India-Iran cooperation over the Afghan problem: Past, Present and Future
by M K Bhadrakumar on 07 Mar 2010 2 Comments

A consistent theme in India-Iran cooperation is that not only have the two countries not had to face any contradictions in their respective concerns over regional security and stability, but they indeed enjoyed many shared interests and concerns. The Afghan problem is a vivid example. In today’s circumstances, it needs no reiteration that India and Iran have common objectives towards stabilizing the Afghan situation.


The two countries share a common vision that Afghanistan should be: (a) stable and secure; (b) strong and independent; (c) free of external interference and capable of warding off foreign interference; (d) able to have a broad-based government that reflects the country’s plural society; (e) stabilized through an inclusive national reconciliation process that is led by the Afghans themselves and not through outside prescriptions.


Both our countries clearly recognize that an ‘Afghan-isation’ of the struggle against terrorism is an imperative need and indeed they are willing to cooperate with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai in this direction.  


The following emerges in a retrospective view:


-        India and Iran have a shared history of close cooperation over Afghanistan in the latter half of the 1990s.


-        The impetus originally came from the ascendancy of the Taliban, which was supported by the Pakistani military, that affected the national security interests of the two countries – essentially, an intense awareness of the congruence of national interests provided the platform.


-        A broader framework inevitably accrued in terms of the practical needs of India to render material support to the government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, based in Faizabad.


-        Thereby, a nascent “post-Soviet” idea of the late 1980s and early ‘90s for developing a transit route for India via Iran to the Central Asian region got a renewed lease of life.


-        On surface, the transit route idea assumed geopolitical overtones and international observers would have estimated it to be a game changer leading to a potential regional condominium between India and Iran (and Russia). Of course, that was an exaggeration.


-        In retrospect, the practical implementation of the idea of transit route was tardy, haphazard and even half-hearted. Arguably, political commitment was lacking – on both sides. Actually, during this period, India’s foreign policy was prioritizing the relationship with the United States; and Russia or Iran were far from a matching priority.


-        In historical terms, this lapse assumes much significance today. Had there been a robust implementation of the concept of an Indian transit route, Iran would have emerged as India’s vital link to Eurasia and an entirely different geopolitical paradigm would have developed bonding the two countries into a virtual regional alliance.


-        Thus, cooperation over Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s, which was profoundly meaningful, was ultimately fated to became a relic of history.


-        The nature of the respective involvement by India and Iran with the Rabbani government also differed. Iran had a much deeper and comprehensive political engagement with the Northern Alliance than India. Iran also sustained a vision towards the Afghan problem and had tremendous conceptual clarity with regard to a future Afghanistan. Iran’s influence over the Northern Alliance was greater than India’s, too.  


-        Yet another major difference devolved upon the nature and issues of the relationship of the two countries – India and Iran – with regard to Pakistan.


-        Finally, there was a larger backdrop. The second half of the 1990s was a period of turbulence in India’s domestic politics and the uncertainties and ‘ad-hocism’ endemic to periods of transition – essentially speaking, the transition to a coalition era in politics from single-party rule – also took its toll on the growth and development of India-Iran relations.


Indian elite and Iranian aspirations


The fact remains that through the history of the Islamic Republic, the Indian political leadership – Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao – had traditionally taken a lead role within the Indian elite in advancing – and often steering and even micro-managing – the relationship with Tehran, being committed to an estimation of the relationship with Iran as a crucial factor of regional stability and in India’s long term interests. The Indian bureaucracy and the strategic community very often lagged behind the national leadership in this respect.


Conceivably, the ruling Congress Party’s base of support among the Muslim population in India (which began eroding as the 1990s progressed) would have played its part. All the same, the then Indian leadership had a sense of history about Iran and its Revolution and an awareness that the aspirations the Islamic Republic represented were similar to independent India’s in many respects.


