pakistan, China and US tried to broker a peace between the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and Taliban without success. The failure of official mechanism has led to efforts on a track two level.

The argument to engage with a terror entity seems counter intuitive. More so, because India’s relations with the outfit have been patchy especially after the Kandahar hijacking incident in 1999. Dealing with Taliban is the least bad option in the present circumstances. With Taliban controlling almost one third of Afghanistan’s districts, it cannot be dismissed as a fringe player. The US too does not have much leverage to control the violence with a token force of just 10,000 troops. With the reconstruction expenditure from the start to date pegged at $ 113 billion, enough flak is being faced by Obama administration for continued presence and aid to Afghanistan.

Can the Taliban be trusted? They have given assurances of their willingness to share power with the Unity government in the conference at Doha. What is most worrying of its attributes is the extremist interpretation of Islam and denying of equal rights to women. Even if the Taliban assurances were to be trusted, there needs to be a guarded approach of dealing with them. For instance, will they be willing to disarm if brought into the power calculus? This will need to have iron clad guarantees. While advising the Afghan government, India has a bitter experience on this with the LTTE when Prabhakaran made only a token effort to disarm after the accord in 1987. So the Ashraf Ghani government has to have guarantees and make sure that the Taliban does not go back to its old ways once in power. This will be a long and torturous road to travel.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings expert on Afghanistan believes that even though Taliban has been actively supported by Pakistan, many within the Taliban resent their Pak benefactors deeply because of Pashtun nationalism. The US usually wants Pakistan to take action against Taliban which it does as a charade against some elements. The Taliban, in turn want to assure India that their foreign policy will not be dictated by any outside power (a reference to Pakistan). The coming months will be closely watched as the cycle of violence repeats itself in Afghanistan. India will have to come up with an out-of-the-box strategy to engage with Taliban and the Unity government.


Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshshila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured Image: Lake Band-e-Amir by Carl Montgomery, licensed from creativecommons.org



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India-Pakistan Rendezvous: Will terrorist attack destabilize the relation


Prime Minister Modi has called for a prompt and decisive action against those involved in the terror attack at Pathankot air base. Speaking to Prime Minster Nawaz Sheriff, Modi expressed his grave concern on the terror activities on the Pakistan soil and has called for an actionable response. Disrupting bilateral talks between India and Pakistan could be attributed as the key reason to this attack and a similar pattern has been sighted in the past.

A noticeable interface at the recent Paris Climate summit, on the sideline was the India-Pakistan Prime Minister talks that paved the way for a crucial Ministerial level dialogue. The rare meeting of the NSA (National Security Advisor) between India and Pakistan was described as cordial, open and positive. This was followed by the visit of India’s Foreign Minister Sushama Swaraj to the Heart of Asia Conference at Islamabad. Prime Minster Modi’s visit thereafter to Pakistan and meeting his counterpart Nawaz Sheriff, was seen as a significant bilateral development and an unprecedented progress in India-Pakistan relations. Interestingly this was followed several engagement like the cricket diplomacy and  the assurance by Modi to attend the SAARC summit to be held in Pakistan next year.

Despite the recent terror attack at the Pathankot Air Base and the Indian Consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan with several reports confirming the involvement of Pakistan militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the rendezvous between India and Pakistan continues. However, Prime Minster Modi has reiterated the fact that such a dastardly terrorist attack was carried out from the Pakistan soil and has insisted firm action. Normalization could succeed only if action on perpetrators are taken as promised by Pakistan. There is no ambiguity in the terrorist attack and India has provided specific information to Pakistan to investigate the strike. Prime Minster Modi has demanded stern action to be taken against the perpetrators.

On the face of hope, there is a movement for comprehensive bilateral dialogue as against a composite dialogue. The Foreign Secretary talks as of now does not stand cancelled. Instead of confrontation and antagonism there is an unruffled silence. There is a regional implication to this reticence, both India and Pakistan are competing for influence and stabilization in Afghanistan. Several common interest like trade, security, energy and terrorism underpins this relationship. Modi’s address at the Afghan Parliament dawned a ray of hope, positive spirt and an earnest effort to dispel the Pakistani notion of distress on India’s involvement in Afghanistan.

