In the initial two decades following India’s independence, India’s foreign policy was heavily determined by the personal predilections of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his protégé VK Krishna Menon, both influenced by British socialism. Nehru himself handled the external affairs portfolio until his death in 1964.
The policy of ‘non-alignment’ which the duo initiated in India’s foreign policy gained world-wide attention since early 1950s, which later became a full-fledged movement and forum of discussion in 1961 (NAM) that consisted of developing and newly decolonised nations from different parts of the world, primarily from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
But, the policy never meant isolationism or neutrality; rather it was conceived as a positive and constructive policy in the backdrop of the US-USSR Cold War, enabling freedom of action in foreign and security policies, even though many of the individual NAM member states had a tilt towards the Soviet Union, including India.
However, the lofty Nehruvian idealism of India’s foreign policy in its initial decades was not successful enough in integrating well into India’s security interests and needs, as it lost territories to both China and Pakistan during the period, spanning 1947 to 1964.
However, when Indira Gandhi assumed premiership, realism had strongly gained ground in India’s political, diplomatic and military circles, as evident in India’s successful intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Even at that point of time, India still sticked on to the policy of non-alignment until it was no longer feasible in a changed international system that took shape following the end of the Cold War, which is where the origins of a new orientation in India’s foreign policy decision-making termed as ‘multi-alignment’ lies.
Today, India skilfully manoeuvres between China-led or Russia-led groupings such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with its involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), in which Japan and Australia are also members.
Militarily though, India is still not part of any formal treaty alliance, and is simultaneously part of a diverse network of loose and issue-specific coalitions and regional groupings, led by adversarial powers, with varying founding objectives and strategic imperatives.
Today, non-alignment alone can no longer explain the fact that recently India took part in a US-chaired virtual summit meeting of the Quad in March 2021 and three months later attended a BRICS ministerial meet, where China and Russia were also present.
So, how did India progress from its yesteryear policy of remaining equidistant from both the US-led and Soviet-led military blocs (non-alignment) and how did it begin to align with multiple blocs or centres of power (multi-alignment)? Answer to this question stretches three decades back.
World order witness a change, India adapts to new realities
1992 was a watershed year for Indian diplomacy. A year back, the Soviet Union, a key source of economic and military support for India till then, disappeared in the pages of history, bringing the Cold War to its inevitable end.
This brought a huge vacuum for India’s strategic calculations. Combined with a global oil shock induced by the First Gulf War of 1990 triggered a balance of payment crisis in India, which eventually forced the Indian government to liberalise and open up its economy for foreign investments and face competition.
India elected a pragmatic new prime minister in 1991 – PV Narasimha Rao. The vision he had in mind for India’s standing in the world was quite different from his predecessors. Then finance minister and later PM, Dr Manmohan Singh announced in the Indian Parliament, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.
This was during his 1991 budget speech and it marked the beginning of building a new India where excessive control of the state on economic and business affairs seemed no longer a viable option.
At a time when Japan’s economy was experiencing stagnation, China was ‘peacefully rising’, both economically and industrially. The United States remained as the most influential power and security provider in Asia with its far-reaching military alliance network.
As the unipolar world dawned proclaiming the supremacy of the United States, PM Rao steered Indian foreign policy through newer pastures, going beyond traditional friends and partners like Russia.
In another instance, 42 years after India recognised Israel as an independent nation in 1950, both countries established formal diplomatic ties in 1992. Indian diplomats accomplished a task long overdue without affecting the existing amicable ties with Palestine.
In the recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is worth noting that India took a more balanced stance at the United Nations, which was different from its previous stances that reflected an open and outright pro-Palestine narrative.
Today, India values its ties with Israel on a higher pedestal, even in areas beyond defence and counter-terrorism, such as agriculture, water conservation, IT and cyber security.
Breaking the ice with the giant across the Himalayas
China is a huge neighbour of India with which its shares a 3,488-km long un-demarcated border. Skirmishes and flare-ups resulting from difference in perception of the border and overlapping patrolling areas are a regular occurrence in this part of the world.
For the first time after the 1962 war with China, which resulted in a daunting defeat for India, diplomatic talks for confidence-building in the India-China border areas were initiated by the Rao government in 1993, resulting in the landmark Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the defacto border between India and China.
The agreement also provided a framework for ensuring security along the LAC between both sides until a final agreement on clear demarcation of the border is reached out. The 1993 agreement created an expert group consisting of diplomats and military personnel to advise the governments on the resolution of differences in perception and alignment of the LAC. The pact was signed in Beijing in September 1993, during PM Rao’s visit to China.
