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Great Gaming 2009

History can teach India how to engage with today’s Afghanistan and an increasingly paranoid Pakistan, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2009 23:03 IST
Ashok Malik

October 8’s failed suicide bomber attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul put things in perspective. It made a mockery of attempts to de-legitimise India’s role in Afghanistan. For example, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the American-led forces in Afghanistan, recently acknowledged India’s development work as beneficial to Afghans but also suggested this was “likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India”.

On October 3, the Pakistani foreign minister had told the Los Angeles Times that “[The Indians] have to justify their interest. They do not share a border with Afghanistan, whereas we do. So the level of engagement has to be commensurate with that. If there’s no massive [Indian] reconstruction [in Afghanistan], if there are not long queues in Delhi waiting for visas to travel to Kabul, why do you have such a large presence in Afghanistan? At times it concerns us.”

The Pakistani foreign minister was being economical with the truth. The Indian role in reconstructing social and physical infrastructure in Afghanistan is indeed ‘massive’. Islamabad may not want it seen that way, but it cannot disguise reality.

The centrality of Afghanistan to India’s security concerns was actually spelt out on another day in October, not in 2009 but a full 171 years earlier. On October 1, 1838, George Eden (Lord Auckland), then the Governor General of India, released the ‘Simla Manifesto’. This document sought to provide the justification for what came to be called the First British-Afghan War.

The immediate provocation for the war — replacing a supposedly pro-Persian ruler with a British puppet — was dubious and based on sexed-up evidence. Nevertheless, the Simla Manifesto provides a remarkably timeless exposition of the goals of Indian near-neighbourhood policy. The challenges posed by the ‘Afghan question’ are tellingly unchanging.

Lord Auckland often referred to Herat — the gateway to Afghanistan, on the border with Iran — as “the western frontier of India”. If this be taken not in literal terms but as a reflection of the geography of grand strategy, it still holds true. So does much else in the Simla Manifesto.

In Afghanistan, Auckland’s nightmare was a government with “schemes of aggrandisement and ambition injurious to the security and peace… of India” and which “openly threatened, in furtherance of those schemes, to call in every foreign aid”... “So long as Caubul remained under [t]his government, we could never hope that the tranquillity of our neighbourhood would be secured.”

“The welfare of our possessions in the east,” said Auckland, “requires that we should have on our western frontier an ally who is interested in resisting aggression and establishing tranquillity, in the place of chiefs ranging themselves in subservience to a hostile power and seeking to promote schemes of conquest.”

It’s nobody’s case that Auckland’s communiqué be taken at face value. His principal motivation was safeguarding the East India Company, not ordinary Indians. Neither is there an exact parallel in threat perceptions. The ‘hostile power’ that worried Auckland was Persia. Today, India’s concern is not Iran but Pakistan. Its abiding fear is Taliban chiefs ‘in subservience’ to Pakistan will once more gain control of Kabul.

Is the Simla Manifesto then just an engaging passage from history? Does it help design India’s road-map in 2009?

Consider the context. The American president is vacillating. He is being told by his vice-president to withdraw from Afghanistan and do a deal with the Taliban. He is being asked by his military brass to send 40,000 more troops. Typical of Barack Obama, he will devise some halfway house and satisfy nobody but fans on Facebook.

In this moment of flux, the Simla Manifesto is sobering. It points to three benchmarks that India cannot compromise on.

First, India can live with a neutral Kabul, but not one that sees itself as a satellite of Islamabad. Second, Herat remains “the western frontier of India” in that western Afghanistan (including the Zaranj-Delaram region, where India has built an impressive highway) is crucial to maintaining leverage on Kabul. In the coming years, this could mean India working with Iran to build civilian and other capacities in western Afghanistan, and extracting for it autonomy from a potentially Taliban-run Kabul.

Third, to Auckland’s mind it was vital that the strategic aims of the myriad Pashtun tribal chiefs contradicted those of other regional powers. This was more important, and more achievable, than seeking strategic congruence between the Pashtun chiefs and India.

Two centuries later, what does this mean? Simply that it’s for India to exploit the Pashtun identity that’s emerged on both sides of the Durand Line. Here is the seed of a new type of Pashtun nationalism. It isn’t secular nationalism, but Islamist Pashtun nationalism.

If converted into a territorial hunger, this can lead to a schism between the Pashtun Islamists — and that expression is now coterminous with the Taliban — and Islamabad. Encouraging a Pashtun-Punjabi divide is the only antidote to a pan-Islamist compact that targets India.

Auckland did something similar. Faced with the prospect of the Persian army and Afghan militia uniting under the banner of jihad, he instigated Pashtun-Persian discord. That is why the subtext of the Simla Manifesto remains relevant for South Block.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal