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Avinash Paliwal: Complexity of India’s relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan amazed me


Avinash Paliwal’s My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal is a perfect guide of India’s Afghanistan policy right from the last decade of the Cold War to the recent US-led war on terror. Sapna Sarfare finds more from the author

David Lund has stated – all politics is local, even international politics. That border represents a convenient dividing line between two people who see the world differently. How apt it is when you notice the way India is dealing with international politics that is affecting our position – internally & externally. Harper Collins India recently launched Avinash Paliwal’s book My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal, a definitive account of the calculated alliance between New Delhi and Kabul. Get into detailed geopolitical narrative of India’s Afghanistan policy, right from the last decade of the Cold War to the recent US-led war on terror.

A lecturer of Defence Studies at SOAS, University of London who earlier taught at King’s College London specializing in the strategic affairs of South Asia and Afghanistan, Avinash Paliwal has a doctorate in international relations from the same institute, and an economics degree from the University of Delhi. Earlier he was a journalist & foreign affairs analyst in New Delhi.


For Paliwal, Afghanistan became an interesting case to ‘unpack India’s strategy debates’. “Situated between South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Afghanistan was at the forefront of the Global Cold War, the 1990s civil war, and the so-called Global War on Terror since 2001. In this context, managing relations with this country has been particularly challenging for Indian policymakers. Studying Indian behaviour towards Afghanistan thus allowed explaining how domestic, regional & global factors shape India’s foreign policy processes and outcomes in a politically turbulent neighbourhood. The implications of the study, it was clear to me from the beginning, will not be restricted to either India or Afghanistan.”


Paliwal found writing the expansive book sometimes stressful but tremendously satisfying emotionally, and an intellectually enriching experience. “After finishing my doctorate in 2015, I wrote the manuscript during my postdoctoral fellowship at King’s College. I was lucky to be based in Oxford at the time of writing and utilized the treasures of the Bodleian Library well. The various interactions I had with friends and colleagues who have interest in and knowledge of such subjects pushed me to think beyond the obvious. Undoubtedly, the complexity of India’s relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan amazed, and sometimes even dazed, me. But the only way to do justice to this history was to delve deeper into it, rather than stay safe and short.”

That means the tough writing & research experience for the book must have exhausting. “Given that this book emerged from my doctoral and postdoctoral research, there was an element of exploration throughout. I knew I was working on something novel and important, not just from an academic viewpoint, but also from a policy perspective. There were moments of frustration and disillusionment during the research phase, but it worked out fine eventually. The writing process in itself was highly rewarding. Liberated from the sometimes formulaic style of an academic thesis, I had the freedom to experiment with structure and style. I wanted to strike a balance between making the book accessible to a lay-reader, while ensuring that it is not bereft of value for an expert. Did I succeed? Time will tell.”


Considering the book is on an interesting topic, certain aspects stuck to Paliwal. “But if I have to choose, I would say that the prologue on India’s arrest of Assadullah Sarwari in 1990, and New Delhi’s failed attempt to exfiltrate former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 left a deep impression on me. These two episodes neatly capture the dilemmas of India’s approach towards Afghanistan, the brutality of war, and the complexity of Afghanistan’s political landscape.”


The book has been divided chronologically into three parts, states Paliwal. “That is ‘debating neutrality’, ‘debating containment’, and ‘debating engagement’. The first part consists of two chapters examining the history of India’s relations with Afghanistan till the end of the Cold War, and how the latter figures in the former’s popular imagination. The second part delves into events that led India to more or less embrace the proxy-war format vis-à-vis Pakistan in Afghanistan during the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century. The third part consists of three chapters and analyses India’s approach towards Afghanistan after the events of 9/11.”


Paliwal describe India’s journey in Afghanistan as ‘an insatiable quest for friendship with the desire to strike a strategic balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan’. “It is not just the ‘proxy war’ format against Pakistan that people usually envision it to be. As the book shows, if India can be an enemy across the Hindu Kush, it can also be a friend who understands Pakistan’s territorial insecurities, and has little interest in exacerbating them.”


Considering the volatile situation of today, one might think Paliwal’s work to interest the students and others. “It will attract interest of International Relations scholars focusing on issues such as foreign policymaking processes, as much as it will speak to historians, especially those who are dealing contemporary politics. For regional specialists, the work is a first of its kind in the South Asian and Afghan context. Given that the book has come out very recently, most students are yet to engage with it in a classroom setting. However, those entire students who have already read it, or have followed my work on this particular topic, have found it comprehensive, novel, and, as one student recently put it: ‘a serious check on conventional wisdom about India’s role in Afghanistan’.”

With a topic like this, Avinash Paliwal’s book My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal would make an interesting read for sure.

TITLE: My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins India

PAGES: 400

PRICE: Rs 699 (Hardback)

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