Book Review | My Enemy’s Enemy – A Comprehensive Account of India’s Afghanistan Policy  

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Author: Avinash Paliwal

Geopolitical ties and geostrategic issues are the topmost priorities of countries and diplomats worldwide. India, in its seemingly dynamic and often volatile and hostile neighbourhood, has often seen its position being viewed as that of a big brother, even though it has tried to engage all stakeholders and foster a levelled relationship with its neighbouring countries in keeping with its “Neighbourhood first policy”. However, in the recent years, there have been substantial shifts in India’s foreign policies vis-à-vis other regions and countries, going by names such as the “Look East policy”, “Act East policy” and “Link West policy”, which have had substantial undercurrents in its foreign policy concerning its immediate neighbourhood.

India also recognises that much more actual diplomatic ground needs to be covered and just changes in nomenclatures of foreign policies and only passionate rhetoric can’t further India’s interests in diplomatic ties. Also, the country has started viewing the importance of bilateral ties in an increasingly multilateral world in a different perspective, and has treaded on the path of de-hyphenation when contrasting policies related to different countries such as the Israel-Palestine conflict or other contentious issues come to the fore.

Talking of India’s immediate neighbourhood, India has, of late, tried to engage almost all SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries in its potential diplomatic fold, but to no or little strategic effect. This is due to the antagonist role that China is playing in relation to India’s foreign policy in these countries. China, in line with its policy of encircling India militarily in the Indian Ocean, called the “String of Pearls strategy”, has been developing military and naval bases in India’s immediate neighbourhood, with Gwadar and Jiwani ports in Pakistan, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and a port in Chittagong in Bangladesh being some examples. Also, for furthering its “Border and Roads Initiative (BRI)”, China has deepened infrastructural investment in these countries, with CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) being viewed as one part of this giant scheme. The political dispensation in Nepal has also tilted in favour of China.

The only exceptions to this are Afghanistan and Bhutan, whose relations with India remain most cordial at the present. India, along with Afghanistan and Iran, has developed the Chabahar port in Iran, which is an important port for trilateral transit trade and a strategy of countering the Chinese “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean. India has also recently constructed a new Parliament complex for the Afghan government and also the Salma Dam, officially the Afghan-India Friendship dam in Afghanistan as a goodwill gesture.

Taking all these things into perspective, the book on India-Afghanistan relations by Avinash Paliwal titled “My enemy’s enemy” is well timed. Though the title archetypically suggests “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, with the India-Afghanistan ties particularly viewed with both countries being traditionally averse to Pakistan, which is essentially true, there is much more in the narrative that goes beyond the Pakistan angle and the reader finds a definitive India-Afghanistan bonhomie take shape in this comprehensive account, albeit with some political and policy dissensions.

The book cover shows the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi shaking hands with the President of Afghanistan Mr. Ashraf Ghani, and despite Modi’s quintessential love for bear hugs, which he would’ve definitely given Mr. Ghani too, it wasn’t chosen to represent the relationship. Though such a picture isn’t suitable for book covers and this book cover is seemingly apt, this also shows that India and Afghanistan also tread on their bonhomie cautiously, taking other regional players also into consideration. The book is also special for me because the review copy sent to me by Harper Collins India was originally intended for the Afghan president whose picture finds a place on the book cover, as is evident from a handwritten note by the author on the starting page, which was to be presented to him in the backdrop of Mr. Ashraf Ghani’s India tour in October 2017, but couldn’t be given to him for some reasons and came to me instead.

The book is subtitled “India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal” which forms a significant backdrop in the book and it is detailed well about how the Indian foreign policy changed with the dynamics and time-frames of these important events which shaped modern Afghanistan. The book also provides important information, with an extensive repertoire of hitherto untapped primary sources, including interviews with intelligence officials who are identified as ‘X’, ‘L’, ‘H’ and ‘I’, which provide some startling revelations. Also, the book was very informative for me as I got to know various unknown and detailed aspects of “India-Afghanistan ties” and that many Indian Prime Ministers and Presidents were previously External Affairs Ministers (EAM) or other significant players in Indian foreign policy and had different takes on the Afghanistan issue.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one is titled “Debating Neutrality” and talks briefly about historic ties of the two countries and India’s policy and tactical shifts during the Soviet Invasion and withdrawal. Part two is titled “Debating Containment” and describes the tackling of Taliban issue and hijacking of Flight IC-814 and the engagement of Washington with Afghanistan after 9/11. Part three is titled “Debating Engagement” and details the emergence of Hamid Karzai as a leader in Afghanistan and his bonhomie with India and how India managed the US withdrawal in Afghanistan.

The frequent rhetoric in the book is centred on ‘Conciliators’ and ‘Partisans’, the two blocs of Indian diplomats and policy makers who have different views on how the foreign relations between India and Afghanistan need to be approached. Conciliators are of the view that India should engage with almost every entity in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and its various factions. Partisans are of the view of engaging with entities that are at odds with Pakistan and following an ‘anti-engagement’ approach, or even a ‘containment’ policy, vis-à-vis pro-Pakistan factions.  Thus, the book is as much about the power play of different global as well as regional powers in Afghanistan as the frequent tussle between Conciliators and Partisans in India. The book is also well-researched and goes on to discuss how the blocs of conciliators and partisans, cutting across the bureaucratic, diplomatic and political spectrum of India, have emerged as the makers of overtly and covertly different and even contrasting policies of India towards Afghanistan during different regimes in both countries.

This book not only details India’s Afghanistan policy, but essential elements of Afghanistan’s India policy are also described well. It offers an interesting and balanced analysis on the wider strategic shifts that have shaped the diplomatic dynamics of both countries in the context of realpolitik and frequently wavering policymaking in both the countries’ backyards and is an indispensable account for foreign policy analysts, students of International relations and general readers who want to delve deeper into the nitty-gritty’s of India-Afghanistan foreign relations. Also, the book also interrogates the simplistic and powerful geopolitical narrative of ‘India’s political and economic presence in Afghanistan being viewed as a Machiavellian ploy aimed at Pakistan’ and details what truly drives India’s Afghanistan policy.

WRITTEN BY: CHIRDEEP MALHOTRA

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