In India, papers buzz with news of the first Formula One race in the country and the potential break-up (or not) of Team Anna. The latter are news which aren't new anymore, and the former should not be news at all in my opinion. But between the lines one finds more interesting stuff, too - for instance on the deepening strategic partnership with Afghanistan (see, for instance, here). And this morning, TOI reports that Indian firms are on their way to bag major mining contracts in the wake of this partnership - it starts to get really interesting. Unfortunately, however, most commentators reduce both moves once more to a rather simple Indo-Pak equation. I thus felt tempted to side-step from Lucknow and Rifah-e-Aam for today and offer my own, somewhat different assessment (based on two papers which I presented earlier this year, here and there).

First the conventional story: if one asks foreign policy makers in New Delhi, India intervenes in Afghanistan to fight global terrorism and to project itself as a responsible partner in world politics. If one asks scholars of International Relations, in particular those of realist inclination, India intervenes in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan and to thwart its arch enemy's longing for "strategic depth" in West Asia. I would argue that both narratives, while not entirely wrong, are nonetheless incomplete, since both firmly remain in the realm of state-centric frames of analysis. To see the relationship through a Pakistan-angle at least partly stems from the lense one is wearing rather than from this angle's importance - this is what I argue. But what would surface if we do not take contemporary Afghanistan in isolation, if we attempt to compare it across time and space?

I would argue that such a shift of perspective might help to discover similar and recurring technologies of governing all fringes of the subcontinent - not just Afghanistan. Further, we might discover that these technologies are embedded in India's strategic culture since British times - not just since 1947, or 9/11. Indeed, they might well form a trans-historical and trans-spatial assemblage1 of territory (the fringes), authority (vested in powerful "ambassador-governors"2 and exercised through both paramilitary means and skillful co-optation) and rights (largely suppressed through separate legal frameworks). This assemblage, my argument goes, links India's contemporary intervention in Afghanistan with both colonial pasts and other fringes of the subcontinent - and in turn renders a solely Pakistan-centric analysis of Indo-Afghan relations lopsided.

Let's add some historical perspective first. What might link Manmohan Singh's recent meeting with Hamid Karzai to the British Raj? And what did the British do in Afghanistan to start with? Well, after some back and forth, they finally established the Durand Line on the Raj's western frontier. With it came, importantly, the Sandeman System of fringe governance, which combined two elements: close cooperation between Political Agents and co-opted local Maliks - and the levy and deployment of a specialized paramilitary, the Frontier Corps. Overall, this system was regulated by the Frontier Crimes Regulations, a separate legal framework which deprived frontier dwellers of most of those (anyway limited) rights enjoyed by other Indian subjects of British rule.

At first sight, one might expect that the departure of the British and the subsequent partition of the subcontinent should have fundamentally transformed Indo-Afghan relations. After all, Afghanistan now neighboured Pakistan and not India... Yet as late as 2010, nobody lesser than Kanwal Sibal, Foreign Secretary of India in 2002, when the contemporary intervention began, wrote: "Afghanistan may not be a direct geographic neighbour today [sic!], but given the fact that Pakistan is in illegal occupation of the northern areas in Jammu and Kashmir, we can legitimately consider it as one".3 Let us thus fast-forward and see how India intervenes in Afghanistan today - and how this compares to the Raj.

Core agents in the emerging "strategic partnership" are again de-centrally appointed representatives - this time Consuls in Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Herat, as well as IAS officers in Kabul. While they generally channel Indian funds through the Afghan government or NGOs, the Consulate in Jalalabad in particular became the centre of much controversy. Pakistani sources routinely suspect the consulate to be a RAW (Indian intelligence) outfit, and even US Under Secretary of State William Burns raised doubts about its role, as several Indian and Pakistani media reported in 2009 (for instance here). Sure: in a climate of rumours and continous change on the ground, it is quite impossible to establish precisely what roles Indian consuls play - and to what extent their diplomacy reflects a colonial mindset. Their alleged practice of increasing engagement with local tribesmen could well just reflect the personalized diplomacy encapsulated in the Nehruvian vision of the IFS as an "integrated service".

Yet in the context of state fragility, it is at least conceivable that Consuls might become, once again, "ambassador-governors". One hint at such a wider and more political role could be the fact that these Indian representatives can rely on specialized paramilitary troops for their protection and for the protection of Indian projects and interests. While these are usually discussed in relation to "proper" military engagement (which, incidentally, seems to start now with the "strategic partnership" and security sector assistance on its way), another aspect of these troops is of interest here: they are part of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a paramilitary unit otherwise tasked to monitor the contested borderlands between India and China - i.e. another fringe of the subcontinent. Which, in turn hints not only at recurring patterns of governance (personalized, backed up by specialized paramilitiaries and local co-optation) - but also at very significant trans-spatial similarities.

It would thus be worthwile, for instance, to compare Indo-Afghan relations with India's role in the Himalayas or its own North-Eastern states. Arguably, such a comparison would reveal rather similar pattern of governance, which involve specialized paramilitaries, separate legal frameworks, and personalized power. And since Pakistan is not involved in any of these cases, analyzing such similarities would in turn help us to paint a richer picture of Indian intervention in Afghanistan, too - supplementing, if not replacing, the usual Pakistan-angle. There might simply be more to the contemporary Indian presence in Afghanistan than a mere nation-state game... I have hinted at some potential historical links in this post, and assembled further support for my argument in the two papers mentioned above (feel free to ask me for a full copy). Yet this enquiry is still in its beginnings, and I remain curious for more input on more perspectives on Indo-Afghan relations beyond the Pakistan-angle. What are your thoughts?