Afghanistan is a landlocked mountainous country strategically located between Central and South Asia sandwiched by erstwhile Soviet Union and now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, China in the northeast, Pakistan to the east and south and Iran to the west occupying 652,000 sq km with Kabul as the capital and around 32 million multi-ethnic tribes, composed mostly of Aimag, Arab, Baloch, Brahui, Gujjar, Hazaras, Kyrgyz , Pamiri, Pashtuns, Sadat, Tajiks, Turkmen Uzbeks, Quixibash- mostly Sunnis with exception of Hazaras, Aimag and Tajiks as sizeable Shias. The Afghan national anthem and constitution mentions all the tribes with extreme though tribal inter and intra rivalries exist.
Human settlements have been traced, evolving gradually into the Indus Valley Civilization the 3rd millennium BCE followed by Indo-Aryan’s migration and Zoroastrians. The region was invaded by Alexander the Great, followed by the Indian Mauryan Empire and flourishment of Buddhism and Hinduism in the region for centuries. The region came under the Muslim influence in the 7th century and during the rule of Ahmed Shah Durrani, the capital at Kandahar was moved to Kabul and Peshawar became the winter capital, which was lost to Sikhs in 1823.
The British in the 19th century for their geo-strategic interests, made Afghanistan as a buffer state between the British and Russian empires. British were in constant wars to control Afghanistan and in 1919 the country was able to become independent from the foreign influences becoming a monarchy under King Amanullah Khan. Almost half a century later king Zahir Shah was overthrown, and a republic was established. Followed by another coup and Soviet invasion against the Mujahideen rebels in the 1980s, Afghanistan became a socialist state.
By 1996, most of the country was captured by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, who were removed from power after the US invasion. The US are finally leaving Afghanistan after 20 years of ongoing war with Taliban with some of the worst human rights violations such as the killing of civilians, kidnapping, torture and crimes against children and women. The war ridden country suffers from extreme poverty, mal-nutrition, un-education, poor governance and corruption and with one of the worst gross domestic products (GDP).
Afghanistan has close friendly relations with many countries in the world including China, Canada, India, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, Spain, South Korea Turkey, UAE, UK, US, and some more and though worn torn for over 5 decades with devastated economy has full diplomatic relations with over 3 dozen countries and accreditations to over 6 dozen countries all over the world from Latin America to Oceania region.
Afghanistan’s Relations with Major Countries
India: While Pakistan, China, and some other countries dispute, since the entire J&K is an integral part of the country; therefore, the illegally Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) forms part of the J&K which shares a physical boundary with Afghanistan. Before 1947, the Indian borders physically extended up to Afghanistan. India, therefore, has traditionally and historically enjoyed very cordial friendly neighbourly relations with Afghanistan that deteriorated after the Pakistan supported Taliban took power in 1996. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, India strengthened its ties with Afghanistan by establishing consulates in most major Afghan cities.
India has participated in multiple socio-economic reconstruction efforts, including power, roads, new parliament house, dams, reservoirs, hospitals, agricultural and educational and governmental institutions projects. To overcome Afghanistan’s dependence for trade and travel through Pakistan, in May 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed the trilateral agreement entailing establishment of Transit and Transport Corridor among them using Chabahar Port in Iran as one of the regional hubs for sea transportation and road and rail connectivity with Afghanistan and opening Arabian Sea for the Central Asian Republics (CARs).
India has undertaken Political contacts between India and Afghanistan have increased in 2011, especially after the demise of Osama bin Laden. in Pakistan. Both former PM Manmohan Singh and PM Modi had visited Afghanistan ensuring India as the largest regional country providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.
Iran: Afghanistan's relations with Iran have been blowing hot and cold over the last many decades. They have river water dispute over the Helmand River and along with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution relations were at the lowest ebb. Iran supported the cause of the Afghan resistance and provided limited assistance to the Hazara Shia rebel leaders who pledged loyalty to the Iranian Revolution. Though Iran had no relations with Sunni outfit Taliban, it supported Shia Northern Alliance. When the Taliban captured Afghan city of Mazra-e-Sharif it executed many Iranian diplomats on espionage charges.