Former top diplomat of India Shivshankar Menon noted in one of his books that the 1993 agreement was “the first of any kind relating specifically to the border between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China … It formalized in an international treaty a bilateral commitment by India and China to maintain the status quo on the border. In effect, the two countries promised not to seek to impose or enforce their versions of the boundary except at the negotiating table.”
The 1993 pact was followed by another one in 1996, the Agreement on Military Confidence-Building Measures. The following two decades saw a number of agreements being signed and new working mechanisms being formalized, even though two major standoffs occurred in the Ladakh sector in 2013 and 2020 respectively and one in between in the Sikkim sector in 2017.
The agreements served as the basis upon which robust economic ties flourished in the 2000s and 2010s, before turning cold as a result of Chinese aggression of 2020 in Ladakh. However, the 1993 agreement still was a landmark deal as we consider the need for peace in today’s increasingly adversarial ties between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants.
Integrates with Asia’s regional architecture
Before the early 1990s, India’s regional involvements to its east remained limited to its socio-cultural ties, even though the region falls under India’s extended neighbourhood, particularly Southeast Asia. But, since 1992, when the Look East Policy (LEP) was formulated under the Rao government, India has been venturing into the region to improve its abysmal record of economic and trade ties with countries the region.
New Delhi began reaching out to the ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1992 and was made a Sectoral Partner of the association in the same year. Thus, India kicked-off the process of its integration into the broader Asian regional architecture.
In 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a key platform for talks on issues of security in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India became ASEAN’s summit-level partner in 2002 and a strategic partner in 2012.
A free trade agreement (FTA) was agreed between ASEAN and India in 2010. And in 2014, the erstwhile LEP was upgraded into the Act East Policy (AEP). Today, the ASEAN region remains at the centre of India’s evolving Indo-Pacific policy.
Bonhomie with the superpower across the oceans, the United States
1998 was an important year, not just for India, but for the world. Until May that year, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possessed nuclear capabilities. That year, ‘Buddha smiled again’ in the deserts of India’s Rajasthan state, as India under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee successfully conducted a series of underground nuclear bomb tests, declaring itself a nuclear state, 24 years after its first nuclear test in 1974 code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’.
The move surprised even the US intelligence agencies, as India managed to go nuclear by bypassing keen US satellite eyes that were overlooking the testing site. Shortly after this, Pakistan also declared itself a nuclear state.
India’s nuclear tests invited severe international condemnation for New Delhi and badly affected its relationship with Washington, resulting in a recalling of its Ambassador to India and imposed economic sanctions, which was a big blow for India’s newly liberalised economy.
But, a bonhomie was reached between India and the US in a matter of two years and then US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, the first presidential visit since 1978. The Indo-US Science and technology Forum was established during this visit and all the sanctions were revoked by following year.
Bharat Karnad, a noted Indian strategic affairs expert, notes in one his books that, “Vajpayee’s regime conceived of ‘strategic autonomy’ to mask its cultivating the US, which resulted in the NSSP”.
The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between the US and India was launched in January 2004 that covered wide ranging areas of cooperation such as nuclear energy, space, defence and trade. This newfound warmth in Indo-US relations was taken to newer heights with the conclusion of the landmark civil nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008.
Today, India is a key defence partner of the United States, having signed all the four key foundational pacts for military-to-military cooperation, the latest being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, signed in October 2020. The two countries are key partners in the Quad grouping and share similar concerns about an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to cultivate this special relationship with the United States, reinforced by cooperation in the Quad grouping and also by constantly engaging a 4.8-million strong Indian diaspora in the United States.
The leaders of both countries, from Vajpayee to Modi and from Clinton to Trump have reciprocated bilateral visits to each other’s countries. And, India looks forward to the Biden-Harris administration for new areas of cooperation.
But, a recent military manoeuvre in April, this year, by a US Navy ship (which it calls a FONOP or Freedom of Navigation Operation) in India’s exclusive economic zone, off Lakshadweep coast, casted a shadow over this relations.
The US openly stated in social media that it entered the area without seeking India’s prior consent and asserted its navigational rights. This invited mixed reactions, as it was highly uncalled for. While some analysts consider it humiliating, others think that the incident occurred due to the difference of perceptions about international maritime law in both countries.
Today, along with the US, India skilfully manages its ‘historical and time-tested’ ties with Russia, a strategic foe of the US, and moves forward to purchase Russian-made weapon systems, such as the S-400 missile defence system, even after a threat of sanctions. But, in the past several years, India has been trying to diversify its defence procurements from other countries such as France and Israel and has been also promoting indigenisation of defence production.
