A debt he had to repay. That’s what senior Afghan leader and former Governor of Balkh province Ata Mohammad Noor says he thought when he first heard the news that terrorists had attacked the Indian Consulate in his capital of Mazar-e-Sharif in January 2016. Within minutes, the Governor had picked up his M-4 carbine (rifle) himself and rushed to the scene with his guards to defend the Indian diplomats trapped inside the Consulate from the gunmen shooting at them from a building nearby.
“We never forgot what India did for us. When many other countries were supporting the terrorists and the Taliban, India supported the Northern Alliance,” he said, recounting the attack during his visit to Delhi this week. “As Governor, I might have had 10,000 soldiers, but I felt it was my personal responsibility to repay India for the hospitality we had received then,” he said, referring to how India had given Northern Alliance fighters shelter, medical aid and logistical support during the 1990s, when he fought as part of the Mujahideen alongside Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood to overthrow the Taliban in 2001.
Operations lasted for more than 24 hours, during which Mr. Noor led his forces, firing at the building that housed the three terrorists to stop them from escaping. All three terrorists, believed to to be militants from the ‘Afzal brigade’ of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), were killed.
The siege that had begun at the same time as the JeM attack on the Pathankot air base in India, came just a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Kabul and Lahore. “A dangerous and deadly group was sent by Pakistan, and we dispatched them,” Mr. Noor said in Farsi, using the word “Khatarnak” to describe the attackers.
Four years later, Mr. Noor is in Delhi on a diplomatic mission: calling for India to take a keener interest in the Afghan situation, that he fears will deteriorate if U.S. forces pull out completely, as they have announced they will, and Doha talks with the Taliban fail to make headway. Mr. Noor, whose son Khalid is the youngest member of the Afghan negotiating team in talks with the Taliban, is himself not sanguine about the success of the talks.
“The situation is complicated, and that is the reason I am here,” he told The Hindu in response to a question about worries that Afghanistan could return to a situation like 1996, when the Taliban took control of Kabul and allowed foreign groups like al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Toiba to grow. “I want to thank India for its proactive diplomacy in the past, and ask them to be more proactive. Unfortunately, as the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will be more aggressive, and Pakistan will gain more space,” he added, referring to Pakistan as the “mother of the Taliban”.
When asked what he meant by “proactive diplomacy”, Mr. Noor said that during his talks in Delhi with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, he had spoken of the need for India to remain “in the game”, to have a robust presence in building regional consensus for peace, to help facilitate Intra-Afghan talks, and to support the Afghan government. He said he had also asked India to consider talking to the Taliban directly, in an effort to “broaden India’s interests” and to “dilute the influence of others”, pointing to the fact that regional countries, including China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, had increased their leverage in Afghanistan through engagement with the Taliban.
Mr. Noor’s visit to Delhi follows invitations from the government to two other non-Pushtun Afghan leaders who were key commanders during the war against the Taliban: Rashid Dostum and the National Reconciliation Council chief Abdullah Abdullah, in a signal that India is re-engaging with players it has not been in contact with more recently, especially as each had differences with President Ashraf Ghani.
While Mr. Abdullah had visited India previously as the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, ties with New Delhi were strained after he contested President Ashraf Ghani’s re-election in January this year. However, Mr. Noor said the former ‘Resistance’ leaders are now united with the Ghani government in their defence of Afghanistan. A leader of the Jamiat party, and an influential power figure in Kabul today, Mr. Noor became a fighter at 18, battling the Soviet Army, and then the Taliban.
“If needed, we will all come together to fight again,” he says. “It won’t be the Northern Alliance... but the resistance will be there.”