Why we have cold-shouldered Kabul

AVINASH PALIWAL | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 21, 2015

Afghanistan’s perceived tilt towards Pakistan has not gone down well with New Delhi. But this is not the right approach

India’s Afghanistan policy seems to be witnessing a shift as Kabul seeks a rapprochement with Rawalpindi. Despite multiple requests from Afghan officials, Delhi refused to hold a bilateral strategic partnership council meeting to discuss and review the much-hyped Strategic Partnership Agreement that the two countries signed in October 2011. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj did not even attend the Sixth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan in Kabul September 2-3).

Apparently, the President Ashraf Ghani’s (failing) strategic tilt towards Pakistan has annoyed Indian officialdom. This is not the first time India has shifted its stance vis-a-vis Afghanistan. The 1990s and early 2000s, when the Afghan civil war was at its peak, are replete with such shifts.

Sources of policy

There are three core, and often intertwined, sources of India’s Afghanistan policy. The first is Delhi’s desire to strike a balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan. An Afghanistan that is highly dependent on or close to Pakistan, such as during the late-1990s’ Taliban regime, is not in India’s strategic interest.

The second factor is the evolving international posture on Afghanistan. Keen on being viewed as a positive and constructive team player, India’s approach to Kabul is often shaped by external pressures. For example, accepting the leadership of Hamid Karzai at the 2001 Bonn Conference after the US-led NATO military intervention was a compromise that India made. Indian officials wanted a candidate from the anti-Taliban United Front to gain power, but relented under American pressure and eventually embraced Karzai. The third factor that drives India’s Afghanistan policy is how differently various political factions in Afghanistan want to engage with India. Despite the goodwill that India enjoys among Afghans, different political factions prioritise India differently.

If Delhi enjoyed Karzai’s hospitality, it feels cold-shouldered by the Ghani administration. Some Indian officials — let’s call them partisans — prefer to invest politically and financially in factions that are anti-Pakistan. Strong relations with Karzai, or with the United Front before 9/11, as well as with the former communist governments during the 1980s — all of whom were critical of Pakistan — are a case in point.

Other officials — let’s call them conciliators — however, advocate engagement with all Afghan factions, regardless of their attitude to or relationship with Pakistan. Such an approach, the conciliators argue, will stabilise Afghanistan’s domestic politics and impart strategic parity between Kabul and Islamabad. It will also allow India to ensure that whoever comes to power in Kabul is sensitive to Indian interests. The commonality between the partisans and the conciliators is their view of Pakistan as an adversary in Afghanistan.

Driving the dynamics

Who influences India’s Afghanistan policy depends on the interplay between the three causal drivers. Two specific cases from the 1990s are indicative of this dynamic. The first is India’s decision to recognise and engage with the Mujahideen government in April 1992 after the overthrow of Delhi’s ally, President Mohammad Najibullah. This policy shift was momentous, given the Mujahideen’s dependence on Pakistan and India’s concerns over the impact of the Mujahideen victory on the situation in Kashmir.

However, with the international community led by the UN supporting this transition, and various Mujahideen figures themselves interested in engaging with India, the conciliators in Delhi were able to chart an accommodative policy towards Afghanistan, despite bitter ties with Pakistan. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and his powerful foreign secretary, JN Dixit, led this policy shift. In what was termed the “Rao Doctrine”, India became open to dealing with all Mujahideen groups without fear or favour.

The second shift occurred in September 1996 when the Taliban rose to power in Kabul. Instead of being conciliatory and pro-engagement on this occasion (the Taliban, like the Mujahideen, had sent feelers to Delhi to open channels), India denounced the new regime. This shift occurred not simply because of the Taliban’s militant Islamic practices or its dependence on Pakistani security agencies — these aspects categorised the Mujahideen as well — but also due to the breakdown of international consensus on Afghanistan in the mid-1990s as the UN failed to reconcile the warring factions. Only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government.

Instead of accepting its rise as an opportunity for stability, regional powers such as Russia and Iran felt threatened by the Taliban and decided to contain its rise. It was this change in regional geopolitical equations that allowed the partisans in Delhi to ally with Moscow and Teheran; these three countries threw their weight behind the anti-Taliban United Front. They criticised the US and China, who had functioning back channel communications with the Taliban.

The final solution

Though the breakdown of international consensus offered an opportunity for the partisans in India to initiate policy change in 1996, it was the risk of losing allies in Moscow and Teheran that sealed the defeat of the conciliators. By 1996, both Russia and Iran had come to support India’s case on Kashmir at the UN. Reaching out to the Taliban would have cost India this support as well as the connection to the United Front within Afghanistan. The only thing Delhi could achieve by opening such communication was the “possibility” of winning over “some” Taliban figures. This policy dilemma was reconciled to some extent during the presidency of Karzai after 2001, who — with the international community’s support — expanded relations with India and launched a reconciliation drive to win back Taliban figures disillusioned with Pakistan.

The withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014, coupled with the rise of Ghani, who emphasised improving relations with Pakistan even if it required toning down ties with India, has altered the situation for Delhi yet again. Western capitals are getting uncomfortable with India’s presence in Afghanistan. Given a government in Kabul that is happy to accommodate Pakistani demands (an important one of which is reducing links with India) with support from China, it is no surprise that the partisans are on the rise in India’s strategic establishment. Unless something radical happens in the coming weeks (such as Ghani calling off peace talks with Pakistan), India may keep rebuffing Kabul officially while consolidating relations with Afghan groups that are certified adversaries of Pakistan behind the scenes.

Anti-Pakistan partisanship in India’s approach towards Afghanistan is, however, a suboptimal strategy that contributes to exacerbating Pakistan’s insecurities, instead of resolving differences. A conciliatory approach at least offers a glimmer of hope to initiate a regional dialogue and break away from the vicious cycle of violence.

As Kabul experiments peace talks with Pakistan, the best India can do is support the initiative, despite having reservations about its success. In the short run, this will indicate India’s commitment toward Afghanistan and signal to Pakistan the possibility of peaceful coexistence in Afghanistan. In the long run, it may open doors for a sustainable dialogue between these countries to solve their territorial disputes and bring peace to the region.

The writer is a Defence Academy postdoctoral fellow at King’s College London. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

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Published on September 21, 2015
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