There are several drivers to this stabilization process and some of the key factors would be energy assets and viable Central Asian markets for both India and Pakistan. Afghanistan is a key promoter of regional stability and is looking forward to an era of economic and security cooperation. With an emerging India-Afghanistan-Pakistan triangular relation, each of them are exhibiting high level of maturity and commitment. The recent inauguration of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline is yet another important strategic calculi.

Regional rapprochement has not been very successful and largely the South Asian politics have been dominated or clouded by India-Pakistan relations. Prime Minister Modi on assuming office has committed to sustain normalcy in the region. Earnest effort to adhere his commitment was seen in several of his initiatives towards the region. The recent   Modi’s visit enroute from Kabul to Pakistan is an important milestone in the process of regional stabilization.

Terror attacks and threats have been the key destabilizing factor in the area. Several terror outfits coexist and cohabit in the region and they have been supported largely by fundamental and fanatic groups. Countering terrorism has been a daunting task and several peace process to find a solution to this enduring problem has dominated the past years. Thus countering terrorism as a regional phenomenon would succeed only if there is a single peace process outcome in which both India and Pakistan are involved. Pakistan counter terrorism operation in the tribal region along Afghan border is underway. A step to regional balance and progress is on cards and India’s involvement is seen as positive step in this initiative. South Asian diplomacy has been advancing well in the past few months with several rounds of talks at the Government level and the impromptu visit by the Indian Prime Minister.

Balancing the regional stability is a daunting task, there are several glitches to this progress. It is not the very first time that peace process or normalization talks have been stalled. The question that remains is, will the recent terror attack at Pathankot air base set the clock behind in India-Pakistan Relations.


Priya Suresh is a Research Scholar at the Takshashila Institute.  She tweets@priyamanassa

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India-Afghanistan Relations: The Way Forward

The iconic short story “Kabuliwallah” by Tagore and the interpretations on the land beyond mountains and imaginations have shaped the India and Afghanistan relations from the past to the present.  “Bound by thousand ties and million memories”, the relations between the two countries go beyond the traditionally state-to-state relations or government. History, culture, civilization and people to people contact have created commonalities thus making the past history the guide to the future.



Afghan President Ashraf Ghani paid rich tribute to Indian democracy. India has been admired as the largest pluralistic society in which diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious and sectarian groups coexist and cohabit together. India being the largest secular democracy is in a position to share its know-how and practice with Afghanistan. The nascent egalitarianism society of Afghanistan in all its earnestness looks forward to India for assurance and support in its quest for democracy.

There is a strong economic, politico-strategic and security component in the India-Afghanistan relations. India’s economic assistance and support to democracy is a step to reduce Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan and helps India to establish links with energy rich Central Asia. For India a friendly and pro-active democratic regimes in Afghanistan would act as a balancer in the region. The stability of the region can be assured only if we have a stable Afghanistan which would counter the Taliban forces and India has extended its all out support in this endeavour.

Encountered with deep recession, Afghanistan embarked on several austerity programmes and launched stimulus packages that would help the economy move out of a dependent entity to a self-reliance system.  From Afghan’s standpoint, India’s investments and partnership would be a great value addition in the re-building process of the countries economy and infrastructure. The strategic and security system of Afghanistan is fragile and weak and India’s support and strategic partnership is worthy of mention and a step forward in stabilizing the region. Powers like United States welcomes India as a key player in the stabilization process that agonizes Pakistan, who has adopted a zero-sum approach in the region creating a security dilemma.

Geo-economically Afghanistan is very important for India, the foreign trade policy of India and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), hosts a tremendous promise that could help the country develop economic and strategic importance in Eurasia and Central Asia. The INSTC has particular economic and strategic relevance to India given the increasing regional ambitions of China through its one belt one road initiative. Several MOUs have been signed between India and Afghanistan. Indian investors are interested in the “virgin markets” of Afghanistan. Indian private sectors are seen as a driver towards prosperity in Afghanistan. The other important project is the building of Sister-City relations between major Indian cities and Afghan counterparts. The Sister-City relations will be connected through tourism, faculty exchange programs as well as through private sector investment. Several invitations have been extended to India to invest in Afghanistan.  India has been invited by Afghanistan to join Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan Trade and Transit Agreement a very significant link wherein Afghanistan would act as a land bridge connecting South Asia and central Asia

