India-Pakistan Rivalry in Afghanistan

By Ganguly, Sumit; Howenstein, Nicholas | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

India-Pakistan Rivalry in Afghanistan


Ganguly, Sumit, Howenstein, Nicholas, Journal of International Affairs


Indian and Pakistani competition in Afghanistan long precedes the advent of the Hamid Karzai regime. Both states, since their emergence from the break-up of the British colonial empire in South Asia in 1947, have had ties with a range of Afghan governments. This essay will trace the origins of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry in Afghanistan, assess India's current status and role in Afghanistan in the context of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry and discuss the implications for American policy.

EARLY INDO-PAKISTANI COMPETITION IN AFGHANISTAN

Despite Pakistan's physical proximity to Afghanistan, the two have not always enjoyed the most cordial relations thanks to differences over the Durand Line. Indeed, during the long rule of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), India actually had better relations with Afghanistan than did Pakistan, barring a brief rupture during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani conflict.

Even after Zahir's overthrow in 1973, India managed to maintain close ties with the subsequent communist regimes. Contrary to popular belief, India was less than pleased with the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. (1) Nevertheless, after failing to engage Pakistan with the prospects of a regional solution to the Soviet invasion and faced with substantial American military and economic assistance to Pakistan ($3.2 billion for six years), India avoided any public censure of the Soviet occupation. It chose instead to work with successive Soviet puppet regimes in Afghanistan because it cared little for the Islamist ideological orientation shared by a bulk of the Afghan mujahideen groups that Pakistan was supporting on behalf of the United States. (2) India was also loath to cede its military superiority over Pakistan and relied on the Soviets to provide advanced weaponry at bargain-basement prices? During the course of the Afghan war, India came to support Ahmed Shah Massoud's Northern Alliance because of its hostility toward the Pakistani-supported mujahideen groups. Moreover, a long-standing rivalry over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border had exacerbated the tensions between the two countries since the end of British rule in India. The ethnically Pashtun and Baluch belts straddling the Durand Line made that demarcation illegitimate in the eyes of many in the tribal areas. India was soon able to exploit this rivalry following partition. Pashtun nationalists, who had already been advocating for a "Pashtunistan," took the matter to a loya jirga in 1949. The jirga believed that Pakistan, being a new state at the time, was not an historic extension of British India, and therefore all treaties signed prior to independence were nullified. This included the demarcation of the Durand Line and thus Pakistan's putative annex of tribal areas more closely aligned with Afghanistan. Throughout the Cold War, India would be able to pay lip service to the idea of a "Pashtunistan" with the goal of keeping Pakistan's army occupied on its restive western border. (4)

India's ability to maintain good relations with Afghanistan drew to a close with the Pakistani-aided and abetted Taliban victory in 1996. (5) The Taliban victory finally gave Pakistan's politico-military establishment a long-sought goal: namely, what they believed to be a pliant regime in Afghanistan, one that would grant it strategic depth against India. India, on the other hand, was forced to abandon its embassy and withdraw its diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan. It was during this period that Pakistan managed to bolster its ties with the Taliban regime until after the tragic events of 11 September 2001.

Given Pakistan's close ties to the Taliban regime, India did not abandon its links with the Northern Alliance. In early 2001, as the Northern Alliance was engaged in battle with Taliban forces, India reportedly provided Massoud's forces with high-altitude warfare equipment, defense advisors and helicopter technicians. Indian medical personnel also apparently treated wounded Northern Alliance members at a hospital in Farkhor in Tajikistan near the Afghan-Tajik border. …

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