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Solving Afghanistan: Elephant in the Room is Indo-Pakistan Rivalry

The recent London Conference on Afghanistan showed the growing frustration of the world’s major powers with the situation in that country and their desperate desire for a way out. Afghan president Hamid Karzai wants reconciliation with elements of the Taliban while the US proposes offering financial incentives to encourage talks. But the Taliban rejected reconciliation and is unwilling to negotiate. Key to getting the Taliban to the negotiating table is Pakistan’s active support, according to professor Harsh V. Pant. But such a move would threaten India’s interest. And therein lies the challenge of bringing peace to Afghanistan: the Pakistan-India rivalry. A Taliban-friendly Kabul would threaten India as terrorist attacks against India launched from Afghanistan would likely increase. But an Indian-friendly Kabul would make Pakistan feel insecure. Islamabad views Afghanistan and an extant Taliban as one of the few counterbalances to Indian influence in South Asia. If this isn’t complicated enough, the uncertainty of the US’s staying power, let alone its strategy, in Afghanistan remains in question. In the end, perhaps the only solution would be one that takes into account the Pakistan-India rivalry. Not doing so would likely foment even more tension, a risky prospect involving two nuclear powers. – YaleGlobal

Solving Afghanistan: Elephant in the Room is Indo-Pakistan Rivalry

The Taliban won’t come to the table without Pakistan, but that would antagonize India
Harsh V. Pant
YaleGlobal, 1 February 2010
Stiff Climb: Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in London in search of a solution

PHILADELPHIA: Eight years after the US military overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, top American diplomatic and military officials joined their allies to devise plans to woo sections of the Taliban back to share power in Kabul. While the lure of money might encourage some Taliban to come forward, the initiative’s success will depend on tackling the elephant in the room – the deep hostility and suspicion between Pakistan and India, as manifested in their opposing Afghan approach. Al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan may have brought the US to Afghanistan, but terrorism in the region has roots that go beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

The London Conference on Afghanistan attended by around 70 states is the latest in a series of attempts that underscore the rapidly diminishing appetite in the western capitals for the Afghanistan venture. Days before this much-hyped conference, senior US military commanders suggested that peace talks with the Taliban may be imminent and that they might even be invited to be a part of the government in Kabul. Hamid Karzai in London too declared that “reconciliation” with the Taliban would be essential to ending the war. He hopes that the $500 million Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund proposed by the international allies of Kabul will be attractive enough to lure significant chunk of the Taliban fighters to the negotiating table. 

The Taliban rejected the reconciliation plan and showed no willingness to enter into any negotiation process, at least publicly.

But it is not clear if there will be any immediate impact on the ground in Afghanistan in response to these initiatives. The Taliban rejected the reconciliation plan and showed no willingness to enter into any negotiation process, at least publicly. Now, however, it is Pakistan that is planning to bring the Taliban and Afghan government together for peace talks. Karzai explicitly asked for support from Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan, in bringing stability to his nation. Given Pakistan’s close ties with the Taliban and its hosting of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s leadership in Baluchistan, its active support is critical for any progress. But the growing influence of the Pakistan-backed Taliban in any deal would not be liked by India whose influence in Kabul has increased in post-Taliban Afghanistan, just as Pakistan has stalled in its efforts to curb extremists. Pakistan’s failure to contain cross-border militancy has been a key factor behind its deteriorating relations with the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul.

India’s approach towards Afghanistan remains a function of its Pakistan policy. New Delhi views it as important that Islamabad not get a foothold in Afghanistan. The free hand that Pakistan managed to get in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal had serious implications for Indian security. A significant part of the terrorist infrastructure that Pakistan’s security apparatus groomed in Afghanistan was directed against India, making India one of the biggest targets of Islamist extremism. India, therefore, would like to ensure that Pakistan’s involvement in Afghani affairs remains minimal and that a fundamentalist regime like the Taliban does not take root again. Pakistan, on the other hand, has viewed Afghanistan as an effective means of balancing out India’s preponderance in South Asia. Good India-Afghanistan ties are seen by Pakistan as detrimental to its national security interests as the two states flank Pakistan’s borders. A friendly political dispensation in Kabul is viewed by Pakistan as essential to escape the strategic vise of being caught between a powerful adversary in India in the east and an irredentist Afghanistan with claims on the Pashtun dominated areas in the West. Given its Pashtun-ethnic linkage with Afghanistan, Pakistan considers its role to be a privileged one in the affairs of Afghanistan. Given these conflicting imperatives, both India and Pakistan have tried to neutralize the influence of each other in the affairs of Afghanistan.

India’s approach towards Afghanistan remains a function of its Pakistan policy.

Pakistan’s frustration at the loss of political influence in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban has been compounded by the welcoming attitude of the Karzai government towards India, which has had friendly relations with the Afghan Northern Alliance led by Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. India’s presence in Afghanistan has expanded over the last few years and it is one of largest aid donors to Kabul, working to deliver humanitarian assistance as well as helping in nation building projects (worth over one billion dollars) in an effort to develop and enhance long-term local Afghan capabilities.

It is imperative for Pakistan and Afghanistan to co-operate if they are to tackle the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda combined. Yet Karzai remains suspicious of Pakistan. It seems unlikely that Pakistan intends to rein in the Taliban operating from their tribal areas. With the gathering consensus that the US has no stomach to be in Afghanistan for long, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will do its best to bolster the Taliban so as to make Afghanistan a Taliban dominated client state. Moreover, with the belief that India is creating trouble in Baluchistan and the tribal areas, it is unlikely that the Pakistani army would abandon the militant groups it has relied on to fight as proxies in Afghanistan and in Indian Kashmir.

