Review of Indo-Afghanistan Relations

Bilingual Edict of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka at Kandahar written in Greek and Aramaic

Review of Indo-Afghanistan Relations

Taliban has marched into Kabul, victorious after an interregnum of two decades of US-backed state-building in Afghanistan. What is surprising is the rapidity of the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, perhaps, even more anti-climactic than that of the Taliban in the autumn of 2001 against the formidable odds of a US backed Northern Alliance militia. The US trained Afghan National Army has simply melted away. Modern state, based on a spectrum of ideas and ideologies from Royal Absolutism to modern nationalism, remains unattainable as ever in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has always been the crossroads of civilizations. It is a diverse society marked by multiplicity of ethnic and linguistic groups, organised around a maze of tribal and clan clusters and ruled by customary codes like Pashtunwali. The extreme importance attached to tribal norms and codes has meant that Islam has been the only non-patrimonial idea that links the Afghan society. Without Islam Afghanistan would not be a country. This has meant that only the groups professing loyalty to Islam have been able to create all-Afghan organisations like the Mujahideen and the Taliban with the one that is more strict in its adherence to Islam taking precedence in power.

A weak state has also resulted in foreign interference especially from those in the neighborhood. Taliban's resilience is the function of the Pakistani support to the group during the two decades as Americans strived in vain to construct a modern state.
The unfortunate part of this new development in Afghanistan is that it would increase the isolation of the Afghan people from the developing world around them. The common Afghan, already at odds with the unforgiving nature around her, will get increasingly marginalized and disenfranchised.

Taliban's return to power in Kabul puts India in an particularly unenviable position. The fears of losing out to Pakistani (and Chinese) influence in Kabul, Pakistani Army gaining "strategic depth", and the underemployed Taliban fighters getting outsourced to Kashmir, are very real.

Historically, Afghanistan has been critical for the security of the Indian subcontinent for it has been a staging ground for invaders into India. It has been a veritable gateway to India. For this reason India has strived for influence in Afghanistan. This story goes way back, at least till the fourth century B.C.E., after the Macedonian conquest of North Western India. The imperial Mauryans fought and defeated the Seleucid Greeks and gained foothold in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan. The Mauryans extended the "Indian borders" from Indus to the Hindu Kush. Greek sources and Asokan inscriptions attest to this fact. The Mauryan rule was short-lived and the tradition of holding onto the trans-Indus regions did not carry on. In fact, as a reversal of sorts, it was the Central Asian Kushan Empire that extended upto the Ganges. But, the cosmopolitan Kushans themselves were Indianized. Mahayana Buddhism became the imperial faith and Gandhara cultural efflorescence took place under Kushan patronage. This was followed by the movement of nomadic steppe people like the Scythians and the Hephthalites. While Mahayana cultural influence held on, Indian political influence was strictly cis-Indus.

The rapid spread of Islam transformed Afghanistan. Around the turn of millennium Turkic military adventurers like Mahmud of Ghazni, seeking legitimacy and wealth, fashioned themselves as ghazis and plundered the Indian plains. India was going through a phase of rapid political decentralisation and Rajputization. Large imperial formations had given way to small and tiny polities. The new ruling classes, never lacking in valour or sense of self-interest, could not develop a unified strategic culture that could prevent large scale, destructive invasions into India. When Sultan Muizzuddin of Ghor appeared in Punjab the Chahmans under Prithviraj III took prompt action and repulsed him. This was in A.D. 1191. He came the following year and founded a Turkish Sultanate in northern India.

The Turks brought political ideas and practices that were radically different from the Rajputs. The Mamluk Sultans gave utmost importance to the security of the North Western borders. This was the age of the Steppe Nomadic Empires. The all-conquering Mongols were a constant threat. In response, Mamluk Sultans from Iltutmish right upto Balban forsook all further conquest and trained attention on Afghanistan. The Sultans were so fearful of the Mongols that Iltutmish rejected the Khwarizmian proposal of an anti-Mongol front lest it aroused the wrath of Chingiz Khan. Balban, while welcoming a Mongol embassy to Delhi, was noted to have called all his army for a guard of honour and even dressed up cooks and stable hands as soldiers in an effort to impress the Mongols.