Termed as one of continuity and engagement, India-Afghanistan relations is built on mutual trust and cooperation. With the exception of the Taliban rule, India’s relations with Afghanistan remain strong. Indian support continues in the reconstruction, rebuilding and stabilization process of Afghanistan.  As the fourth largest donor, Indian contribution to the rebuilding process has been to the effect of US $ 2.2Bn and generous assistance has been provided in the formation of human capital with approximately 13000 Afghan students studying in Indian Universities. India’s signature project and commitment to democracy and institutional support can be seen in the completion of the Afghan Parliament. The Salma dam in Herat is yet another initiative in terms of infrastructure development is nearing completion which would generate 42 MW of much needed power for the electrification of rural and urban Herat and also help in irrigating 80000 hectares of agricultural land. The Trade and transit between India and Afghanistan, is gaining momentum and the movement of trucks across the Attari-Wagha border would spur regional trade and enhance economic engagement in South Asia. There is a ray of positive hope that Pakistan would allow the India-Afghan trade movement, which would boost Afghan economy. Afghanistan is also keen on India’s involvement in the India-Iran Chabhar Port project. The project would create an international transit corridor. The Chabhar Port Project is of enormous significance both to India and Afghanistan. For Afghanistan it would boost the regional trade and for India it would provide a sea-land access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.

India is an all weather friend of Afghanistan and continues to play a significant role in tackling terrorism in the region. India has expressed keen intent to strengthen Afghanistan’s defense capabilities for safeguarding its security and combatting all forms of terrorism.  India is supplying helicopters to Afghan government in its effort to combat the growing menace from Taliban. India and Afghanistan have discussed several ways and means to enhance cooperation to combat terrorism. India has spearheaded capacity building prgrammes and training to Afghan soldiers in their effort to tackle terrorism. Several terror network outfits operate from Afghanistan and have expressed this menace as a global phenomenon threatening international peace and stability.

Deep engagement drives India-Afghan relations. There is committed partnership and enduring interest between the world’s largest and fledgling democracy. A pluralistic society with rich tradition and civilization that was undermined by the Taliban forces today is committed to restoring peace and stability in the region. Deeply embedded in democratic principles and values, India’s support in this endeavor of reconstruction of Afghanistan is most sought after. There are set agendas and shared objectives in India-Afghanistan relations. India is keen to assist and build a robust economy and stable political institution in Afghanistan.  An earnest effort in the reconstruction process that is vital for India, as it anchors regional peace and stability.


Priya Suresh is a Research Scholar at the Takshashila Institute. She tweets @priyamanassa.



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Afghanistan’s India outreach

The likely transfer of four attack helicopters from India to Afghanistan marks a significant change in the positions of not only India and Afghanistan, but also that of the US.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Suhasini Haidar reported in The Hindu on November 4, 2015:

India is discussing the transfer of attack helicopters to Afghanistan when Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar visits New Delhi this weekend (November 7-8) for meetings with NSA Ajit Doval.

As Haidar details further, these four Russian-made Mi-25 helicopters will be India’s first offensive weaponry transferred to the National Unity Government in Afghanistan.

This transfer marks a significant change in the positions of not only India and Afghanistan, but also that of the US, as explained below.

Up to this point, the Indian government had rolled back its engagement with Ashraf Ghani’s administration following his efforts (backed by the US) to reach out to all sections of Pakistan in the hope of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. Back then, it made sense for India to let its displeasure be made clear to the Afghan government, which chose to throw its weight behind Pakistan-led talks while keeping the Indian connection on the back burner.

However, we had argued in our writings that India should look to refresh its Afghanistan relationship in light of three new developments: failure of the Murree round of talks, splintering of the Taliban movement and its relative weakness in the South, and the changing geopolitics of Afghanistan, Central and West Asia over the last six months.

It finally appears that the Indian leadership has decided to re-energise its Afghanistan desk. Reports suggest that it was the Indian government that reached out to Afghanistan—the invitation to Mr. Atmar was extended by Mr. Doval during a telephone conversation a few days back. This is a welcome change—India looks to have overcome its fear of aggravating Pakistan in order to boost Afghanistan’s quest for strategic autonomy.

