Two questions have increasingly taken centre-stage in discussions about what might happen in Afghanistan after United States withdrawal in 2014. One, if it will become a proxy battlefield for India and Pakistan, the two big South Asian rivals, and two, if anything can be done to prevent this.
William Dalrymple, for instance, wrote in an essay for Brookings Institution this year that beyond Afghanistan’s indigenous conflicts between the Pashtuns and Tajiks, and among Pashtuns themselves, “looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers — India and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan. Compared to that prolonged and deadly contest, the U.S. and the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] are playing little more than a bit part — and they, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit.”
The assertion is not new. Western commentators have long put out that the new great game in Afghanistan is going to be between India and Pakistan. The theory goes that India’s search for influence in Afghanistan makes Pakistan insecure, forcing Islamabad to support and seek to install proxy actors in Kabul to safeguard its interests, and that this one-upmanship is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to stability in that country. As 2014 nears, the idea has naturally gained better traction.
India would have several problems with this formulation. The foremost is that such a theory panders to the Pakistan security establishment’s doctrine of strategic depth, in the pursuit of which it sees a third, sovereign country as an extension of itself.
India, for its part, views its links to Afghanistan as civilisational, and its own interests there as legitimate. Its developmental assistance to Kabul now tops $2 billion and it has undertaken infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. And, if the situation allowed, Afghanistan could become India’s economic gateway to Central Asia.
New Delhi also believes the “proxy war” theory buys into Islamabad’s allegations against India that it refutes as baseless. Since about 2005, Islamabad has alleged that Indian consulates in Afghanistan, especially in Jalalabad and Kandahar, which are close to the Pakistan-Afghan border, are a cover for anti-Pakistan activities. It alleges that Afghanistan is where India arms and funds Baloch secessionists. And after the Taliban unleashed a relentless campaign of terror inside Pakistan, allegations are rife that sections of them are on India’s payroll.
The Indian position would be that if there is a war, it will actually be a one-sided one, in which Pakistan targets Indian interests and Indians in Afghanistan through its proxies. The latest was the attempted bombing of the Jalalabad consulate in August. The deadliest, the bombing of the Kabul embassy in July 2008, was linked by the Americans too to the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban that is widely viewed as a proxy of the Pakistan security establishment. Despite repeated prodding by the Americans, the Pakistan Army has made it clear it will not go after safe havens of the Haqqanis in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
New Delhi’s concern
Concerned that any instability in Afghanistan is certain to spill over across Indian borders, over the last two years New Delhi has suggested repeatedly to Islamabad that the two sides should talk about Afghanistan. But as Pakistan has emerged as a key player in facilitating talks with the Taliban, and while it has no problems talking to every other country with an interest in Afghanistan, including Russia and China, it has cold-shouldered India. The ideal course would of course be for trilateral talks involving Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi. For, Afghanistan is not just a piece of strategic real estate but a sovereign country made up of real people.
Right now, though, Pakistan is averse to any idea of talks on Afghanistan, believe as it does that India has no role in there, and that talking would give legitimacy to New Delhi’s claim that it does. It already resents the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Treaty.
Divergence on view
The divergence surfaced starkly at a recent Track-2 dialogue convened by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung — a German think tank associated with the Social Democratic Party, which brought together retired bureaucrats, former generals, journalists, civil society representatives as well as one politician each from the two countries. One of the issues that came up for discussion was if there was at all a need for India and Pakistan to talk about Afghanistan.
Most, but not all, Pakistani participants and some Indians too were of the view that talking about Afghanistan was impossible so long as tension between India and Pakistan remained, and that right now Islamabad was in any case too preoccupied with the ‘reconciliation’ process in Afghanistan.
A suggestion was made by an Indian participant that in view of the approaching U.S.-set deadline for the withdrawal of its troops, and the possibility that a dialogue on other subjects between India and Pakistan was unlikely to resume until after the 2014 Indian elections, the two sides should consider discussing Afghanistan as a standalone subject in the interim. But this was dismissed by many Pakistani participants. Why should Pakistan jump to talk on something simply because India considered it important, asked one, when on every other issue, New Delhi behaves as if talks are a huge concession to Islamabad — including the recent Manmohan Singh-Nawaz Sharif summit in New York.
But a far-sighted approach perhaps would be to consider that none of the likely scenarios in Afghanistan after the U.S. drawdown looks pretty, and to weigh the consequences for Pakistan itself especially if, as one Pakistani participant rightly suggested, the Taliban refuse to play Islamabad’s puppet; after all, they did not when they ruled Afghanistan from the late 1990s to 2001. As well, the Afghan presidential election, to be held in April 2014, is sure to have its own impact, though it is still anyone’s guess if it will be held and whether the country will make a peaceful democratic transition. In Pakistan, many commentators believe the backwash from Afghanistan post-2014 is dangerously going to end up on its western/north-western borders. Strategic depth no longer holds Pakistanis in thrall the way it used to in the last century. A Pakistani participant pointed out, only half-jokingly, that his country had ended up providing strategic depth to Afghanistan through its two wars, rather than the other way around.
As for the view that Pakistan and India cannot talk about Afghanistan without repairing their own relations first, it might be worth considering if such a discussion could actually contribute to reducing bilateral tensions, given that the concerns over Afghanistan do not exist in a vacuum but arise from other problems in the relationship between the two. It could even provide the opportunity the Pakistan side has long wanted to bring up with New Delhi its concerns about Balochistan.
By rejecting Kabul’s entreaties to New Delhi to play a bigger role in securing Afghanistan post-2014 than just training Afghan security forces, India has signalled it is sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns. As Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan is right to claim a pre-eminent stake in what happens in there, and India should have no quarrel with this. As was pointed out at the Track-2 meeting, Pakistan has suffered the most from the two Afghan wars; it provided refuge to Afghans during the first war in the 1980s. More than 100,000 Pakistanis live in that country. The two countries are linked by ethnicity, culture and religion; over 55,000 Afghans cross daily into Pakistan through the two crossing points Torkham and Chaman, not to mention the hundreds who cross over the Durand Line elsewhere.
What Pakistan could do in return is to acknowledge that as an important regional actor, India too has legitimate interests in Afghanistan, and also as a route to Central Asia. After all, if Pakistan considers itself to be the guard at the geo-strategic gateway to Afghanistan, it must also recognise that squatting at the entrance can only serve to neutralise rather than increase the gate’s geo-strategic importance. On the other hand, India-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan could open up a world of opportunities for both, and who knows, maybe even lead to the resolution of some old mutual problems. As both countries grapple with new tensions on the Line of Control, Afghanistan may seem secondary on the bilateral agenda. In reality, it may be too late already.