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