Like a stuck record, India — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla — keeps blaring its undying love for the people of Afghanistan. “India has always stood and would stand with Afghan people,” Jaishankar recently declared for the umpteenth time at the United Nations.
After bailing out of the Taliban-overrun nation, Shringla — only the second Foreign Secretary to report to an ex-Foreign Secretary in the history of South Block — said even more effusively, “Our long-standing investment in the people of Afghanistan has earned us tremendous goodwill and cemented the civilisational bond between our two countries.”
Besides professing love and concern for ordinary Afghans in every official statement, New Delhi persistently claims that it enjoys enormous goodwill among Afghans. We try to create an impression that were it not for ordinary Afghans, we wouldn’t have been so invested in that country. India wants the world to believe that it has no ulterior motives and its Afghan policy is selfless, altruistic and purely people-centric.
India Sided With Invaders, Not Once But Twice
The picture we desperately want to paint is that India loves Afghans and Afghans love India in return. In Modi’s own words, spoken at the inauguration of the New Delhi-built Parliament House in Kabul, “In the heart of every Indian and Afghan, there is boundless love for each other”.
But all the serenading and terms of endearment can’t whitewash India’s role in Afghanistan from 1979 to 15 August, 2021, spanning 42 long years, which directly impacted common Afghans and shaped their perception of India.
One can well imagine how fiercely independent Afghans view India, which, in a row, sided with not one but two invaders — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US) — and their occupation forces. We can’t blame Afghans if they perceive India as their enemies’ collaborator and detest us.
During the Soviet invasion in 1979, New Delhi was Moscow’s Cold War ally and a willing accomplice in the Afghan war. We backed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to the hilt, irretrievably antagonising the people of Afghanistan, who had innocently expected us to help them. Instead, we turned on them, even justifying the Soviet occupation at the United Nations, shedding the fig leaf of neutrality as an advocate of non-alignment.
Afghanistan Was USSR's Vietnam
Unfortunately, for Moscow and New Delhi, Afghanistan turned out to be the USSR’s Vietnam. The mujahideen, backed by Pakistan, the US, China and Iran, drove out the Soviets, who nonetheless managed to install their lackey, Mohammad Najibullah, as President of the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. No other country in South Asia except India recognised the Najibullah regime, exposing our subservience to the Soviets and utter disregard for Afghan sentiments.
The mujahideen metamorphosed into the Pakistan-controlled Taliban, who spearheaded a people’s rebellion and toppled Najibullah, a great favourite of Indira Gandhi. But India refused him asylum at its Embassy to avert the retaliatory massacre of Kabul’s Hindus and Sikhs. He fled to the UN compound in Kabul, from where the Taliban pulled him out and tortured and killed him, before tying his body to a truck that drove slowly through the streets of Kabul in September 1996.
India’s unpopularity among Afghans for collaborating first with the Soviets and then with Soviet-puppet Najibullah is borne out by the closure of our Embassy and evacuation of diplomats, including ambassadors, in 1992 and 1993, even before the advent of the first Taliban regime in 1996.
In 1992, Ambassador Vijay Nambiar was flown to New Delhi from Mazar-e-Sharif by an Indian Air Force (IAF) plane as the Kabul airport was heavily damaged. The next year, Nambiar’s successor, Arif Qamarain, escaped by a bus to Tashkent en route to India following a rocket attack on the Chancery.
India Has Forfeited Afghans' Trust
With the establishment of the Taliban rule in 1996 after Najibullah’s brutal murder, India was so unwelcome in Afghanistan that we shuttered our Embassy and left the country lock, stock and barrel. New Delhi’s presence was reduced drastically to assisting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance from Dushanbe in league with Russia and Iran.
India was so blindsided that when an Indian Airlines plane hijacked by Pakistani terrorists landed in Kandahar in December 1999, we didn’t know who to talk to in Kabul. During the week-long stand-off in Kandahar before giving in to the hijackers’ demands, we realised how the Taliban-Pakistan nexus had reduced the nuclear-armed New Delhi to a big fat zero, both politically and diplomatically, in Afghanistan.
It also dawned on us that we had forfeited the trust of ordinary Afghans by helping Soviet occupation forces and propping up Najibullah, and last but not the least, opposing the Taliban, who the predominantly Pashtun population then held in high esteem for driving out the invaders.