From the last two decades, Afghanistan is maintaining good relations with Iran and the US even though relations between Iran and the US deteriorated over the Iran nuclear issue. Iran is helping the Shia population of Afghanistan, but NATO accuses Iran of secretly training and arming the Taliban to destabilize the majority Sunni population thus playing a double game of helping Shias and destabilize majority Sunnis. Relations between two countries got sour over Afghans seeking asylum in Iran. There are regular reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guards training Afghani dissidents in Iran to carry out terrorist attacks within Afghanistan and help Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Taliban elements. Both countries maintain diplomatic relations.
Pakistan: Although both countries have diplomatic ties, the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan revolve around the Durand Line as a border between the two countries dividing Pashtun and Baloch tribes and not recognized by Afghanistan who feels it runs more towards the west. Pakistan feared after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Soviets would threaten Balochistan. The US feared the Soviets threatening Persian Gulf and its oil supply to the US. To counter it under Operation Cyclone the US aided Pakistan with billions of dollars to train Mujahedeen and let 3 million Afghan refugees to stay in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
Pakistan developed closer ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan thinking of strategic depth Afghanistan would provide to Pakistan in conflict with India. Being land-locked Afghanistan relied much for its trade and travel on Pakistan and as of present, the relations between the two are on decline. Pakistan is also trying to have greater say in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal and in collusion with China wants to keep India out of Afghanistan. Both countries have full diplomatic relations.
Saudi Arabia: The Arab nation has strong relations with Afghanistan. It provided major funds to the Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets and had recognized the Taliban government. Saudis are one of the major helpers in the Afghan reconstruction. And both countries have diplomatic relations.
Turkey: Both countries have good relations.
USA: The US –Afghanistan relations are over a century old. Eisenhower was the first US President who visited Kabul in 1959. King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan visited the US in the early 1960’s and met President Kennedy. Since the 1950's the US has been assisting Afghanistan in developmental work. In 1979 the US relationship declined as its ambassador was murdered in Kabul. After the Soviet invasion all aid from the US ceased. But it aided liberally to the Afghan Mujahideen and cross border humanitarian issues.
The US invasion of Afghanistan started after 9/11 attacks the US to destroy al-Qaeda operational bases in Afghanistan and removing the Taliban from power. After overthrowing the Taliban, the US is supporting Afghanistan and has over 1, 00000 lakh troops that it is withdrawing after 21 years of war and assisting in multi-faced aid to war torn countries.
Russia: Afghanistan and Russia have had a very complex relationship since the past as both the erstwhile Soviet Union and Britain were pitched to influence Afghanistan for geo-strategic reasons. The relations between Afghanistan and Soviet Union after the coup in Afghanistan led by the communists. The Soviet invasion led to a great hatred for the Soviets in much of the Afghan population and bitterness was compounded in the 10 years insurgency against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviets withdrew and provided massive aid for reconstruction that lasted for a decade till dismemberment of the Soviet Union.
In Sept 1991, the Soviet government, agreed with the United States on a mutual cut off of military aid to both sides in the Afghan civil war from on 1 Jan 1992. All efforts to form a stable government in Afghanistan failed and Kabul fell to the Mujahideen in April 1992. Russians have been wooing successive Afghan governments as newly formed numerous Muslim Central Asian Republics CARs) have relegated Russia in supporting Afghanistan. Both countries maintain full-fledged diplomatic relations.
UK: Britishers as erstwhile rulers were interested in protecting India and a series of bitter Anglo-Afghan wars were fought and Afghanistan was declared independent in 1919. The United Kingdom did not oppose the overthrow of King Zahir Shah or communist coup in Afghanistan or 1979 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan or civil wars after Soviet withdrawal.
China: Afghan-China relations over the years have been cordial and both countries have full-fledged diplomatic relations. Along the narrow international borders, limited trade, and movement of Buddhist monks along the Xinjiang silk route is common. Taliban has publicly committed recently good relations with China and assured China that they would not host Uyghur Islamic insurgency in Xinjiang notwithstanding that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) waging insurgency against Pakistan has become volatile and active in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Baloch are posing serious threats to USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Taliban has stepped up attacks against Pakistani and the Chinese interests.