In sum, the new Indian elite that has been emerging as India’s economic reform gained traction and the middle class began expanding has proved to be western-oriented – even US-centric. This is evident in the shocking innocence of the Indian intellectual (and media) discourses in the recent period over such crucial issues as Afghanistan or the Iran nuclear issue.


The paradox is that India gravitated away from its moorings as regards non-alignment, G-77, anti-imperialism and so on, whereas Iran in the recent years, especially since 2005, probably went back to its revolutionary moorings with renewed vigour. This, of course, is a debatable point.


The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud a week earlier came as a historic turning point. The conclave held in Dushanbe in those fateful days in September 2001among the regional allies of the Northern Alliance failed to analyse the far-reaching import of the developments, leave alone evolve a common strategy towards regional security and stability.  The regional allies – Russia, Iran and India – began drifting apart from that point, each pursuing its separate interests in the evolving situation.


Curiously, Russia, Iran and India all welcomed the US intervention in Afghanistan, but each had its own considerations for doing so. The three erstwhile regional allies not only facilitated the US intervention of Afghanistan, but played a helpful role at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. This measure of cooperation proved critical for the US to steer the leadership of the interim government in Kabul in a predominantly pro-American direction and establish a grip over the conflict resolution.


Bonn Conference must be seen, therefore, as a watershed event where Russia, Iran and India seriously erred in judging US intentions or the near-certainty that the US viewed Pakistan as its key ally in Afghanistan.


Today, a tantalizing question arises: what would have been the course of history if Russia, Iran and China had insisted on the formation of a government-in-exile under the leadership of King Zahir Shah (to which the king was persuaded at the crucial talks held in Rome by the Northern Alliance delegation led by Younus Qanooni)?


What if the regional powers had insisted that there was no need for an outright American invasion, but that robust international support in material, financial and politico-military terms (with a US role in it) for the government-in-exile would suffice?


After all, it was the Northern Alliance militia that actually drove the Taliban out of Kabul. US ground forces arrived only thereafter to seize the political initiative after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Not many would recall today that the interim government in Kabul was taken by surprise by the arrival of American forces in Bagram or the ‘turf war’ between Washington and Moscow at Bagram base where a Russian aircraft landed. Indeed, many questions remain unanswered even today, such as the evacuation of Taliban forces besieged in the northern city of Kunduz by the Pakistani military under the very eyes of the US Special Forces.  


From that point onwards, the US indeed seized the political initiative to develop a puppet regime in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad’s tenure as ambassador in Kabul had a highly focused agenda in that direction.


Alas, Russian, Iranian and Indian diplomacy in Kabul took a back seat during the formative period. They mutely watched the systematic sidelining of the Northern Alliance groups and the denigration of their leaders as ‘warlords’, whereas it should have been obvious that a Taliban resurgence was a matter of time, that a US-British-Pakistani condominium was fast developing and a need may arise for mobilising the anti-Taliban forces within Afghanistan to politically resist a potential return of the Taliban to power with Pakistani support and American acquiescence.  


On a parallel plane, India’s relationship with the US was fast transforming and became an all-consuming passion for the establishment in New Delhi. In contrast, nascent signs of a thaw in the US-Iran standoff gave way when George W. Bush veered round to the “axis of evil” thesis soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan was successfully accomplished.


Thus, Indian and Iranian interests in Afghanistan steadily began to diverge.

There has also been a dramatic surge in India’s security cooperation with Israel, which continues to date. The Indian market today accounts for one-third of Israel’s arms exports and is a significant contributor to Israel’s GDP.


In retrospect, these templates did impact the India-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan, especially as negotiations began over the US-India nuclear deal following the Indian prime minister’s visit to Washington in 2005 and India signed a major framework agreement on defence and strategic cooperation with the US.


Looking back, it is clear that the drift in the India-Iran relationship in the period since the historic crest of the 2003 “declaration” by New Delhi and Tehran to work shoulder to shoulder as key regional allies significantly helped the US strategy to establish an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. The impetus of the 2003 declaration today stands all but dissipated. Ironically, it was the NDA government in India led by a so-called Hindu nationalist party that had hoisted India-Iran cooperation to an all-time high level.   


