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How India secretly armed Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance

Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of the Northern Alliance. | Photo Credit: AFP
V. Sudarshan Chennai 01 September 2019 01:30 IST
Updated: 01 September 2019 10:26 IST

Former envoy has a word of caution on Delhi’s role in a post-U.S. Kabul

India must not commit the error of placing Indian troops on Afghan soil, says the diplomat who coordinated New Delhi’s secret military assistance to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander of the Northern Alliance, who fought the Taliban and U.S. forces till his assassination in 2001.

For four years, between 1996 and 2000, till he left the Tajik capital Dushanbe to take up his new posting, Ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces.

It all began, says Mr. Muthu Kumar, exactly a week after September 26, 1996, when the Taliban, backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), took over Kabul, shot former President Najibullah dead, castrated him, and hung his body from a lamp post. Just hours before, Indian Embassy staff had scrambled into the last plane out of a country that had begun its descent into hell.

Amrullah Saleh, who looked after Kabul’s interests in the Tajik capital, called Mr. Muthu Kumar to inform him that the “Commander” would like to meet him.

“Commander” was a reference to Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, who made his name guerrilla-fighting the Soviets when they occupied Afghanistan for 10 years. The Indian ambassador sought instructions from New Delhi on what was to be done. The response: “Listen carefully, report back faithfully, and play it by ear.”

Over chai and dry fruits

Massoud maintained a house on Karamova Ulitse in Dushanbe. He had his own staff and Mohammed Saleh Registani looked after the affairs of his house. It was here that the Indian ambassador regularly began meeting Ahmed Shah Massoud, discussing, over endless chai and dry fruits, the bewilderingly shifting fortunes of the battles in Afghanistan where money was enough to swing fighters. The Commander did not speak English and Amrullah, who would later go on to become Intelligence Chief, interpreted for him. The Indian ambassador subsequently had his number two in the mission, Dr S.A. Qureshi on hand for interpretation.

At the first meeting, the Commander had dramatically thrown his trademark cap down on the table, and declared, that was all the space he required — the circumference of his headgear — to stand and fight for his country. He put it simply: “I need India’s support.” He then set out a list of items he needed.

What is in it for us? Delhi queried. Mr. Muthu Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”

Expanding list

The Commander’s wish list kept growing, and when once, New Delhi agreed to send only a fraction of the requirement, Mr. Muthu Kumar sent a message explaining Massoud’s predicament with an Ajit joke: “We have thrown him in liquid oxygen: the liquid won’t let him live and the oxygen won’t allow him to die.”

Jaswant Singh, a former soldier, and then BJP leader, who had become External Affairs Minister, read the cables the first thing. He directly called Mr. Muthu Kumar and gave him a message to deliver to the Commander: “Please assure him that he will have his requirements.”

Short of sending heavy equipment, India provided extensive assistance to the Northern Alliance — uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud. Assistance would be delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach.

Mr. Muthu Kumar does not recall the quantities and the detailed itemisation. The logistics of procurement and delivery was handled by the Military Intelligence wing in New Delhi. The supplies arrived regularly at Dushanbe, and the Tajik customs ensured the smooth transfer to Farkhor, at the border between Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, where Massoud maintained around 10 helicopters for his war efforts. New Delhi also helped maintain the helicopters with spares and service. Between 1996 and 1999 India gifted two Mi-8 helicopters.

Frontline hospital

The wounded arrived incessantly from the battlefront in helicopters at Farkhor. Those requiring sustained treatment were sent to Delhi via Farkhor and Dushanbe, the visas furnished in double-quick time. Also, at Farkhor, where the embassy had scouted for a hospital, an isolation clinic had been refurbished with two operating theatres, twenty-four beds for the convalescing and an ICU of between six to eight beds, depending on the requirement. Five doctors and twenty-four paramedics ran the hospital, which also had an OPD for locals. The medical outreach project had been valued at that time at $7.5 million.

When Ambassador Muthu Kumar wanted to build a helipad right next to the hospital for the convenience of the wounded, New Delhi jokingly admonished him, “Now you are getting carried away!” He found a convenient solution. Farkhor was in the cotton belt and for ginning cotton, they used reinforced concrete slabs seven or eight inches thick and large enough to comfortably land an MI8. So the medical facility had a helipad as well. Indian officials began flying up to Dushanbe to meet Massood and also have themselves photographed with him.

The policy grew more substantial when President Emamoli Rahmon indicated he would like a technical halt in New Delhi on his way back from Vietnam, on January 22, 1999. Prime Minister Vajpayee invited him for lunch at his residence and ways were discussed to deepen the ties.

New Delhi was interested in an airbase in Aini to maintain forward presence in the area. It had been used by the Russians who maintained Su-25 aircraft, subsonic, heavily armed. After they withdrew, it fell into disuse, and India lengthened the runway, upgraded the airbase, did a ferry run, and flew a flag there too and stationed a Commandant with the rank of a Group Captain with four officers under him. The Aini airbase has no IAF aircraft on ground but is a part of India’s well-equipped training mission in Tajikistan.

It was to the Farkhor medical facility run by India that Massoud was brought when he was assassinated on September 9, 2001. Registani, who had become a general, called Mr. Muthu Kumar who had been posted to Minsk in Belarus, to say that the Commander had been attacked, and was beyond help.

The date coincided with the diplomat’s wedding anniversary, and he was throwing a dinner; he promptly cancelled the event without assigning any reason.

It was days later that Massoud’s death was announced. The first military attaché arrived after the RAW man in the embassy had arrived towards the end of Mr. Muthu Kumar’s tenure. Almost as soon as the first American military boot hit the Afghanistan soil, the hospital in Farkhor was ordered to be wound up and shifted to Mazar-e-Sharif.

Echoes today

This nearly hidden chapter in New Delhi’s relationship with Afghanistan grows in salience as the talks between Taliban and the Americans veer around to formulating a way forward, combined with the repeated and open American request to India to participate more robustly in the security matrix in Afghanistan.

Barely three months before he died, towards the end of May, Commander Massoud visited New Delhi. He was there for four days, at New Delhi’s invitation. Jaswant Singh records, in his book, A Call to Honour, “This had to be a closely guarded visit, as any number of terrorist groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan were vying to take his life.” He noted that, “India’s co-operation with the Northern Alliance is still largely an untold account. A more complete narration of it has to wait.”

Is there a take-away from India’s experience that is relevant now? Mr. Muthu Kumar quotes Massoud as saying in August 1998, before the U.S. launched cruise missile attacks on Kandahar and elsewhere, says, “I recall Commander Massoud telling me in August 1998 before the U.S. launched cruise missile attacks on Kandahar and elsewhere that “The problem in Afghanistan — more than the Taliban — is the presence of foreign forces. so I am also fighting these forces who are with the Taliban. After the massacre of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif this summer, Iran massed more than 2,50,000 soldiers on our border to punish the Taliban, so I advised the leadership in Iran, do not invade Afghanistan as I am fighting foreign forces, so just give me material assistance to defeat the foreign forces and the Taliban.”

Given his experience, Mr. Muthu Kumar says, “Taking note of Masood’s exchange, my thinking is that we must not commit that gross error of placing Indian boots on Afghan soil. What will Indian troops do? What could we achieve and who will we fight and defend? The leaders of the present Government and the Taliban are only two major facets of Afghan politics — they have to resolve their differences for that elusive peace and stability.”

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