Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
An Indian in Kabul
India and Pakistan are both competing for influence in Afghanistan in a modern-day version of the Great Game that has complicated the search for a settlement, but on the streets of Kabul the Indians still seem to evoke greater goodwill.
Three times I have been asked at police checkpoints at darkened intersections and in offices, whether I was a Pakistani and when I said I was an Indian, they would respond : “everyone here says that, show me your passport.”
The subtext is clear : if you are a Pakistani, the red flag goes up at the back of the mind, there are more questions asked. And if you are an Indian, you tend to get away more easily; there is even friendly banter over the wildly popular Bollywood films and the starlets in them.
At times it has become so bad, that some Pakistanis have pretended to be Indians just to get over the endless security hassles, one Afghan police officer who checked me at an investment promotion office said. For a Pakistani to pretend to be an Indian mustn’t be easy given the blood rivalry between the two nations.
The thing is war-weary Afghans routinely hold Pakistan responsible for a large part of their problems, accusing the neighbour of interference, giving sanctuary to militants and generally treating them as a lesser people.
Some of it is obviously extreme, and perhaps a bit ungracious given that Pakistan hosted the largest number of Afghan refugees throughout the war years. In fact it virtually opened the door for them when the Soviet tanks rumbled in and then offered its territory as a staging ground to fight the occupation, although not all of it was out of altruistic reasons.
Even today, Pakistan as its largest neighbour is the first port of call for ordinary Afghans looking for medical treatment, education for kids and business.
But try as hard as it can, the Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is viewed with distrust. Islamabad has in recent years sought to change the perception by stepping up assistance, but ties remain difficult.
India by contrast has sought to project soft power through its films, soap operas and scholarships for students combined with greater economic clout, spending about $1.2 billion on building highways, power lines and even a parliament building.
Some people, though, are starting to get tired of games played by regional players. Afghan tribal elders and notables gathered at a peace jirga last week said the neighbours must stop meddling in the country’s internal affairs, a reference clearly to not just India and Pakistan but perhaps also Iran and Russia. One delegate also called for an end to beaming of Indian TV programmes saying these were not appropriate for Afghanistan.