A BRICS formula for responsible multilateralism
India is a founding member of the BRICS grouping, formalised in 2006, now consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – the emerging economies of that time with a potential to drive global economic growth and act as an alternate centre of power along with other groupings of rich countries such as the G-7 and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
India always stood for a responsible global multilateral system and rules-based order. Indian leaders have attended all summit-level meetings of BRICS since 2009 unfailingly. Last year, the summit took place in the backdrop of India-China border standoff in Ladakh, under Russia’s chair, a common friend of both countries, where the leaders of India and China came face-to-face for the first time, although in virtual format.
The primary focus of BRICS remains economic in nature, but it also takes independent stances on events occurring in different parts of the world. The grouping also established a bank to offer financial assistance for development projects known as the New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai, China, in 2014, with an Indian as its first elected president.
BRICS also became the first multilateral grouping in the world to endorse the much-needed TRIPS waiver proposal jointly put forward by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights on Covid vaccine-making during the duration of the pandemic to provide developing countries that lack adequate technologies with means to battle the virus.
As India gears up to host this year’s upcoming BRICS summit, there is no doubt that being part of the grouping has served the country’s interests well.
Manoeuvring the SCO, along the shores of the Indo-Pacific
The SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a regional organisation consisting of eight Eurasian powers, largest in the world both in terms of land area and population covered. It stands for promoting mutual cooperation and stability, where security issues can be freely discussed and conflicts are attempted to be resolved.
India is not a founding member of the SCO, which was created in 2001. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2017. The grouping’s members also include Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, excluding Turkmenistan.
Sharing a common platform with Pakistan and China and the presence of a long-term friend, Russia, has helped India diplomatically in key occasions. Using the SCO platform, the existing differences between member states can be discussed and prevented from escalating into major conflicts.
This was evident most recently visible in 2020 when the foreign ministers of India and China agreed on a plan for the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops from the LAC, as a major step in the diffusion of tensions in Ladakh that had erupted since May that year.
But, Russia and China collectively oppose the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, something that surfaced into political discourse with the famous speech delivered by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2007 in the Parliament of India, calling for “the confluence of two seas” and hinting at a new maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
It is in this context that the grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States gained prominence. The four Quad countries came together to offer humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ambit of the grouping’s co-operation ranges from maritime security to cooperation in Covid vaccine production and distribution.
After a decade since the first joint naval exercise of the four Quad countries took place in 2007, the ASEAN’s Manila summit in 2017 provided a platform for the four countries to connect with each other and enhance consultations to revive the four-nation grouping.
The Quad has been raised to the summit level now with the March 2021 virtual summit, and has also conducted two joint naval exercises so far, one in 2007 and the other in 2020. This loose coalition is widely perceived as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.
India is the only country in the Quad that shares a land border with China. At the same time, India is also the only country that is not a formal security ally of the United States, meaning if India quits, the Quad ceases to exist, while the other three countries can still remain as treaty allies. However, setting the US aside, cooperation among the other three Quad partners has also been witnessing a boom since the last year.
India and Japan have expanded co-operation in third countries in India’s neighbourhood such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region and offer an alternative to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is perceived as having implications of a potential debt-trap aimed at fetching strategic gains.
Amid the pandemic, both the countries have joined hands with Australia to launch a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to diversify key supply chains away from China.
However, India doesn’t perceive a free and open Indo-Pacific as an exclusionary strategy targeted at containing some country, rather as an inclusive geographic concept, where co-operation over conflict is possible. This was articulated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018 at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.
Various additions were made to this view in later stages, as the concept evolved into a coherent form, representing New Delhi’s expanding neighbourhood. This vision aligns well with related initiatives such the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), aimed at improving maritime security, trade, connectivity and management of shared resources.
For India, this is an era of complex multi-alignment, different from the Cold War-era international system, where multiple centres of power exist. At different time periods in the past, India has adapted well to the changing circumstances and power dynamics in the international system.
India’s strategic posture today, despite being aspirational, is to have good relations with all its neighbours, regional players, and the major powers, to promote rules-based order, and in the due process to find its own deserving place in the world.
In July, last year, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India ‘will never be part of an alliance system’, even though a tilt towards the US is increasingly getting visible, taking the China factor into account. Jaishankar also stated that global power shifts are opening up spaces for middle powers like India.
As the world tries to avoid another Cold War, this time between the United States and China, the competing geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime region is poised to add up to New Delhi’s many dilemmas in the coming years.
What, in fact, is India’s stand on Kashmir?
At the UNGA, India’s first secretary Sneha Dubey said the entire Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh “were, are and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India. She added, “Pakistan’s attempts to internationalise the Kashmir issue have gained no traction from the international community and the Member States, who maintain that Kashmir is a bilateral matter between the two countries (Pakistan is ‘arsonist’ disguising itself as ‘fire-fighter’: India at UNGA, the Hindu September 25, 2021).
