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India-Afghanistan “Axis” and the Pakistan Question

Avinash Paliwal
December 19, 2016

The strength of India-Afghanistan relations was on full display at the 6th Heart of Asia Conference held in Amritsar on December 4, 2016. Criticizing Pakistan for providing a “safe haven” to “terrorists” associated with the Afghan centric Haqqani Network and the India centric Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, New Delhi and Kabul successfully used the platform to isolate and humiliate Islamabad. The two countries also discussed the possibility of an air cargo corridor bypassing Pakistan, which has consistently denied Afghanistan access to Indian markets and vice versa.

If Indian policymakers were concerned about Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani’s ostensible “tilt” towards Pakistan in 2014, they rejoiced Kabul’s course correction in 2016. In June, for instance, Indian PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam in Herat. In August, the Afghan leadership supported Modi’s statement on Pakistan’s human rights violations in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Kabul also readily boycotted the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting that was to be held in Pakistan, and endorsed India’s curious “surgical strike” along the Line-of-Control in response to the attack in Uri.

Given India and Pakistan’s strategic competition for influence in Afghanistan, these indicators draw a compelling picture of India-Afghanistan friendship. However, historically there are reasons to not take this “axis” for granted even though Kabul is far from gravitating towards Islamabad. This is because conciliatory undercurrents in Kabul and New Delhi vis-à-vis Pakistan are just as potent as partisan anti-Pakistan advocacy. The on-and-off dialogue between these countries is symptomatic of this regional geopolitical dynamic.

Logic dictates that good relations with Islamabad are necessary for sustaining peace, stability, and development for both India and Afghanistan. And history shows that both Afghanistan and India seek opportunities, whatever few there might have been, to reconcile differences with Pakistan. Post-Independence history of India’s relations with Afghanistan is replete with instances where both Kabul and New Delhi were wary to undermine or be seen as undermining Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Two historical cases, one each from the 1960s and 1970s, are particularly instructive.

First, Afghanistan’s reaction to the 1965 India-Pakistan war, from New Delhi’s standpoint, was muted and ambiguous. After nearly capturing Lahore, India was diplomatically challenging Pakistan on the Baloch, Pashtunistan, and East Pakistan questions in UN debates. During the course of war, various Congress leaders began pressing the government to move beyond moral and diplomatic sectors to providing “concrete” support to Pashtun and Baloch separatists. After high-level meetings with Bacha Khan in Kabul, the then external affairs minister Swaran Singh, in a joint Parliamentary session, invited Frontier Gandhi to pursue his struggle for Pashtunistan from New Delhi, and received cross-party support.  

Far from being viewed kindly, India’s aggressive posture on Pashtunistan created tremendous disquiet in Kabul. Though Afghan public opinion favored India, the assault on Lahore had unnerved Afghan king Zahir Shah. Walking a tightrope, he had tried maintaining neutrality. However, India’s military success raised the specter, at least in the Afghan mind, of a potential unraveling of Pakistan. In clockwork fashion, just as India launched its diplomatic offensive on Pashtunistan, and the All India Radio began broadcasting stories of armed Pashtun rebels coalescing along the border areas, Kabul started downplaying the issue in bilateral exchanges with Pakistan.  

Rawan Farhadi, Director-General for Political Affairs and the senior most official in Afghanistan’s foreign ministry, informed American diplomats that Kabul’s neutrality had created enough goodwill in Pakistan to resolve the Pashtunistan issue amicably. Such was Kabul’s desire to end the logjam with Islamabad that it nearly agreed to recognize the Durand Line on the condition that Islamabad would grant autonomy to Pashuns living in its territory. Far from collaborating with India, Kabul viewed the conflict as an opportunity to reconcile differences with Islamabad in ways that would benefit both countries.

