Afghanistan and South Asian security

Two recent edited volumes add to our understanding of the region, which remains understudied despite its importance


A file photo of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspecting an honour guard at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: AP
A file photo of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspecting an honour guard at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: AP

Last week, The Guardian reported renewed talks between representatives of the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. The secret meetings had taken place in the last two months in Doha, Qatar. The seriousness of the dialogue can be gauged from the reported presence of Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, brother of former Taliban chief Mullah Omar.

Now, there are several possibilities here. Theoretically, Akhund may have participated in the Doha talks with the knowledge of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But that seems improbable because Pakistan never wants direct contact between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And The Guardian report suggests that no Pakistani official took part in the meetings.

It is also possible that Akhund is not on the same page as Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the current chief of the Taliban. Akhundzada is known to be very close to the ISI. So this may just be a factional divide in Taliban leadership. However, nothing can be ruled out. After all, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the previous Taliban chief, too was a certified Pakistan man. But apparently he began to take his own decisions and many believe this to be the reason behind his killing in a US drone strike.

A very important point to note is that the first meeting in Doha took place in early September, days after the announcement of a new India-US-Afghanistan trilateral. One thing is clear: These are interesting times and hence, the new edited volume Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia And Beyond (edited by Harsh Pant, published by Orient BlackSwan) is a timely resource. Perhaps owing to Afghanistan’s unique geographical location, the collection of essays covers the expanse of South Asia, West Asia (Iran), Central Asia, Russia and China.

The essays on China and Iran by, respectively, Andrew Small and Amir Kamel are especially insightful on how these two important countries see their future in Afghanistan. The rise of China globally has not been matched by its involvement, so far, in Afghanistan. However, with the US drawdown, China is gradually stepping up its game. This is because Beijing now understands, as Small says, that “(instability in Afghanistan) will be China’s mess to manage.” The often contradictory-seeming policies of Iran have a lot to do with the contradictory objectives of keeping the Taliban out of power and the US away from the region. But Kamel also explains Iran’s moves in terms of its multi-tiered policymaking structure and the continuing impetus of its revolutionary ethos.

The real highlights, however, are the younger contributors, especially Khalid Nadiri and Avinash Paliwal. Nadiri gives a new framework to think about the old problem of Pakistan’s nefarious role in Afghanistan. Paliwal’s essay is an excellent compendium of the changing behaviour of various ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

But the continent does not alone make up the subcontinent. When it comes to the security of South Asia, the Indian Ocean has a privileged position. Another volume, New South Asian Security (edited by Chris Ogden, published by Orient BlackSwan), does not just ignore the maritime dimension but does not even feel the need to explain this massive omission. The grand narrative of New South Asian Security encompasses all possible bilateral pairings between four key states: India and China, the two rising great powers, and Pakistan and Afghanistan, two faltering states.

This edited volume studies the six bilaterals under the framework of constructivism. Bilateral relations are shaped by two states, constructivists argue, which “have social identities made up of norms and practice determined by history”. And the security practice of each bilateral pairing evolves with every interaction that shapes the norms and identities of the constituent states.

This system of study is often a very helpful approach. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru’s outreach to China in the early 1950s, which seems enigmatic retrospectively, is well explained in David Scott’s essay as one merely continuing the tradition of “New Asianism” pioneered by Rabindranath Tagore. The myriad centuries-old ties between the two civilizational states also add weight to Nehru’s normative aspirations. The hostility—or the cold peace—between the two Asian giants became a norm later.

But the constructivist approach fails miserably in explaining, despite Runa Das’ strenuous efforts, the turns in the fortunes of India-Pakistan relations. Would Pakistan have chosen the same options vis-à-vis India had it received no support from the US and China? A study based on the historical evolution of norms and identities of India and Pakistan, without understanding the geopolitical equations of the Cold War, fails to give a convincing answer.

In his essay on Sino-Pakistan relations, Small eschews any attempt to undertake the thematic approach of constructivism. And the essay by Pant and Paliwal explaining India-Afghanistan relations does not quite fit with Paliwal’s own essay in Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas. In the latter, Paliwal argues that the state of Afghanistan’s ties with India were dictated by its immediate ties with Pakistan. Afghanistan would turn to India whenever its relations with Pakistan deteriorated. This is the core of realism but sits at odds with the constructivist approach followed here.

Both volumes, nevertheless, add to our understanding of the region, which remains understudied despite its importance to global security. The use of a different approach, when seen against the deficit of quality scholarship, is not unwelcome.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.

Comments are welcome at kunal.s@livemint.com

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