It is difficult to make head or tail of India’s stand on Kashmir. India considers the whole of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir as its integral part. Yet, at the same time, admits it to be a bilateral matter still to be resolved between India and Pakistan.
What bars Pakistan from agitating the Kashmir dispute at international forums?
India presumes that the Simla accord debars Pakistan from “internationalizing” the Kashmir dispute. That’s not so. Avtar Singh Bhasin (India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odd) is of the view that though Pakistan lost the war in East Pakistan, it won at Simla.
Bhasin says, `At the end, Bhutto the “dramatist” carried the day at Simla. The Agreement signed in Simla did no more than call for `respecting the Line of Control emerging from the ceasefire of 17 December 1971. As the Foreign Secretary TN Kaul [of India] said at briefing of the heads of foreign mission in New Delhi on 4 July 1972, the recognition of the new ceasefire line ended the United Nations’ Military Observers’ Group on India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) role in Kashmir, created specifically for the supervision of the UN sponsored ceasefire line of 1949, since that line existed no more. Having said that India once again faltered for not asking the UN to withdraw its team from Kashmir, or withdrawing its own recognition to it and its privileges (Document No. 0712 in Bhasin’s India-Pakistan Relations 1947-207).
Following Simla Accord (1972), India, in frustration, stopped reporting ceasefire skirmishes to the UN. But, Pakistan has been consistently reporting all such violations to the UN. India feigns it does not recognise the UNMOGIP. But, then it provides logistic support to the UMOGIP on its side of the LOC.
India keeps harassing the UNMOGIP vehicles occasionally. Not long ago, three members of the UNMOGIP had a close call along the LoC in Azad Jammu and Kashmir after Indian troops shot at and injured two locals who were briefing them on the situation after ceasefire violations.
India even asked UNMOGIP to vacate 1/AB, Purina Lila Road, Connaught Place, from where it has been functioning since 1949.
Bhasin says (p.257-259), `The Pakistan Radio broadcasts and…commentators took special pains to highlight …the fact: (i) That India have accepted Kashmir to be a disputed territory and Pakistan a party to the dispute. (ii) That the UNSC resolutions had not been nullified and contrarily (iii) Kashmir remained the core issue between the two countries and that there could not be permanent peace without a just solution based on the principle of self-determination for the people of Kashmir. And Pakistan was right in its assessment. It lost the war won the peace. At the end India was left askance at its own wisdom’.
Obviously, if the UNSC resolutions are intact, then Pakistan has the right to raise the Kashmir dispute at international forums.
India’s shifting stands on Kashmir
At heart, the wily Jawaharlal Lal Nehru never cared a fig for the disputed state’s constituent assembly, Indian parliament or the UN. This truth is interspersed in Avtar Singh Basin’s 10-volume documentary study (2012) of India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007. It contains 3649 official documents, accessed from archives of India’s external-affairs ministry. These papers gave new perspectives on Nehru’s vacillating state of perfidious mind concerning the Kashmir dispute. In his 2018 book (published after six years of his earlier work), India, Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds (Bloomsbury India, New Delhi, 2018), Bhasin discusses Nehru’s perfidy on Kashmir in Chapter 5 titled Kashmir, India’s Constitution and Nehru’s Vacillation (pages 51-64). The book is based on Selected Works of Jawaharlal (SWJ) Nehru and author’s own compendium of documents on India-Pak relations. Let us lay bare a few of Nehru’s somersaults
Nehru disowns Kashmir assembly’s “accession”, owns Security Council resolutions
Initially, Nehru banked on so-called Instrument of Accession and its authentication by `Constituent Assembly. Yet, in a volte-face he reiterated in New Delhi on November3, 1951 that `we have made it perfectly clear before the Security Council that the Kashmir Constituent Assembly does not [insofar] as we are concerned come in the way of a decision by the Security Council, or the United Nations’(SWJ: Volume 4: page 292, Bhasin p.228). Again, at a press conference on June 11, 1951, he was asked `if the proposed constituent assembly of Kashmir “decides in favour of acceding to Pakistan, what will be the position?”’ he reiterated, `We have made it perfectly clear that the Constituent Assembly of Kashmir was not meant to decide finally any such question , and it is not in the way of any decision which may ultimate flow from the Security Council proceedings’ (SWJ: Volume 15:, Part II, page 394. Bhasin page 56). He re-emphasised his view once again at a press conference in New Delhi On November 3, 1951.
