Siddharth Varadarajan

Whether valid or not, the Obama administration and the rest of the world see a link between Afghanistan and the India-Pakistan relationship. This is a problem New Delhi must address.

Just as they were celebrating the end of their own hyphenation with Pakistan and the rise of a new geolexical construct, ‘Af-Pak’, Indian policymakers find themselves staring down the barrel of ‘dual hyphenation’ — the link the Obama administration is making between the ongoing military instability on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the unsettled relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad.

The Line of Control may no longer be the “world’s most dangerous place” but President Barack Obama’s remarks about the need to “lessen tensions between two nuclear-armed nations that too often teeter on the edge of escalation and confrontation” make it clear that the United States sees the lack of durable peace along the LoC as a significant distraction from the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The issue is not marginal but central to the American assessment of the region and it is not surprising that Mr. Obama brought it up during the unveiling of his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the U.S. to win its war, Islamabad’s cooperation is essential, he said. And for that to happen, “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out Al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.” In the president’s words, “the government’s ability to destroy these safe havens is tied to its own strength and security.” The first constraint would be addressed by infusions of American cash — $1.5 billion per annum for five years — plus assistance from the IMF, the World Bank and U.S. allies. And the second constraint — security — by the pursuit of “constructive diplomacy with both India and Pakistan.” The same idea is implicitly reflected in the White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it says, under the sub-head of measures to strengthen the capacity of the Pakistani government, that Washington should work with international partners to foster “productive political dialogue.”

The dual hyphenation thesis was propounded again by National Security Adviser James Jones at the Foreign Press Centre in Washington, DC on March 27 when he told reporters that although the U.S. did not intend to get involved in the Kashmir issue “we do intend to help both countries have a — build more trust and confidence so that Pakistan can address the issues that it confronts on the western side of the nation.” He was careful to describe Kashmir as “a separate issue” but added: “We think that the times are so serious that we need to build the trust and confidence in the region, so that nations can do what they need to do in order to defeat the threat [posed by terrorism].” Speaking separately to CNN the same day, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, also emphasised the importance of the “regional approach” involving India that President Obama envisaged.

If dual hyphenation is a bitter pill for the Indian establishment to swallow, there are elements of the new strategy which might also provide it comfort.

For one, the emphasis on accountability on the Pakistani side for the enhanced aid being promised. In the same interview, Admiral Mullen was blunt about the ongoing nature of the ISI’s relationship with terrorist elements in Afghanistan. Asked whether there are still “elements in the Pakistani intelligence … who are sympathetic or, even worse, actually supporting the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda”, America’s senior-most military officer replied: “There are certainly indications that that’s the case. And fundamentally that’s one of the things that has to change”.

Secondly, the emphasis in the Obama doctrine on a regional approach involving Russia, India, China, Iran and other regional players will be seen by New Delhi as timely and essential. But how seriously Washington intends to pursue this tack is a different matter. There is, for example, a huge gulf between the new Afghan-centric opening towards Iran and the general policy of pressure and sanctions that the U.S. shows no signs of abandoning on the nuclear front. And a lot will depend on how successfully the Obama team is able to “reset” America’s relations with Russia across the range of issues which separated the two countries during the Bush years.

Thirdly, both President Obama as well as his senior advisers have clarified what they mean by seeking to strike deals with extremist elements ranged against the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan. Over the past few weeks, considerable confusion had been spread by the meaningless debate over “good” and “bad” Taliban. The strategy that has now been unveiled will combine a relentless campaign against Al Qaeda and Mullah Omar and other “ideologically committed” Taliban leaders with flexibility towards those who might be induced to surrender their arms in exchange for money or other inducements. Where this leaves the Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is not clear, however. The U.S. has also said it will not conciliate with “mediaeval” policies towards women and human rights, a stand that would appear to rule out a Swat-type deal of the kind Islamabad has struck with the Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM) and, by extension, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Fourthly, the emphasis on training and funding the Afghan army and police to deal with the insurgency will be welcomed across the region. However, as long as offensive operations continue to be led and executed by the U.S. in the manner it has been doing so far, the number of civilian casualties could well continue to mount. India’s contribution on the training front is already considerable and it is likely to face pressure from Washington to ramp up its commitments in this regard. However, unless there is clarity about how the overall American strategy is progressing, New Delhi is likely to be wary.

While the notion of hyphenating the situation on Pakistan’s western and eastern borders is untenable from the Indian point of view, New Delhi needs to develop a proactive approach to deal with a linkage that the rest of the world is likely to find prima facie quite reasonable. A viable diplomatic strategy would combine three elements which would aim to exploit the growing international awareness about the Pakistani military establishment’s continuing links with terrorist elements within and beyond the country’s borders.

First, South Block should emphasise the fact that considerable progress has already been made on the Kashmir front with the two sides coming to a common understanding over the broad contours of a settlement. Far from being reluctant to engage Pakistan on Kashmir, India should tell the world it is quite prepared to pick up the threads of the productive but as-yet inconclusive back-channel dialogue once a certain level of confidence in the bona fides of the Pakistani administration has been achieved.

Second, those bona fides can only be established once Islamabad demonstrates it is serious about ending all support to terrorist outfits of the kind that staged last November’s attack on Mumbai. In the interim, India should seriously consider resuming other elements of the composite dialogue, especially those focusing on trade, since any progress on that front would provide New Delhi an unambiguous gain. The resumption of dialogue would go some distance towards addressing the negative optic that Pakistan’s military has been able to exploit in the wake of the Mumbai incident.

Third, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of Afghanistan, India should seek to engage Pakistan in a trilateral dialogue with Kabul so as to find ways of reducing Islamabad’s anxieties about Indian intentions. If Pakistan is refusing to do more to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, this is not out of fear for what might happen if it redeployed troops away from the Line of Control. Rather, it does not want to end up allowing India to strengthen itself in that country. In other words, the Obama administration may not be off the mark in seeing a link between ‘AfPak’ and ‘IndoPak’ but it is looking at the wrong end of the map. Regardless of whether a settlement is reached in Kashmir, the Pakistani military looks at the roads and hospitals and training that India is providing in Afghanistan as New Delhi’s cultivation of “strategic depth.” It is in the interest of India and the wider region, therefore, that this zero-sum subcontinental rivalry in Afghanistan is ended. The way to do this is not to shut down its consulates or reduce its engagement there but to perhaps invite Pakistan to jointly execute projects in that embattled nation. An India-Pakistan-Afghanistan friendship highway, for example. Or a Pakistan-India medical college in Kandahar. These are small steps. But once they are taken, they might well lead to larger political initiatives that could help to stabilise Afghanistan and allow American and other foreign forces to leave South Asia once and for all.