India in Afghanistan

Nation building or proxy war?

Mujaheddin soldiers travelling in 2002 through the land “where empires go to die.” REZA / WEBISTAN / CORBIS
Mujaheddin soldiers travelling in 2002 through the land “where empires go to die.” REZA / WEBISTAN / CORBIS
01 October, 2010

THEY WERE BOTH YOUNG. One had just the first wisps of hair on his cheeks, like an adolescent. The other was not much older, his short-trimmed beard caked with dried blood. There were gaping exit wounds in his shoulder, and in the pale skin of his belly, where his undershirt had been pulled up to reveal the damage. The two boys were lying dead amongst scattered bricks, at the feet of a crowd of gaping onlookers and journalists, in an abandoned construction site in Kabul.

“Where do you think they’re from?” a reporter asked the policeman who was taking a picture of the bodies with his cell phone, his assault rifle dangling from his other hand. The glaze of adrenaline still shone on the cop’s cheeks and eyes. “Pakistan,” he said. “Definitely not Afghans.” They always say that here, as if you could tell. They looked like Pashtuns, at least.

It was just one of several attacks in Kabul this summer, unremarkable in its execution and impact, but as a result, a series of extraordinary events had been triggered that would serve as a bellwether of India’s waning influence in Afghanistan. It was 29 May, the first day of the National Consultative Peace Jirga, and the two militants had managed to set up in the empty site and fire rockets at the Polytechnic University, the site of the peace jirga—a carefully stage-managed event that had brought handpicked tribal elders and civil society figures to endorse President Hamid Karzai’s plan to reconcile with the Taliban.

Karzai was furious that the jirga had been disrupted, in the middle of his inaugural speech, no less. One of the rockets had severed the leg of one of his personal bodyguards, and the two attackers had held out for several hours in a gun battle with police before finally being shot to death.

The following week, Karzai called a meeting with Hanif Atmar, the Minister of the Interior, and Amrullah Saleh, the chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS)—the Afghan intelligence service—where he accused them of deliberately failing to provide adequate security in order to undermine the jirga. In a heated exchange, both offered their resignations. It wasn’t the first time that either of them had offered their resignations in response to an angry outburst by Karzai, but this time the president accepted.

Of course, there was more to the forced resignations than just the incident at the peace jirga. Both Atmar and Saleh were favourites of Afghanistan’s Western donor countries, particularly the United States. They had been responsible for Western-backed reforms in Afghanistan’s internal security agencies. They were also officials who had been seen as very friendly to India, in particular Saleh, who had shown a marked and public hostility towards Pakistan, and was a strong opponent of reconciliation with the Taliban.

“It’s clear from what’s been said around the palace that the president had issues with Atmar and Saleh and suspicions that they were too loyal to the foreigners,” said Kate Clark, a political analyst in Kabul. “He’s tried to get rid of Atmar before and the foreigners said no.”

The incident showed how much India’s fortunes have been bound to the US-led nation-building project in Afghanistan, and how much the downward spiral of that project has diminished India’s position here. Saleh’s ouster was particularly damaging to India, as it has hampered co-operation between the NDS and India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and was seen as a significant milestone in the rehabilitation of Karzai’s once-tense relationship with Pakistan.

“By and large, India for a long time has put all its eggs in one basket and that is American presence,” said Harsh Pant, a professor and expert on Indian foreign policy and security issues at King’s College London. “America will sort everything out and will not leave Afghanistan until it’s achieved its objective. Suddenly, that has come crashing down because of the West’s desire to leave.”

Today, almost nine years after a US-led invasion deposed the Taliban regime, large swaths of the south and southeast have fallen under Taliban control, while Kandahar city, the linchpin of the south, has become a battleground of targeted killings, air strikes and improvised explosive devices. Even once-safe areas in the north and west have become dangerous. The rising insecurity is not simply a function of the insurgency, but a revival of centrifugal forces that have plagued the Afghan state for centuries, with local warlords and criminal gangs increasingly emboldened to defy a corrupt and ineffectual central government.

The final elements of the US military surge arrived at the end of this summer without any significant gains. The Taliban in Baghlan Province is now threatening the main highway north from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif, as well as the road south to Kandahar, and the result is an atmosphere of pessimism and mounting panic that has reached even into the relatively secure bubble of the capital. In September, when the top officials of the country’s largest private bank, Kabul Bank, were removed over revelations they had made hundreds of millions of dollars in bad loans to politically-connected businessmen, thousands of Afghans mobbed bank branches around the country, desperately seeking to withdraw their deposits. The incident added to the ‘end of days’ sensation in Kabul and cast a pall over Eid-ul-Fitr.

