Pakistan supported terrorist networks in Afghanistan are generating a lot of hate against India.
A recent suicide attack in Afghanistan’s Jalalabad killed at least 17 Hindus and Sikhs belonging to that country. Among those killed was Avtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections to be held in October. The Sikh community now numbers fewer than 300 families in Afghanistan, which was home to more than 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before the 1990s. It is believed that Guru Nanak once visited Jalalabad.
The attack came a day after President Ashraf Ghani ordered the security forces to resume their operations against the Taliban following the end of the government’s 18-day ceasefire, and even as US envoy Alice Wells was scheduled to visit Kabul as part of efforts to create pressure on the Taliban to engage in peace talks.
According to the media, it was ISIS that claimed the attack. So the questions that arise are: One, is Afghanistan the third home for the ISIS after Syria and Iraq? Two, what is the difference between Taliban and ISIS? Three, what will be India’s best option in this complex scenario?
US reports say that more than 700 ISIS fighters are present in Afghanistan, while the Russians put the number to 10,000. Whatever be it, there is no denying that ISIS is growing increasingly stronger in Afghanistan. Since 2014, when the US was supposed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ISIS’ presence has increased manifold. Many disgruntled Taliban terrorists have shifted their allegiance to the ISIS. In fact, even some ISIS fighters fleeing the battlefields of Syria and Iraq are finding their way to Afghanistan. As a popular ISIS video in Afghanistan proclaims, “O you, Muslims in every corner of the world, immigrate to Khorasan, if you are incapable of immigrating to Iraq and Syria, come to Khorasan.” Khorasan refers to a historic region which includes parts of modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and some neighbouring countries.
There is convergence of interests between the ISIS and the Taliban in supporting the Pakistan army’s India misadventures. In fact, there is speculation that the attack was actually perpetrated by the Taliban under the patronage of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). A month ago, a prominent Sikh religious leader, Charanjit Singh Sagar was shot dead in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The ISIS in Afghanistan may have embraced the label and may swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but is not controlled by the ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Instead the ISIS groups here are mostly local and familiar with the difficult terrain. These groups operate mostly in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border. ISIS is even using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a recruiting ground, trying to find fighters who will travel to Syria and Iraq.
Afghanistan ISIS’ ideologies and goals are different from that of the Taliban’s. The hostility that ISIS bears towards the Taliban stems from the fact that the Taliban draw their “legitimacy” not from a universal Islamic creed, but from narrow ethnic and nationalistic interests. The ISIS, on the other hand, is trying to establish a Caliphate encompassing the entire Ummah (Muslim community). While the Taliban seeks to establish an Afghan state that they claim is ruled by Islamic law. The groups are also competing for members and resources. Both rely on money from the heroin trade to fund their operations.
The US and Russia are divided on ISIS in Afghanistan. Russia believes that ISIS presence has increased in northern and eastern Afghanistan. Russian policymakers emphasise on the ISIS threat to unite anti-western nationalists of the world. In fact, Russia is using the ISIS threat in Afghanistan to establish mutually beneficial alliances with its Central Asian partners. Russian officials argue that US policymakers are complacent about ISIS’ potential to threaten regional stability.
As for India, it is a major country in reshaping Afghanistan’s economy and military. More than 150 Indian engineers and technical experts are working in infrastructural projects in Afghanistan. In 2017, India and Afghanistan inaugurated two air corridors to boost connectivity, which has resulted in a significant increase in trade volumes. As part of the next generation “New Development Partnership”, India is implementing 116 new high impact development projects in 31 Afghan provinces and is training Afghan security personnel. India is a major trading partner for Afghanistan. India is also the biggest donor to Afghanistan.
Pakistan is trying its best to counter India’s initiatives. Pakistan has been a key route for US supplies into Afghanistan. But then, according to US and Afghan officials, Pakistan is also a route for terror funding and a safe haven for terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, particularly the Haqqani Network. Pakistan’s Afghan policy is shaped by its relations with India. Islamabad fears an India-dominated Afghanistan will leave Pakistan encircled and vulnerable in any potential conflict. Islamabad seeks a weak government in Kabul, dominated by a Pak-supporting Taliban, so that it can maintain its “strategic depth” against any Indian invasion. So it guarantees a safe haven to the terrorist groups that it supports. In the last few years, China has increased its footprints in Afghanistan along with its partner Pakistan. Afghanistan shares a border with China. The Chinese foreign ministry has said that “the international community should fully recognise Pakistan’s anti-terrorism efforts” and appreciate its “important contributions to safeguarding regional and global peace and stability”. Beijing is also investing upwards of $46 billion into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, where China says, Afghanistan will be a major player.
The situation, thus, is precarious. Pakistan supported terrorist networks in Afghanistan are generating a lot of hate against India. The China-Pakistan venture in Afghanistan and the US-Russia divide present a challenge for India. India’s development projects there are being targeted, its people are being killed. Almost half of Afghanistan is not under Kabul’s control, but under the control of the Taliban, the ISIS and other terrorist groups. In this scenario, India needs its own roadmap to venture into Afghanistan. It must collaborate independently with Russia and America on this.
Prof Satish Kumar is the head of the Department of Political Science at Central University Of Haryana.