Mohammad Karim Khalili's support for an Afghan-US bilateral security agreement testifies to his pragmatism as well as to him being a stakeholder in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Source: Getty Images/Fotobank
The visit of the 2nd Vice President of Afghanistan Mohammad Karim Khalili to India on August 20-22 is politically symbolic. The South Block has flagged that the visit “carries forward the engagement between the two countries.” That is stating the obvious.
Khalili is the uncrowned monarch of the Bamyan region, Afghanistan’s central highlands inhabited by the Hazara Shi’ites who claim descent from Genghis Khan. Of course, Khalili has hardly anything in common with the Mongol chieftain. Conceivably, it is Mohammed Mohaqiq, Hazara leader hailing from the Mazar-i-Sharif region in northern Afghanistan, who could claim more martial qualities than Khalili, a soft-spoken, diminutive cleric.
Through the period of the Afghan ‘jihad’ in the 1980s, Khalili was based in the holy city of Meshaad in eastern Iran but that didn’t make him an ‘Iranian protégé’. Khalili’s primary loyalty has been to his people and Tehran respected it.
Despite the US-Iran standoff, Khalili worked closely with the American forces and diplomats and took a lot of help from them to rebuild Bamyan – and Tehran didn’t show heartburn, either. In the ultimate analysis, it was Bamyan’s stability and the welfare of the fellow Shi’ites in Afghanistan with whom Iran has profound cultural bonds, which mattered to Tehran.
Indeed, Bamyan made remarkable recovery through the period of the past decade of war and much reconstruction took place in that region. Khalili has been an exceptionally trusted colleague as far as Hamid Karzai is concerned. Here, too, Khalili understood that being part of the US-backed power structure in Kabul would enable him to tap into resources for the development of his region that would have been simply beyond the reach of Bamyan, which is an incredibly beautiful part of the planet but also one of the most wretchedly impoverished regions of Afghanistan.
The Hazaras were the ‘untouchables’ in the Afghan social structure and the Pashtuns and others looked down upon them as a lower form of life. There are harrowing tales persecution continuing right down until the communist rule. In the mayhem that followed after the Mujahideen takeover in 1992, Hazara community in Kabul suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the other militia.
The nadir was reached, however, under the Taliban rule when the Hazaras, being the followers of Shi’ism, were regarded as ‘infidels’ and subjected to persecution bordering on ethnic genocide. Indeed, Khalili drew appropriate lessons and played a key role within the Northern Alliance during the anti-Taliban resistance.
Curiously, however, Delhi had nothing to do with Khalili until the end of 1997 when a chance meeting took place with him in Tashkent. Fortunately, it didn’t take much longer for Delhi to figure out the importance of Khalili as a bulwark against the Taliban. But by then, Delhi had also waded so far so deep into a complex engagement with Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud that there was little interest to develop a fulsome relationship as such with Khalili. Massoud was like a banyan tree and wouldn’t let anything else to grow in his vicinity.
Suffice to say, Delhi did nothing when the Hazaras cried out for help in the autumn of 1998 as the Taliban ransacked the Amu Darya region bordering Uzbekistan in a brutal military conquest in which thousands of innocent Hazaras including women and children were massacred.
It simply looked away. Arguably, Delhi felt it was futile for Hazaras to resist a determined Taliban campaign backed up by seamless Pakistani resources to conquer northern Afghanistan. Or, Delhi might have preferred to focus on the defense of Panjshir and leave Mazar-i-Sharif to the wolves. Or, Delhi probably fancied that the defence of the Hazaras was Tehran’s call, after all.
Could Delhi have handled things differently? There are no easy answers. But the question remains relevant today when yet another defining moment is approaching in Afghanistan.
Of course, history never repeats. Old battle lines have blurred. Khalili’s Northern Alliance peer group has scattered. Some have been assassinated, others moved on. Allegiances and fealties have crisscrossed. Khalili too has come a long way. Khalili visited Pakistan in September 2010 (where over 650000 Hazaras live.)
Khalili is a vastly experienced statesman today who cannot be overlooked in any political dispensation emerging in Afghanistan. His support for an Afghan-US bilateral security agreement testifies to his pragmatism as well as to him being a stakeholder in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Which makes his visit to Delhi highly symbolic.
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