In several months of conversations over the course of this summer—many of them off-the-record—in Kabul and Delhi with current and former Indian bureaucrats with the Ministry of External Affairs and with India’s intelligence services, as well as with Afghan, Pakistani and Western officials and observers, the consensus was that India’s policy in Afghanistan is facing the seemingly impossible task of managing the collapse of the nation-building project in Afghanistan and containing Pakistan’s rising influence. Despite a massive commitment of 1.3 billion dollars in Indian aid, the Karzai administration and Pakistan have drawn closer, both as a result of the failure of US-led efforts to contain the insurgency, and the rising momentum for negotiations with the Taliban. There was confusion, however, over India’s basic interests in Afghanistan and what sort of plausible situations might be imagined. One thing was clear though: the growing fragmentation of Afghanistan could conceivably herald a return to the chaos of the civil war in the 1990s.

Amarullah Saleh, former chief of Afghani intelligence, a favourite of the Americans and Indians, resigned in June as Karzai edged closer to Pakistan. OMAR SOBHANI / REUTERS

IF YOU VISIT THE BORDER CROSSING at Spin Boldak, between Kandahar city and Quetta in Pakistan, you’ll find a sort of semi-organised mayhem. Here, hundreds of local Pashtuns pass back and forth without documentation each day. This is, in fact, one of the best controlled places along the Durand Line, demarcated by the British Empire and the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893, which extends through the Pashtun heartland—rugged tribal country where clans overlap the border, on up through to the Khyber Pass and then into the western reaches of the Himalayas.

Like they were in the time of the British Empire, the lands skirting the Durand Line are barely controlled or controllable, and are rife with smuggling and militancy. They have been a continual source of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Relations between the two countries worsened when Daoud Khan, who in 1973 deposed his cousin King Zahir Shah to become the first president of Afghanistan, revived the Pashtunistan issue. Pakistan began to support traditional Islamic rebels who were resisting Daoud’s attempts at state modernisation, while in turn, Daoud hosted thousands of displaced Baloch and Pashtun fighters.

The Soviet Union first supported the Afghan communist groups that led a coup in Afghanistan in 1978, and then, 20 months later, invaded in order to prop them up. India, though initially uneasy about the wisdom of the invasion, gave its support. “We were taken by surprise, they hadn’t told us they were going to invade,” said Vikram Sood, a former head of RAW who retired in March 2003. “Both of the superpowers have made a mess for our policies.”

Although a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, India had then moved into closer co-operation with the Soviet Union, signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1971 and receiving significant Soviet military aid. Pakistan, for its part, had fallen into the US sphere of influence, signing a security agreement in 1959 and, in time, becoming the conduit for billions of dollars in US aid to the mujahideen.

With the war in Afghanistan fuelled by the two competing superpowers, the border also became another front in the conflict between India and Pakistan, which after flaring into full-scale wars in 1965 and 1971, was then being carried out in several parts of South Asia. As RAW already had a close relationship with the KGB, this extended to co-operation with Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, KhAD, the predecessor to NDS. They had a common enemy in Pakistan.

An Indian engineer at the construction site of the new Afghan parliament, funded by the Indian government. EMILY WAX / THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

“It was a close relationship,” said Sood of the three intelligence services, KGB, RAW and KhAD. “It was a closeness that flowed from the political closeness of our governments.”

The KGB and KhAD carried out assassinations and sabotage in Pakistan, and RAW found its cooperation with them useful; in particular for intelligence on Sikh groups training in militant camps, according to the memoirs of Bahukutumbi Raman, a former RAW officer.

When, after ten years of a fruitless counterinsurgency campaign, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, a brutal civil war broke out between mujahideen factions. It was the sudden rise of the Taliban, a group of strict Islamic fighters who brought order to the south of Afghanistan, as the country’s pre-eminent military force that coalesced the conflict into sharp geographic, ethnic, and regional battle lines. The Taliban had indigenous beginnings that stretched back through the anti-Soviet jihad, but once they began to gather momentum, Pakistan threw its support behind them, supplying them with weapons, logistics, and battlefield guidance.

“There was a feeling in Delhi at the time that all was lost,” said Sood. “We were the guys who said ‘no, it’s not over, something can be done.’”

To counter the Taliban, Russia, Iran, and India gave weapons, money and supplies to the United Front, commonly known as the Northern Alliance, which included in a loose confederation Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek militia in the northwest, Ismail Khan in the west in Herat, and Karim Khalili in the Hazara-dominated central highlands, along with the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose Shura-e Nezar, or ‘Supervisory Council,’ drew on a core of loyalists from the Panjshir Valley, a Tajik-inhabited valley north of Kabul that successfully held out against both the Soviets and Taliban. Massoud, a charismatic leader, soon became the most prominent figure in the Northern Alliance.

