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The title says it all. India’s approach to Afghanistan has little to do with Afghanistan. It has everything to do with Pakistan. This tells us something about India, about how we see ourselves, which is essentially in relation to our Siamese twin, Pakistan. This is not quite how we project ourselves—as a regional power and emerging great power, measuring up against China and a strategic partner of the US. India comes across as just another country attempting to set itself off against its neighbours. Since in our case—and in this case—it is Pakistan, a country perpetually on the brink of failed state status, this is evidence that we are not quite the power we make ourselves out to be. It is no wonder that our Afghan policy—essentially out to sabotage what Pakistan is up to in Afghanistan—is mostly a step behind. Avinash Paliwal’s book tells it like it is: the fragility of thinking in our national security policy making establishment and the dangers that can only accrue.
Paliwal describes the making of India’s Afghanistan policy as an offshoot of our Pakistan policy. This is of a piece with our Pakistan-centric Kashmir policy. It is also true of our wider defence policy, which while having China in the sights rhetorically, has Pakistan in its cross hairs. What is worse is that this policy does not emerge from—as imagined—from a cool-headed survey of the threats and opportunities in the strategic environment and the geopolitics of the region, but from a political battle between partisan lobbies within the national security establishment. In the case of Afghanistan, Paliwal has it that there are the ‘partisans’ and the ‘conciliators’ battling to control policy.
Partisans are out to wreck what Pakistan has set out to do in Afghanistan. Conciliators for their part are keen to ensure that India’s interests are protected, even if Pakistan gets an edge in the bargain. The partisans appear to derive their angst and passion from their Pakistan animus, while conciliators wish to use Afghanistan as a leverage in their soft-line version of India’s wider Pakistan policy. The outcome of the tussle in the corridors of South Block appears to be dependent on which of the two sides gains an edge in bureaucratic politics, assisted respectively by the internal political configurations.
Paliwal, of course, makes his more-nuanced case soberly and with due regard to theory, relying on the public policy processes’ theory: Advocacy Coalition Framework. The theory has it that core beliefs of participants in the policy making processes influence their policy beliefs. The core beliefs are formed at their formative stage, under the influence of social conditioning beginning from childhood. These in turn form policy core beliefs, which is the basis for their input to policy making. Advocacy coalitions are built up from likeminded policy stakeholders and participants. To Paliwal, ‘policy change occurs when advocacy coalitions (like the partisans and conciliators) with different belief systems and resources interact with each other’ (p. 18).
In order to trace India’s policy in Afghanistan since the end seventies that witnessed the Soviet invasion, he divides the period into several segments and discusses the role of the partisans and conciliators in each duration. The period of the Soviet intervention witnessed a tussle over how critical should India be. Then came the period of scramble for Kabul between the Mujahedeen and the holdover of the earlier regime under Najibullah. The inconclusive debate in India over the levels of support to give Najibullah led to his eventual incarceration in the UN compound after an aborted bid to flee Kabul bound for Delhi. The following period was on whether India should open up lines to the Taliban, the answer to which depended on the perceived (by the two schools) nature of the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan. Thereafter was the Karzai period with the ‘global’ (read the West’s) war on terror (GWOT) providing context. The period witnessed a return of the Taliban, emboldened by US President Obama’s intent to draw down and withdraw the United States’ (US) forces and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s mission from Afghanistan by 2014. In the event, the International Security Assistance Force continues in Afghanistan with US President Trump upping the ante with his Afghan policy speech of end August. In effect, the tug of war between the partisans and conciliators is set to continue.
This time round it is easy to surmise that the partisans would win. Their core beliefs appear to be shaped by a conservative upbringing that lends itself to nationalist (cultural and hyper) policy prescriptions. The continuing stand-off at a heightened level over the past three years implies a vigorous proxy war, not only in Afghanistan, but—if Pakistan is to be believed—in Pakistan too, with a tit-for-tat rationale from Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir. The dangers are obvious. Paliwal needs being read to reappraise the manner is which policy formulation takes place in New Delhi.
He discerns India’s Afghanistan policy as stemming from the tug of war between the partisans and conciliators over three divergences: striking a balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan, meaning balancing Pakistan’s sway in Afghan affairs; international political environment, such as, at varying times, the GWOT or the Obama exit strategy and determining India’s place in it; and finally, domestic Afghan politics, to include the balance between the Pushtun and non-Pushtun ethnic groups. He explains India’s meander between these shoals along these lines, making for a fascinating reading.
One troubling aspect that nags as one reads along is the lengths to which the side that loses out on policy making subverts the policy in the implementation phase. While the Afghan policy was largely worked by diplomats and intelligence practitioners, and to a lesser but consequential extent Indian military intelligence staffers, there appears to have been a vertical divide between the hardliners and softliners. How much did this influence the implementation phase of strategy is interesting to speculate on. For instance, if MK Narayanan was a hardliner and was at odds with Manmohan Singh’s softline policy, how much does this account for dissonance in India’s Afghan (and at one remove, Pakistan) strategy? Can it explain how the Pakistan policy fell through in the Manmohan years? There was little efficacy in the Afghanistan policy either in the period, since the Taliban resurfaced and has since gained control over some 40 per cent of the territory.
Paliwal’s book justifies the praise on its cover by notable South Asianists. He has brought his earlier experience in journalism to bear recounting India’s participation in the recent moves of the Great Game. His interviews with 65 key players make the book come alive with detail and nuance. Besides there is ample evidence of a sound thesis on which the book is based, including 85 pages of notes and select bibliography. The book is a must-read for the attentive public in South Asia and students of international politics, security and peace studies.