This changed with the "Khalji revolution". As the ruling class expanded beyond the Ilbari Mamluk brotherhood, the Khalji came out on top. The political developments under Balban had already created a centralised monarchy. The firm and purposeful Alauddin Khalji furthered that. He changed the defensive methods of his predecessors to an offensive action against the Mongols. He followed a policy of expansion in southern India and lead campaigns against invading Mongols, inflicting a series of defeats upon them and even dispatching raids against Mongol positions into Afghanistan.
The Khaljis lost power soon after Alauddin's death and were, in time, supplanted by the Tughlaqs. Ghiasuddin Tughlaq was the warden of the marches under Khaljis and a veteran of the Mongol campaigns. His son and successor, Mohammed bin Tughlaq even planned an ambitious invasion of Afghanistan to solve the Mongol problem once and for all. The proposed campaign was shelved and defence of borders were weakened under his successor, Firuz Shah. This lead to a catastrophic invasion of India by the Turko-Mongol conqueror, Amir Timur, leaving in its path a trail of death and destruction.

It was this destructive invasion that lead to another, and a qualitatively very different, invasion. Babur, Timur's great-great-great grandson claimed Hindostan in the name of his ancestor. Establishment of Mughal Empire was a watershed in Indian history. The Mughals not only established a centralised monarchy but also claimed universal and indivisible sovereignty after the Chingizid and Timurid traditions. After a shaky start, Mughals expanded. It was Akbar the Great who conquered Kabul (1581). This was followed by the conquest of Kandahar (1596). This was the first time after the Mauryan Empire that an Indian Empire had encompassed significant Afghan lands. Important Rajput nobles were part of the Mughal Army. Raja Bhagwant Das and later his son Raja Man Singh were governors of Kabul. Raja Todar Mal, Raja Birbal also served in Afghanistan. They are known to have fought and won many battles. Kandahar became a point of contention between the friendly empires of Iran (Safavi) and India (Mughal). Indian influence in Afghanistan gave a long period of stability and growth to India. The weakening of Mughal authority and the neglect of the North Western borders lead to the resumption of invasions, first by Nadir Shah and then by Ahmad Shah Abdali. The only resistance came from the Marathas who were situated far too south.

The view that Afghanistan is of strategic importance for the safety of India escalated in the colonial period as the British and Russian empires vied for control and influence in Afghanistan. The British lead a number of disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan, finally settling for amenable rulers in lieu of direct control.

The events of partition and war have estranged India from the Durand line and, perhaps, reduced our influence and leverage in that country. But, India needs to attach utmost importance to an Afghan policy of engagement and influence. The world at large too needs to remain engaged with Afghanistan. The experience of the first round of Taliban rule, when the whole world turned its back on Afghanistan thereby making it completely reliant on Pakistan, is warning enough.

- Abhijit Mendhe
Author is Asst. Professor, Government Vidarbha Institute of Sciences and Humanities, Amravati

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  1. This article gives brief but complete in itself kind of running historical survey about the country caught into a mesh from where no redemption seems visible in near future. The article also sheds light upon the making of Afgan society out of tribal groups tied loosely together by the common thread of Islam. Its interesting to read about an ancient society have had very strong relations with the Buddhist India and then with the Mughals before India fall a prey to the British rule. The article is really useful to understand in brief the journey of Afganistan.

  2. Insightful historical coverage of Indo-Afghan relations for last 2500 Years.

  3. Modern life has its ups and downs as it is. But when you see time unravel itself back half a century or more, the mind is numbed. Women and children's harsh realities there, must be beyond prayers.


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