Portraits of the once influencial Ahmad Shah Massoud, who faught the Soviets in the 1980s, was killed by the Taliban two days before 9/11. Massoud’s deputies swept into power when the US arrived in 2001. SAYED SALAHUDDIN / REUTERS

“He was a man who could have easily disappeared with a lot of money but he stayed and fought until the end,” said Lieutenant General Ravi Sawhney, who was the director general of Indian military intelligence throughout the 1990s until his retirement in October 2001. He would meet Massoud in Iran and Tajikistan, where India has a small airbase and field hospital at Farkhor, through which they brought in supplies. “There was no contiguity of the borders, we couldn’t do much besides financial aid.”

Dostum and Ismail Khan were eventually forced to flee Afghanistan, while Massoud’s forces were pushed by the Taliban into a tiny northern corner of the country. A Taliban victory seemed near, but the attacks of 11 September and the US military intervention abruptly altered the course of Afghanistan’s history. Though Massoud had been killed by al-Qaeda in a suicide attack two days before those at the World Trade Center (he died in Farkhor’s field hospital), his deputies swept into power on the back of the US-led bombing campaign that led to the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime.

Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s military dictator, had offered his support to the Americans, but according to recently declassified diplomatic correspondence, he repeatedly expressed his concerns that the Northern Alliance would take over Kabul. His fears were realised when, despite US pressure, forces led by the Shura-e Nazar entered Kabul in strength and occupied the ministries.

The northerners consolidated their strong position on the ground at the 2001 Bonn Conference, which charted a roadmap for Afghanistan’s political future. The most important ministerial positions in the interim government were entirely occupied by Shura-e Nazar figures, who simply took on the roles they had had under Massoud’s administration: Marshal Fahim as Defence Minister, Yunus Qanuni as Interior Minister, Abdullah Abdullah as Foreign Minister, and as head of the newly-formed NDS, Muhammed Arif Sarwari, who had been the CIA’s primary liaison under Massoud. With the exception of Qanuni, who became the Minister of Education and the Special Advisor on Security to Karzai, all of these figures kept their positions through the Transitional Authority that oversaw the Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003, up to the first presidential elections in 2004.

For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, you had an interior minister, defence minister, a foreign minister, and a chief of intelligence who were all from the Panjshir Valley. These were men who had been, a month before, fighting desperately against a Pakistani-supported Taliban while taking military and financial aid from India. Now they were the masters of Kabul, far more powerful than Karzai, who had just arrived from exile in Pakistan and had no military base of his own.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, former pro-Soviet fighter, received money and weapons from Russia and India in the 1990s to fight the Taliban. CAREN FIROUZ / REUTERS

These were good times for Indo-Afghan relations, and India reciprocated with substantial support, committing 1.3 billion dollars in development projects such as roads, dams, the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, a power line between Kabul and Uzbekistan and sponsoring hundreds of scholarships for Afghan students to India, making it the largest bilateral donor in the region and the fifth largest overall, after the US, Britain, Japan and Germany.

Even the new parliament building on Darulaman Road is being built by India for 83 million dollars, though Afghans are beginning to wonder when it will ever be finished (the government says 2011). The Manmohan Singh administration has also embraced co-operation in security matters with Afghanistan, seeing it as a crucial battleground in fighting terrorism in the region. Though India, primarily due to US objections stemming from Pakistan’s concerns, has not sent its military to take part in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, it has helped build the capacity of the Afghan security forces, providing pilot and counterinsurgency training and even mentoring the Afghan Army’s marching band.

The NDS figured prominently in this scheme. The CIA, which directly controlled the NDS’s budget until 2008, has worked to grow what is widely regarded as one of the most effective and cohesive institutions in Afghanistan, outperforming the Afghan Army and the dismal Afghan National Police. “It’s been a tremendously powerful institution in Afghanistan, certainly since the 1978 revolution,” said analyst Kate Clark.

The basic material for the organisation came from two sources: Shura-e Nazar’s pre-existing intelligence men, and former members of KhAD. They had previously been merged during the short-lived Rabbani government in 1992, when Fahim was put in charge of the intelligence service.After the Northern Alliance took Kabul in 2001, that setup was reconstituted. It was not unusual for communist-era figures with experience in security or bureaucracy—particularly those associated with Najibullah’s rule—to participate in the post-2001 regime, as they represented some of Afghanistan’s most well-trained talent.

Both the Panjshiris and the former KhAD members had experience working with Indian intelligence against Pakistan and its proxies in Afghanistan. RAW picked up these pre-existing relationships after 2001. “We knew a lot of these guys from their KhAD days,” said a former Indian intelligence official who recently retired. According to current and former intelligence officials within RAW and the NDS, the relationship between the two agencies had been co-operative, though less close than in the KhAD days, with NDS officials visiting India for training and RAW maintaining information gathering operations in Afghanistan.

