India and Pakistan must recognise each other's legitimate interests in Afghanistan without losing sight of the larger common objective of bringing stability to the country.
Thanks to the efforts of both governments, there has been a perceptible improvement in the atmospherics between India and Pakistan in recent weeks. The debate in India's strategic community these days is about the nature of this apparent welcome pragmatism in Pakistan's India policy. The question being raised is: is the change in Pakistan's attitude tactical or strategic? Is the change driven by the many challenges facing Pakistan which compel it to take a more realistic or pragmatic view of its predicament and interests, which, in turn, propel it to step back and take an enlightened view of its interests? The desperate state of economy, the strained relations with America, the unstoppable onslaught of the jihadist forces within Pakistan, the drain on its resources, human and material, caused by the involvement in Afghanistan — all these factors leave Pakistan with no choice but to seek more cooperative stance with India. The sceptics in India, who are in a majority, ask: will Pakistan revert to its bad old ways once one or the other of these crises eases, or is the change more fundamental or strategic? Has Pakistan come to the realisation that its destiny is linked to South Asia and that the only hope for it to deal with its manifold crises is to reciprocate India's ample goodwill and grasp the hand of friendship that India has extended on many an occasion?
General Kayani's remarks to the media in Skardu last week should settle the debate. “Peaceful coexistence” is the mantra that he has suggested as the guiding principle for relations between the two countries. In other words, let practical interests decide relations and policies, keep emotions or sentiments out of the discourse. Do not worry about “tactical” or “strategic” shifts in positions, act on issues in a way that would do no harm to either country and might bring some benefit to both, such as trade and economic relations. On matters each country might regard as crucial or vital for itself, keep your respective, even inflexible positions, but keep them under manageable limits. At the risk of over-interpreting Gen. Kayani's statement, it is tempting to see in it elements of the Panchsheel principles.
If the above reading of the general's comment is anywhere near accurate, it is indeed a good prescription for both countries to endeavour to follow. One area where it can be applied without harming either's interests and with positive fall-out for both and even third countries is Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan have suffered grievously for more than three decades in terms of lives lost, incalculable material damage and opportunities missed to construct a stable and prosperous nation, at peace with itself and with its neighbours. The attention of the international community, particularly of the United States and other countries with troops in Afghanistan, is focussed at present on the “end game”, on extricating their men and women out of Afghanistan with some modicum of dignity. It is imperative that the international community does not simply abandon Afghanistan, as it did in the 1990s. It must stay engaged in helping the Afghan people as they embark on forging a future for themselves which would ensure a decent, dignified and democratic life for all its citizens. India and Pakistan, as two important members of the international community and as Afghanistan's neighbours, ought to make their contributions towards this objective. They can do so, each on its own, but they can do much more if they were to join hands in this endeavour.
The current U.S.-led efforts at promoting national reconciliation are not likely to result in sustainable peace, given the levels of mistrust between the stakeholders, including between India and Pakistan. Externally inspired compromises with insurgent groups, undertaken for gaining short-term objectives, are unlikely to prevent the dangers of resumption of a civil war. America having declared the date of withdrawal so much in advance, for whatever reasons, the incentive for the insurgents to agree to meaningful peace formulae has distinctly diminished, even disappeared. An inclusive approach, with the active participation of all relevant domestic and regional players, is called for.
The bilateral relationships which Pakistan and India have with Afghanistan are not, and should not be, a zero-sum equation. Each must recognise that the other has legitimate interests and concerns in Afghanistan. Equally, both ought to, and do believe that a stable Afghanistan is in the interests of both countries. An attempt by either country to exclude the other or to dilute the right of the other to establish friendly relations with Kabul, or competitive policies in Afghanistan will not succeed, will be counter-productive and will lead to increased mistrust and, very likely, more tension in our sub-region. Concepts such as “strategic depth” or “encirclement” have no validity in the 21st century, especially given the fact that both India and Pakistan are nuclear weapon states. A cooperative approach, on the other hand, will pay healthy dividend for both our peoples as well as for the people of Afghanistan.
Time for dialogue
The time is opportune for India and Pakistan to engage in a dialogue specifically on the situation in Afghanistan with a view to exploring ways and means in which they can collaborate with each other as well as with the government of Afghanistan, on how best they can combine their efforts to help rebuild Afghanistan. While India has pledged $2 billion for Afghanistan's development, Pakistan's contribution of about $300 million is not insignificant given the state of its economy and other costs that it has had to bear in connection with the situation in Afghanistan for the past three decades. Both countries have acquired rich experience over the past decades in capacity and institution building, skills development, technology as well as in several other fields such as holding elections, primary and higher education, etc. Furthermore, our experience would be of more relevance for Afghanistan, one of the least developed countries in the world.
The hardliners in Pakistan regard such ideas as India's ploy to gain what it has not been able to in other ways, namely, access through Afghanistan to the markets and resources of Central Asia. While there is nothing diabolic in such ambitions, since Pakistan has as much to benefit from it as India and Central Asian states, it should be possible to calibrate Indo-Pak cooperation in Afghanistan in a way that takes care of Pakistan's concerns. In fact, India might have more to “lose” in such an arrangement than Pakistan, since India already enjoys immense goodwill at the popular level in Afghanistan as compared to Pakistan. There are pragmatic voices in Pakistan that support India and Pakistan working together to help Afghanistan build itself.
It has been widely recognised that a regional approach is essential in order to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. The conference held in Istanbul in July 2011 unequivocally called for respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Afghanistan as well as for the principle of non-interference in its internal affairs. Afghanistan, for its part, reiterated its commitment to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbours, in other words, non-intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbours.
The Istanbul conference, in essence, amounts to a compact between Afghanistan and its neighbours, immediate and proximate, of non-interference and non-intervention. This was a most important development. It needs to be followed by an initiative by the United Nations Secretary General to take follow-up action in the form of further consultations with the states concerned to give concrete effect to the undertaking they agreed to in Istanbul. This is necessary to inspire confidence among Afghanistan and its neighbours that all signatories to the Istanbul declaration live up to their commitments.
A monitoring mechanism would need to be set up, its form and size to be decided during the course of consultations. Some form of a complaints procedure, combined with a United Nations observer group could be considered; this would greatly help in allaying, e.g. Pakistan's concerns, about India's alleged mischief in Balochistan. The Afghanistan-specific dialogue between India and Pakistan could cover this aspect also; however, it might be more problematic and more difficult for Pakistan. The same General Kayani is probably not ready to go that far and that fast. But cooperation in nation building in Afghanistan ought not to be off-limits for the Pakistan establishment. Conversations at Track-II have not been encouraging in this respect. Only the ISI and the army's top brass in Pakistan can give the green light for this initiative which can help reduce the “trust deficit” in bilateral relationship. It could turn out to be a win-win tactic or strategy for everyone.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was, until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Special Envoy for West Asia.)