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A look at Afghanistan’s Regional Diplomacy in the Transformation Decade (2014-2024)



The 100th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence was celebrated in Kandahar and across the country in August 2019 with hundreds of people taking to the streets with Afghan flags. UNAMA/Mujeeb Rahman

Regionalism has played an important and fundamental role in the post-Taliban foreign policy of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s location at the center of turbulent regional subsystems such as South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia has made regional cooperation and regionalism an inevitable option and a strategic necessity for the country. Due to this undeniable necessity, from 2001 to 2006,the initial steps towards regional cooperation were taken in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. However, in this period the level of engagement of Afghanistan with its surrounding regions was limited, Afghanistan’s understanding of the region was ambiguous, and there was no clear vision for a meaningful regionalism. Nevertheless, in the wake of the adoption of Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy at the London Conference (2006), regionalism became one of the fundamental pillars of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Under the influence of this development, Afghanistan’s regionalism flow was broadened both vertically and horizontally. Internal and external requirements of this period of time made the government of Afghanistan and the international community to put regionalism, alongside internationalism on the agenda as an effective tool for security building, economic development, and underling the position of Afghanistan in the region. Thus, Afghanistan’s engagement with the region broadened and joined various regional organizations and platforms such as SAARC (2007), CAREC (2005),SPECA (2005),and SCO Observer (2012). What’s more, important Afghanistan-led initiatives such as RECCA (2005) and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (2011) were founded as significant steps aiming to find Afghanistan’s agenda on regionalism.

Meanwhile, during the transformation decade (2014-2024), security transition on the one hand and ambitious plans of president Ghani in the field of foreign policy, on the other hand, gave a new spirit to the regional diplomacy of the country. President Ghani defined five circles for Afghanistan’s foreign policy, among which the regional countries fall under the first circle. This circle has a significant place in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. The logic behind focusing on the countries of the region is due to the fact that the fate of Afghanistan is tied to its surrounding regions in such a way that, this circle affects all other four circles of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Now the question that arises is, how can one claim that Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy has had dynamism in the transformation decade? It sounds that the following developments to be evidence for confirmation of this claim.

Creating a new Discourse for Afghanistan’s Position in the Region

Before the formation of the national unity government, our knowledge of the region was primarily of the twentieth century and even the nineteenth century. In this epistemology, Afghanistan’s position in the region was not defined by itself; rather it was the outsiders, especially the major powers who defined the Geopolitical Identity (the region Afghanistan is located in and the region that has the capacity to attract it) for Afghanistan. Based on this, Afghanistan was defined as a buffer state between the two great powers, Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century. During this period, Afghanistan prevented direct confrontation between the two powers, However, the damages originated as a result of ups and downs in interactions between the two powers, was imposed on the country.

In the bipolar structure of the Cold War, Afghanistan was recognized as an insulator state among its surrounding regions; as described by Barry Buzan in his security studies as Insulator State as well. Meaning that Afghanistan was considered a country that separates several regional subsystems at the same time, however, it cannot fully fit in any of the surrounding regions. Thus, until 2014, Afghanistan’s position in the region was defined based on the dominant discourse and epistemology of great powers. Although, still many authors are influenced by this discourse; their perception of Afghanistan’s position in the region remains in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the sense that they still consider Afghanistan as a buffer or insulator state, but this understanding of Afghanistan’s position in the region is clichéd. In today’s situation, one cannot study Afghanistan’s regional relations based on the literature of the nineteenth century; rather today’s realities require a new understanding of regional and international trends.

Thus, in the transformation decade, influenced by the understanding of policymakers, especially President Ghani’s conception, the existing discourse on Afghanistan’s position in the region was criticized and a new discourse on Afghanistan in the region was presented.In the new discourse, Afghanistan is considered as a “crossroads of regional trade and transit”, the “Heart of Asia” and the connecting hub of regions (South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia).A discourse whose historical roots goes back to the poetry of Allama Iqbal. Iqbal describes Afghanistan in the strategic depth of Asia and says: “Asia is a body built of clay and water and Afghanistan is a heart in that body”. Influenced by this discourse, Afghanistan moved from a buffer and insulator state to a connecting hub of the region. The creation of this discourse per se considered an active practice in Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy. Because, for the first time, considering domestic and regional necessities, Afghanistan is making a discourse by and for itself and defining its regional identity. This discourse carries a great logic, and that is that by creating this discourse, Afghanistan seeks to define an active role for itself in the region, so that it is no longer a realm of regional rivalries, but a ground of regional cooperation. This discourse originating from this calculation that, Afghanistan is the nexus of economic, historical, and cultural connection among the region and this can turn the country to an important side in regional initiatives.

