Churn in the Neighbourhood: In polls under Taliban shadow, test for two countries and an old bond

Why Afghanistan election results matter to India, which has funded development projects and worries over the security of its nationals there.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: November 5, 2018 10:33:34 am
A voter in Kandahar in October. (Photo: AP)

When the Indian Consul General in Kandahar, visited the family of General Abdul Raziq after his assassination by the Taliban, it showed New Delhi’s concerns about what was happening in Afghanistan as it went to parliamentary elections.

Gen Raziq, chief of the Afghan intelligence service in Kandahar, was seen as a hero for fighting against the Taliban, and a towering politician who built relationships with both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. His assassination ahead of the October elections shook Afghanistan in a way similar to the killing of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masoud in 2001, days before 9/11.

In Afghanistan, the path to democracy has often been challenged by violence perpetrated by Taliban. This was the third time Afghans have voted in the post-Taliban period. In a series of major attacks, the casualties exceeded 500 in the attack in Ghazni in August, and 2018 is set to be the deadliest year of the 17-year war since 9/11. According to latest UN data, seven Afghan adults and two children on an average were killed every day in the first six months of this year, with another 19 civilians injured each day. About 90% of the attacks are believed to be by the Taliban.

Taliban vs democracy

In this kind of a situation, the holding of elections — which were delayed by more than three years — is being seen as a vote towards democracy. About 89 lakh voters were registered, and many showed courage in coming out and voting. The preliminary results are expected on November 10, and the final results by December 20.

These elections need to be seen in the context of the reconciliation process with the Taliban. With presidential elections due for 2019, the Taliban are striking at democratic processes, with almost half the country being under their control. They don’t seem in any mood to negotiate until the power equilibrium is clear after the 2019 polls.

“On any given day in Afghanistan, there is mixture of emotions — optimism, pessimism, frustration and inspiration, and all four types of emotions happen before 9 am. And then, it’s rinse and repeat through the day,” a top diplomat had recently said.

At least five major political parties are jockeying for influence for the 250 seats in the lower house of Parliament, Wolesi Jirga. They are Jamaat-e-Islami led by Salahuddin Rabbani, People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan led by Mohammed Mohaqiq, Hezb-e-Wahadat-e-Islamiye led by Karim Khalili, Hizb-e-Jamhoori Afghanistan (Republican Part of Afghanistan) led by Sebghatullah Sanjar, Junbish-i-Milli Islami Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) led by Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Though the President has a veto on all laws passed, a parliamentarian has extraordinary access to the higher echelons of government and to international funding —something that has created a democratic elite.

India, Afghanistan, Pakistan

In September, when President Ashraf Ghani visited New Delhi and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his conversation with Indian interlocutors reflected many strands. India has witnessed an increased threat perception on Indian nationals and interests in recent months. In May, seven Indian engineers with a power company were abducted, and they are still in custody. In August, an Indian chef working with an international company was shot dead. Ghani shared his assessment of the security situation.

Ghani, who visited Ghazni days after Afghan forces backed by US air-power evicted “insurgents”, has publicly slammed Pakistan’s military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had apparently assured him that cross-border terrorism would not be allowed. “General Bajwa, you signed a document with us and told me repeatedly in our conversations over the phone that when the elections [in Pakistan] are over you will pay attention to it. I need answers now. … From where they came and why are they receiving treatment in your hospitals?” Ghani has said. Bajwa denied any involvement.

With Pakistan’s Army and the ISI being blamed for the Ghazni attack, Ghani shared with Modi that about 100 “foreign” nationals were part of the attack.

New Delhi also expressed its concerns to Ghani about the attack on the Sikh community leadership in Afghanistan before the elections. The recent spate of kidnappings of Indian nationals comes after a previous wave — between 2003 and 2008, three Indians were kidnapped and released; two others were absducted and killed.

Multiple concerns

India, which has provided assistance of $2 billion towards reconstruction and development projects, committed $1 billion last year. This was announced after US President Donald Trump unveiled a South Asia strategy in August last year. India has agreed to help Afghanistan in number of ways. But, if the poll outcome favours forces ready to align with Taliban, New Delhi’s plans may suffer a setback. So, despite US pressure, it has been careful in not putting its boots on the ground.

In fact, the latest request came from Trump himself, about a year ago, when he asked Modi in a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of ASEAN & East Asia summit in Manila in November last year, “Why doesn’t India put troops in Afghanistan?” The Indian side had to gently articulate its rationale for assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development in the civilian sector.

India, which has differences with the US, Russia and other international partners in dealing with Taliban, has backed Afghanistan’s democratically elected government, led by Ghani, on dealing with Taliban. That’s the reason why India did not agree to participate in talks with Taliban, organised by Moscow, when Afghan government officials were not to be present.

For India, the historical connect with the Kabuliwala has often defined its relationship with Kabul. Ghani once said in 2015, “Kabuliwala has done more to give us (Afghanistan) which we could not buy with billion dollars of advertisements.” This was a reference to Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala, a friendship between Mini and Rahmud, the fruit-seller from Kabul.

Avinash Paliwal, lecturer in diplomacy and public policy at SOAS University of London, wrote in My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal that when the US-led NATO forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, India did not participate in the war. “There was an emotional bond, the Kabuliwala bond with the Afghans, there was a romantic perception about Afghanistan in India,” Paliwal quoted an Indian Army officer, privy to policy discussions, as saying. As the US war on terror was mounted, India decided to do development work. India’s search for friends is guided by its rivalry with Islamabad, and also the historic bonds with Afghanistan, Paliwal wrote.

As it waits for the poll outcome, India has its task cut out in staying the course in helping the strife-torn country, in the face of security challenges and threats to Indian nationals and interests. And New Delhi may have to experience all four types of emotions — optimism, pessimism, frustration and inspiration, as described by the top diplomat.

For all the latest Explained News, download Indian Express App

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement