If Biden ignores Afghanistan-Pakistan, ISI will get a long rope. India must play bigger role
This story first appeared in ThePrint
Giving peace a chance is out of the question in Afghanistan. Several recent attacks show someone in the neighbourhood is not happy with the way the peace talks are going.
Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami’s chats about the Pulwama attack in 2019 aren’t the only thing Pakistan’s Imran Khan is complaining about this week. Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s admission that Pakistan has complained to Kabul — “with evidence” — about India interfering in the Afghan peace process is as interesting a development.
Perhaps Qureshi was referring to the visit of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to Kabul recently, where he held talks with his counterpart Hamdullah Mohib and other Afghan leaders to “synchronise efforts to combat terrorism” and expand cooperation.
In the wake of the meeting, the irrepressible first vice-president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, tweeted:
“Had a pleasant meeting with NSA Ajit Doval of India. We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion.”
No prizes for guessing who Saleh was referring to. Since he was a 25-year-old aide to the former Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought the Taliban until he was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks in the US, Saleh has openly called out the ‘Pakistan hand’ in destabilising Afghanistan. With a new US administration taking over this week and US troops drawing down as per schedule, the Afghans are keen that India fill the vacuum or at least play a bigger role in staving off the Taliban terror attacks masterminded by Pakistan next door.
Doval knows Afghanistan well. A former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, he was on the tarmac in Kandahar in December 1999, when the hijacked IC-814 plane was surrounded by ISI-backed gunmen to prevent an Indian commando rescue operation.
Certainly, India is concerned about the senseless violence in Afghanistan. Two female judges were shot dead on Sunday morning. A magnetic bomb hit an official the same day, but he was lucky. In Baghlan, eight security men were not.
Back in Pakistan Monday, one of the country’s best-known journalists, Hamid Mir, had a column on the Afghan-Pakistan situation in the Urdu newspaper Jang – I read the translated version. Mir talks about how PM Narendra Modi has taken “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” metaphor to heart and is joining hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (Pakistan’s enemy, according to Mir) to undermine India’s enemy (Pakistan). Mir links the killings of the Hazaras in Mach in Balochistan with the rising instability in Afghanistan.
Mir says that the Islamic State (IS) has taken responsibility for the Mach killings, as it did for the massacre in Kabul’s Sikh gurudwara last year, in which Muhammed Anis, an “Indian national”, also known as Abu Khalid al-Hindi, participated. He admits that the names of the Mach IS attackers are not public yet. He is, of course, implying there is a connection.
Mir is right, but only partially. Indeed, a Muslim man from Kerala, who took the nom de guerre Abu Khalid al-Hindi and joined the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), was one of the perpetrators of the Kabul gurudwara attack. Terrorist franchisees, like al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have about 150-200 members across Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-Myanmar – most Indian members are active in south India.
Global scholars admit, however, that India remains a puzzle for “global jihadists when it comes to recruitment” – there are hardly any. Why, needs debating in another column.
When Islamic State was at its peak in 2014, trying to create a state in West Asia and had raised 30,000 insurgents from across the world, fighters from India – mostly from Kerala, some from coastal Maharashtra – barely touched a 100.
In contrast, even Mir will admit, disenfranchised, disgruntled – and even hapless — Pakistanis are willing to join the jihad worldwide, not least because the defence of “Islam in danger” is drilled into them. The 2008 Mumbai attacks, of course, are a classic case in point.
A lot depends on Biden
Westward into Afghanistan, a brother Muslim nation, Pakistan’s ISI continues to do what it has done for decades. Destabilise the situation and create an undifferentiated fear by targeting innocent people so that the rule of law breaks down. It wants to send a message to the Afghans and its leadership that just like the 1990s, groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network — which it controls parts of — will be in charge. That the Americans have had their turn for 20 years, and despite a new administration taking charge, are now leaving.
That’s why the Doha negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are going terribly slow. All sides are waiting to see what the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration’s foreign policy priorities will be — one Biden adviser admitted, it would be “China. China. China. Russia.”
That, certainly, would be a mistake. Ignoring the Af-Pak region will mean giving Pakistan a long rope. But if the Biden lot are willing to reach out to neighbours like Iran and India and put their concerns around Russia on the back burner, the fightback against the Taliban would not just mean giving peace a chance in Afghanistan.
It would mean cutting down the ISI and encouraging a political dispensation to take real control in Pakistan. It would mean asking the Chinese, their rivals anywhere else in the world, to tell their client state, Pakistan, to fall in line. It would mean reshaping the geopolitics of South Asia.
Does the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration have the resources — or the energy and the mind space and the interest — to do it? Certainly, the next few days and weeks will be crucial.
Views are personal.