Saleh, who took over as NDS chief in 2004 and had been groomed for the position by the Americans, is also from the Panjshir Valley, though at 38 he had been a relatively minor figure in Massoud’s administration. As a director in the Northern Alliance’s office in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he had been a liaison with foreign intelligence services. “One of the most brilliant people I’ve met,” said Sawhney. “Slightly short-tempered, but if there’s anyone who knows the Taliban and Pakistan’s hand in the game, it’s him.”

During his tenure as NDS chief, Saleh would publicly accuse the Pakistani government of waging an active campaign of support for militant groups in Afghanistan. “The tribal agencies of Pakistan, like Bajaur and North and South Waziristan, are kept by the government as a strategic pool of fighters. From there, fundamentalist warriors are sent to fight in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” Saleh told Der Spiegel, a prominent German magazine, in 2009.

“Amrullah Saleh was very hostile,” said a senior Pakistani official. “He gathered Panjshiris and Karmalists [former communists] around him who were ideologically opposed to Pakistan.”

The extent of the NDS’s operations in Pakistan is a matter of dispute. As a function of its counterintelligence and counterterrorism roles, the NDS has been working actively to penetrate the Taliban and other insurgent groups, both within Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the CIA has active intelligence gathering operations as well. (A key figure in this had been Dr Abdullah Laghmani, the Pashtun deputy head of the NDS who was killed in a suicide attack in Mehtar Lam in 2009.) However, Pakistani officials claim that NDS under Saleh has gone further than that, taking the fight to Pakistan by cultivating links with militant groups on Pakistani soil.

Afghan patients waiting to consult Indian doctors at Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul. JOHN MOORE / GETTY IMAGES

One Pakistani official in Kabul accused the NDS of actively supporting elements of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan that had turned against the Pakistani military, namely groups in Orakzai, the Swat Valley and South Waziristan—all locations of Pakistan’s selective military campaign in the tribal regions. “They were working very closely in Orakzai with NDS,” he said. “NDS had contacts with  Maulana Fazlullah and with Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan.” Afghan officials denied providing any support to militant groups.

The NDS has also been accused by Pakistan of harbouring militant Baloch separatists, including Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the Baloch Republican Party. In November 2007, Balach Marri, a key militant separatist leader, was killed in Afghanistan, according to some news reports at the time, due to a NATO air strike that mistook him and his men for Taliban. The Pakistani source claimed that Marri had in fact been killed in a suicide attack in Uruzgan. “They brought his dead body here to the military hospital in Kabul. The family got in touch with us and they wanted the body.” Initially, the Afghan government was too embarrassed to give up Marri’s remains, but, the source said, “eventually they gave us the body.” Marri was later buried by his family in Balochistan.

Pakistan’s further suggestion is that RAW has been working with the NDS inside Pakistan. “India was essentially using Saleh’s networks,” said the Pakistani official. In the minds of many in Pakistan’s military and intelligence community, today is a replay of the jihad period, when KhAD and the KGB launched assassination and sabotage campaigns in Pakistan, and RAW played an active, if minor role, in the covert war against Pakistan. Yet the NDS today is not what KhAD was at its full strength. For one, it has a far less effective penetration of the current Taliban than KhAD did of mujahideen groups, due to its relative weakness as an institution and its lack of the same deep links among Pashtuns. For another, the NDS’ close co-operation with the CIA would likely place limits on actions that might be seen to jeopardise American co-operation with Pakistan.

Indian intelligence officials denied any active involvement in Pakistan, a contention that has been supported in public by the US. Regardless of their truth, however, allegations that India has been meddling in Balochistan have been effectively used by Pakistan to pressure India over Afghanistan and Kashmir.

DELHI HAS SEEN a number of high-profile visits from Afghan politicians since this summer. The most significant, of course, was President Karzai’s two-day visit at the end of April, his last stop on a circuit of Islamabad, Tehran and Beijing. Karzai discussed his plans for the reconciliation process and the then-upcoming peace jirga with Manmohan Singh, who expressed cautious support, and their joint statement expressed their intention “to combat the forces of terrorism which pose a particular threat to the region.” This was followed up by Delhi visits from Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul and National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta, both of whom are considered friends of India.

One visit that was not announced, however, was that of one of Karzai’s principal rivals among southern Pashtuns—Gul Agha Sherzai, Governor of Nangarhar. Sherzai arrived the first week of this August and met with a number of Indian officials, including YP Sinha, the Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary in charge of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan and Alok Prasad, the Deputy National Security Advisor, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the visit.

