India Can Back Ahmad Massoud’s Anti-Taliban Struggle, or Risk Being Cornered
India must support the growing resistance in Panjshir in the face of a visibly anti-India Taliban.
The total collapse of the Afghan state in the hands of the ISI-backed Taliban during the last ten days has brought an ignominious end to the two-decade-long American-led intervention. Whilst the Taliban controls most of Afghanistan now, one province continues to hold out — Panjshir. The National Resistance Front (NRF) based out of the Panjshir Valley, led by Ahmad Massoud and the former Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, now stands as the last bastion against the malaise of Taliban hegemony.
The notion that Taliban 2.0 of its previous self has already been proved as farcical. Minority groups have been massacred, women have been disenfranchised from holding particular jobs, families of journalists targeted and killed, and national monuments vandalised. All this whilst six thousand NATO troops still remain and help in evacuations at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. One can only imagine the nature of their regime once these soldiers leave as well. In these circumstances, the NRF led by Ahmad Massoud remains the last hope for a democratic and plural Afghanistan. It is India’s moral prerogative, as well as in its strategic interests, to give its complete support to the National Resistance Front in its struggle.
The Legacy of the 'Lion of Panjshir'
Ahmad Massoud is the son of the legendary Afghan military commander and politician Ahmad Shah Massoud. Known as the “Lion of Panjshir”, Massoud Sr. led the mujahideen resistance against the USSR and later fought against the Taliban in the civil war that ensued in the 1990s. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, Massoud Sr., along with other anti-Taliban commanders, formed the Northern Alliance and held out in the Panjshir Valley and its neighbouring provinces.
India, who knew the backing the Taliban regime was receiving from the ISI, began supporting the Northern Alliance with arms, logistics, medicines, and money. The relationship between India and the Northern Alliance was one of close cooperation.
It is more than telling that when Massoud Sr. was assassinated by a suicide bomb attack two days before 9/11, he died due to his wounds in a helicopter that was bringing him to an Indian military field hospital at Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan.
Twenty years later, Ahmad Massoud finds himself in a situation similar to that of his father and seems to have an equal instinct to resist.
In a recent phone call with his keen supporter Bernard-Henri Levy, a French public intellectual, Massoud stolidly remarked, “I am the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud; surrender is not a part of my vocabulary.”
A graduate of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Massoud, for the past few years, had been campaigning for a more decentralised democratic system in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, he had also been stockpiling weapons and supplies, keeping in mind the eventuality that has come to be. With a near deified lineage and a tenacious sense of defiance — “We confronted the Soviet Union, and we will be able to confront the Taliban,” he said — Ahmad Massoud will now have to bring his vision of Afghanistan to reality not by the ballot but by the bullet.
Panjshir Has Always Stood Tall
Apart from Massoud and his local Panjshir forces, the NRF consists of several anti-Taliban Afghan politicians and Army commanders, many of whom were members of the Northern Alliance. Most notable among them is Amrullah Saleh, the former Vice-President. Once the head of the Afghan intelligence and security apparatus, . When Kabul fell on 15 August, unlike former president Ashraf Ghani who fled the country, Saleh remained and joined Massoud in the Panjshir Valley to continue his resistance.
The past few days have also seen thousands of former Afghan army soldiers, who have been unable to fight due to premature surrenders from their military commanders, concentrate in the Panjshir to support the NRF. Many civil activists, intellectuals, women politicians and others who are potential targets of the Taliban have also taken refuge in the valley. With formidable natural fortifications and a growing fighting force, the Panjshir, which was neither captured by the USSR nor the Taliban in the late 1990s, has now become a national redoubt.
India’s Moral and Strategic Duty
However, this redoubt is presently fragile. The mismanaged exit of NATO forces clubbed with the mass surrender of the Afghan army has meant that billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, leading to the augmentation of their already formidable military might. Additionally, a number of traditionally anti-Taliban leaders have chosen not to fight this time around.
Some such as Ismail Khan of Herat have supposedly been coerced into joining the Taliban, while others such as Field Marshal Dostum have had to escape to neighbouring countries. This means that the NRF is on a far weaker footing than its spiritual predecessor, the Northern Alliance. In a Washington Post article last week, Massoud made a stirring appeal to America and its democratic allies for "more weapons, more ammunition, and more supplies".
It is important to note that Massoud’s resistance is not that of a singular warmonger. There have been protests against the Taliban rule throughout Afghanistan, with some protesters even being shot. On the Afghan Independence Day (19 August), thousands marched in towns and cities across the country waving the Afghan national flag in defiance. After twenty years of a democratic and inclusive system (albeit deeply flawed at times), in which India invested more than $3 billion, losing all these gains will be a tragic blow to the Afghan people; the NRF is now the only viable option to prevent this.
Supplying the NRF with humanitarian, material, and military means, as was done for the Northern Alliance two decades ago, is now India’s central obligation to the Afghan people. However, this assistance must come from a distance. Contrary to some hawkish voices, the idea that Indian boots must be on the ground to protect our interests has and always will be a terrible miscalculation; one only needs to glance at the eventual result of America’s misadventure.
Internal Rifts in Taliban?
Providing support to the NRF is also critical for India’s strategic interests. There is no doubt that the Taliban and its affiliates are supported keenly by Rawalpindi. The Taliban’s seizure of the entire country in a matter of weeks would not have been possible . Imran Khan’s laudatory remarks after the Taliban seized Kabul squash any other suggestions about this relationship.
The exit of NATO has resulted in the reversal of the Afghan conflict to its pre-9/11 mode, one where an extremist and authoritarian regime propped by Pakistan vies for power with democratic and tolerant groups aided by India. It is imperative that India once again takes up this mantle. Not doing so will not only result in the establishment of a proxy terror state with vehemently anti-India sentiments, but it will also allow for the creation of a highly fertile ground for terrorism in South Asia.
That the infamous terror outfit, the Haqqani Network, has become a key power broker in Kabul is only the beginning of a brewing threat to India. For one, this will no doubt further destabilise the already precarious situation in Kashmir.
Moreover, the Taliban is far more open to Chinese influence via Islamabad, and this will only lead to the degradation of India’s regional position via a near-complete strategic encirclement.
The outcome of the war in Afghanistan is far from done and dusted. Internecine feuds have already started plaguing the Taliban. The absence of a proper government and defined leadership nearly ten days after the fall of Kabul is a glaring sign of this; it might not be long before infighting breaks out amongst competing groups. But India must not wait for such a situation. It must take the initiative and back the NRF, who have already shown signs of a will to fight: on 22 August, NRF fighters drove out the Taliban from a string of districts just north of Kabul. Supporting Massoud’s NRF is now the only way to ensure that the future of Afghanistan is one decided by the Afghan people in a plural society free from extremist and totalitarian rule. It is now also the only way to ensure India does not have another perennial enemy at striking proximity.
(Ranvijay Singh is at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is an Engelsberg Applied History Fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy, KCL. He tweets @ranvijayhada. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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