Adopting an Accountable Regionalist Attitude in Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy

During Karzai’s administration, Afghanistan’s regionalism was more security-oriented. Although Afghanistan’s security-based emergencies justified this attitude to some extent, its application in practice failed to respond to Afghanistan’s security needs and did not remove the limitations of Afghanistan’s interaction with the surrounding regions. Thus, in the transformation decade, Afghanistan’s regionalist attitude changed from security-oriented to economic-oriented. This attitude, by emphasizing the connection of regions, especially with Central Asia and South Asia, seeks to provide effective regionalism in the long run. The logic for this approach is that increasing the level of economic interactions and ties between Afghanistan and the region leads to economic interdependence. Economic interdependence acts as a deterrent to sources of regional instability and insecurity because, in the existence of interdependence, insecurity entails exorbitant costs. In addition, trade and economic exchanges create a common perception, which in this sense also contributes to regional convergence. Thus, pursuing the economic-oriented regionalism has been able to enhance the level of convergence of Afghanistan and the region, leading to the openness of transit routes and the opening of major regional economic projects, especially in Central Asia and South Asia.

Launching Regional Initiatives and Successful Management of Regional Mechanisms

Another dynamic for Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy in the transformation decade has been the establishment of a broad range of regional initiatives. On the other hand, it has a constructive role in managing regional initiatives and mechanisms. Alongside membership in several regional organizations, Afghanistan has itself launched important initiatives to strengthen regional cooperation. The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process is one of these unique Afghanistan-led initiatives that has played a pivotal role in realizing Afghanistan’s regionalism outlook and regional economic connectivity. These initiatives are based on the strategic insight to define and consolidate a pivotal role for Afghanistan at regional tables. Also, utilize its potential to address challenges and to actualize potential opportunities for regional connectivity. Here, the Heart of Asia process has an undeniable role. This mechanism, with its unique structure, addresses exactly the problem that has been an obstacle facing the achievement of economic and trade programs in the region. In other words, this process, by utilizing its seven Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), seeks to transform the existing misperception and mistrusts in the region in favor of regional cooperation. On the other hand, the Heart of Asia process acts as a multilateral platform for dialogue between the regional, and the trans-regional countries, that by doing so it provides a balance between regionalism and internationalism in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. As well as, the establishment of a broad range of multilateral mechanisms such as Afghanistan-Pakistan-Turkey, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Tajikistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Russia-Tajikistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan-China, Afghanistan-Iran- Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India, the United States, and the likes have procured as effective mechanisms to address regional challenges and strengthen cooperation.

Changing the Approach of the Region Towards Afghanistan

Until 2014, the region saw Afghanistan as a source of insecurity, terrorism, narcotics, and dozens of other security threats. But after 2014, under the new discourse, by pursuing an economic-oriented regionalism, the prevailing view of the region towards Afghanistan was transformed. Now most countries in the region sees Afghanistan as a partner for regional cooperation. Now, due to the expansion of economic ties between the parties concluding that Afghanistan’s security threats were exaggerated.

Diversifying Trade Routes and Ending the Economic Blockade

Another dynamic of Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy has been that the country became able to largely get out of its geographical prison and economic blockade. Pursuing the strategy of diversifying trade and transit routes through Afghanistan-led regional platforms such as the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, RECCA, and other diplomatic activities including the signing of bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements, has paved the way for breaking the economic blockade of Afghanistan. The implementation of major regional projects such as Chabahar, CASA 1000, TAPI, as well as Lapis Lazuli corridor have been one of the important steps regarding diversification to the transit routes of the country. Also, Afghanistan’s connecting to the regional railway network such as the trilateral railway (Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan), the Five Nations Railway Corridor (Tajikistan, Iran, Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan), and the inauguration of the Sangan-Khafrailway project in Iran and its expansion to Afghanistan, are the measures that will have wide economic consequences while diversifying transit routes. In addition, activation of the air corridors also is a large step towards Afghanistan’s independent transit trade and diminishing of dependency on Pakistan.

The wrap-up, Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy has greatly changed the region’s view of Afghanistan by creating a new discourse and taking the right approach. By diversifying transit routes and opening up regional projects, Afghanistan’s position in the regional interactions has improved. However, it can be said that Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy still has a long and twisty road ahead.

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions



Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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South Asia

Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan



The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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South Asia

Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy



India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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