A garrulous bear of a man with a popular touch, Sherzai is a former mujahideen commander and the Karzai family’s strongest rival in their home province of Kandahar. Originally installed as governor of Kandahar by the Americans in 2001, he was transferred to Jalalabad in 2003 after losing a power struggle with Ahmed Wali Karzai. Despite his reputation for brutality and corruption, he is looked favourably upon by Western donors, particularly the Americans, for his relatively trouble-free tenure in Nangarhar Province that has seen, among other things, a drastic reduction in opium cultivation.

Sherzai had been considered one of the leading contenders to Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections, but the two brokered a last-minute deal that saw Sherzai with-draw his candidacy just prior to the end of the nomination period. Nangarhar, whose capital city of Jalalabad sits astride the Kabul-Peshawar route, is a strategic province in which India has heavily invested in infrastructure and development projects, as well as provided support for media and broadcasting.

Gul Agha Sherzai, Governor of Nangarhar, a principal rival of Karzai was in Delhi in this August to meet with Indian officials. His visit was not announced. TOMAS MUNITA / AP PHOTO

Sherzai’s visit is part of India’s new strategy of broadening its outreach to better include southern Pashtuns, in response to increasing concerns about Karzai’s reliability as an ally and to the prospect of future peace negotiations that will bring groups associated with the insurgency back into power. “I think one thing that has gotten through to the government is that you have to talk to absolutely everybody,” said Radha Kumar, an Indian academic and expert on Afghanistan.

Karzai, who received his postgraduate degree in political science at Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla, has long been considered a friend of India, something that had been strengthened by the intense personal animosity that developed with Pakistan’s former military dictator.

“He had a personal rift with Musharraf,” said a Pakistani diplomat who had been personally familiar with the relationship between the two. “There was a personal angle to that bad relationship between the two countries.”

But India’s close relationship with Karzai has been overshadowed by the even closer relationship with the US that the Manmohan Singh administration has charted both in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The deterioration of the US-Karzai relationship has thus brought significant negative fallout for India.

As part of its strategy of shaping up Afghanistan enough to begin to effect a withdrawal, the Obama administration has been determined to pressure Karzai into reducing corruption, which it sees as fuelling the insurgency. Part of this has involved a shift in public rhetoric right from the beginning, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referring to Afghanistan as a “narco-state” during her confirmation hearings before the US Senate. The choice of Karl Eikenberry as ambassador was seen as another move towards getting tough on Karzai. Eikenberry had been the top American commander in Afghanistan during the period that saw Karzai’s increasing estrangement from the West, when Karzai had been forced by the internationals to remove two of his allies that he had appointed as the governors of the key southern provinces Helmand and Uruzgan: Sher Mohammad Akhundzada and Jan Mohammed Khan. In a leaked set of classified cables to Washington sent in November 2009, just prior to the decision to surge in 30,000 additional US troops, Eikenberry criticised the military’s counterinsurgency strategy and argued that “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.”

Indian security personnel in Kabul salute the body of an Indian road engineer, killed by the Taliban, before being brought back to India in 2005. AHMAD MASOOD / REUTERS

Relations further deteriorated as a result of the presidential elections, when high-ranking US officials such as Richard Holbrooke openly met with opposition candidates, in particular Abdullah. India came along for the ride, offering its own measured support for other candidates, as well as Karzai. At the Independence Day celebrations at the Indian Embassy on 15 August 2009, five days before the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah was the most prominent Afghan guest in attendance. India’s then-ambassador, Jayant Prasad, took him from table to table, where he posed for pictures and chatted in his fluent Hindi with the guests, according to a source present at the event.

“Perhaps because the West was so critical of Karzai, India thought that perhaps the West would have enough leverage to bring in another candidate,” said Pant. “To balance that possibility, India started its outreach to other candidates, and that damaged the relationship with Karzai.”

In the end, India and the West miscalculated badly. Karzai hung on to office, and indeed, there was little chance that Abdullah could have won, especially in the south of the country. After all, despite the massive fraud, it was clear that out of all the candidates, Karzai had received the most support from the populace. The battle between Karzai and the international community only served to delegitimise both parties.

Even more serious damage to US-Karzai relations has been done by aggressive US efforts to tackle corruption within Karzai’s government, which was almost certainly an important factor in precipitating Atmar and Saleh’s downfall. Over the summer of 2009, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration moved to create two new units within the Ministry of the Interior: the Major Crimes Task Force  (MCTF) and the Sensitive Investigations Unit (SIU). The idea was to insulate them politically from the rest of the government by providing them with their own judges, prosecutors, police officers and investigators, operating in conjunction with international mentors. Around the same time, the CIA helped the NDS and the Ministry of the Interior establish a joint wiretapping centre on the northern outskirts of Kabul. Karzai was reportedly unaware of the nature of these developments.

