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Exclusive! How India reached out to the Afghan Mujahideen
'It was a mission undertaken in darkness in every sense -- literally, because Afghanistan had no electricity at that time; and, metaphorically because Delhi historically dealt only with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and the foreign ministry's vast archives had nothing to offer on the culture and politics of the northern tribes in the Hindu Kush.'
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, who played a stellar role in beginning India's systemic dealings in Afghanistan in 1994, reveals for the first time how he undertook that most important and risky mission.
One thing I learnt early enough in South Block was that as head of a territorial division, the success of a policy initiative almost always would lie in slipping it in innocuously when the superiors were overworked. Even if the idea were heretical, the chances of it finding habitation depended on the timing.
That was how the saga of India's systemic dealings with the Afghan Mujahideen began in 1994.
The fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary 'Lion of Panjshir,' becomes an appropriate occasion to reminisce.
But, first, it is necessary to summon some history from the attic of the mind. Circa 1991, it wasn't particularly difficult for an Indian diplomat to bump into an odd Afghan Mujahideen representative accidentally at an embassy reception in Islamabad.
But they could never engage in a conversation, despite immense curiosity (on both sides), being acutely conscious of the prying eyes of Pakistani intelligence.
With the vague hint of a smile and a slight bow, the proud Afghan would slip away, half-apologetically, wary that even a small bite of the forbidden fruit would exile him forever from the Garden of Eden in Peshawar.
For, the endgame had already begun for the Communist regime in Kabul, and the Mujahideen knew their hour of reckoning had come, and that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence could condemn them to perish or give them everlasting life.
Then, in April 1992, the Mujahideen became Fateh Kabul, overthrowing the Communist regime headed by Najibullah. Soon afterward, when I returned to Delhi to head the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan Division in South Block, I was confident that Foreign Secretary J N Dixit (whose deputy I had been in the mission in Islamabad) would instinctively sense the raison d'etre of the need to deal with the Mujahideen government in Kabul.
But then events overtook us as a mob ransacked our mission in Kabul and our diplomats hastily vacated to Delhi. We shut down the embassy. There was no option, but to bide time.
Then, in end-August, we received a curious query from Kabul wondering whether the aircraft carrying President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his delegation could refuel in Delhi en route to Jakarta to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting (September 1 to 6, 1992).
It took some effort to get the approval of the concerned authorities. (Dixit had already left for Jakarta.) Indeed, Indian establishment thought it was a bizarre idea to allow a planeload of 'Wahhabis' to land in Delhi as our State guests. (The mindset was not very different from what we have today vis-a-vis the Taliban.)
But, fortunately, it took a split second only for the razor-sharp mind of the then acting foreign secretary K Srinivasan to get the point, when I hardly began explaining that the Mujahideen were likely sending a complicated signal to us, reaching out to us, and bypassing their Pakistani mentors by contacting us directly.......
I had expected Massoud to be 'different.' Perhaps, that was because somehow I associated him with another handsome Tajik leader I got to know in 1990 in Najibullah's government -- Farid Mazdak -- who was a member of the politburo of the Afghan Communist Party but also an ardent exponent of national reconciliation with the Mujahideen.
However, I find that before retiring for the night later that evening, I had made a noting in my scrap book -- 'He resembles Bob Marley.'
Our conversation was held in two parts clocking 5 to 6 hours on successive days, interspersed with a field trip to the 'war front.'
The Jamiat was locked in mortal combat with another Mujahideen group, the Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at that time for control of Kabul and was jostling with Ittehad, the Mujahideen group led by Rasul Sayyaf, whom also, interestingly, I was to meet later during the visit. (Jalaluddin Haqqani was a commander under Sayyaf during the jihad.)
Massoud greeted me warmly by observing that I was the first Indian official he was met through the entire period of the Afghan jihad. I responded that nonetheless he was far from a stranger to us, and that we always admired him, albeit from a distance, as a robust Afghan nationalist. Massoud was visibly pleased and I felt I struck the correct chord for a transparent conversation.
Our meeting took place in a room, which would correspond to the 'map room' in South Block in the ministry of defence. My mission was deceptively simple -- convey to the leadership of various Mujahideen groups that we were not their enemies and that we hoped for cordial, friendly relations, which were after all civilizational, rooted deeply in history.
Massoud gave a lengthy statement explaining the Jamiat's ideology, couched heavily in nationalistic idiom with plentiful innuendos and loaded remarks about Pakistan's intrusive policies toward Afghanistan.
He spread out the maps and with a pointer and explained at some length the overall security situation. Of course, at that precise moment, he saw Hekmatyar as an existential threat....
Massoud asked for India's help in the struggle to regain Afghanistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
I could sense that he had a good grasp of the India-Pakistan tensions at that time. (The insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir was nearing high noon by that time -- the bloody violence and mayhem in the valley, orchestrated by Pakistan, was driving Delhi to despair.)
Evidently, Massoud was hinting at the shared concerns of Kabul and Delhi in checkmating the Inter Services Intelligence. He (and Rabbani whom I met separately) harped on the importance of India reopening the mission in Kabul at the earliest. He offered full protection for our diplomats and chancery premises.
Ironically, I picked up the bazaar gossip later that 'Panjshiris' too had played their due part in the looting and ransacking of our mission, and were second to none in stealing our embassy vehicles, chandeliers and the imported furniture and Kashmiri carpets -- even embossed crockery and silver cutlery at the Residence.....
PS Gulbuddin Ghusaomatyaar, where did I hear that name before? And what happened to Bhadrakumar after retirement? why did he change?