Supping With My Enemy’s Enemy

Avinash Paliwal‘s new book ‘My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from The Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal’ shows that he is a young academic to watch out for in the years ahead.

India’s relationship with Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979 has been complex and constrained by geography and shifting strategic goal posts; Avinash Paliwal addresses these factors clinically in his investigation. Avoiding the temptation to revisit colonial and early legacies for too long, Paliwal begins his robust investigation from a period when India had the gumption to object to the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, albeit through the lens of a lame-duck caretaker government of Charan Singh. Indira Gandhi, though, speedily reversed that public posture after storming back to power in 1980 considering the existing geopolitical alignments of the time. However, she expressed her annoyance in person, much to the surprise of Brezhnev at the Soviet Union’s entry into the region.

Not many know that India’s intelligence agencies had a ready exfiltration plan to spirit President Najibullah into India even as the Taliban was closing-in on him in September 1996 and had a plane waiting at Kabul Airport. Sadly, Najibullah was betrayed to the Taliban by his inner-cordon of security and executed as the Indian plan evaporated. Paliwal’s fast-paced narrative of the turbulent 1980s and 1990s is embedded with painstaking research, exhaustive narratives and deep mining of secondary sources from across the world. He argues convincingly that India’s external intelligence agencies were ‘alive and kicking’ as they kept all options open during the years when the Taliban ruled over Afghanistan until Indian PM Inder Kumar Gujral dismantled much of India’s covert capability in the region in the late 1990s. While India’s preference for the Northern Alliance was clear, it kept backdoor channels open with the extremely radical Islamic elements within the Mujahedin like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hizbe-Islami and elements within the Taliban before 9/11 happened.

One of the striking features of Paliwal’s book is his rather brave attempt to view the India-Pakistan relationship and its impact on how both countries viewed the other’s involvement in Afghanistan through the prism of Kautilyan realpolitik. Hence, I guess the title ‘My Enemy’s Enemy.’ His analysis in this portion clearly indicates that Pakistan views India’s assistance to Afghanistan as part of an encirclement strategy, while India views its benign developmental assistance based strategy as a means of ensuring that it has some say in ensuring that Afghanistan does slip away into the fold of Islamic radicalism and extremism. The entry of Afghan Mujahedin and Pakistan trained terrorists into Jammu & Kashmir in the early 1990s is widely believed to have heralded a new phase in the Pakistan sponsored proxy war against India. India’s security establishment views a Pakistan dominated Taliban in power in Afghanistan as strategic depth for the proxy war – so the game goes on!

While Paliwal is quite critical of the way in which India handled the Kandahar hijack situation, he softens his criticism rather diplomatically by arguing that at the end of the day, the situation was retrieved without much loss of life. He rightly posits that for the Indian government to expect the fledgling Taliban government to rush to India’s assistance when Pakistan’s ISI was in the know of the operation was naïve to say the least. India’s waiting game following the US-led intervention in Afghanistan despite strong US pressure to commit boots on ground is seen as natural and consistent. Its policy of restraint and circumspection when it comes to deploying forces overseas unless it is at the behest of a neighbor in distress, or under the UN umbrella is probably the right one considering that Indian military capability is currently stretched to the limit.

Recent years have seen India wait for Presidents Karzai and Ashraf Ghani to see value in seeking assistance from India, because at the end of the day, as Palliwal often points out in his book, geography remains a spoiler in India’s attempts to influence geopolitics in Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan, he argues will always be front-runners in determining the future trajectory of Afghanistan. If I must pick a bone with Paliwal it is in the realm of underplaying Pakistan’s role in subverting government legitimacy on both its eastern and western fronts and overplaying Indian capacity and willingness to engage in covert operations in Balochistan. However, this is a book for an international readership, and not purely for an Indian one and my protest is a feeble one that comes from an Indian practitioner!

While taking nothing away from Paliwal’s individual writing and research skills, I have keenly observed the environment in the US and UK over the last few months and seen how good publishing ideas from young scholars are pursued by publishers and supported by institutions, grants and travel opportunities. I wish I could say the same for India’s institutions where young academics and scholars must ‘wait for their time’ to grow out of the shadows of their ‘seniors.’ What I particularly liked about ‘My Enemy’s Enemy’ is that it is an offering for a ‘full spectrum’ readership- academically rigorous with a crisp and racy narrative.