Decoding India’s policy choices in Afghanistan
In 1878, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the viceroy of India, was convinced that the Afghan amir Sher Ali Khan was getting too close to the Russians. A team of British diplomats sent to meet Khan was turned away at the Khyber Pass. The result was the Second Anglo-Afghan War and the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak, which made Afghanistan surrender its foreign policy to the British government. This also marked the resumption of Britain’s forward Afghan policy, which had earlier been given up in favour of a closed border policy (also known as a strategy of “masterly inactivity”) after the defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Even as the British approach alternated between an aggressive forward policy and a relaxed closed border policy, the constant element was containing Russian influence in Afghanistan. As an inheritor of the British legacy in Afghanistan, Pakistan plays this “Great Game” with India. The generals in the Pakistan army have been convinced of the need for a friendly regime in Kabul to not allow India a foothold on its western border. In essence, Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been overtly focused on denying space to India.
This is important to remember while reading Avinash Paliwal’s wonderful new book My Enemy’s Enemy: India In Afghanistan From The Soviet Invasion To The US Withdrawal (HarperCollins 2017). The book tries to decode the drivers of India’s Afghanistan policy in a relatively more contemporary context. Paliwal does an excellent job in explaining India’s policy options as a continuous internal debate between two groups—conciliators and partisans—inside the policymaking establishment. Conciliators argue for engagement with all factions inside Afghanistan, including those known for their pro-Pakistan inclinations. Partisans, on the other hand, feel that India should remain loyal to its natural partners (or factions outside Pakistan’s influence).
Whether the conciliators prevail or the partisans depends on, Paliwal says, three intertwined factors: a) New Delhi’s desire to strike a balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan, b) the international political environment, and c) the domestic politics of Afghanistan. The second and third are obvious. The first one is not so and here Paliwal’s arguments have to be carefully read in the light of the aforementioned drivers of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy.
So, for Paliwal, India’s relatively unrestrained support of Afghanistan vis-à-vis Pakistan today can be explained by the rise of partisans in New Delhi’s power corridors. The partisans have also been helped by the fact that the power balance between Kabul and Islamabad is heavily skewed in favour of the latter and any desire for a balance between the two will mean India siding with Afghanistan. When the power balance was not so skewed, India did not side with Afghanistan on, say, the Pashtunistan issue. But are there alternative explanations available for India’s policy shifts other than a desire to maintain a balance across the Durand Line?
Paliwal himself reminds us that even Afghanistan has equivocated on Kashmir. Afghan rulers haven’t exactly sided with New Delhi in India-Pakistan rivalries. One reason may be that Afghanistan wanted to win Pakistan’s support by showing loyalty in such instances. But winning Pakistan’s support should not have been a great Afghan concern if it really could match Pakistan militarily. The balance, which India apparently desires across the Durand Line, actually never existed, regardless of New Delhi’s policy choice. An inheritor of British military institutions, Pakistan had entered into America’s Cold War alliances in the 1950s. At the same time, it had close relations with China. The only time there was some sort of a balance between Pakistan and Afghanistan was after the Soviet invasion—a period when India’s Afghanistan policy mattered little to change the equation on the ground. Moreover, India has never voiced its support in favour of the Afghan position on the Durand Line. And this has remained so irrespective of whether conciliators or partisans held the fort.
It is true that India has been, at times, more accommodative of pro-Pakistan factions like the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. But there are other ways to look at these choices. While India was opposed to the mujahideens until Mohammad Najibullah was in power, it was quick to shift to the side of mujahideens like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud in 1992. This was because Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had made its support for Hekmatyar very clear. Similarly India’s limited engagement with factions in Taliban have been with those groups which wanted to reduce their dependence on Pakistan.
This does not mean that India’s engagements in Afghanistan have been a zero sum game with Pakistan—and Paliwal is justified in reaching this conclusion. India’s approach has simply been to secure a regime which doesn’t act against New Delhi’s interests. A regime dependent on Pakistan could not have guaranteed that because of Rawalpindi’s own colonial outlook on Afghanistan. New Delhi has had to contend with this aspect of Rawalpindi’s policy even while trying not to reduce Afghanistan to a playground for India-Pakistan rivalry.
This disagreement aside, I would highly recommend Paliwal’s book. His scholarly approach and depth of knowledge cultivated from years of study and from interviews conducted with as many as 65 individuals with real insights makes this book the best ever written on India-Afghanistan relations. Paliwal also deserves our commendation for a painstaking documention of the Indian intelligence’s side of the story on Afghanistan. He indeed has set a very high benchmark for scholars working on this bilateral in the future.
Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.
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