Nehru does not label Pakistan an aggressor at the UN
And then labels it so in Parliament
He never labeled Pakistan an aggressor at the UN. Yet, he told parliament on March 1, 1954 `that “aggression” took place in Kashmir six and a half years ago with dire consequences. Nevertheless the United States have thus far not condemned it and we are asked not to press this point in the interest of peace (Bhasin pp. 55-56).
Nehru disowns the Security Council as just a non-binding mediator
On July 24 1952, Nehru said, `Unless the Security Council functioned under some other Sections of the Charter, it cannot take a decision which is binding upon us unless we agree to it. They are functioning as mediators and a mediator means getting people to agree (SWJ, Volume 19, page 241. Bhasin page 56).
Security Council re-owned
Bhasin points out (page 57 op. cit.) `At the same press conference on 24 July, 1952 when asked what the necessity of plebiscite was now that he had got the Constituent Assembly [approval], he replied “Maybe theoretically you may be right. But we have given them [UN] an assurance and we stand by it (SWJ: Volume 19, pp. 240-241. Bhasin, p. 57, Bhasin pages 256-257).
Pakistan’s recourse to the UN is India’s Achilles Heel. So it is as India’s stand on disputed Kashmir is a rigmarole of inconsistent myths.
To avoid internationalization of the Kashmir issue, India’s own former foreign secretary Jagat Singh Mehta offered proposals (rebranded by Pervez Musharraf’s) to soften the LOC in exchange for non-internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute for 10 years. Mehta presented his ideas in an article, ‘Resolving Kashmir in the International Context of the 1990s’.
India had no consistent stand on Kashmir. There was a time when Sardar Patel presented Kashmir to Pakistan in exchange for Hyderabad and Junagadh. Reportedly, the offer was declined as Pakistan’s prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan thought it could retain not only Kashmir but also Junagadh and Hyderabad. Jawaharlal Nehru approached the United Nations’ for mediation. He kept harping his commitment to the plebiscite.
It is eerie that the whole architecture of India’s stand on Kashmir is erected on the mythical `instrument of accession’ and its endorsement by the disputed state’s assembly, Accession documents are un-registered with the UN. The Simla Accord text makes crystal clear reference to the UN charter.
Let India know that a state that flouts international treaties is a rogue state: pacta sunt servanda, treaties are to be observed and are binding on parties. Self-determination is not only a political but also a legal right in disputed lands. Sans talks with Pakistan, and UN or third-party mediation, what else is India’s recipe for imprisoned Kashmiris? A nuclear Armageddon or divine intervention?
Afghanistan may face famine because of anti-Taliban sanctions
Afghanistan may face a food crisis under the Taliban (outlawed in Russia) rule because this movement is under sanctions of both individual states and the United Nations, Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, told TASS on Monday.
“A food crisis and famine in Afghanistan are not ruled out. Indeed, Afghanistan is now on life support, with assistance mostly coming from international development institutes, as well as from the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, i.e. from Western sources and institutes close to the West,” he said. “The Taliban is under international sanctions, not only unilateral US and EU sanctions, but also under UN sanctions. That is why, in formal terms, the Taliban coming to power may mean that these sanctions could be expanded to the entire country, and it will entail serious food problems. Food deliveries from the World Food Program and other international organizations may be at risk.”
According to the expert, statistics from recent years show that annual assistance to Afghanistan amounts to about five billion US dollars, but this sum is not enough to satisfy the needs of the country’s population. “It is believed that a minimal sum needed by Afghanistan to maintain basic social institutions to avoid hunger in certain regions stands at one billion US dollars a month, i.e. 12 billion a year,” Kortunov noted. “Some say that twice as much is needed, taking into account that population growth in Afghanistan is among the world’s highest and life expectancy is among the lowest. And around half of Afghan children under five are undernourished.”
He noted that despite the fact that the issue of further food supplies to Afghanistan is not settled, some countries, for instance, China, continue to help Afghanistan but a consolidated position of the international community is needed to prevent a food and humanitarian crisis. “A common position of the international community is needed and it should be committed to paper in corresponding resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, which should provide for reservations concerning food assistance in any case,” he added.
However, in his words, the key question is who will control the distribution of humanitarian and food assistance inside the country. “There were such precedents when countries and regimes under sanctions were granted reservations and received food assistance. But a logical question arises about who will control the distribution of this assistance. This has always been a stumbling block for programs of assistance to Syria, as the West claimed that if everything is left to Damascus’ discretion, assistance will be distributed in the interests of [President Bashar] Assad and his inner circle rather than in the interests of the Syrian people. It is not ruled out that the same position will be taken in respect of the Taliban,” Kortunov went on to say. “It means that the international community will be ready to provide food assistance but on condition that unimpeded access will be granted to the areas in need and everything will not be handed over to the Taliban who will decide about whom to help.”
After the US announced the end of its operation in Afghanistan and the beginning of its troop withdrawal, the Taliban launched an offensive against Afghan government forces. On August 15, Taliban militants swept into Kabul without encountering any resistance, establishing full control over the country’s capital within a few hours. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said he had stepped down to prevent any bloodshed and subsequently fled the country. US troops left Afghanistan on August 31.
From our partner RIAC
The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day
Whenever great powers have tried to make Afghanistan a colony, they have always been defeated. British imperialism and its “civilising mission” towards backward (and therefore terrorist) populations – a mission equal to that of the time when Great Britain established itself as the first drug pusher to the Chinese Empire with the two opium wars of 1839-1842; 1856-1860: an action that was terrorist at the best.
The Russian Empire and its exporting the orthodox faith and the values of the Tsar towards the barbaric (and therefore terrorist) Afghans. The Soviet Union and its attempt to impose secularisation on Muslim (and therefore terrorist) Afghans in the period 1979-1991. The United States of America that thought it could create parties, democracy, Coke, miniskirts, as well as gambling and pleasure houses by bombing the Afghan terrorists tout-court.
In this article I will try to explain why Afghanistan won 4-0, and in 1919 – thanks to its rulers’ wise skills – was one of the only six actual independent Asian States (Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen), so that at least the barroom experts – who, by their nature, believe that History is just a fairy tale like that of Cinderella and stepmother with evil sisters – reflect on the nonsense we read and hear every day in the press and in the media.
In his book I luoghi della Storia (Rizzoli, Milan 2000), former Ambassador Sergio Romano wrote on page 196: “The Afghans spent a good part of the nineteenth century playing a diplomatic and military game with the great powers – the so-called “Great Game” – the main rule of which was to use the Russians against the Brits and the Brits against the Russians”.
In the days when geopolitics was a forbidden subject and the word was forbidden, in the history textbooks of secondary schools it seemed that the United States of America and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had fallen from the sky as large as they were on the atlases. I still remember that in the dialogues between professors and high school students, it was stated that the two powers could not be called colonial, since they had something messianic and redeeming in themselves (therefore anti-terrorist).
It was only thanks to western movies that the young people of the time understood how the thirteen Lutheran colonies had extended westwards into lands that we were led to believe had been inhabited by savage villains to be exterminated (hence terrorists) and by uncivilised Spaniards, as Catholics, to be defeated. Moreover, we did not dare to study Russia’s expansion eastwards and southwards, at the risk that the high school students – unprepared, pure and enthusiastic – would understand that the homeland of socialism had no different assumptions from all other imperialisms.
Sometimes the students heard about the great game or, in Russian, the tournament of shadows (turniry teney). What was the great game? Today it is mostly remembered as the epic of freedom of the unconquered Afghans, but in reality its solution meant the alliance between Russia and Great Britain, which lasted at least until the eve of the Cold War. A key position that is sometimes too overlooked, and not only in scientific and classical textbooks, but also in many essays by self-proclaimed experts.
British aversion to the Russian Empire – apart from the “necessary” anti-Napoleonic alliances in the Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Coalitions – dated back to the 17th century and worsened considerably in the 19th century. Although Russian exports of grain, natural fibres and other agricultural crops were made to Great Britain – because the Russian landowners were well disposed to good relations with the Brits in order to better market those products abroad – there were no political improvements. The opposition came more from Great Britain than from Russia.
Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1825-55) – in the late 1830s, during his trip to Great Britain in 1842, and later in 1850-52, i.e. just before the Crimean War (1853-56) – often tried to bring about normalisation, but due to British suspicions and doubts (the Russians were considered to be terrorists) this did not occur.
What worried the Foreign Office – created in March 1782 – was Russia’s fast march eastwards, southwards and south-westwards. Great Britain could feel Russian breath on it from the three sides of India. The Russian goals with regard to Turkey, the successes in Trancaucasia and the Persian goals, not to mention the colonisation of Central Asia, initiated by the aforementioned Tsar Nicholas I, and conducted vigorously by his successor Alexander II (1818-1855-81), were – for Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomats and generals – a blatant and threatening intimidation of India’s “pearl”.
In the north-west of the Indian subcontinent the British possessions bordered on the Thar desert and on Sindh (the Indus River delta) which constituted a Muslim State under leaders residing at Haidarābād, conquered by the Brits in 1843. To the north-east of Sindh, the Punjab region had been amalgamated into a strong State by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji (1780-1801-39) who, as a simple Governor of Lahore (Lâhau) on behalf of the Afghan Emir, Zaman Shah Durrani (1770-93-1800-†44), had succeeded not only in becoming independent, but also in extending his power over Kashmir and Pīshāwar, creating the Sikh Empire in 1801, which was overthrown by Great Britain during the I (1845-46) and II (1848-49) Anglo-Sikh wars; the region became what is known as the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the North-West Frontier Province).