In January this year, the MCTF and the SIU raided the hawala money-transfer agency, the New Ansari Exchange, and seized some 42,000 documents. New Ansari was Afghanistan’s largest hawala company and had deep connections with the administration, including to Mahmoud Karzai, the President’s brother. Karzai was furious about the raid, summoning Hanif Atmar to an emergency cabinet meeting to complain, where he threatened to disband the investigative units, though Atmar himself had not been notified of the raid until moments before it occurred. There was a sense in the palace that these were American-controlled units that were running amok.

In March, Karzai issued a presidential decree bringing the Electoral Complaints Commission, which had been a thorn in his side during the election, under his direct control. In response, the White House revoked an invitation to visit that month, and Karzai, tit for tat, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit, who flew to Kabul and delivered a speech laced with trenchant anti-American rhetoric.

In May, the White House and Karzai patched things up enough for Karzai to visit and hold a joint press conference with Obama. Then in June, at the height of international goodwill over the peace jirga, Karzai provoked Atmar and Saleh into resigning. The internationals were completely blindsided by the move.

“The peace jirga, even though it was political theatre, it did actually empower Karzai,” said Kate Clark. “The foreigners were not in any position to go against him.”

Now Karzai had cleared the way for the coming showdown: In late July, the investigative units made their first move against a member of Karzai’s inner circle, arresting Mohammed Zia Salehi, Head of Administration in the National Security Council. Included in the evidence for the arrest were recorded conversations provided by the wire-tapping centre set up under Atmar and Saleh. Karzai reacted immediately, personally ordering Salehi’s release and opening a commission tasked with an investigation into the MCTF and the SIU for, among other things, “human-rights abuses.”

Pakistan Military General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI Chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha have recently stepped up their visits to Kabul, influencing domestic matters. Here they meet US Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen and Scott Van Buskirk in 2008. US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The battle that ensued between Karzai and the US escalated to a level of open, public animosity not seen since the presidential election, with US officials leaking to the press that members of Karzai’s administration, including Salehi, were taking payments from the CIA. (Salehi, incidentally, is a former aide to Dostum who spent several years post-2001 in Delhi serving as a key liaison with India.) In August, Karzai fired Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, the Deputy Attorney General, for his resistance to blocking the investigations, and the Western-mentored corruption inquiries have been frozen, according to news reports. As a replacement for Saleh, Karzai selected the little-known engineer Rahmatullah Nabixl, a protégé of Ibrahim Spinzada, another Karzai loyalist who has become the eminence grise on the National Security Council and now the NDS. The appointment of Nabil, who had been head of Karzai’s security detail at the Presidential Palace, was a move seen to weaken the NDS and bring it more directly under his supervision. “He worries most about the Americans,” said a non-Western diplomat who meets regularly with Karzai.

The other factor behind India’s decline in influence in Kabul is that its erstwhile Northern Allies in the civil war, so dominant in 2001, have been gradually but inexorably pushed out of that position in a process that has been on one hand a natural reflection of the Pashtun plurality, and on the other a testament to Karzai’s cunning for consolidating his own power base. In the early years, Karzai deftly used international support for ‘institution-building’ to sideline mujahideen-era figures he found troublesome. In addition to pushing out Sherzai from Kandahar, Karzai had Ismail Khan removed as governor of Herat in 2004, and Dostum was forced to spend a year of exile in Turkey after he was nearly put in jail for kidnapping and assaulting an opponent in 2008, before Karzai enlisted him in his re-election campaign. Karzai has also succeeded in splitting and weakening many of the former northern blocks, a task made easy by the voracious corruption endemic to Afghanistan’s ruling elite, fuelled by international cash. For his vice presidents in the 2009 election he chose Karim Khalili, the Hazara warlord and Fahim, whose family’s business interests have become tightly interwoven with Karzai’s. The move put Khalili at odds with the leading Hazara politician, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Fahim—who is now seriously ill with diabetes—has since fallen out with Abdullah Abdullah and Massoud’s two brothers, splitting the Panjshiris.

In his search for alternate allies, Karzai has made common cause with a number of former members of the Hizb-e Islami, particularly at the district and provincial levels. He’s also brought some political operators who have helped build closer connections with elements of the former Taliban regime into his inner circle. One of the most important examples is Umer Daudzai, from Qarabagh, former UNDP officer in Peshawar who worked in the civilian wing of Hizb-e Islami, Gulbuddin, during the jihad. “He had very good relations with the Taliban when he was with UNDP,” said a UN staffer in Kabul who had been present then.