We committed the same blunder in 2001 during the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government by turning into camp followers of the US, which invaded Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attack, sent the Taliban packing, and appointed Hamid Karzai President to cover up the US occupation. Although the US did not invite India to the December 2001 Bonn Conference to decide Afghanistan’s future, we sidled up to the US-NATO forces, which ultimately assigned us a role in reconstruction and rebuilding.
Was Countering Pakistan Our Real Goal?
Without learning any lessons from history, we collaborated with US occupation forces, hated by Afghans of all hues. Under the garb of development projects, our real goal was to use Afghan soil to counter Pakistan, as a tit-for-tat for Islamabad stoking insurgency in Kashmir and Punjab. Under the protective US umbrella, we allied with the puppet Afghan government headed by Karzai and subsequently Ashraf Ghani, although it enjoyed no legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, to achieve our strategic and security goals.
Let’s admit that by mid-August, 2021, when the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, we were almost as unpopular as Americans in Afghanistan. As a US ally, we withdrew before the deadline for the withdrawal of US-NATO forces to ensure our safety and security. We closed our Embassy — the four consulates established since 2001 had been already shut down since last year on various pretexts — and evacuated all our diplomatic staff, including ambassador Rudrendra Tandon. Other US satellites like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia also shut down their missions and scooted off.
India had to shut down its embassy not once, twice or thrice, but four times since 1992, and pull out all our diplomats. Would things have come to such a pass if India genuinely loved and cared for ordinary Afghans — as we persistently claim today — and Afghans loved us in return?
I think Afghans have a very low opinion of us essentially because we allied with two invading superpowers who unsuccessfully tried to subjugate them. India’s collaboration with the USSR and the US occupation forces and their stool pigeons — Najibullah, Karzai and Ghani — cost us the love and affection of ordinary Afghans. At least today, it seems that they can’t be wooed back. And, to be honest, we are not genuinely interested in wooing them. India’s official statements are only meant to fool Afghans and the world.
BJP Govt's Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Isn't Helping
The rift with Afghans, caused mainly by our backing for occupation forces and their proxies, has widened significantly because of the BJP government’s Hindu-first agenda and targeting of Muslims.
After the anti-Muslim violence in New Delhi in February 2020, there were widespread anti-Modi, anti-BJP and anti-India demonstrations in almost every Afghan city. The Indian embassy in Kabul had to be barricaded to stave off mega protest marches.
The Modi government also showed its true colours after the fall of Kabul by crowing about its elaborate plans for the evacuation of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. We made religion a criterion for picking and choosing which Afghans to rescue. Afghanistan’s population is 99.7 per cent Muslim. Under India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the Modi government would welcome only Hindus and Sikhs, who comprise just 0.3 per cent of the Afghan population. The rest stand disqualified as they are Muslims.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 15,217 Afghan refugees in India, mostly in New Delhi. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), however, peg the figure around 22,000. We are denying Afghan Muslims asylum, financial assistance, and, in many cases, refusing to extend their visas, which might result in arrest and imprisonment under the Foreigners Act. This is how deep India’s love for Afghans that Modi, Jaishankar and Shringla are professing from the rooftop, runs.
If providing refuge is an indicator of the special ties with the Afghan people that New Delhi keeps swearing by, compared to 22,000 Afghans in India, last year there were over 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, down from nearly four million a few years ago, while Iran still hosts two million Afghan refugees.
India Hasn't Pledged Any Aid
Addressing a UN high-level meeting on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan on September 14, Jaishankar waxed eloquent about the crisis bedevilling the war-ravaged nation and asked the Taliban (without naming them) to “give assistance-providers unimpeded, unrestricted and direct access to Afghanistan”. He cleverly used a humanitarian platform to criticise Pakistan’s policy of not allowing India to use its territory for sending anything to Afghanistan.
But, importantly, Jaishankar did not pledge a single paisa to Afghanistan. It was the first time in 20 years that New Delhi did not announce any financial aid to Afghanistan at the high-level donors’ conference. I think that the Modi government is obliged to put its money where its mouth is to prove its commitment. Miserliness at this critical juncture will underscore India’s acceptance that its time is up in Afghanistan.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)