It is imperative for Pakistan and Afghanistan to co-operate if they are to tackle the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda combined.

But there is an increasing convergence between India and US in viewing Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan’s insecurity. In recognizing that the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute the single most important threat to global peace and security, arguing that Islamabad’s security establishment is part of the problem rather than the solution, and asking India to join an international effort in managing the Af-Pak region, the US departed from South Asia policy first crafted in the aftermath of 11 September 2001. Yet as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, the Pakistani security establishment managed to convince the US that Pakistan’s inability to act against extremism and terrorism on its western borders was because of its tensions with India on its eastern frontiers. India remains concerned that the Obama administration seems to have given the Pakistan army the perfect alibi for not complying with American demands for credible co-operation in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Pakistan army now has very little incentive to reduce tensions with India in the hope of bargaining more from the US. And as Pakistan succeeds in convincing the West that the best way out of the present mess is to reach out to the “good Taliban,” India’s marginalization seems only to increase.

Abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan would place greater pressure on Indian security.

The risks to global security from a failure in Afghanistan are great. Abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan would place greater pressure on Indian security. Pakistani intelligence would be emboldened to escalate terrorist attacks against India once it is satisfied that the Taliban would provide it strategic depth in Afghanistan. This would surely force retaliation from India. Yet a peace deal that gives Pakistan and its Taliban friends a dominating role in Afghanistan is an unwelcome development for New Delhi. India fears rewarding bad behavior would only embolden more hostility, a reasonable conclusion because of its past experience, making New Delhi even more reluctant to pursue a “peace process” with Islamabad.

While the West ponders the prospects of bringing peace to Afghanistan, it needs to peel back the onion-like layers of subcontinental conflict rooted in Pakistan-India rivalry. Buying the loyalty of the Taliban or accepting a Pakistani-brokered deal in Kabul will only pave the way to another, perhaps even more dangerous conflict involving terrorist groups and nuclear armed neighbors.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in King’s College London and is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

17 February 2010
Political analysts have a way of saying things which are neither here nor there. Of course, they have their limitations, because they have to balance their views. They do not belong to a particular party, group or nationality. So the poor readers of such ambiguous, routinely worked, good for nothing analysis are not worth the paper or (now-a-days) computer, they are written on or through it. It is equally sad, to find a very poor response from readers. Most of the comments are trivial and frivolous and some outright bizarre.
There are few fundamental aspects which must be kept in mind for everyone who wants to see an honourable and equitable settlement in Afghanistan. And the most basic requirement of a deal or an agreement is the peace in the region and prosperity for its people. There is no place now or never had been, for a great design or imperial aspirations for any government or people or agencies to consider. So Pakistan or its army with the help of its ISI, must abandon the strategic design of a Taliban dominated government or an Islamic Emirate, influenced and controlled by Pakistani army. Any government which do not consider the interest of the people of the area as a priority is not worth considering. Pakistan is paying a very heavy price presently for its myopic, un-democratic, non-people strategy, in the past. But sad as it is, it appears to have not learned a lesson from its previous mistakes. So in brief, Pakistan must abandon its design of a “great game” policy in the region.
What havoc Pakistani thinking in the past have created on the people of the area, can be gauged from a single incident, which is a part of a book review—My Life with the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban minister and ambassador to Islamabad, by Ahmed Rashid, in the current issue of New York Review of Books. According to Ahmed Rashid, Zaeef describes his “intense hatred for the ISI, which deepened in 2000 when he was appointed Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He claim he resisted by being recruited by ISI.” He further states how “the ISI extended its roots into Afghanistan like a cancer puts down roots in the human body,” and how “every ruler of Afghanistan complained about, but none could get rid of it.” There was a sad end to his tenure in Pakistan. “In January 2002 he was turned over to the Americans by the ISI—sold, according to him—and ended up in Guantánamo.” That is the sum total of grand strategy of Pakistani army and its ISI in Afghanistan.
Unites states must come to terms of harsh realities and the continuous deceitful attitude for a very long time, of his very old ally – Pakistan. If the U.S. administration really wants to get rid of the terrorists and have peace and security in the U.S and throughout the world, it is time it should get rid of diplomatic niceties and tells his partner in crime what needs to be done.
My comments may sound pro-Indian, but I can assure readers that all I have in view, while expressing these thoughts, is the goodwill and prosperity for all, in the region, irrespective of religion and ethnic divisions. It is quite satisfying to read in the Pakistani daily, The Dawn, by their regular columnists, the envy, they are now expressing of India, because of prosperity and the wealth, which has been created in the country, because of peace, rule of law, for everyone.
-Surjit Kohli , Gurgaon, India
17 February 2010
Nice post
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-Mark , CA
17 February 2010
Thanks for the post.
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-Helen Lewis , Canada
16 February 2010
Maybe the tide is changing. With the capture of the top Taliban guy in Pakistan, we may see a change in attitude. Maybe we'll have some unexpected support.
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-Ed Harris , Ohio
12 February 2010
Solving this problem is possible!
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-Nermin , None
12 February 2010
We cannot solve this country....
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-Jack , Jeeps
5 February 2010
Fascinating times to be living in.
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-Herb , AZ
5 February 2010
The road for peace in Afghanistan leads to Balochistan.
-Baloch , U.K
2 February 2010
Thanks for sharing!
-hollister , uk
2 February 2010
Congratulations ... "peel back the onion-like layers of subcontinental conflict rooted in Pakistan-India rivalry" without making any mention of solving the very dispute that goes to the heart of this conflict - Kashmir. From an Indian commentator, well - how drearily familiar ...
-Gupta , U.S.