Securing Afghanistan: Historic Sources of India’s Contemporary Challenge

  • Avinash Paliwal

This paper looks at debates from the days of the British Raj until now that have shaped India's strategic thought on Afghanistan. It highlights the impact of India's territorial construct on its strategic imagination and argues that India's Afghan policy is determined by its political geography.

Afghanistan has proved to be a security lynchpin in South and A Central Asia over the last two decades. Home to a variety of militant networks with regional and global links, Afghanistan’s stability is crucial for the peaceful development of the region. With the withdrawal of US forces scheduled for 2014, there is tremendous anxiety among the neighbouring countries. Concerned about a spillover of violence and instability throughout the region, Afghanistan’s neighbours are working hard to develop a regional mechanism to cope with the challenge. According to Washington, regional powers, particularly India and China, should play a proactive role in stabilising Afghanistan. Also of much consequence will be the role of Pakistan and Iran, both of whom stand at various odds with Kabul. Interestingly, both India and China, despite having supported the idea of a regional solution, have been hedging their bets in Afghanistan. Both have refused to fill the security vacuum, and neither is increasing its aid and investment further than what has already been committed. For India, security concerns emanating from Afghanistan are even more immediate and large scale than those for China. Facing serious security challenges in Kashmir and having witnessed attacks on its soil by groups trained in the Afghan hinterlands, New Delhi is particularly concerned about the stability of Afghanistan. India’s strategic-security community finds itself at a policy crossroads as the salience of these security issues increases. With the central theme being India’s defence, the dilemma is rooted in developing mechanisms to achieve security within a certain structural and normative context.

What policy choices does India have in Afghanistan post 2014? Buttressing its soft power approach with hard power will strain relations with Pakistan. Limited Indian engagement with Kabul, however, might increase Pakistan’s political influence in Afghanistan.

This paper will look at debates from the days of the British Raj until now that have shaped India’s strategic thought on Afghanistan. It will highlight the impact of India’s territorial construct on its strategic imagination and will argue that India’s Afghan policy is determined by its political geography.

An important theatre for India’s security, the northwest frontier has traditionally defined India’s territorial defence. Indeed, India’s threat perception from China and strategic worth of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) rose in significance primarily in late twentieth and twenty-first centuries; importance of the northwestern frontier, however, has endured over centuries. With 1947 a watershed year, studies on South Asian geopolitics often focus more on the post-Independence era. The debate on India’s frontier and defence policies, however, date back to the early nineteenth century.

Steered by the Napoleonic Wars, the Bombay and Ludhiana Schools of Indian Defence emerged as the two competing lines of thought regarding India’s defence. The Bombay School advocated a forward military policy for defending India with River Oxus being the primary line of defence. The Ludhiana School, on the other hand, advocated an economy-and diplomacy-driven policy with the River Indus being the outer bulwark. These schools transformed into the classic clash between the Forward School and the Closed Border School following the Indian revolt of 1857 and the Russian advance to Central Asia from 1860s onwards.

These schools reflected opposition between ideas regarding the defence of India. Debates over security and administrative arrangements were predominant during the British Raj. While Britain feared invasion or coalition against itself while it was only one state among many in Europe, the fulcrum of the debates shifted towards its colonial enterprises when it became a paramount power in Asia with the defeat of France. The Raj envisioned a dual-layered ‘ring fence’ defence system for India. Consisting of an Inner Ring and an Outer Ring, this system of defence sought to develop a ‘series of buffer zones along the landward periphery of the subcontinent’. While the Inner Ring was made of areas like Baluchistan, Northwest tribal areas and the Naga Hills, the Outer Ring consisted of Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and Burma.

Stability in the region between the River Indus and the Hindu Kush, geographically divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is crucial for India’s security and development. The Partition of 1947, though complicated, did not reduce the geopolitical imprint on India’s strategic choices. There is a striking similarity between modern India’s discourse on strategy and the earlier debates. These similarities reflect the tension over balancing relations between Islamabad and Kabul as well as opting between hard and soft approaches.

The following sections will provide an overview of the historical debates and their legacy in contemporary India. The first section will delve into the debate between the Bombay and the Ludhiana Schools. Though both schools had strong policy appeal, the Ludhiana School remained successful for most of the first half of the nineteenth century. The second section of this paper will discuss the debate over Nehru’s visit to the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP) in 1946 and its fallout. Discussion surrounding Nehru’s NWFP visit reflects the strategic relevance of this region and the impact of political geography on strategy. The third section will focus on key dilemmas facing India during the Cold War period and afterwards. The last section provides the contours of current policy challenges New Delhi faces with the withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014. With swords crossed between passive and active policy proponents, the legacy of nineteenth century debates continues.

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Avinash Paliwal

Title: Securing Afghanistan: Historic Sources of India's Contemporary Challenge
ID: 9900
date publish: 2013-09-10 00:00:00
  • Avinash Paliwal