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Saturday 2 December 2017

India-Afghanistan beyond the Durand Line

My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal
By Avinash Paliwal
(Hurst & Company, London, 2017)
380 pages

Given Afghanistan’s importance in India’s foreign policy and security calculations, there is a regrettable dearth of literature on New Delhi’s contemporary relations with that wild and romantic country. Filling that void partly is Avinash Paliwal’s new book, which purports to be, “A definitive account, grounded in history, of the strategic axis between New Delhi and Kabul.”

The summary on the cover’s back leaf continues: “India’s political and economic presence in Afghanistan is often viewed as a Machiavellian ploy aimed against Pakistan. The first of its kind, this book interrogates that simplistic yet powerful geopolitical narrative and asks what truly drives India’s Afghanistan policy.”

If Paliwal, a lecturer at the University of London, had let his well-researched historiography tell its own story, it would have convincingly illustrated what regional specialists know to be the case: that New Delhi has strategically promoted a stable and united Afghanistan, free of Pakistani influence. This is motivated less by altruism than by the conviction that an independent Afghanistan’s default relationship with Pakistan would be inherently oppositional – for reasons as diverse as the colonial baggage, and the still unsettled Durand Line border that cleaves through a sprawling Pashtun populace. Then there is the Afghan resentment about a large neighbour ruled by domineering “Punjabi” elite – as Afghans commonly refer to Pakistanis – meddling in their internal affairs.

Instead, the author has burdened his account with a clumsy theoretical framework –that Indian policymaking vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been controlled in turn by two ideologically opposed groups: the Conciliators, who build goodwill with, and politically engage, all Afghan groups regardless of their affiliations, including the Taliban; and a second group, the Partisans, who befriend only those Afghan groups that are clearly opposed to Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Since My Enemy’s Enemy is a reworked version of the author’s doctoral thesis, the theoretical underpinning presumably comes with the package. Yet it interferes with the flow of the narrative, annoyingly diverting it into irrelevant cul-de-sacs about whether an event was the handiwork of the Conciliators or Partisans.

For example the author argues that Partisans in New Delhi ignored the Afghan Mujahideen (or the Peshawar Seven, led by Pakistan-backed commanders like Gulbudin Hekmatyar) during the anti-Soviet jihad from 1979-89, and through the Soviet-backed presidency of Mohammad Najibullah for three years thereafter. But, in 1992, when Najibullah was overthrown and the Mujahideen took power in Kabul, the Narasimha Rao Doctrine of 1992 facilitated the return of Conciliators, with New Delhi resolving to deal with whoever was in power in Kabul, the Mujahideen at the time. The pendulum swung again in 1996, when the Taliban evicted the Mujahideen from Kabul. The Partisans regained sway in New Delhi, keeping India aloof from the Taliban, even though the latter wanted ties with India as a hedge against Pakistani domination.

In fact, what drove Indian policymaking through this period was not the rise or fall of Partisans and Conciliators. In the case of the Rao Doctrine in 1992, the same Indian policymakers were taking decisions before and after that policy watershed. Indian engagement with Afghan groups was always driven by their apparent closeness to Pakistan, and the degree to which they were regarded as acting at Pakistan’s behest. Therefore, India shunned the Mujahideen until 1992 because they were being remote controlled from Pakistan against the Soviets. Once they came to power in Kabul, India cultivated leaders like Ahmed Shah Massoud, who were inherently opposed to Pakistan. When the Taliban swept to power in 1996, dialogue with Kabul went into limbo, not because of some imagined Partisan resurgence in New Delhi, but because the Taliban was perceived as handmaidens of Pakistan. For this same reason, Indian policymakers abjure dialogue with the Taliban to this day.

Notwithstanding this diversion, the author painstakingly reconstructs Indo-Afghan relations, drawing on the Kabuliwallah connection that creates a natural bond between Indians and Afghans, tracing relations from independence, through the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan to the upheaval that began with Mohammad Daud’s coup in 1973. He rightly brings out how India’s support for Pashtun independence, announced by External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh in the Lok Sabha, built bonds with Afghanistan’s Pashtuns that endure to this day. Yet, Afghanistan, walking a tightrope between India and Pakistan, took a balanced position during India-Pakistan wars and on the Kashmir issue.

While the author has clearly carried out extensive archival research, the same cannot be said about interviews with key Indian policymakers. For example, Vivek Katju and Arun Singh, who handled the all-powerful Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk at key periods, have not been interviewed. Nor has Satinder Lambah, India’s points-man with Kabul after 9/11, when the Taliban was overthrown and Afghanistan entered its current trajectory. Instead, too much credence is given to anonymous interviews with intelligence officials, many of who betray a tactical rather than strategic orientation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the author’s description of the Bonn Conference in December 2001, which settled on Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president. Paliwal recounts that New Delhi came off the loser in Bonn, since it was unable to get Burhanuddin Rabbani – allegedly an Indian “proxy” – elected president. In fact, those of us in Afghanistan and Bonn during that period are aware that Satinder Lambah, having already calculated that Afghanistan’s delicate ethnic balance required a Pashtun as president, had already persuaded the powerful Panjsheri leaders to accept Hamid Karzai as president. With this deal in his pocket, Lambah played a key role in the famous “midnight conference” in Bonn, where the deadlock was broken by choosing Karzai as president and a raft of Panjsheri leaders were accommodated in key portfolios. This, along with the fact that Panjsheri units constituted the bulk of the Afghan National Army, and Panjsheri monopoly over the Afghan intelligence services, gave India enormous leverage in Kabul, post-Bonn.

The author has been let down by sloppy editing, with the pages littered by numerous factual and grammatical errors that should have never passed an editor’s eye. Rajiv Gandhi is called his mother’s “younger son”; Jaswant Singh became foreign minister and defence minister in 1998 ( in fact, he took on the defence portfolio only in 2000); some 1,000 Afghan officers trained in India every year (it is 100 officers); and many more.

Notwithstanding the errors, Dr Paliwal’s book is a fascinating read that will surely be a prescribed text for university courses on South Asia – especially after a second edition polishes the text and eliminates the mistakes.

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