Daudzai became Karzai’s chief of staff in 2003, and apart from a stint as ambassador to Iran from 2005 to 2007, has kept his influential position. He is now considered to be one of Karzai’s closest and most trusted aides, and India has watched his rising influence with anxiety. “Close to Iran, close to Pakistan, rumoured to still have good links with the Taliban,” was how a current Indian intelligence official categorised him.

Of course, Karzai continues his deft balancing act on the contradictory forces around him, and India doesn’t remain without friends in his government. Appointed as interior minister was the friendly figure of Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a senior Shura-e Nazar figure close to Fahim, whose children are studying in India. “India insisted on someone who could guarantee their interests,” said a source familiar with discussions between Indian and Afghan officials in the wake of Saleh and Atmar’s resignations.

And Spanta—who went public with his unhappiness at Saleh’s resignation—remains Karzai’s designated man for moments when anti-Pakistan rhetoric needs to be cranked up. In a recent blistering op-ed in TheWashington Post titled, ‘Pakistan is the Afghan war’s real aggressor,’ Spanta downplayed Afghan corruption as a cause of the insurgency and stated that “Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary and support to the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, the Hekmatyar group and Al Qaeda.”

Still the long-term trend seems clear to most observers. Karzai and Pakistan have powerful interests in common, given the American withdrawal. Nor is it just Karzai who is interested in improving relations with Pakistan. One Pakistani diplomat in Kabul ticked off a list of powerful northern figures who he claimed had made overtures to Pakistan, and then explained how the surge in ‘stabilisation’ funding for insurgency-afflicted areas in Afghanistan—most of it US money—has created powerful incentives for Afghan government figures to get a cut by working with Pakistani companies that could operate in Taliban-held areas. “Even Fahim has accepted the situation, and we’re getting along,” said the diplomat. “India can’t compete with Pakistan.”

THE HAMID GUESTHOUSE sits on a busy side street in the heart of Kabul. It feels about as far away as you can get from the war in Afghanistan, but this February two gunmen rampaged here for hours, killing six Indian nationals, including two army officers and an engineer, as well as eight Afghans, a French filmmaker and an Italian diplomat.

According to statements by Afghan and US intelligence officials, the attackers, who spoke Urdu to each other during the raid, were members of Lashkar-e Taiba that had been brought into the city via the logistics lines of the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant group based in North Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal areas that has close links with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Like the massive suicide car bomb attacks on the embassy in 2008 and 2009, Pakistan was a prime suspect, though the accusations were more muted than in 2008. At that time, immediately after the bombing, Manmohan Singh announced an additional 450 million dollars in aid to Afghanistan, a sign to Pakistan that India would not be deterred from its involvement there, but also a move that had some scratching their heads at the perverse incentives this involved. “What are we rewarding Afghanistan for?” said an Indian observer in Kabul. “Every time India gets attacked, the government responds with another pledge of millions of dollars.”

The lack of success of the US military’s surge and counterinsurgency campaign, and President Obama’s commitment that July 2011 will mark the beginning of the US troop withdrawal, has focused the region’s attention on a post-US Afghanistan. A high-level strategic review scheduled for December could bring additional impetus for a faster drawdown of US forces. While, given American concerns over the potential for terrorist attacks against the US emanating from the tribal regions, it seems implausible that the American military will completely leave Afghanistan in the near future. What has been abandoned is the hope of a military victory over the Taliban. In June, Admiral Michael Mullen, the highest-ranking officer in the US military, stated that there were no purely military solutions in Afghanistan and that “the only solution” was a political one.

“It came into focus earlier this year at the London conference,” said Pant, “where it was clear that India was marginal to the strategic landscape.” At the top-level London Conference on Afghanistan this January, it was established that a negotiated settlement was necessary, and that there should be a two-tiered process—a reintegration process where low-level combatants would be encouraged to quit fighting via economic incentives and the promise of amnesty, along with a reconciliation process whereby the Taliban leadership would be engaged in negotiations.

The problem, from India’s perspective, is that Pakistan retains close oversight over the senior Taliban leadership within its territory and thus an effective veto over the negotiation process. While Karzai has held discreet talks with members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the past, including recent meetings with delegates from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group, this January, Pakistan arrested Mullah  Abdul Ghani Baradar, the number-two figure in the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s senior leadership council. Afghan, US and Pakistani officials told The New York Times, among other newspapers, that Baradar had been arrested because he had been overly independent in his approaches with the Karzai administration.

Pakistan’s message seems to be: you go through us, or not at all. And the carrot has followed the stick: both General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI chief Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha stepped up their visits to Karzai in Kabul this summer, reportedly offering to broker a deal with Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani. At the same time, there have been persistent rumours among palace insiders that Daudzai might be appointed as special emissary to Iran and Pakistan, a position that would put him in a key position in reconciliation efforts. Daudzai has played an active role in the past in organising the Karzai’s administrations contacts with insurgent groups.

