Why Afghans are taking India's side in the standoff with Pakistan

Why Afghans are taking India's side in the standoff with Pakistan
6 min read
02 March, 2019
In Afghanistan, the potential threat of war between India and Pakistan has proven especially engrossing, writes Ali M Latifi.
Afghan social media has been a flurry of side taking - mostly for India [Getty]
Ever since Indian aircraft violated Pakistani airspace to strike what New Delhi said was a training camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province being used by an armed group known for its attacks on Indian security forces, the escalating tensions between the two neighbours have alarmed and captivated millions.

In Afghanistan, the accusations, military actions and potential threat of war between the two nations has proven especially engrossing. In the past 48 hours, several local broadcasts have led with the latest developments in New Delhi and Islamabad. In corner stores, barber shops, coffees with friends and after-dinner tea at home, it has dominated conversations. Afghan social media has been a flurry of side taking (mostly India's), antagonisation (mostly against Pakistan), political hot takes and calls for peace.

For Afghans, the latest tensions have pit their friend and ally, India, against the country they see as a foe that has been aiding and abetting regional armed opposition groups, including the Taliban.

To many people, India is the reliable partner that has given us a new $90 million parliament building, a massive Afghan flag surrounded by a one million dollar renovation of the surrounding park, attack helicopters and the $300 million renovation of a hydroelectric dam.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has had a much less benevolent image in the Afghan imagination. It is remembered more for being the place Osama Bin Laden – whose capture was one of the reasons for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 – had been hiding than for hosting millions of Afghan refugees for decades. It is also known as the country where former Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had not only been killed but also, from where he frequently flew to Iran, Dubai and Bahrain. Recent reports of aggression and intimidation against the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has led to outcry among Afghans, including President Ashraf Ghani.

These duelling images – along with the perceived roles both nations have played in their own nation's decades-long conflict – has greatly coloured the Afghan perceptions of the latest spat between the two regional nuclear powers.

"Jai Hind, Afghans will stay strong with our Indian brothers, no more patience for Porkistan," tweeted one social media user by the name of Sayaar Helmand. His statement of support invoked the nationalist phrase "Victory to India!" and insulted Pakistan, a nation whose founding was based on their Muslim-majority population, by referring to the nation as swine, an unclean animal in Islam.

Hasib Rassa, another social media user from the Western Afghan province of Herat was far more direct, tweeting: "India forever! ♥️ We Afghans support this act of India. I wish India continues to do so again and again until Pakistan is removed from the world's map. Long live India-Afghanistan!"

If Pakistan keeps sending suicide bombers to Afghanistan and India, they shouldn't be waiting on flowers from us

Searching for nuance

Recent attacks in India and Iran have only ratcheted up regional accusations against Islamabad, with both New Delhi and Tehran accusing Pakistan of "sheltering" violent armed groups.

To those who support India's bombings of alleged militant targets in Pakistan, the attacks are a long overdue reality.

Idrees Stanikzai, who ran for a parliamentary seat from Kabul in last year's election, said he and his friends were happy to see India's military actions against so-called terrorist sanctuaries.

"If the United States would have bombed terrorists hide outs in Pakistan instead of our homes the region would be clear of terrorism now.  If Pakistan keeps sending suicide bombers to Afghanistan and India, they shouldn't be waiting on flowers from us," said Stanikzai.

In an address to the parliament, Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, specifically countered the accusations of Islamabad supporting the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, by saying his country has played a leading role in getting the Taliban to engage in face-to-face negotiations with US representatives.

"We [Pakistan] are making every effort. It's because of these efforts there's a dialogue in Qatar which is assisted by Pakistan," Khan said.

Despite the geographic and political complications between the three states, other Afghans have been more tempered with their reactions. Israr Karimzai, who has been a staunch ally of the PTM movement, and taken part in solidarity rallies in Kabul, said when Afghans online appear to revel in the conflict, it is the result of a decades-long frustration with their Southern neighbour.

"The joyous displays by some Afghans on social media is more of a protest, a means to remind the world and the people of Pakistan about their country's prolonged support for the groups that are destabilising our country."

Still, Karimzai is among those Afghans who is calling for calm, rather than ratcheting up pro-war rhetoric.

"Afghans know the cost of war and we know what kinds of generational damage it can inflict upon a nation."

Karimzai is not alone in his dismissal of statements that stoke hostilities between the two neighbours whose political have become so intertwined with Afghanistan's.

Shaharzad Akbar, an activist and former political official, tweeted in response to the calls for war, saying, "No war is worth its cost. Hostility in our region doesn't benefit citizens of any of the regional countries. Peace must be our regional priority."

Far too many Afghans are blind to the accusations of abusive practices by the Indian Army in Kashmir

'Direct impact'

Aside from dominating conversations and media headlines, the ongoing turmoil between the two nations has already had a direct impact on Afghanistan.

Last week, a commercial flight from Kabul, headed to New Delhi, was turned back and not allowed to cross Pakistani airspace. The Afghan Civil Aviation Authority later announced that all flights to India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would be rerouted through Iranian airspace.

Despite the calls for calm and peace, some in Afghanistan cannot let go of their sense of hostility. Nasir Ahmad, an activist from the Southern Afghan province of Kandahar, doubts the authenticity of supports of restraint.

The 26-year-old says: "It was Pakistan who started this trend of saying 'No to War.' They are terrified that they will once again lose out. No other country is supporting them."

Ahmad's statement, and its conspiratorial nature, is the embodiment of a long-held sense of resentment towards a nation millions of Afghans still see as a regional spoiler. However, others say support for either India or Pakistan is overlooking the actual issue that started the latest hostilities, the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Emran Feroz, an Afghan-Austrian journalist who focuses on the regional impact of aerial warfare, says far too many Afghans are blind to the accusations of abusive practices by the Indian Army in Kashmir.

He says Afghans who choose to invoke rhetoric around the so-called "War on Terror" while ignoring the accusations of violence and targeted killings by the Indian Army in Kashmir, they are being "naive."

"India's occupation of Kashmir is undeniable. It is a fact. It led to the radicalisation of entire generations and gave Pakistan the chance to finally portray make itself out to be a saviour in the region."

Heela Jabar, an aid worker based in Kabul, agrees with Feroz, saying side-taking in Afghanistan is once again disempowering the Kashmiri people.

"This all started over Kashmir, but guess where no one is talking about, Kashmir. The people who continue to suffer from both sides are nowhere in the debates."

Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye