Ringside view from Afghanistan

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Wed Nov 15 05:12:50 MST 2000

Business Standard

Last updated 1200 Hrs IST, Saturday, November 4, 2000

Ringside view from Afghanistan
An Afghan Diary: From Zahir Shah to Taliban
J N Dixit
Konark Publishers
Rs 500/525 pages
David Devadas
This is basically a compilation of Mr Dixit's despatches to the ministry of
external affairs during the time he was India's ambassador in Afghanistan.
The prologue and epilogue provide an overview of the Afghan history in the
twentieth century but the book itself is a minute weekly or fortnightly
account of what the author experienced or learnt during those difficult
His diary is valuable for two reasons: One, it provides the student of
Afghan affairs a detailed and relatively dispassionate account of the
political, diplomatic and insurgent developments in that benighted place
between 1982 and 1985. Two, it provides willy-nilly an insight into the
working attitudes and priorities of India's foreign policies, as manifest on
the ground, in the penultimate years of the Non-Alignment phase.
For the historian, Mr Dixit's chronicle is a very useful primary source.
Since he was neither a part of the Soviet camp, nor an opponent, he records
specific incidents of insurgent violence, the relative strengths of various
mujahideen groups and the levels of support for them from various powers
with relative objectivity. He also had a grandstand view of the tribal and
other factional struggles within the Karmal regime and of its domination by
the Soviets. The army was under the direct control of Soviet commanders down
to its units and he describes the Soviet Ambassador as behaving like a
"Viceroy" and "super chairman."
For students of Indian foreign relations, this book illuminates certain
facts and trends: Mrs Gandhi was in virtually sole charge of policy and
commanded great respect abroad. For all the talk of non-alignment, India
could not or would not create a niche distinctly separate from the Soviet
Union's line. It obviously did not perceive for itself a global or even
regional power's role and so did not play a pro-active role to influence
developments in an area of vital strategic significance to it.
Mr Dixit records signs of increased Chinese aid to the mujahideen at one
stage but, unless it has been excised, there is no sign here of India even
considering how it could play a role, for instance, to strengthen Afghan
civil society and democratic institutions. That might have improved India's
long term leverage with the Afghan middle classes, if not the people of
large, but would also have raised bearish eyebrows.
India's ambassador was evidently cast only in the role of an observer,
exalted though he might have been by a regime desperate for friends.
However, there is little sign of interaction with other Indian missions or
of feedback from South Block about such trends as desertions by Soviet
soldiers, particularly Muslims, or the evident failure of the Soviet-backed
Saur revolution to win Afghan hearts and minds.
There were early signs of the impending disintegration of the USSR, even of
centrally planned Communism, but the external affairs ministry evidently
lacked a mechanism for brainstorming among ambassadors in strategically
related capitals. Nor is there evidence of independent Indian think-tanks
assessing long term scenarios for what has been the historic route to India'
s conquest. There seems, instead, to have been a comfortable presumption
that the global Cold War paradigm was immutable.
This is not to suggest that the ministry was blind to threats to India's
security. The perspicacious Mr Dixit read between the lines of an interview
of Pakistan's chief commissioner of refugees on August 2, 1984. Speaking of
Afghan refugees, he told Radio Pakistan that roads, electricity, etc were
being built.
Mr Dixit immediately reported: "The refugee camps are spread in an area
stretching from Quetta to parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Pakistani
authorities using the excuse of the refugees are apparently improving their
communications, transport and logistical facilities in areas abutting our
north-western frontier. Its strategic and military implications merit
continuous monitoring and assessment."
How was this followed up? It would help if veterans of Indian diplomacy such
as Mr Dixit were to write on ways to improve the reporting, assessing and
planning routines in South Block.

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