Afghanistan, Military Relations with, 1994–2001

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AFGHANISTAN, MILITARY RELATIONS WITH, 1994–2001 In the mid-to late 1990s, New Delhi together with Tehran joined a long line of nations, including the United States and Russia, united in their common goal of curtailing the Taliban's activities in Afghanistan, by providing material and diplomatic support to the Northern Alliance's United Front (UF). The Taliban movement, which materialized in mid-1994 under the direction of Mullah Mohammed Omar, had grown strong with Pakistan's support in reaction to widespread lawlessness in the south. By late 2000 the Taliban controlled around two-thirds of Afghanistan, although in many areas this amounted to little more than a small armed presence in the major towns. The support the UF received from India and other nations steadily grew and became increasingly desperate in the years before 2001, as regional powers sought to avert the capitulation of the UF who were operating in northern Afghanistan, and to prevent the Taliban from gaining complete control of the country.

The Tehran-New Delhi Axis

Tehran and New Delhi viewed the containment of the Taliban as essential to their national security interests. Besides India's determination to contain Taliban trained terrorist groups and factions from Afghanistan, which they believed were fueling the Kashmir conflict, New Delhi had grave concerns over the spread of Taliban fundamentalism into Pakistan and the training of personnel who could fight in Kashmir against Indian forces and interests. Should, for whatever reason, the moderate Pakistani regime collapse, India was concerned that an Islamic fundamentalist regime, backed by the Taliban, might take power. Even the remote possibility that such an extreme regime might inherit Pakistan's nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missiles was a scenario that New Delhi wanted to avoid. India also feared that an extreme Islamic government coming to power in Pakistan could destabilize South Asia, risking a full-scale war, possibly involving nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the prospect of Islamic fundamentalists taking power in Pakistan remains remote. Despite unease in Pakistan and continuing sectarian conflicts in Karachi, any attempt to develop a fundamentalist government in Islamabad would encounter little support in that country.

In an attempt to contain the spread of the Taliban, India admitted in October 2001 that for two years New Delhi had covertly assisted the UF, providing technical assistance, defense equipment, and medical aid. India's involvement began shortly after the hijacking in 1999 of one of its domestic airliners, with 155 passengers and crew, by Pakistan-backed terrorists who forced the aircraft to fly to Kandahar. In a humiliating deal with the Taliban, India secured the release of the hostages and aircraft in exchange for three Kashmiri terrorists held in an Indian jail, and an undisclosed sum of money. For over a year the Indian army had been running a field hospital near Farkhor on the Afghan border south of Dushanbe; the UF's charismatic commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by a two-man suicide commando on September 9, 2001. Through Tajikistan, India also reportedly supplied the UF with high-altitude warfare equipment worth some U.S.$8 million to 10 million. A handful of Indian defense "advisers" were reportedly based in Tajikistan to assist the UF in its operations against the Taliban. Technicians from the secretive aviation research center operated by India's Research and Intelligence Wing helped repair the UF's Soviet Mi-17 and Mi-35 attack helicopters. India also purchased Russian helicopters from Moscow to pass on to the UF. There were also unconfirmed reports of Indian Special Forces assisting UF forces and of New Delhi providing cash grants to the UF via its embassy in Tehran.

Indian-Iranian cooperation to counter the Taliban was codified in April 2001 with the signing of new strategic pact during Indian prime minister Atal Vajpayee's visit to Tehran. Had it not been for the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan in October 2001, India was expected to provide further assistance to anti-Taliban forces via Iran, and to fight Taliban-sponsored insurgents operating in Jammu and Kashmir. To some extent, remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are understood to be still actively involved in Kashmir. The northern tip of Kashmir shares a border with Afghanistan.

India had further incentives to curtail the Taliban's activities in Afghanistan in view of their treatment of Hindus. From May 2000 until their fall, the Taliban ordered all Hindus in their controlled areas to wear a piece of yellow cloth to, as they put it, protect them against Taliban religious policemen enforcing Muslims to attend mosques daily and to ensure that they did not cut their beards. Hindus and Muslims were prohibited from sharing the same house. Observers could argue that these practices were similar to the Nazis' treatment of Jews in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

India found Iran to be a willing partner in its fight against the Taliban, since Tehran had viewed the Taliban as an irritant since the mid-1990s. In 1998, Iran and Afghanistan came close to full-scale war, following the murder of Iranian diplomats and journalists during the Taliban's seizure of Mazar-e Sharif that August. In September 1998, Iran mobilized around 200,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan, which led to a number of minor skirmishes. Relations did thaw in November 1999 with the reopening of the Iranian-Afghanistan border, but Iran continued to provide military assistance to anti-Taliban factions. Assistance extended to airlifting freshly trained troops from Iran to neighboring Tajikistan. Iran had been at the forefront of providing weaponry to anti-Taliban factions since 1994, when the Taliban first appeared in Afghanistan.

