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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 30

India’s Stake in Afghanistan

Wednesday 16 July 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


In the last two years, there has been non-stop coverage in the media and in the diplomatic circles about Bosnia, but very little about the happenings in Afghanistan. From the angle of ethnic conflict, both represent a dimension which needs to be fully grasped while from the strategic point of view, Afghanistan’s historical importance is unmatched.

For a century-and-a-half, Afghanistan has been the battleground of rival Great Powers, so much so that the moves and the counter-moves between Russia and Britain had come to be known as the Great Game. Diplomatic, political and military moves on the part of London and St Petersburg converged, to a considerable extent, upon Afghanistan. And both these great powers of the time had designs to capture Afghanistan, at least so manage that the country did not come under its rival. The British made three military attempts to capture Afghanistan, but failed as they could not overcome the fierce spirit of autonomy on the part of the major tribes which refused to permit any power to dominate over their country. For both, Afghanistan was the key area. Whoever conquered Afghanistan, the road to Delhi would be open. And on the other side, from Kabul to Tashkent and beyond, into the heart of the Czarist Empire would have been open.

When the Czarist Empire fell in 1917 and the Bolsheviks under Lenin captured power, the importance of Afghanistan did not diminish. The British, as the leading imperial power at the time, played the foremost role in the protracted war of intervention waged by the Western powers together against the new Soviet state as part of the crusade against Communism. Operations, both open and sub rosa, against the arrival of the Bolshevik power into Central Asia was conducted mainly from Delhi, at that time and key regional base of Britain’s imperial exploits raging all the way from Suez to Shanghai. Well-known figures in the Political Department of the Raj in Delhi like Sir Francis Younghusband, Col. Bailey and Sir Olaf Caroe all worked from their base in India. For Afghanistan, particularly active was Sir Olaf Caroe, as his interventions were directed against Central Asia where he stirred up the regional tribal leaders and mullahs against the new regime in Moscow. It may be worth recalling that one of Caroe’s trusted lieutenants was Iskander Mirza, who later on overthrow the democratic regime in Pakistan in the late fifties and established the military dictatorship. Incidentally, Caroe dedicated his book on Pathans to Iskander Mirza.

At the end of World War II, when the British had to quit the subcontinent and the independent states of India and Pakistan were formed, the Great Game took a new turn. The British openly admitted their inability to lead the Great Game against the Soviet Union. In the international sphere, London openly became the subservient junior partner of Washington. Sir Olaf Caroe personally went to Washington and handed over his entire dossier on Central Asia to the US authorities, as by the terms of the Cold War, the leadership role of the anti-Soviet coalition passed on to the USA.

It was in this changed context that the importance of Pakistan became crucial in the geo-strategic map of the US. President Eisenhower offered the Mutual Security Pact to Pakistan in 1954—a landmark for which Nehru accused the USA for bringing the Cold War to this part of the world. Followed Pakistan’s participation in CENTO and SEATO. The military alliances of the USA had their domestic impact. Within two years of the 1954 military accord with the US, Pakistan witnessed the end of its First Republic and the military takeover, first under Iskander Mirza, followed by General Ayub Khan.

It is important to note here that more than any alliance on the civilian side, the link-up between the Pentagon and the CIA on one side and the Pakistan military junta on the other became an abiding feature of this relationship. And for its external operations, the responsibility was mainly placed on the so-called Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan which has throughout been working as an extended arm of the Pentagon and the CIA, an arrangement which has by no means ceased with the end of the Cold War or been affected by the vagaries of the US-Pak relations on the political front.

Pakistan’s importance in the US geo-strategic map was enhanced with the worsening crisis in Afghanistan. After three years of hide-and-seek within the political spectrum of Afghanistan, the two superpowers came out openly for the capture of the country itself. The Soviet military intervention into Afghanistan in December 1979 immediately touched off the US counter-move. Brezezinski as the head of President Carter’s National Security outfit rushed to Pakistan and went up to the Afghan border and instantly decided on a massive supply of arms and financial aid to Pakistan on the plea of building up resistance to the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan mujahideen groups were stationed in Pakistan, and the ISI took charge of training and directing the armed Afghan guerillas with the full backing of the USA. It was in this period during General Ziaul Haq’s presidency that the ISI as the extended arm of Washington was really consolidated as a parallel autonomous establishment to the Pakistan Government.

One of the first signs of the end of the Cold War could be seen in Afghanistan when the Russian troops pulled out in 1989. Then came the real test of the ISI. A smooth take-over by a mujahideen coalition did not follow. To cut the story short, the situation became precarious as diverse contending tribal coalitions ranged against one another. The American dream of a subservient Afghanistan acting as its intelligence-cum-intervention station against the turbulence in Central Asia with the collapse of the USSR has not materialised, nor can Afghanistan today be regarded as a convenient base for US operations against Iran, which is today Washington’s Number One target in the Gulf region.

The ISI calculations that its trusted forces under Hekmatyar would be able to capture power in Kabul ended up in a fiasco. So, a new regrouping of ISI-led forces has taken place under the brand name of Taliban. It is the ISI-directed Taliban which has been carrying on a full-scale war against the mujahideen leader Rabbani’s government in Kabul. Even if Rabbani’s forces fall, the Taliban can hardly take over the entire Afghanistan, as the forces in the North and the West would not permit a regime which depended on Pakistan.

It is the present phase of the Afghan war, which directly brings out the commonality of interests between India and Afghanistan. It is now widely acknowledged in India and abroad that the armed secessionism in Kashmir is being directed by the ISI, more than any other elements in Pakistan. And it is the same ISI which is directing the Taliban operation against the government in Kabul. If the ISI wins in Afghanistan, it will have more effective political control within Pakistan and its military intervention in the Kashmir Valley will be stepped up. Therefore, whenever New Delhi raises the question of armed terrorism from across the border into Kashmir, it has to remind itself and the world that the very same force—the ISI—is conducting military intervention in Afghanistan. This linkage between Kashmir and Afghanistan needs to be stressed by our government and political parties whenever they talk about foreign intervention into Kashmir. And who backs the common bandit force, the ISI?

Since the ISI admittedly owes its origin and survival most decisively to the patronage it enjoys from the Pentagon and the CIA, it would be short-sighted not to face the reality; it is imperative that the real face of the ISI is shown up as the common enemy of Afghanistan, Kashmir and the democratic forces within Pakistan.

(Mainstream, October 28, 1995)

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