Such geopolitical complexity was further underlined when Farhadi, in response to an American diplomat’s question about Pakistan’s potential disintegration, rhetorically replied: “Do you think we would want India at the Khyber Pass?” However, soon after when a ceasefire was declared, Farhadi personally assured the Indian ambassador in Kabul that Zahir Shah never supported Pakistan and stood strongly with India. A few days later, Afghan diplomats joined India in demanding self-determination for Pashtun and Baloch people living in Pakistan. With the war over, and Pakistan having refused to entertain Afghan “feelers” under pressure, Kabul reverted to its policy of cooperation with India.

Second, despite having defeated Pakistan in 1971, the Indian leadership refused to entertain Afghan requests for “joint action” against Islamabad. In 1973, former Afghan PM Daud Khan had ousted Zahir Shah in a bloodless coup. Virulently anti-Pakistan, and a keen advocate of Pashtunistan, Khan ordered a military build-up along the Pakistan border in November 1974. Given Daud’s recklessness, the Indian leadership, though outwardly supportive of Kabul, began to worry about Pakistan’s balkanization and soon halted its covert material support to the Baloch and Pashtun movements that had begun in wake of the 1971 war.

In a widely publicized visit to New Delhi in March 1975, Daud stated: “The one and only political difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan concerns the restoration of the legitimate rights of our Pakhtoon and Baloochis brothers. We have always expressed our willingness to settle this only difference with that country, but we see that Pakistan is not ready to give a positive response to our desire in this regard.” In private, he had asked New Delhi to militarily engage Pakistan in the east, while Afghanistan would fight it in the west, so as to “fix” the Pakistan problem. Indira Gandhi rejected the proposal.

As India had calculated, Islamabad responded by offering anti-Kabul Afghan Islamists sanctuary in Pakistan via the Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Some of the most famous figures that received Pakistan’s support included Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani of the Jamiat-e-Islami, as well as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who started his journey with the Jamiat but later formed the Hizb-e-Islami. Interestingly, most of these actors or the organizations they created are active in Afghanistan’s political landscape today.

In the ensuing decades, both India and Afghanistan took turns in talking to and fighting with Pakistan. Though it can be argued that Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella obviated the existential threat emanating from India, these cases demonstrate that neither India nor Afghanistan seriously mulled the use of force to revise the territorial boundaries of the region even before nuclearization of the subcontinent. If anything, there always have been limits to India’s influence in Kabul, and Kabul’s strategic value in New Delhi. The current bonhomie is simply a meeting of India and Afghanistan’s interests at a time when Pakistan has simultaneously alienated both its neighbors.

The reason why Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan in 2014, just like Karzai in early 2000s, worried Indian policymakers, then, was not because these were naïve political leaders unaware of Pakistan’s intent, but because these attempts were very much part of a geopolitical dialectic rooted in an easily forgotten history. The abovementioned cases also highlight that India’s desire to maintain a strategic balance across the Durand Line is an under-appreciated principle that has guided New Delhi’s Afghanistan policy for decades. India’s capacity constraints aside, it is not surprising that many Afghans criticized New Delhi for a long time for not doing enough to support Kabul.

Evading the structural binaries of the Cold War, and the “us vs. them” discourse of the so-called War on Terror, the relationship between India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has evolved over a complex geopolitical continuum. This continuum, from a policy perspective, is well captured by the twin desires among these countries to alter the status quo in their benefit without risking strategic overhaul—reducing the threat of territorial revisionism into a diplomatic tool rather than a strategic end.

Islamabad’s sheer lack of imagination to deal with its neighbors (including China, on whom it has become dangerously dependent) and selective targeting of militant outfits, partly out of choice and partly out of political compulsion and capacity constraints, imparts continuity and strength to the so-called India-Afghanistan “axis”—a scenario Pakistan conscientiously tried to preclude during the 1990s. Therefore, despite demands for isolating Pakistan in regional forums, and resorting to overt and covert coercion, enduring geopolitical contradictions of South Asia, which have only exacerbated after 1998, demands a levelheaded conversation between these countries to resolve their deep-rooted differences. For any future war (not unlikely), unless it is strategically decisive, will only feed into this on-again-off-again dynamic without bringing lasting peace to the region.

Avinash Paliwal is a Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, and author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (London: Hurst Publishers, 2017).


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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