Second, this move also reflects a change in the Afghan government’s position. Already frustrated by the failure of the Murree round of talks, the Kunduz attack turned out to be the last straw. Following the Taliban takeover of the important northern city, the Afghan government was forced to re-evaluate its relationship with all its neighbours. The Chief Executive of the government, Abdullah Abdullah welcomed Russia’s potential assistance by saying:

If any country wants to assist Afghanistan in war on terror, Afghanistan welcomes the offer.

This outreach to India is a reflection of this realignment of Afghan government’s priorities.

Third, the National Unity Government’s change of heart is impossible without a change in the US position. We had indicated that the U.S., in search of an honourable exit from Afghanistan, had been shaken by the Kunduz incident and was looking for more options:

The Kunduz attaack makes it clear that the optimism generated by Pakistan-led round of talks was misplaced. The halt in troop withdrawal until 2017 is meant to buy time until the U.S. finds a better roadmap to peace in Afghanistan. While the U.S. and China still continue to place their bets on Pakistan-backed efforts, there is a growing realisation that the price Pakistan demands will never be acceptable to large sections of Afghans. Nevertheless, the U.S. is said to be examining various other possibilities for securing peace.

It is most likely that in search of new options, the US would have encouraged the national unity government to re-engage with India.

A few important questions emerge in the light of the new development: given the new start, will India further deepen its military relationship with the Afghan government? And more importantly, will India help the Afghan government and the US in starting a new peace process with sections of the Taliban? These questions will be answered in the days to come. In any case, well re-begun is almost half done.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Playing the Mullah Omar card

How is Mullah Omar’s reappearance (or the absence of it) likely to affect India?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

After the conclusion of the first official round of talks between the Taliban and Afghan unity government in the Pakistani resort town of Murree, Pakistan was desperately looking for a pat on the back. Pakistan’s wish was fulfilled, almost incredibly, when a message on the Taliban’s website, believed to be from Mullah Mohammed Omar, endorsed the peace talks process.

This message shifted the world’s attention to the enigma that is Mullah Omar. He’s not been seen since 2001 but recordings of his video messages, and his written statements make periodical appearances on the Taliban website. In fact, even the latest comment regarding the talks was made in a message that appears every Eid-ul-Fitr.

His previous online projection was in the form of a 5,000 word biography which appeared in April this year. Coinciding with the rise of Daesh, the purpose of this exercise was to emphasise that Mullah Omar is still the Amir-ul-Momineen, the unquestioned leader of the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively on the Af-Pak region called this essay a ‘healing device for the reported divisions within the Taliban’ and an essay which ‘reasserts Mr Omar’s leadership and commands all Taliban to unite and obey him’. He goes on to say that the ‘essay suits the ISI and the moderate wing of the Taliban, which are keen to get peace talks started. To do that the agency needs to demonstrate that Mr Omar is alive and in command.’

Why should these unsubstantiated news reports be of concern? Because Mullah Omar’s presence can still rally the various Taliban factions together. The Taliban is no longer a monolith and has various streams of thoughts, each having a different plan of action. In such a scenario, the side that wins Omar’s support will have narrative dominance.

From an Indian perspective, Mullah Omar’s return, if that ever happens, will reassert ISI’s leadership in the talks. This is because Omar couldn’t have survived without the agency’s involvement. As a precedent, In what can be seen as a precedent, Taliban’s second-in-command Abdul Baradar was found in a comatose state after his individual overtures to the Karzai administration. The possibility that Omar will meet the same fate cannot be overruled.

There are two evidences supporting this hypothesis. One, the biography hailing him appeared to be an effort by Pakistan to ramp up pressure on the Taliban to engage with Kabul under Pakistan’s leadership. After prevailing on Akhtar Mansour to agree to talks, Pakistan was indicating that Mullah Omar continues to be relevant. Two, in the “endorsement” message for Murree talks, there is an explicit mention of how Taliban is not an agent of Pakistan. The fact that Taliban needed to clarify this message suggests something otherwise.

On the other hand, Mullah Omar’s physical absence is resulting in diminishing returns to the Taliban movement. Elements in the group are losing hope of his coming back. If the news of his death comes out, it would accelerate the pace of the divisions within Taliban. In such a case, it might be in India’s interests to open channels with at least a few factions which are not directly opposed to India.

