Book Review | My Enemy’s Enemy – India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal

 By Meyanka Chauhan
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Avinash Paliwal’s My Enemy’s Enemy places itself at the heart of Asian politics in general and South Asian politics in particular. It principally and schematically locates itself in India’s struggle to emerge as an indisputable leader in the region. On one hand, Paliwal acknowledges India’s rise in international politics while on the other hand, he also lays emphasis on India’s inability to deal with its own neighbors who are ironically far too many to be ignored. This book becomes especially relevant in light of the monumental agreement that was signed between the States and Taliban in February this year which formalizes the withdrawal of the US troops from the Afghan soil. The on-ground realization of this agreement is likely to come with its own set of challenges and has the potential to transform South Asian politics for better or for worse.

Being an Indian himself, the author craftily explores the conflicted internal discourse that exists in India in relation to Afghanistan. Having said that, Paliwal also lends a voice to the individual narrative of the troubled land of Afghanistan. He rightly frames that since times immemorial the land of Afghanistan has been used as a “buffer space where external powers play great games”. This stands testified by the mere fact that the country has seen the rise and fall of multiple ideologies within a very short span of time. The deep sense of insecurity and instability that exists on the Afghan soil is truly unfathomable. Apart from this, Paliwal also sheds light on how the United States of America, Russia, India, and Pakistan act as major stakeholders in the land and in the past Afghan wars.

The geographical location and strategic importance of the land have time and again enticed several countries to further their bonds with Afghanistan, India being one of them. Starting from the invasion of the Soviet Union to the rise of Taliban planted by Pakistan to then finally, the intervention of the States, India has duly played its part in the politics of the land. From making major economic investments in the land to now being excluded from some of the major international discussions on Afghanistan, India can most appropriately be said to have assumed the role of a spectator in deciding the future of what it once called its ‘reliable friend’. This epitomizes the fact that the terrain of Afghanistan is particularly difficult for ‘soft powers’ to hold a significantly strong grip on. Along with this, Paliwal duly analyses the relationship of what many analysts refer to as the ‘deadly triangle’ (India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) and addresses the pivotal question of what role does Pakistan have in molding the India-Afghanistan relationship and subsequently their policies towards each other.

My Enemy’s Enemy is not just a grip on history and politics but a voyage to varied aspects. Paliwal traces the faultlines, digs deep into Indian policy, and gives the masses a glimpse of the technical approaches followed by policymakers while formulating foreign policies. For ease of understanding, the book is divided into three parts which acutely elaborate India’s strategies of engagement with Afghanistan over the years. Apart from this, the author also makes a detailed analysis of the two distinct blocs that exist within the Indian government namely: conciliators and partisans. The ‘conciliators’ operate on the “engage-with-all” dictum and hold a very pragmatic stance with regard to the involvement of Pakistan in Afghanistan while the ‘partisans’ strongly follow an ‘anti-engagement approach’ also called the ‘containment policy’ and recognize all the anti-Pakistan groups as their natural allies in the process of establishing a strong ground in Afghanistan. Thus, it would be safe to say that it is on account of the antithetical positions taken by these two blocs that India’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan keeps fluctuating between being aggressive at some points and appeasing at others.

The first section ‘Debating Neutrality’ provides a historical overview of India-Afghanistan relations and highlights the deeper emotional and cultural connection that the two countries have shared for decades now. This section is majorly set against the backdrop of the turmoil that followed the Cold War soon after which Soviet Union invaded the Afghan soil. Here, the readers explore the twin diplomacy route adopted by India to appease both the US and the Soviet Union, and then eventually going back on its policy of non-alignment by ultimately siding with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, what Paliwal subtly reveals here is how the Communist bloc was actually instrumental in sowing the seeds of what’s called anti-Pakistan sentiments in the Indian mind which subsequently directed India’s Afghanistan policy to focus increasingly on Pakistan. The second section ‘Debating Containment’ highlights the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The complexity of India’s initial conciliatory approach, followed by the birth of the conciliators vs partisans debate and then ultimately India’s support to the anti-Taliban United Front is discussed in great detail. Paliwal elucidates the influence that Pakistan had in Afghanistan (due to Taliban) and sheds light on the dark episode of the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999 which further worsened relations between India and Afghanistan.

It would be accurate to say that Taliban’s rise not only polarised the Afghan politics and society but also that of India’s. Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan collectively triggered Hindu fundamentalism in India, the disturbing presence of which can be felt even today. Furthermore, Paliwal goes on to talk about the tragic destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha and the 9/11 attacks which shook the global community and finally waged a war against terrorism.

The third section ‘Debating Engagement’ as the name suggests systematically decodes how the conciliators vs partisans friction resurfaced and India again, started reframing its policy of engagement with Afghanistan after Hamid Karzai came into power. Thus, it would be correct to say that India’s Afghanistan policy has neither been fixed nor existed in a vacuum ever, instead, it has been an ever-evolving process of continuous negotiations by the policymakers at various levels. Paliwal brings into the limelight India’s ultimate realization

that reaching out to some Taliban factions would be in India’s long-term interest. Noteworthily, this understanding comes in handy to the policymakers even today especially when every country at its independent level is having dialogues and negotiations with the Taliban. From being intolerant to the Taliban to actually supporting peace talks with it, India has come a long way. However, there is still quite a lot that needs to be done to remain relevant in the topsy turvy ride that politics is.

All in all, Paliwal’s rich narrative is a storehouse of wisdom especially for budding diplomats and policy enthusiasts. The book simplifies a lot of structural technicalities and addresses a myriad of questions however, what it leaves its readers to ponder upon is whether the conflict in Afghanistan can really have what most experts call a ‘regional’ solution or not.