28 July 2018

Assessing India’s Foreign Policy towards Afghanistan

Afghanistan has seen it all — fluctuating from a monarchy to communism and then a theocratic state before lurching towards democracy, all in less than 50 years. It is a nation of many contradictions — peopled by a Pashtun majority who lay claim to a larger legacy across its eastern borders, a large Tajik minority more numerous than the country from which they originally migrated, a Hazara Shia minority living in harmony with the majority for the most part, and an Uzbek minority that makes up nearly 10 percent of the population. Despite these contradictions, it has stuck together as a nation, often bloodied but proudly unbowed.

Throughout this tumultuous phase in Afghanistan’s history, several nation-states became involved in Afghanistan, assuming different political roles themselves. India, whose historical and cultural links with Afghanistan can be traced as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300–1900 BCE), was no exception. In fact, India carved a niche as a partner that engaged in building state capacity in Afghanistan. Today, India is Afghanistan’s largest export destination, accounting for nearly 46 percent of its total exports. Despite its own economic challenges, India is also the fifth largest donor of development aid to Afghanistan and the largest regional donor. Given these development credentials in Afghanistan, a report to the US Congress by the Department of Defense had to concede, after decades of policy misalignment with the Indian position: ‘India is Afghanistan’s most reliable regional partner and the largest contributor of development assistance in the region.’

And yet, the story of India’s involvement in Afghanistan has remained underexplored. We have been writing on this aspect of India’s foreign policy for a range of Indian publications over four years now but the lack of reliable data sources has been a source of immense frustration. And hence, we were pleased to lay our hands on My Enemy’s Enemy — a commendable attempt at documenting India’s involvement in Afghanistan, starting from the Soviet invasion.

The book is an outcome of serious qualitative research and this becomes apparent to the reader right from the start. In the absence of archival material, the author, a Lecturer in Diplomacy and Public Policy at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, has put together an impressive list of published and unpublished, as well as primary and secondary sources of information on India’s involvement in Afghanistan. Despite being an academic work, the book is highly readable and should be of interest to anyone interested in India’s foreign policy, Afghanistan, or both.

My Enemy’s Enemy aims to decode India’s foreign policy-making processes using the Afghanistan relationship as a test-case. The objective, in author Avinash Paliwal’s words is ‘to offer an analytical narrative and an explanation of why India did what it did’. According to Paliwal, the answer can be explained by the interplay of two chief policy advocacy ‘ideal types’ that represent India’s decision-making vis- à-vis Afghanistan. These two groups are referred to as ‘partisans’ and ‘conciliators’. Partisans are defined as those who believe that India should only engage with factions in Afghanistan who are not under the control of Pakistan. Conciliators are those who argue that India should focus on whoever comes to power in Kabul without fear or favour.

The book is framed as a debate between these two policy advocacy coalitions, which three mediating factors shape. One, the desire of Indian policymakers that Afghanistan must not become strategically dependent on Pakistan. Two, the larger international political environment and three, the domestic politics of Afghanistan. Paliwal’s main claim is that by following these three sources of policy change, one can assess whether the partisans or the conciliators influenced India’s Afghanistan policy. His major inference is that a partisan approach was unable to secure Indian interests. On the other hand, conciliators were more pragmatic and their nuanced approach remains the key to India’s success in Afghanistan.

Because this book is perhaps the first comprehensive study of India’s recent involvement in Afghanistan, it is bound to become a source of reference for subsequent research. Hence, it is important that each of the major claims made by the author be put under the analytical spotlight. Our assessment is that while the book is an excellent historical account of the events that unfolded in Afghanistan since 1979, inferences drawn for Indian strategy from the book are either inaccurate or insufficiently understood.

Comment on the theory

The argument that India’s decision-makers can be divided into two ideal types — partisans and conciliators — suffers from one critical flaw: there is far more unity between these two groups than there is difference, contrary to what the author claims.

For example, almost everyone in the Indian strategic establishment agrees that an Afghanistan which is controlled by Islamabad is inimical to Indian interests. The book itself inadvertently points to this commonality of intent. While Paliwal asserts that ‘partisans nurtured an unhealthy obsession with Pakistan’, in a subsequent section, he also claims that ‘the conciliators argue that if stabilising relations with Pakistan was India’s strategic aim then engagement with Afghanistan should be reduced, especially as the latter is not even in New Delhi’s immediate strategic circuit.’ This displays that both the policy advocacy groups are concerned about Pakistan’s unhealthy role.

Similarly, there is also an overwhelming agreement between the various policy advocacy groups that the best way to achieve Indian interests is to help build a strong, resilient State in Afghanistan. Indian decision-makers are also cognisant of constraints that distance, domestic economic aspirations, and limited diplomatic and intelligence capabilities impose in furtherance of Indian interests in Afghanistan. Filtered through these constraints, Indian decision-makers (whether they are ‘partisans’ or not) acknowledge that India cannot push for a complete exclusion of Pakistan from political developments in Afghanistan. Based on this approach, we wrote in June 2015 that ‘India would perhaps not object to a compromise formula that restricts the Taliban to parts of the south while denying the Haqqani network space in Loya Paktika, a hotbed of anti-India activity.’ Thus, there are no true ‘partisans’ in the Indian establishment. Rather, there are multiple shades of conciliators. The time and context determine the exact position on the conciliation scale.

A much simpler, alternative, explanation exists for understanding India’s foreign policy changes with regard to Afghanistan. Every government in Afghanistan since 1979 has taken shape as a result of domestic politics and major international geopolitical shifts, both factors outside Indian control. India’s position in turn has been remarkably consistent: support the formation that enjoys legitimate political authority because that is the most efficient way to preserve key Indian interests. This explains India’s support first to the Najibullah government, then to the United Front (UF) leadership, and finally to Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. In assessing India’s support to UF during Taliban rule, it is often forgotten that the de jure government of Afghanistan, from 1992 to 2001, was headed by President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Thus, while the book suggests that India adopted a partisan approach, favouring one ethnic group over the other, the support (military and otherwise) was in fact being extended to a legitimate, internationally recognised government of Afghanistan. Similarly, while India’s close links with Ahmad Shah Massoud is projected as partisan support for Tajiks, India was in fact collaborating with the de jure Defence Minister of the Islamic State of Afghanistan.

In an attempt to pin the blame on Indian ‘partisans’, Paliwal’s assessment of the motivations of the violent non-state actors in Afghanistan is incorrect in several places. In the chapter ’No good Taliban?’ the overarching narrative is that all terrorist groups in Afghanistan have had, at best, a transactional relationship with Islamabad. Hence, these groups did possess a desire to collaborate with India and balance Pakistan in the process. But it was the hardline ‘partisans’ who keep turning them down, viewing the militant groups as being subservient to Pakistan. This is an extraordinary claim that needs to be tested. We do this by throwing light on the Pakistani links of three militant formations — Haqqani Network, Hizb-e-Islami, and the Afghan Taliban.

First, regarding the Haqqani Network (HN), the author claims that

Though the HN helped execute the 2008 Indian embassy bombing, the precise motivations for the same are not clear. If the motivations were monetary and ideological, then the HN can be manipulated by powers other than Pakistan as well.

Here, the allusion is that the HN might not be completely subservient to Pakistan. As incredulous as the claim may be, Indian policy makers cannot be held at fault for not opening talks with HN, and especially so after an audacious bombing that killed 58 people, including two senior Indian diplomats. Expecting India to talk to this group would have signalled a surrender to a group that has been referred to, in no uncertain terms, as a ‘veritable arm of the ISI’ by Admiral Mullen in a US Senate hearing.

Second, the author seems to support the view that India has nurtured false assumptions regarding Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Hizb-e-Islami leader and that he is not really a crony of the ISI. This is erroneous, Hekmatyar has long been a favourite of the ISI. He is a northern Pashtun, from Kunduz, without a base inside the country. He has drawn his support from external sources in Pakistan and continues to do so. During the jihad years (1979–1989) it has been estimated that 50 percent of the US money and military hardware was being redirected by the ISI to Hekmatyar alone. It was from Peshawar that Hekmatyar negotiated with the Afghan government. Even his recent return to Afghanistan has been orchestrated by Pakistan. Unable to transition the Taliban into a politically acceptable force, as we have assessed earlier, Pakistan has gone back to the tried and tested option, one that is largely in sync with the Pakistani dark state.

The third misplaced assumption is regarding the Afghan Taliban. In the IC-814 hijacking incident, the Taliban has been projected as a fairly neutral force in the book. However, this is far from reality. The Taliban abetted the hijackers, allowing them to land in Kandahar and, contrary to established operating procedures, permitted the hijacked aircraft to be parked near the arrival terminal. It facilitated contact between the hijackers and their mentors and then allowed them and Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar to flee to Pakistan. The warmth that was displayed by the then Taliban Minister of Civil Aviation (who went on to become the Taliban Emir) Mullah Akhtar Mansour to Masood Azhar was apparent to the Indian negotiators. (Note: One of the authors of this review was a part of the Indian negotiating team sent to Kandahar)

Similarly, the author mistakes stated preferences for revealed preferences when he says that the Afghan Taliban government (1996–2001) was genuinely interested in collaborating with India. Based on statements made by Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, Mullah Abdul Jalil and others, the author concludes that Taliban was out of Pakistan’s clutches as early as 1997, just a year after it had entered Kabul with support from Pakistan. As unlikely as it may seem, what is left unsaid is that the Taliban regime was recognised merely by three States (UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan). Like the rest of the world, India found it unpalatable to engage with a regime which was often brutal, sectarian, deeply intolerant, obscurantist and medieval. The Taliban government simply did not have the resources or the international appeal to be more than a basket case, deeply dependent on external support for its survival and with its principal ally coveting a client-state relationship. These policy assumptions fashion Indian attitudes towards a dialogue with the Taliban even today.