One response to the increasing likelihood of a negotiation process is that India has sought greater cooperation with Iran and Russia on Afghanistan. “If the West is going to leave, if Pakistan retains an upper hand, we would once again see the kind of alliances and the kinds of things that were happening when the Soviets left,” said Pant.

Iran in particular has deep ties—it once hosted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for six years after he fled the Taliban regime—and US and Afghan officials have accused it of low-level support to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan. Recently, there has been an increase in high-level diplomatic activity between Iran and India. “Suddenly there is a new momentum in the relationship,” said Pant. “Afghanistan has been big factor in cementing this relationship.”

A series of meetings held over the past three years in Dubai and the Maldives between current Afghan politicians and prominent figures linked to the Taliban and Hizb-e Islami have been partially funded with Iranian support via Hekmatyar’s son-in-law Humayoun Jarir, according to Afghans who have participated.  But the US has been wary of a regional peace process, not least because Russia and Iran would both like to see the Americans eventually withdraw their troops from the region, a point of disagreement they have with India. There is also serious friction over one of India’s largest projects in Afghanistan, the 116 million-dollar Salma Dam in Herat, delayed by years because of insecurity and political issues, which Iran is disputing because of its effect on the Hari Rud, a river which flows across the border into eastern Khorasan.

The prospect of a US withdrawal, a collapse of the Karzai government in the face of an emboldened Taliban and increasing interference from regional actors has also raised the spectre of a resurrection of the centrifugal dynamics that plunged the country into its brutal civil war during the 1990s. In July, after his resignation, Saleh toured northern Afghanistan, holding public meetings where he warned of the danger of Karzai’s negotiations with the Taliban (he’s also started a popular Facebook page).

At the beginning of September there were rumours, carried by local television, that Abdullah, Saleh and Dostum had been in Delhi to receive Indian endorsement for the formation of a northern coalition, which were denied by Abdullah and Saleh. (Dostum had in fact visited Delhi during the last week of August, according to an Afghan source who met him while he was staying at the Taj Palace Hotel, though he said at the time that it was just to get his liver looked after.)

Some have even suggested that splitting Afghanistan along ethnic lines—an impossible task in reality—would be a solution to the country’s troubles. Robert Blackwill’s recent op-ed in the Financial Times, which called for a de facto partition of Afghanistan, has been well read and much discussed in Delhi. Blackwill, the US ambassador in Delhi during the first George W Bush administration, has worked as a paid lobbyist for the Indian government. There seemed to be the sentiment in Delhi that this was an eventuality that was at least no longer unthinkable. Of course, there is an element of strategic communication in the suggestion that a revival of a post-Soviet proxy war might be in the cards.

Manmohan Singh is greeted by Karzai in Kabul in 2005. The first visit to Afghanistan by an Indian leader in 29 years. SHAH MARAI / AP PHOTO

“The idea is that by making the threat of a post-West Afghanistan look like a post-Soviet Afghanistan,” said Pant, “America can be forced to pressure Pakistan into some sort of accommodation with the other regional powers.”

The prospect of a divided Afghanistan, thrown back into brutal civil war, or a Taliban-governed Afghanistan, no longer so friendly to India, begs the question of what India’s vital interests in Afghanistan really are. The Indian government says that it wants a stable, democratic Afghanistan friendly to India, but the prospect of one that has all three characteristics is looking increasingly dim. Others would say India’s interest is access to Central Asian energy, or reducing the potential for terrorism such as the attacks in Mumbai. But on those grounds, India has little to show for its investment. Of course, one can make the case that the violence and destabilisation in Afghanistan has actually benefited India by weakening Pakistan and tying up its resources and military forces on its western border.

“When has a stable, strong enemy ever been to your benefit?” asked Sood. “That being said, they’ve diminished in a very dangerous kind of way.”

Of course, India has staked so much on its play in Afghanistan—its very role as a rising regional power—that its involvement has become something that justifies itself. “It has become almost a test case for India,” said Pant. And some wonder whether it has blinded India to larger concerns.

“Is it not our stakes in Afghanistan that have made us take Pakistan more seriously than they perhaps deserve to be seen nowadays?” asked one veteran Indian observer in Kabul.

If Afghanistan returns to a state of chaos, India may once again reap the whirlwind. But in preparing for the worst, whether with covert or overt action, might India hasten its onset? The tragedy, for ordinary Afghans, Indians, and Pakistanis alike, is that the Great Game might once again go from a nation-building project to proxy war.