Coming to the present day, a crucial diplomatic aspect of the current US strategy has been to strike “grand bargains” with the regional powers. The contradictions in the region have immensely helped the success of the US strategy in this regard: India-Pakistan; India-China; Iran-Pakistan; India-Iran.


In sum, the US has successfully frustrated the scope for any regional initiative on Afghanistan to emerge. The signal “victory” at the London conference on January 28, 2010 testifies to it.


What lies ahead?


The US is pressing ahead with reconciliation with the Taliban. Its principal allies are Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There is some sophistry in the attempt to draw a fine distinction between ‘reintegration’ and ‘reconciliation’ of the Taliban, but this is a deliberate American ploy to hoodwink the ‘angst’ in the region, and the emergent signs are that a programmatic effort is well under way to reconcile the ‘Quetta Shura’ and the Jalaluddin Haqqani network.  


The US effort is to bring the fighting to a halt as quickly as possible within the next 12-18 months, in time for US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. There should be no doubt whatsoever that NATO intends to remain in Afghanistan on the long term. We may expect the US to initiate the negotiation of a ‘status of forces agreement’ with Kabul at some stage in the very near future, similar to what the US concluded with Iraq.


There is telling evidence that American military bases in Afghanistan are being systematically upgraded in anticipation of the challenges that lie ahead in Central Asia in the medium term, in terms of NATO’s expansion into the region, US’ containment strategy toward Russia and China, etc.


US is swiftly bringing Pakistan into the fold of NATO through partnership agreements. The two sides have acknowledged that the NATO-Pakistan partnership will go far beyond the needs of practical cooperation in stabilizing Afghanistan, but will aspire to be a key template in regional stability paradigm in the long term. NATO is gearing up to train the officer corps in the Pakistani armed forces and hopes to have ‘interoperability’ with the Pakistani armed forces.

 What is often overlooked in India is that Islamism per se is not anathema to the US. Islamism even lends itself as a useful geopolitical tool in US foreign and security policies. Therefore, the US may even stand to gain out of the ascendancy of Taliban in the Afghan leadership structure provided, of course, Taliban completely and conclusively disengages from providing shelter to any elements that may threaten US’ homeland security. 


No doubt, the Taliban’s ascendancy as per the US-Pakistani-British-Saudi script has grave implications for regional security. It will radicalize regional hotspots such as Kashmir and Xinjiang and Ferghana Valley, and will threaten Iran’s security. Nascent signs have appeared. Iran has been a victim of terrorism fostered by groups operating out of Afghan soil, which may have links with outside forces. Thus, the US is preparing the ground for a historic role as ‘arbiter’ in Asian security.


From the Iranian and Indian perspective, the effort should be to strengthen Hamid Karzai’s hands so that any national reconciliation in Afghanistan should be principally a pan-Afghan affair that leads to the creation of a broad-based government in which Taliban can participate provided it affirms faith in the Afghan constitution and bids farewell to arms.


Alongside, the following will help: a) re-establish political dialogue with the erstwhile Northern alliance groups although the CIA and ISI have systematically got through to them during the recent years; b) articulate from Delhi and Tehran often enough and openly at the official level the concerns over the radicalization of regional security situation; c) keep up regular India-Iran regular exchanges; and d) establish a working group for intense consultations, regular exchanges of intelligence, etc.


Finally, nothing will be a substitute to India and Iran working towards building up a regional initiative. This is best done under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.


China has the maximum congruence of security interests with India and Iran. Unfortunately, influential sections of the Indian strategic community overlook this, unwittingly or otherwise, despite the gathering storms on the horizon in the nature of a radicalization of the entire region that will have serious fallouts for India’s long term national security and stability.  


The author is a retired senior diplomat

[Based on the speech delivered at the International Conference on ‘India-Iran cooperation over the Afghan problem: Past, Present and Futureat Tehran University, Tehran, Feb. 22-23, 2010] 

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