After Sept. 11, 2001, the international spotlight has suddenly turned to
South Asia and the history and foreign policy of the countries of the region is the talk of the world. The Indian government has, for the past few years, highlighted the terrorist attacks that take place in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on a visit to India after 9-11, stressed that the U.S. was not focusing only on Afghanistan in its anti-terrorism war. “The United States and India are united against terrorism,” he said, “and that includes the terrorism that has been directed against India as well.”
India has a long and indirect history with the Northwest Frontier. Lord Curzon’s “The Great Game” debate from British India days is often quoted by writers in reference to the current situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Many of the writers have labeled it as the precursor to the 20th- century Cold War. Curzon’s “The Great Game” was just one part of the intricate and elaborate foreign/defense policy mosaic that the British adopted in India.
The defense policy of British India was part of the overall imperial strategy whose main aim was to maintain and consolidate the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent. As Professor Yaacov Vertzberger, a South Asia expert, wrote in an article in the Journal of Strategic Studies (London) in 1982, “The British regarded their control of India as vital, a key to the Empire, and the defense of the passage to India became a permanent issue in British geostrategic thinking.” And the main overland threat to India was from the northwest, which was the traditional land invasion route.
In the 19th century, the British rulers of India identified two kinds of threats from the northwest: a minor threat from the tribes there and in Afghanistan; and a major threat from Tsarist Russia. Yet, there was a difference in the attitude adopted between the decision makers in Delhi and those in London over the Northwest Frontier. In Delhi, the concern was about the local danger of an Afghan attack in combination with a tribal uprising. London, on the other hand, was more worried about the threat that another European power like Russia posed to the British Empire.
Once the British had identified their security threats, they were able to draw their strategy, which came to be known as the “ring fence policy.” The kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and the tribal areas in the north and the northwest formed the inner ring directly surrounding British India. The outer ring comprised the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Thailand (then called Siam). From the last quarter of the 19th century till the British withdrawal from the subcontinent, the major preoccupation of the British planners of the Indian Empire was the security of the outer ring.
The British were sensitive to the problems at the frontier. When Britain became one of the earliest nations to introduce air power, they deployed squadrons of their recently formed Royal Air Force (RAF) at the troubled Northwest Frontier. The RAF stationed its first squadron there during the First World War (1914-1918). By 1930, the RAF had eight squadrons of about 100 aircrafts, mostly Westland Wapiti general purpose planes. The first squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was formed on April 1, 1933 and was based in the area at Miranshah in Waziristan.
After the Second World War and the British withdrawal from the subcontinent, it devolved upon the independent Government of India to formulate a policy for the defense of India. The entire strategic equation suddenly changed in an unprecedented manner. Prime Minister Nehru thought external threats to India were minimal. His reasoning, which was formulated before the British withdrawal, considered the threat from Russia as “largely imaginary.” Nehru also said that Afghanistan would not pose any major threat except for occasional raids.
The Northwest Frontier thus suddenly disappeared from the defense horizon, but a new adversary, Pakistan, arose within the subcontinent itself and in the process created two new fronts (East and West Pakistan) to be defended. After 1971 when East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh, the major focus has been the western front or Pakistan.
The armed forces of the divided sub-continent were still in the process of being deployed to the respective countries when the first “undeclared war” between India and Pakistan took place. The military action against Kashmir began on Oct. 22 1947 when mostly armed tribesman entered Kashmir from Pakistan. That was the beginning of the “Kashmir problem.” Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir acceded to India once the armed tribesman were on the outskirts of Srinagar.
In 1948 a ceasefire was declared with the help of the newly formed United Nations. In 1949, the ceasefire line (CFL), less than 800 kms long, was delineated under the Karachi Agreement. By early November of 1949, the lines were demarcated on ground between the two countries.
After the 1972 Simla agreement between India and Pakistan, the CFL became the Line of Control (LOC). The LOC which goes through a mountainous range became a focal point in the 1980s over Siachen glacier.
Since the 1980s the terrorist element in Kashmir has significantly increased and India, at various times, appealed to the U.S. administration to ban some of the well-known terrorist organizations. Recently, one of them, the Lashkar-e-Toiba was listed in the U.S. administration’s list of terrorist organization.
For the past 50 years, the common themes stressed in the U.S.-India relationship have been democracy and vastness. But, in- spite of the common interests, relations between the two large democracies were at a minimal level until recently. During the Cold War period (from 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union) India aligned itself with the former Soviet Union and consequently did not have strong ties with the U.S. in spite of the tilt shown by Presidents Kennedy and Carter. In retrospect, it is clear that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War shaped the current U.S.-India policy. Also, India’s economic liberalization policy and the boom in the IT sector prompted the U.S. administration to realize the economic potential of India in the region.
By the close of President Clinton’s administration, the relationship between the two countries went into high gear. The U.S. recognized India’s growing potential in the region. This trend in the change in relationship continues under President George W. Bush’s administration also.
In April 2001, President Bush met with Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and they discussed missile defense among other issues. In the same month Richard D. Fisher Jr. wrote in an article the Washington Post titled “Getting India Right,” that, “It is time for the U.S. to … seek strategic cooperative ties with India that demonstrate a U.S. recognition that India’s emergence as a future democratic superpower can benefit American security.”
This growing Indian potential is the theme of Brooking Institute’s Professor Stephen Cohen’s recently published book, India: The Emerging Power. Cohen believes that the U.S. should consider India as one of the five important states in the world. Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill in his first speech as ambassador to India said, “President George W. Bush has a global approach to U.S.-India relations consistent with the rise of India as a world power.”
When the dastardly acts of Sept. 11 occurred, India was the one of the first countries to offer unequivocal support in the fight against terrorism including use of land and airspace. Jaswant Singh flew to the U.S. to demonstrate this support.
When Colin Powell was in India in mid-October, in response to a question about the current relationship between the two countries, he replied, “I think our relations are strong. They have improved much in recent years. I was saying to my colleagues earlier that as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in most of the years I spent in senior positions in the U.S. military back in the ’70s and through the ’80s, we really didn’t have much to do with India, regrettably. And now that is all changed. We are trying to remove whatever irritations exist in our relationship. And this improvement had taken place before Sept. 11 and since the 11th of Sept., with the strong support that we received from the Indian government, we have the opportunity to accelerate the pace of change.”
However, Pakistan’s strategic importance in the U.S. war on Afghanistan has caused some heartburn in Delhi, which Powell did his best to assuage on his trip. The Wall Street Journal in its editorial of Oct. 19 wrote, “Just as the U.S. stokes Israel from time to time, India too needs to be comforted. Besides, India’s early and enthusiastic offer to support the U.S. after Sept. 11—airspaces, airbases, intelligence-sharing, the works—was instrumental in pushing Pakistan to match that support. For that alone, India deserved a warm ‘thank you’ from Mr. Powell.”
Kamla Bhatt has a Master’s and M.Phil in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.