Afghans Are Cheering for an Indian Win
For Kabul, India is a vital counterbalance to an aggressive neighbor.
KABUL— “Anyone who takes the side of Pakistan and blames India, please unfriend [me] from Facebook, otherwise I will [say things that] upset you,” Mohammad Iqbal Afzali wrote on social media on Tuesday. A quick scroll through his Facebook feed reveals a strong stance in support of India’s recent cross-border airstrikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed targets in Balakot, Pakistan, following the Feb. 14 terrorist attack on an Indian Army convoy.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Afzali was an Indian nationalist. But, in fact, he’s an Afghan, just one of a chorus of voices in Kabul who support the Indian moves. Even though he spent several years in Pakistan as a refugee at the height of the Afghan conflict in the 1990s, Afzali doesn’t remember his hosts fondly. “Well, [India] attacked after Pakistan’s offense. When an enemy attacks, we must give them an answer. That’s what India did, and they did very well,” he said.
Qudratullah Andar Sultani, a former government official, agreed. “If America can attack a country for the sake of their national defense, then why can’t India? They too were under pressure to do something,” he said.
Afzali and Sultani are not alone. Afghans are not only maintaining support for India but calling for an escalation in a conflict that has gripped South Asia since the February attack that killed dozens of Indian soldiers. Strikes and counterstrikes have heightened tensions, though the release of a captured Indian Air Force pilot by Pakistan looks set to be a powerful gesture of good faith.
Afghanistan would inevitably be drawn into any India-Pakistan clash—a hard sell in a country that’s already known decades of conflict. Last week, Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul made comments suggesting that any aggression from India could affect Afghanistan, earning him the ire and a diplomatic demarche from the Afghan government. Islamabad has played a crucial role in facilitating the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.
But many Afghans also see the Pakistani establishment as a key supporter of the Taliban insurgency in their country. New air and sea routes are connecting Afghanistan to the wider region, reducing previous dependency on Pakistan, and Afghans fear that Pakistan is looking to widen its leverage. Afghanistan even protested a scheduled meeting between the Taliban and Pakistan earlier this month, raising the issue with the U.N. Security Council, stating it “amounts to the official recognition and legitimization of an armed group that poses a serious threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan.” Pakistani Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that India’s airstrikes could affect the ongoing Afghan peace process.
On the other hand, India is viewed favorably by many Afghans as the enemy of their enemy. India’s investment—of more than $3 billion—in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as several smaller development projects, has bolstered India’s popularity.
Pakistan’s connection to terrorism alarms Afghans. “Pakistan has been using terrorism as a tool and tactic,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Afghan spy chief and current contender in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections. Nabil not only approves of India’s airstrikes but feels that they should have happened sooner. “India should have done this much earlier,” he said. “I hope Iran will also take action against Jaish-ul-Adl. Because if the U.S. leaves the region—and we hope they leave behind a good legacy—but if they simply withdraw, that will give the sense of victory to all terrorist networks not just in the region but on the other side as well.” Nabil claims that, according to his confidential sources, there are 45 to 48 terrorist networks in Pakistan created for different purposes.
Nabil is cheered by a stronger India, seeing it as a power that can pressure Pakistan enough for Afghanistan and the United States to gain leverage in the peace talks. Recalling the vacuum left behind after the Soviet withdrawal that gave rise to various powers and internal conflict, Nabil urged the United States to seek guarantees from Pakistan and set up a system of oversight to ensure that the terrorist groups are neutralized before they withdraw. “My main worry right now is not about the Taliban or U.S. withdrawal but that Pakistan will turn into a bully in the region” after the United States withdraws, he said. “They will start thinking that they were the ones who defeated Russians, and now they are the ones to defeat the U.S. and NATO. They have an expansionist agenda, and they are armed.”
For other Afghans, though, the horror of war is first and foremost. “No one more than Afghans knows the misery of war and violence—whether it is violence as a means used by establishments and countries or terrorist groups,” said Orzala Ashraf Nemat, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank, noting that Afghanistan is deeply dependent on both countries for support and daily life would be badly hit by conflict.
Another serious concern is the use of Afghanistan as a battlefield for proxy wars between other powers, an all-too-familiar experience. “Afghans have experienced this form of escalation of war and proxy wars in the past two, three decades. So if the Afghans are at all wise, they will not allow Afghan territory to be used as a proxy,” she said.
Even Afzali, who supports India’s aggression, advises caution among Afghans. “India and Pakistan’s fight is between them. Afghanistan must not be involved in it,” he said, adding as an afterthought: “Yes, but if India beats Pakistan, and especially targets those bases where they train terrorists, and finishes their bases, Afghans can live in peace.” Afzali encourages Afghans to “support India through the media and help weaken Pakistani morale.”
Nabil, on the other hand, is more direct in his approach to urge Afghans to support the war. “Afghanistan should take a side … not just for India’s sake but to safeguard our own interests and the sacrifices that we have already made because of Pakistan. They have done the worst they can do to Afghanistan,” he said. “But Afghans want our peace with peace in the neighborhood and not peace exchanged for another war.”