The next round of talks is believed to be taking place on July 30th. Peace will remain elusive in the absence of agreement over Taliban’s core demands of a Sharia state, and US forces’ complete removal. Nevertheless, these talks will give interesting insights into the internal dynamics of Taliban.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Can USA and China avoid the Thucydides trap?

In a recent interview with The World Post, Chinese President Xi Jinping set out his outline for the future of China and the world and why peaceful world environment is necessary to develop China in the long term. One particular significance of this interview was his usage of the term “The Thucydides Trap”.

“The Thucydides Trap” was coined by the Belfer Center Director Graham Allison whereby an established power becomes wary of an emerging power and ultimately leads to war and confrontation among them. The Greek Historian Thucydides blamed the war between Athens and Sparta on Sparta’s fear of Athens growth and its own diminishing influence and hence went to War with Athens to thwart its rise.

Even though The United States and China are the world’s largest economies, their relationship is very complex and based on mutual fear and suspicion.  China’s rapid defence modernisation coupled with increasing assertiveness with its neighbours over various territorial disputes has caused US policy makers off guard in Asia. What worries the policy makers the most is what will be the US response in case of conflict between say China/Japan or China/Philippines and to what extent will the United States go to protect its allies in the region?  Even though China advocates a multi-polar world, its actions speak differently about the role it is going to take in future. China is playing a game of cat and mouse in the region and is checking USA’s capacity to deliver in case of a conflict.

United States has clearly outlined its intention after long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it will be concentrating on Asia with its Asia Pivot policy.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved too big a financial burden on the American economy and allowed China to leapfrog it and become the world’s largest trading nation. As the US troops withdraw from the region post 2014, the US plans to concentrate on Asia-Pacific region to check the growth and influence of China in the region. Post World War II, United States has been a dominant power in the region and most of its trade goes through this route and any effort by China to subvert its influence will be met by strong US response.

Current President Xi and Former President Hu Jintao, both laid out a vision for China’s global role in international politics wherein both Countries will form a “new type of great power relationship”. To what extent the United States is going to share power with China and what will be its impact on International geopolitics remains to be seen. Skeptics argue that confrontation between the two countries is more of a reality in the coming decades then in the past.

American foreign policy which was clearly focused on terrorism and Middle East post September 11 attacks have once again started concentrating on China after the economic recession of 2008. America’s Asia pivot is aimed clearly at China and focuses on containing it in the region without harming its interests or its allies. Japan is increasingly trying to change its pacifist Constitution in order to prep up its military in case of a conflict with China. Japan is concerned that US will not come to its rescue in case of conflict even though the US-Japan Treaty 1971 provides so and hence is becoming increasingly insecure about China’s intentions in the region. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger states that China wants a complete revamp of the current world order wherein it has greater say in the happenings around the world and is not discriminated against whereas the United States stands for the existing rule based order, freedom of navigation of seas and skies. The opaque system of Chinese decision making makes it much more difficult for America to solve disputes or tone down the tensions in case of a miscalculated Conflict.

US policy makers believe India can be a trump card against China in the Asian power dynamics. Based on the principle of democracy and rule based order, United States believes that in the long run India can become a possible alternative to China in Asia and on one on which it could depend on. India is being increasingly courted by Japan, Australia and the US to seek a dominant role in Asia Pacific to subvert Chinese influence.  However they forget that India has its own sets of problems with China and will not join any US led camp against China. India’s current focus right now is economic growth and liberalisation and lifting millions out of poverty before it can match China tooth for tooth militarily in Asia and the world.

In the last 500 years, whenever an established power has been faced with an emerging power, the result was war in 11 out of 15 cases. The US has slowly and steadily built up its largely dominant role now since 1890, when it surpassed United Kingdom as the world’s largest economy and has enforced itself as the sole World Super Power through the two World Wars and its rivalry with Soviet Union during the Cold War years. What will be the US approach to China’s rise and whether it is going to make any concessions to China remains to be seen? China on the other hand will try to gain its status as the Middle Kingdom in the Confucian concept of “All under Heaven” and regain its previous glory as the world’s largest economy prior to 1750’s.

Piyush Singh is a law student with an interest in India-China relations and nuclear law and energy. He completed his internship at the Takshashila Institution.

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