Given the British expansion into the neighbouring States of Afghanistan and Persia, Russia’s influence was trying to creep in; hence the Brits were paying close attention to what was happening on the border of the great Northern “neighbour”.
Russia had long been aiming to make its way to India through Western Turkestan, but that steppe region was inhabited by the Kyrgyz in the north-east and the Turks (Turkmen) in the south-west.
After unsuccessful attempts at peaceful penetration, the Russian Governor of Orenburg, Gen. Vasilij Alekseevič Perovskij (1794-1857), prepared an expedition against Chiva: it involved crossing about a thousand kilometres of desert and was thought to be easier to make during the winter. The expedition left from Orenburg in November 1839, but the cold killed so many men and camels that the Commander had to give up the venture and turn back (spring 1840). For a long time, the Russians did not attempt any more military infiltrations there.
In Persia, instead, Russian influence was strongly felt: Tsar Alexander II pushed the Shah, Naser al-Din Qajar (1831-48-96), to undertake an enterprise against the city of Herāt (which dominated the passage from Persia and Western Turkestan into India): it had detached itself from Afghanistan and had been a separate State since 1824. The Persian expedition began in the autumn of 1837: Herāt resisted strenuously, so much so that in the summer of 1838 the Shah had to renounce the siege and accept Britain’s mediation for peace with the sovereign of that city. That diplomatic move was therefore also detrimental to the influence of St. Petersburg. Even the first relations established by Russia with the Emir of Afghanistan did not lead to any result.
In those years, Russia was busy quelling the insurrections of the mountain populations in the Caucasus, where the exploits of the alleged Italian sheikh, Mansur Ushurma (Giambattista Boetti, 1743-98), in the service of the Chechen cause, still echoed.
Through two treaties concluded with Persia (1828) and Turkey (1829), Russia had become the master of the region; however, it found an obstinate resistance from the local populations that still persists today.
The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was one of the most important military conflicts of the great game and one of the worst British defeats in the region. The Brits had started an expedition to Afghanistan to overthrow Emir Dost Mohammad (1793-1826-39, 42-63), the first of the Barakzai dynasty, and replace him with the last of the Durrani dynasty, Ayub Shah (17??-1819-23, †37), who had been dethroned in 1823, but he renounced. Not wanting to cross the Sikh country in order not to arouse mistrust among the Sikhs, the British entered Baluchistan, occupied the capital (Qalat), then penetrated into Afghanistan and advanced without encountering serious resistance as far as Kabul, where on August 7, 1839 they installed their own puppet, Shuja Shah (1785-1842), formerly Emir from 1803 to 1809.
Dost Mohammad was caught and sent to Calcutta. A the beginning of 1841, however, one of his sons – Sher Ali – aroused the Afghans’ rebellion. The military commander, Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone (b. 1782), got permission to leave with 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 non-combatants to return to India. In the mountain passes near Kabul, however, the expedition was taken by surprise and annihilated (January 1842). The commander died as prisoner of the Afghans (on April 23).
The Brits obviously wanted revenge: they sent other troops that, in September of the same year, reconquered Kabul: this time the Brits – intimidated – did not deem it advisable to remain there. Convinced they had reaffirmed a certain prestige, they withdrew and, since the Emir they protected had died on April 5, 1842, they agreed – helplessly – to Dost Mohammad’s return to the throne. He conquered Herāt forever for Afghanistan.
Russia did not just stand by and watch and asserted its power in the Far East. In the years 1854-58 – despite its engagement in the Crimean war: the first real act of the great game, as Britain had to defend the Ottoman Empire from Sarmatian aspirations of conquest – it had established, with a series of expeditions, its jurisdiction over the province of Amur, through the Treaty of Aigun – labelled as the unequal treaty as it was imposed on China – on May 28, 1858. Shortly afterwards the fleet arrived at Tien-Tsin (Tianjin), forced China into another treaty on June 26-27, thus obtaining the opening of ports for trade, and the permanence of a Russian embassy in Peking. Moreover, in Central Asia, Russia renewed its attempts to advance against the khanates of Buchara and Kokand (Qo’qon), and had once again led the Shah of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Qajar (1853-96-1907), to try again the enterprise of Herāt (1856), which had caused again the British intervention (Anglo-Persian War, 1856-57) that ended with Persia’s recognition of the independence of the aforementioned city. The Anglo-Russian rivalry thus continued to be one of the essential problems of Central Asia, for the additional reason that Russia gradually expanded into West Turkestan, Buchara and Chiva between 1867 and 1873.