Iran viewed the Taliban with concern since its inception, initially fearing the Sunni force as a Western-backed operation designed to rid Afghanistan of its Shiʿa minority, the same branch of Islam that is dominant in Iran. After the Taliban's success in taking control of Herat in 1995, Iran commented that the Taliban had been "conceived" by America, was funded by Saudi Arabia, and was logistically supported by Pakistan in order to crush Afghanistan's Shiʿas and to contain Iran.

Moscow's Involvement

India's involvement in the anti-Taliban alliance was coordinated by Moscow, which had a vested interest in curtailing the spread of fundamentalism throughout Central Asia, since Russia believed that the Taliban was training and sheltering guerrillas fighting for independence in Chechnya and in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Russian deputy foreign minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov coordinated efforts in the Central Asian states to combat the Taliban. Trubnikov held talks with Iran, India, and China on ways and means to coordinate their policies toward Afghanistan. An Indian-Russian working group was organized in October 2000, following President Vladimir Putin's visit to India.

The Threat of a Proxy War

The need to combat "Afghan terrorism" was viewed in New Delhi with great concern because of Pakistan's heavy involvement in backing Taliban forces with funds and arms. There were increasing concerns that forces trained by Taliban and al-Qaeda were becoming involved in the Kashmir dispute. There thus developed a proxy conflict in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan, each backing opposing forces, as their long conflict over Kashmir extended to Afghanistan.

Prior to 11 September 2001, the proxy war in Afghanistan appeared ready to deepen with the increasing involvement of regional powers in the attempt to prevent the fledgling UF from collapsing. Pakistan continued to play a crucial role in the Taliban's military campaign. The assassination of UF leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on 9 September 2001 threatened the survival of the fragile alliance of rival factions Massoud had achieved only months before. Massoud's efforts at providing an effective opposition to the Taliban had been compounded by the political differences among Shiʿa factions, preventing the development of an effective national army and alliance. Massoud was succeeded by General Muhammad Fahim, who faced a tough battle to hold the alliance together and to avoid defeat at the hands of Taliban forces prior to the arrival of U.S. troops.

Pakistan's involvement

To understand why India seemed ready to become more deeply involved in Afghanistan, it is necessary to briefly examine the extent of Pakistan's involvement in supporting the Taliban. Pakistan's military support of the Taliban was a major reason for the Taliban's military successes during the 1990s. Islamabad maintained and operated many of the Taliban's aircraft and tanks, providing training, planning, advice, weapons, ammunition, and logistical support. In addition, military advisers attached to Islamabad's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate assisted the Taliban with the provision of religious volunteers. It is understood, however, that no regular Pakistani army personnel were involved in backing the Taliban. Pakistan's assistance proved critical and decisive in the Taliban's July–August 1998 defeat of the opposition Jombesh-i-Milli-Islami (National Islamic Movement) headed by rivals Rashid Dostam and Abdul Malik.

Significantly, the Taliban benefited from the flow of volunteers from Pakistan's religious schools (madrasahs) who were willing to fight and die for the Taliban. As long as the Taliban continued to exist, hard-line Pakistani Islamic organizations appeared likely to continue providing personnel to fight alongside the Taliban in their struggle against Indian/Iranian backed anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Since the inception of the Taliban in 1994, the Pakistan based Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam organization and its madrasah network provided thousands of generally ill-trained Muslim youths deployed in assault roles, with Afghan Taliban moving in behind them to secure areas. By mid-2001 it was estimated that around 30 percent of the Taliban military were Pakistani and Arab units.

There appeared to be no shortage of Pakistanis willing to fight for the Taliban, nor of finances from abroad to fund the madrasahs supplying these fighters. Prior to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Pakistan insisted they would not go along with any campaign against the Taliban. Pakistan argued that the United Nations sanctions imposed against the Taliban, following their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, did not cover "religious volunteers" fighting alongside the Taliban. Washington's closer ties to New Delhi, together with the lifting of many sanctions imposed following India's 1998 nuclear tests, did nothing to encourage Islamabad to abandon the Taliban. Many in Pakistan believed that the West had betrayed and abandoned them, denouncing Washington's "double standards approach." It took the shock and horror of the events of 11 September 2001 to jolt Pakistan to officially end its support for the Taliban, in return for U.S. military support and desperately needed economic aid.

The World Trade Center terrorist attacks thus significantly changed the strategic landscape of South Asia, with a sudden increase in the number of nations willing to join the cause of defeating the Taliban—although some nations, including Iran, refused to support U.S. military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The prospect of the Americans becoming militarily involved in Afghanistan gave General Muhammad Fahim's UF an immediate and unexpected incentive to remain united. As the United States became so heavily involved following 11 September 2001, the Taliban lost the support of its only regional ally, Pakistan.

Ben Sheppard

See alsoKashmir ; Pakistan and India


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