Al Qaeda-Taliban Connectivity in Afghanistan
The Afghan Taliban maintains very close relationship with Al Qaeda contrary to pledging no cooperation with terrorist outfit, letting terrorists training facilities in Afghanistan and deploy them alongside its forces even though the insurgents signed an agreement with the US that the Taliban had ‘made the It is believed there are 200 to 500 Al Qaeda fighters deployed in various Afghani provinces which is a matter of serious concern for the US President Biden and NATO on the onset of withdrawal of the foreign troops. The Taliban must stop officially or otherwise ‘recruiting, training and fund raising’ by the banned al Qaeda militants hailing Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates .
Unfolding of Events after 26/11
On 11 Sept 2001, Osama bin Laden led al-Qaeda terrorists struck the US, killing close to three thousand people in the attacks. Although Afghanistan was the base for al-Qaeda, none of the nineteen hijackers were Afghan nationals. President George Bush vowed to ‘win the war against terrorism’ against Al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden operating from Afghanistan.
On 15 Oct 1999 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) declared al-Qaeda and Taliban as terrorist organisations and imposed sanctions on their funding, travel, and arms shipments. Osama bin Laden was guiding al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Peshawar, (Pakistan) in the late 1980s, to Sudan in 1991, and back to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The Taliban, which was raised from the ashes of Afghanistan’s post-Soviet civil war, provided al-Qaeda sanctuary for operations.
Killing of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an expert in guerilla warfare commander of the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition, was killed by Taliban operatives that provided protection to Osama bin Laden after 9/11 attacks. The US military with UK’s support, commenced bombing of the Taliban hideouts, joined by Canada, Australia, Germany, and France. The Taliban lost Mazar-e-Sharif on 9 Nov 2001, to the forces of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek military commander.
Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader hiding in the well-equipped Tora Bora cave complex southeast of Kabul was forced to run away by the Afghan militias engaged in a fierce two-week battle with al-Qaeda, resulting in heavy casualties on 16 Dec2001 and al-Qaeda remnants and commanders escaped to surrounding mountains.
Hamid Karzai, chairman of Afghanistan’s interim administration since Dec 2001, was picked by loya jirga to head the country’s transitional government who later was elected as the first president of Afghanistan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assumed control of the international security forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan tasked with securing Kabul and its surrounding areas. NATO’s strength was eventually raised from 5,000 to 65,000 troops from forty-two countries, including all twenty-eight NATO member states.
With a bloody resurgence, violence increased across the country in mid-2006 with intense fighting erupting in the south and rift emerged in NATO setting 2008 as target to hand over the country to Afghan National Army and withdrawal from the country.
There were numerous cases of human rights violations and collateral killings reported against the NATO forces in the western Herat Province, drawing condemnation from President Hamid Karzai and psywar propaganda by the Taliban that coalition forces were unable to protect the population. In early 2009, much to the dislike of the Americans, President Obama ordered reinforcing 17,000 more troops to the war zone and stressed upon NATO members to step up in building Afghan civil society through provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). It was agreed upon to hand over full responsibilities of security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
On 1 May 2011, in a daring surprise mission, much wanted Osama bin Laden, responsible for the 9/11 attacks was killed by the US troops in Pakistan. Meanwhile, President Obama realised that the majority of the Democrats and Americans did not support the war in Afghanistan and outlined a plan to withdraw sizable forces in 2014 while the Afghan President Karzai pleaded for $10 billion annual aid for the country over the next decade for security and reconstruction after the withdrawal of troops.
In April 2017 The US President Trump ordered to drop powerful non-nuclear bomb on suspected self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militants at a cave complex in eastern Nangarhar Province and announced reinforcing by several thousand US troops to the nearly nine thousand already deployed there and signaled prolonged Afghan War. In retaliation the Taliban carried out series of bold terror attacks in Kabul killing over 115 people in upsurge while the Trump decided to withdraw 50% of troops by mid Jan 2021, days before the President elect Biden was to take over the office, who, on assuming the presidency decided full troops’ withdrawal by Sept 2021 but would continue assisting Afghan security forces and support the peace process.
