Why Mullah Omar's death means little to India

New Delhi is on the back foot in Afghanistan, while the US is relying on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the dialogue table.

 |  4-minute read |   31-07-2015
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India is already out of the picture in Afghanistan; so Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death is of no great significance to it. On Friday, the Taliban acknowledged his death and named Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as its new leader.

Ever since former Afghan president Hamid Karzai left office, India’s role has shrunk. Karzai’s relations with Pakistan was testy and he was keen that India plays a strategic role in Afghanistan. India was the first country with which the Karzai government clinched a strategic partnership agreement in 2011. New Delhi is not a stakeholder in the Afghan peace process; so the reclusive one-eyed Mullah being out of the scene will not affect India’s position in Afghanistan. It is unlikely that the new leader Mullah Mansoor’s attitude towards New Delhi will be any less hostile.

According to a statement issued by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s office, Mullah Omar had died of natural causes in 2013. The speculation is that Omar died of tuberculosis in a Karachi hospital. Pakistan has not confirmed the news.

There is now a question mark about the second round of peace talks. However, if Mullah Omar had died in 2013, the angst about the peace negotiations is strange.

Representatives of the Afghan government, the Taliban, as well as China, Pakistan and the US are scheduled to meet soon for the next round of peace talks. Ironically, the Taliban commanders had circulated a report recently saying that Mullah Omar was in favour of the talks. Pakistan regards its role as a "facilitator" and is proud of the fact that the international community is appreciating its support. It is natural that Pakistan wants to make sure that in the final political settlement in Afghanistan, the pro-Pakistan Taliban is accommodated.

There are many in India who believe that the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s pussy-footing and reluctance to supply defence equipments to Afghanistan, despite repeated requests by the then president Karzai was a mistake. But was it? The fact that the Manmohan Singh government concentrated on development projects, including smaller schemes that touched people’s lives helped India earn much goodwill from ordinary Afghan citizens. India has pledged two billion dollar-worth of aid to Afghanistan. This combined with India’s soft power - Bollywood and the Hindi television serials, which are popular in Afghanistan – have worked to make India popular among common Afghans. So be it, New Delhi should just cultivate this goodwill which exists without getting into the internal politics of Afghanistan. It is not an easy country, and as recent history shows, foreign forces occupying the country have got short shrift from the warlords of Afghanistan. After the British, and Russians, even the Americans are not in a position to force their will on the Afghans.

Pakistan has an advantage because it is an immediate neighbour. Pashtuns live on both sides of the border and there are both religious and ethnic bonds. The Taliban was the creature of the madrasas in Pakistan. At one point of time, when the Taliban was ruling in Kabul, Pakistan was in a happy position. The 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar happened when Mullah Omar and the Taliban were in control. India was number one on the Taliban hate list at that time.

India, together with Iran and Russia, was at that time providing support to the Northern Alliance which was opposed to the Taliban. But in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on the US when the Taliban was ousted from power by the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces, things brightened up for India. After an initial tango with Pakistan, Hamid Karzai got disillusioned and turned more and more towards New Delhi for support. India was allowed to open its diplomatic mission in Kabul as well as consulates in Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif. India spreading its wings in Afghanistan was a red rag to Pakistan, which was worried that its security was endangered by Indian forces both on its eastern and western flanks. The attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul as well as those on Indians working on various projects was a reaction to the ISI’s (Inter-Services Intelligence) nervousness. But now with Karzai out of office, and Ghani trying desperately to come to a political settlement with the Taliban, India is on the back foot, while Pakistan is back to where it once was. The US as well as Ghani is relying on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table for talks. Pakistan’s all weather friend China is also involved in the peace talks.

But there is no reason for India to be over-anxious about this. Let others deal with the mess. New Delhi should just concentrate on small development projects and the soft power which has made it popular in Afghanistan. It will be good for India to bide its time, till a political solution is found in Afghanistan. At the moment no one knows what turn the situation will take and who will get sucked into the mess. Hands-off Afghanistan is a sound policy for now.

Writer

Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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