MOST of us academics imagine that diplomats, especially ambassadors, do little more than party, sleep, scribble a few lines to headquarters (a telegram if you have a hangover, a longer dispatch if you are sober), and then party again.
Dixit's Afghan Diary proves how wrong this stereotype is. The former foreign secretary's study is largely a reproduction of a political diary he kept when he was Indian ambassador in Kabul from 1982 to 1985. The book chronicles events during that critical period and as such will be valuable source material for future historians and foreign policy analysts.
If you are, however, looking for a narrative history of Afghanistan, this is not your book. In that sense, the book title is misleading; there's just a brief summary of events from Zahir Shah's reign, through the coup by his cousin Daud in 1973, to the so-called Saur socialist revolution accompanied by the Soviet intervention in 1979. Nor is there much on events following the Soviet withdrawal, or on the Taliban's rise.
Yet, despite the limited scope, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the Afghan conundrum or the making of India's foreign policy during those difficult years. It was obvious even by 1983 that the socialist revolution had not found roots. Consider this passage written by Dixit in November 1982: "The more I live here the more I feel that the Saur Revolution was and is the result of non-Pushtoon tribes and nationalities against the Pushtoons and the feudal Farsiwan who have dominated this country since 1737.... Another aspect I discern is that the revolution has been brought about essentially by a group of middle and lower middle-class educated urban radicals."
Why then did India continue with the policy of supporting the Moscow-sponsored Afghan government, despite repeated warnings even by Badshah Khan? Why did we have to put all our eggs in the Soviet basket? Are we not reaping today the follies of our Afghan policy, left as we are without any influence or leverage there? Does Afghanistan not represent the greatest failure of our foreign policy, and Pakistan's greatest triumph, as it successfully continues the virtual conquest of its traditionally difficult neighbour? There are no easy answers, although Dixit attempts at providing some, but there was at least one diplomat, who, as India's permanent representative at the UN in 1980, disagreed with India's official stance and was forced, as a result, to move to Africa. That officer was Brajesh Mishra!
Dixit's book is not, however, just about dry politics. The encounters, anecdotes and asides alone make it a good read. Take Dr Anahita Ratebzad, the "heavy, high-breasted, heavy-thighed" politburo member, who described Pakistan as an "abortion bred by colonialism and imperialism"; or the Anand Marg swamiji who arrived from Cyprus wanting to teach the Afghans yoga; or Afghan premier Keshtamand's belief that only the Indian hair tonic Pantene could cure his baldness.
(Source: Outlook, 23/10/00)