Payam Aftab – India’s Afghanistan Policy: A cause for apprehension

India’s Afghanistan Policy: A cause for apprehension

India’s Afghan policy has largely been Pakistan centric which over the decades thrived on the nature of the relationship Pakistan enjoyed with Afghanistan. Unfortunately, from day one, Pak-Afghan relations hit the rocks when Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations.  Except for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and ascension of the Taliban, the history of Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbour has been mired in mistrust, a situation which suited India to keep Pakistan under pressure. In the emerging scenario, when there is a talk of phenomenal changes likely to shape up events after American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Indian attitude would be closely watched by the Pakistani policy makers.
Historically, British India played the role of a mentor to Afghanistan during the Great Game against Czarist Russia. Its involvement in Afghanistan’s internal politics was quite intrusive where it brokered peace between the waringelite of the country. A perennial tussle between Mohammadzai and Sadozai clans would result in the victory of one while the leaders of the defeated clan would seek asylum in British India. At times, these disputes were instigated by the British to arm-twist the belligerent rulers.
After independence, Indian leaders tried to maintain this practice albeit with a difference because geographically Pakistan posed a hurdle. But, a hostile relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan from the beginning served the Indian interests to keep Pakistan under pressure. That policy continues.
There is an interesting paradox, however, in the Indian narrative of its “historical” relationship with Afghanistan. Indian histoians, especially those pursuing Hindutva agenda, describe Afghans as invaders and show Muslim rulers of India in poor light. The only exception is King Akbar, whose “secular rule” and inter-religious marriages made him acceptable to the Indian historians (Even now a Muslim’s credentials as a patriot are considered strong if he or she is married outside his/her faith. However, for a Hindu this condition doesn’t apply).
Given the history of Indian actions in Afghanistan against Pakistan, it is unlikely that Pakistan would agree to an Indian role in the ongoing multinational Afghan dialogue
For Pakistani policy makers, India’s relations with Kabul have always been a matter of concern as past events show that India never missed an opportunity to damage Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. Therefore, India’s moves in Afghanistan would be closely watched and looked at with suspicion by Pakistan unless proven otherwise. 
Afghan leaders, in the past, have been assuring Pakistan that their relations with India were not directed against Pakistan. As evidence, they quote Afghanistan’s complete neutrality during 1965 and 1971 wars between Pakistan and India; same goes for Afghanistan’s neutral stance on Kashmir. But for the Pakistani officials there are other evidences which give credence to those suspicions even if one tends to believe the Afghan assurances. A litany of complaints substantiating Indian involvement have been frequently conveyed to the Afghan and Indian leaders and officials. The following are noteworthy:
First, from the beginning, India lent full support to Afghanistan on the Pashtoonistan issue even when this issue died of natural death in Pakistan. All India Radio (AIR) became the voice of Pashtoonistan propaganda for many years. Even now one can come across discussions in India over Pashtoonistan bogey.
Second, during the thick of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, India captured Siachen Glaciers in 1984 which further added hostility in the Pakistan-India relations. It also strengthened the view in Pakistan that India always looked for vacuum in Pakistan and tried to fill it whether it was situation in the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) or Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Third, India actively supported the ruling Afghan elite belonging to the Khalq and Percham parties during Soviet occupation. Those opposing the Soviet occupation (Mujahidin), including present leaders, were dubbed “reactionaries, terrorists or lackeys” of the Americans/Pakistan. However, the same Mujahideen became darlings when they responded to the Indian gestures. Those who replaced Taliban after the 9/11 were the same Mujahideen “reactionaries and terrorists” who fought against the Soviet invasion.
Fourth, India has been using the Afghan territory as a launching pad for its activities in Pakistan. Its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad are serving as bases for the Indian espionage activities. Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been supported by India and Afghan intelligence, NDS. Indian development projects close to Pakistan borders are meant to recruit moles to create trouble in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Interestingly, in a tribal society intelligence work cannot remain a secret for long which helped Pakistan to bust Indian networks operating in Pakistan.
Fifth, the prime motive for the Indian policy makers is to keep Pakistan engaged in Afghanistan to divert its military resources along the Afghan border and simultaneously use the Afghan soil to create troubles in Balochistan and tribal areas. In this regard, Indian involvement in the Iranian Balochistan (Kalbhushan Yadev case) further reinforces the argument that India would continue to stoke unrest in Pakistan through low intensity sabotages to put pressure on Pakistan to amend its brief on Kashmir. A peaceful Afghanistan would not suit India.
President Trump’s inclination to leave Afghanistan has caused concern in the Indian official circles who see a possible revival of the Taliban rule or their return as a major stakeholder. Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat while referring to many countries establishing contacts with the Taliban made the remarks that “India should also join the bandwagon”. However, the Indian government’s silence over General Rawat’s remarks displays the unease in the Indian policy circles towards unfolding events in Afghanistan.
Pending a satisfactory outcome of the US-Taliban talks, Pakistani policy makers would be concerned that India may play a spoiler’s role in Afghanistan through those Afghan elements who have been pitted against the Taliban before and after 9/11. This would call for the American counselling to India to facilitate a smooth withdrawal of the US-led NATO troops from Afghanistan.
In an ideal situation, a cooperative relationship between Pakistan, India and Afghanistan could have tremendously benefitted the entire landmass of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Unfortunately, mutual suspicions and mistrust have negatively impacted not only the overall security paradigm in the region but also deprived the people and the region of economic benefits.
Given the history of Indian actions in Afghanistan against Pakistan, it is unlikely that Pakistan would agree to an Indian role in the ongoing multinational Afghan dialogue. Although seems unlikely till parliamentary elections in India, a sudden improvement in India-Pakistan atmospherics such as resumption of bilateral talks may change the entire environment. However, for the time being there is no cause for optimism on this count.

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