India-Afghanistan bhai-bhai?

AVINASH PALIWAL | Updated on January 16, 2018

So near yet so far That sums up our ties with Afghanistan V. SUDERSHAN

For now, yes; but history informs us that this relationship cannot break out of Pakistan’s shadow

The strength of India-Afghanistan relations was on full display at the 6th Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar early December. Criticising Pakistan for providing a “safe haven” to “terrorists” associated with the Afghan-centric Haqqani Network and the India-centric Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, New Delhi and Kabul successfully isolated and humiliated Islamabad.

The two countries also discussed the possibility of an air cargo corridor bypassing Pakistan, which has consistently denied Afghanistan access to Indian markets and vice versa.

If Indian policymakers were concerned about Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani’s ostensible “tilt” towards Pakistan in 2014, they rejoiced Kabul’s course correction in 2016.

In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam in Herat. In August, the Afghan leadership supported Modi’s statement on Pakistan’s human rights violations in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Kabul also readily boycotted the Saarc meeting that was to be held in Pakistan, and endorsed India’s “surgical strike” along the LoC in response to the attack in Uri.

No room for complacency

Given India and Pakistan’s strategic competition for influence in Afghanistan, these indicators draw a compelling picture of India-Afghanistan friendship. However, historically there are reasons to not take this ‘axis’ for granted even though Kabul is far from gravitating towards Islamabad.

Logic dictates that good relations with Islamabad are necessary for peace, stability, and development. And history shows that both Afghanistan and India seek opportunities to reconcile differences with Pakistan. Two historical cases are instructive.

Back in 1965

First, Afghanistan’s reaction to the 1965 India-Pakistan war, from New Delhi’s standpoint, was muted and ambiguous. After nearly capturing Lahore, India diplomatically challenged Pakistan on the Baloch, Pashtunistan, and East Pakistan questions in UN debates. Various Congress leaders began pressing the Government to provide “concrete” support to Pashtun and Baloch separatists. After high-level meetings with Bacha Khan in Kabul, External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh invited the Frontier Gandhi to pursue his struggle for Pashtunistan from New Delhi, and received cross-party support.

India’s aggressive posture on Pashtunistan created tremendous disquiet in Kabul. Though Afghan public opinion favoured India, the assault on Lahore unnerved King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan. Just as India launched its diplomatic offensive on Pashtunistan, and AIR began broadcasting stories of armed Pashtun rebels coalescing along the border areas, Kabul started downplaying the issue in bilateral exchanges with Pakistan.

Rawan Farhadi, director-general for political affairs and the senior-most official in Afghanistan’s foreign ministry, informed American diplomats that Kabul’s neutrality had created enough goodwill in Pakistan to resolve the Pashtunistan issue amicably.

Kabul nearly agreed to recognise the Durand Line on the condition that Islamabad would grant autonomy to Pashuns living in its territory. Far from collaborating with India, Kabul viewed the conflict as an opportunity to reconcile differences with Islamabad.

Such geopolitical complexity was further underlined when Farhadi, in response to an American diplomat’s question about Pakistan’s potential disintegration, rhetorically replied: “Do you think we would want India at the Khyber Pass?”

However, soon after when a ceasefire was declared, Farhadi personally assured the Indian ambassador in Kabul that Zahir Shah never supported Pakistan and stood strongly with India. A few days later, Afghan diplomats joined India in demanding self-determination for Pashtun and Baloch people living in Pakistan. With the war over, and Pakistan having refused to entertain Afghan ‘feelers’ under pressure, Kabul reverted to its policy of cooperation with India.

Joint action rejected

Despite having defeated Pakistan in 1971, the Indian leadership refused to entertain Afghan requests for ‘joint action’ against Islamabad.

In 1973, former Afghan prime minister Daud Khan had ousted Zahir Shah in a bloodless coup. Virulently anti-Pakistan, and a keen advocate of Pashtunistan, Khan ordered a military build-up along the Pakistan border in November 1974. The Indian leadership began to worry about Pakistan’s balkanisation and soon halted its covert material support to the Baloch and Pashtun movements.

In a widely publicised visit to New Delhi in March 1975, Daud stated: “The one and only political difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan concerns the restoration of the legitimate rights of our Pakhtoon and Balochi brothers. We have always expressed our willingness to settle this only difference with that country, but we see that Pakistan is not ready to give a positive response to our desire in this regard.”

In private, he had asked New Delhi to militarily engage Pakistan in the east, while Afghanistan would fight it in the west. Indira Gandhi rejected the proposal.

Islamabad responded by offering anti-Kabul Afghan Islamists sanctuary in Pakistan via the ISI. Some of the most famous figures that received Pakistan’s support included Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani of the Jamiat-e-Islami, as well as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Interestingly, most of these actors or the organisations they created are active in Afghanistan’s political landscape today.

In the ensuing decades, India and Afghanistan took turns talking to and fighting with Pakistan. These cases demonstrate that neither India nor Afghanistan seriously mulled the use of force to revise the territorial boundaries of the region even before nuclearisation of the subcontinent. There always have been limits to India’s influence in Kabul, and Kabul’s strategic value in New Delhi. The current bonhomie is simply a meeting of India and Afghanistan’s interests at a time when Pakistan has simultaneously alienated both its neighbours.

These cases also highlight India’s desire to maintain a strategic balance across the Durand Line. India’s capacity constraints aside, it is not surprising that many Afghans criticised New Delhi for not doing enough to support Kabul.

Evading the structural binaries of the Cold War, and the ‘us vs them’ discourse of the so-called War on Terror, the relationship between India, Afghanistan and Pakistan has evolved over a complex geopolitical continuum. This is well captured by their desire to alter the status quo to their benefit without risking strategic overhaul.

Islamabad’s lack of imagination in dealing with its neighbours and selective targeting of militant outfits, partly out of choice and partly out of political compulsion and capacity constraints, imparts continuity and strength to the so-called India-Afghanistan ‘axis’— a scenario Pakistan conscientiously tried to preclude during the 1990s.

Therefore, despite demands for isolating Pakistan in regional forums, and resorting to overt and covert coercion, the enduring geopolitical contradictions of South Asia, which have only exacerbated after 1998, demand a level-headed conversation between these countries. Any future war will only feed into this on-again-off-again dynamic without bringing lasting peace to the region.

The writer is a lecturer in defence studies at King’s College, London. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on December 20, 2016

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