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
The 15th anniversary of the assassination
of Ahmad Shah Massoud (September 9,
2001), 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
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
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 biz-
arre 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-à-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.
That turned out to be a defining moment.
When Dixit came to know about the Mujahideen’s rites of passage through Delhi, he
suggested I could draft a policy paper to approach then prime minister P V Narasimha
Rao, initiating a proposal to open a line of
communication with the Afghan Mujahideen. As it turned out, the MEA was outvoted.
Rao had a great quality of observing and
listening and taking his own time to make
up his mind. When he finally did in this
case, several months had passed. Dixit had
However, Srinivasan (who had gone to the
airport to receive Rabbani over a year ago) said with a wry
smile on this face, glancing at the memo from Rao’s office
giving approval to our proposal, that under the circumstances he could think of no one else than me to undertake
The above recap is necessary to put in perspective how I landed one midnight on the airstrip in Bagram, built
by the Red Army, in pitch darkness in the winter of 1994
and got picked up by the Mujahideen belonging to the
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.
That cold winter night, a group of Jamiat fighters had
come in Toyota pick-ups, armed to the teeth with Kalashni-kovs and rocket launchers, and I was bundled into one of the
vehicles and we quickly sped in a convoy toward Kabul.
Some fighting was going on in the vicinity of Bagram between Massoud’s Jamiat and the Wahhabi group of Ittehad
led by Rasul Sayyaf for control of territory sandwiched
between the Panjshir Valley and the Parwan mountains.
How India reached out to the
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.
Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance fighters near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, in 2001.
A portrait of Massoud — the legendary ‘Lion of the Panjshir’ — at the entrance to Afghanistan’s magnificent Panjshir Valley.
OLEG NIKISHIN/GE TT Y IMAGES