Indian policymakers — ‘partisans’ or ‘conciliators’ alike — are in agreement over two things regarding the Taliban. One, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Taliban. And two, Pakistan is too integral to their thought processes. Now, more than ever, because the ideology that propelled the Taliban in the initial phase of the movement is no longer there, the group today is a motley crowd of mercenaries, narcotics smugglers and such like who are under the control of those who provide them sanctuary.

Given this reality of Pakistan’s enduring support to violent non-state actors, India’s position has been measured. While India’s understanding of the Taliban may differ from that of the Afghan government, there is no evidence to suggest that India has actively blocked attempts by the Afghan government to negotiate with these elements. In fact, India has been a strong advocate for an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan- owned reconciliation’ even before the 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement, for it is only this that can assure a lasting peace.

There are several other problematic claims. For example, in one section, the author says that ‘India continued to create parallel political constituencies in Afghanistan and the region to ensure that the London reconciliation plan failed’. This view is too charitable to the hosts, the United Kingdom. The London Conference was an attempt to create conditions for the drawdown of foreign forces without addressing the more important political aspects. It laid stress on a ‘divide and rule’ policy, encouraging defections and rehabilitating the reconciled Talibs. It circumvented addressing the causes of why they took up arms in the first place. The Indian experience in handling its insurgencies made it sceptical of this attempt. The Indian view was that a policy of divide and rule would inevitably fail unless the majority agree to give up arms. The conference failed because of these structural limitations rather than imaginary Indian machinations.

The author also devotes much space to Indian intelligence activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan and draws inaccurate conclusions which must be addressed. The author demonstrates an improper understanding of how Indian intelligence works. Stated opinions by retired intelligence officers are understood as markers of Indian foreign policy at various points in the book. What this view misses is that, unlike the ISI in Pakistan, intelligence agencies in India only play a supporting role in policy decisions arrived at by the political and security apparatus. Hence the personal opinions of intelligence officers can be, and often are, at variance with the official Indian position. The book also makes sweeping conclusions based on inputs from people who may have had access to R&AW’s analysis output but have had no access to intelligence operations. This is problematic because India’s intelligence works in highly compartmentalised silos and, at any given time, there are not more than a handful of officers within the department who are privy to operations such as that related to Afghanistan. Hence, claims made from such sources need to be discounted.

The book also refers to Indian intelligence activity in parts of Pakistan, particularly Balochistan, without providing sufficient details. Paliwal assumes that such activity exists simply because of hearsay or because Indian politicians — Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — have spoken about Balochistan. This logic ignores the possibility that Indian policymakers chose to speak of Balochistan either to assuage Pakistani concerns or to send a message that Pakistan, too, has its visible fault-lines.

The final and perhaps the most flawed assumption is to look at Afghanistan as a patchwork of ethnicities. This is a line that stems out of the West’s failure to understand the region. The resulting insecurities from this view, in turn, serve Pakistan’s interests. Afghanistan may well be a mosaic of ethnic and religious minorities but it is more than just a sum of its parts. The Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras are no less Afghans than the Pashtuns. Indian policymakers are cognisant of the resilient Afghan nation and they share the Afghan nation’s aspiration to build an equally resilient State.


While it is the first comprehensive assessment of India’s involvement in Afghanistan, My Enemy’s Enemy misses the critical role India played in keeping Burhanuddin Rabbani’s legitimate government afloat all through the years of Taliban’s dominance. India’s support did not waver even when the government was reduced to controlling a sliver of territory in Badakhshan and in the Panjshir valley. It was this support which eventually paved the way for the West to succeed in its war-on-terror. While the ground battle was fought with 350 US Special Forces and 100 CIA officials, they were ably assisted by the 15,000-strong, disciplined army of the forces of the Northern Alliance. In essence, India was able to achieve its key interests by providing steadfast support to the Afghan government.

Though the book makes a few glaring mistakes that we have highlighted, My Enemy’s Enemy still remains an excellent historical resource for anyone interested in India — Afghanistan relations. It throws up excellent arguments that need to be critically engaged with.

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