The US started withdrawal stealthily and unexpectedly from the Bagram airbase in the dead of the night without even informing the local Afghan commander, which was not expected from the superpower having operationally stayed over two decades. Meanwhile, the top US 4 star general in Afghanistan, Gen Miller relinquished his command at a ceremony in Kabul on 12 Jul 2021, taking the United States a step closer to ending its 20-year war while the Taliban militants continued to gain territory across the country.
As the Taliban has too stepped up its attacks in Afghanistan and militant groups opposed to China and Pakistan and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are waging insurgency against Pakistan in volatile and active tribal areas, along with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Baloch separatists posing serious threats to USD 60 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) including the development of the Gwadar Port connecting Xinjiang opposed by them.
The Taliban has launched an all-out offensive and Kandahar is believed to have fallen and all countries including India having Consulates have withdrawn their diplomats to Kabul. It is feared that in near future major cities Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar Mazar-e-Sharif and finally Kabul will fall and large numbers of demotivated and with low morale Afghan forces are fledging to neighbouring Tajikistan after clashes with Taliban duly supported by Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia, making significant gain as vast number of US and allied troops have left Afghanistan much before Sept 2021 deadline. It has led to complete collapse of Afghanistan security apparatus with Taliban controlling more than half of the country.
What does it mean for India and Peace in the Region?
Since Afghanistan is likely to fall to Taliban, geo-strategically, India’s own security is under danger with Pak-China-Taliban nexus lurking on our northern borders while the Chinese pose serious threats along the entire Indo-Tibetan border and the Indian Ocean encircling India. The hostile Pak media has already propagated that the USD 3 billion Indian investment in Afghanistan was totally sunk.
Also, the safety, security, and well-being of the large numbers of Indians working on the development projects is highly on stake. Thus, an environment of insecurity and uncertainty prevails in India while our External Affairs Minister is rightly engaged in deep diplomacy with concerned nations to ensure peace and security in the region.
The US will only have sufficient troops to protect its embassy and diplomatic staff while Turkey would protect the airport up to a point.
The Pak sponsored Haqqani, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and LeT groups combined with Taliban will have free run from Kabul to Indian borders and Pak operated terrorists within India. The latest capture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Lucknow is the start with.
With the worsening of the situation, there would be a need to plan and implement multi-nations evacuation plans and massive refugees rushing to Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Iran, under the aegisof the UN along with the security of diplomats and foreigners in Afghanistan. The large Afghan population and their families that worked closely with the US troops would be extremely vulnerable to militants and so would be the top government officials and politicians and bureaucrats having very low morale and motivation.
There are every day endless sickening killings and atrocities suggesting there is nothing sacred for terrorists in Afghanistan. There would be security and troops vacuum and Taliban and other splinter terrorists’ groups and TTP would clash in Afghanistan and CPEC running through hostile Balochistan worrying Russians, Chinese Iranians and Indians, creating internal security issues for Pakistan and worsening situation may lead to-
- Russian marching into Afghanistan, or
- Chinese with or without tacit support of Pakistan, intervene to secure its Xingjian border from Taliban, or
- Both Russia and the Chinese entered Afghanistan.
- The US has made it clear that troop withdrawal doesn't mean the end of the war on terrorism and that it retains the authority to conduct strikes against al-Qaida or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
- The Talibanisation of Afghanistan and escalation in militia wars and civil war compromising security of the region.
- Taliban is compelled by world community to shun violence, join mainstream and chance is given to fragile peace and reconstruction of completely devastated Afghanistan in over 5 decades of wars and terrorism.
These are the uncertain hard times, with fingers crossed and serious immediate negotiations amongst the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member countries through UN with the US, EU, UK, Quad, and other influential countries are needed to resolve the complex Afghanistan imbroglio.
About the Author
Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. After retiring from the Army, he served in the Intelligence Bureau, specializing in industrial security and conducted security audits of a number of vital installations. He is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security matters. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. He can be contacted at Email: [email protected]
(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)
For more defence related content, follow us on Twitter: @MVictoryIndia and Facebook: @MissionVictoryIndia