After the Russian conquests in West Turkestan, Dost Mohammad’ son and successor, Sher Ali (1825-63-66, 68-79), came under the influence of the neighbouring power, which was trying to penetrate the area to the detriment of Britain. On July 22, 1878 St Petersburg sent a mission. The Emir repelled a similar British mission at the Khyber Pass in September 1878, thus triggering the start of the war. The Brits soon opened hostilities, invading the country with 40,000 soldiers
from three different points.
The Emir went into exile in Mazār-i-Sharīf, leaving his son Mohammad Yaqub (1849-79-80, †1914) as heir. He signed the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country.
Once the British First Resident, the Italian Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari (b. 1841) went to Kabul, he was assassinated there on September 3, 1879. British troops organised a second expedition and occupied the capital. They did not trust the Emir and raised a nephew of Dost Mohammed, Abdur Rahman (1840/44-80-1901), to power on May 31, 1880. He pledged to have no political relations except with Britain.
The former Emir, Mohammad Yaqub, took up arms and severely defeated the Brits at Maiwand on July 27, 1880, with the help of the Afghan heroine Malalai Anaa (1861-80), who rallied the Pashtun troops against the attackers. On September 1 of the same year Mohammad Yaqub was defeated and put to flight by Gen. Frederick Roberts (1832-1914) in the Battle of Kandahâr, which ended the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
This brought Afghanistan permanently under British influence, which was secured by the construction of a railway from the Indus River to the Afghan city of Kandahâr. Since the railway passed through Beluchistan, it was definitively annexed to British India. In 1880, Russia began the construction of the Transcaspian Railway, which alarmed the Brits who extended the section of their “railroad” to Herāt.
It was only with the accession to the throne of Imānullāh (1892-1919-29, †60), on February 28, 1919 (Shah from 1926), that Afghanistan took its foreign policy away from Great Britain through the Third Anglo-Afghan War (6 May-8 August 1919), by which the Afghans finally threw the Brits out of the picture (Treaty of Râwalpindî of August 8, 1919, amended on November 22, 1921).
As early as 1907, the Russian government had declared it considered Afghanistan to be outside its sphere of influence, and pledged not to send any agents there, as well as to consult the British government about its relations with that country.
Indeed, Britain soon gave up direct control of the country, given the fierce fighting spirit of its people, who had humiliated it many times, and contented itself with guarding and keeping the north-west Indian border under control.
In reality, the great game has never ended. As Spartacus Alfredo Puttini stated (La Russia di Putin sulla scacchiera, in “Eurasia”, A. IX, No. 1, January-March 2012, pp. 129-147), upon his coming to power Vladimir Putin found himself grappling with a difficult legacy. Gorbachev’s policy of katastroika had dealt a lethal blow to the Soviet and later Russian colossus.
Within a few years, Russia had embarked on a unilateral disarmament that led, at first, to its withdrawal from Afghanistan and then from Central and Eastern Europe. While the State was heading for collapse and the economy was being disrupted, it was the very periphery of the Soviet Union that was catching fire due to separatist movements promptly subsidised by those who – in the great game – replaced the Brits. Massive US aid to the heroic anti-Soviet patriots, who were later branded as terrorists.
In a short time the real collapse occurred and the ‘new’ Russia found itself geopolitically shrunken and morally and materially prostrated by the great looting made by the pro-Western oligarchs in the shadow of the Yeltsin Presidency.
To the west, the country had returned to the borders of the 17th century; to the south, it had lost Southern Caucasus and valuable Central Asia, where the new great game was soon to begin. In other words, the process of disruption would not stop, and would infect the Russian Federation itself: Chechnya had engaged in a furious war of secession that threatened to spread like wildfire to the whole of Northern Caucasus and, in the long run, called into question the very survival of the Russian State divided into autonomous entities.
This was followed by the phenomenon of “orangism” in 2003-2005 (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan): the various caricatures of oxymoronic “liberal” revolutions aimed at moving certain governments away from Russia’s influence.
Ultimately, the central power had been undermined on all sides by the policy of Yeltsin and his clan, aimed at granting extensive autonomy to the regions of the Federation. Public property, the glue of State authority and the instrument of its concrete activity to guide and orient the nation, had been sold off. Over time, Putin put things right, and the rest is condensed into the restoration choices of the plebiscitary vote in his favour.
In the end Afghanistan also saw the US failure, which I have examined in previous articles.
The Asian sense of freedom is summed up in the expulsion of foreign aggressors from their own homelands and territories. Someone should start to understand this.
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