Afghanistan: a regional flashpoint

ARYAMAN BHATNAGAR and WILSON JOHN

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AFGHANISTAN is a peculiar knot in the contentious India-Pakistan relationship. It is important to both India and Pakistan for different reasons but has rarely figured on the agenda of talks between the two countries. Also each other’s activities and actions in Afghanistan over the years have only added to the overwhelming sense of distrust which agitates attempts to arrive at a rapprochement. This essay examines how developments in Afghanistan can impact the much needed attempts to rebuild the broken chain of dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad.

This bilateral dialogue, institutionalized within the Composite Dialogue in 2004, remains stalled for the moment for reasons which are not new. There are new leaders in Islamabad and New Delhi but the older mindsets and attitudes come in the way of any significant breakthrough. There were some rays of hope at intermittent periods since Nawaz Sharif returned as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 2013, keen on building bridges with India. There were inescapable compulsions – the country was in a mess in more than one way; its economy was scraping the bottom and terrorist violence had peaked in unimaginable ways. Sharif had ridden the electoral wave on the promise of bringing power and employment to Pakistan’s distressed landscape. He had also promised security. All this needed a starting point – a better, economically viable relationship with India could have been one.

The election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, and the early steps taken by him raised hope that the new Indian government would work towards revitalizing ties that had broken down in Manmohan Singh’s second term. A high level meeting between Sharif and Modi, days after the inaugural ceremony of the latter, did provide a platform of sorts for both countries to build on the relationship. Unfortunately, relations since then have not seen much progress.

Foreign Secretary-level talks were called off by New Delhi, objecting to a meeting between Kashmiri separatist leaders and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India. The Line of Control in the meantime became aflame with both the armies opening up their guns at various points. Whatever steam was left in the dialogue process evaporated with Nawaz Sharif raising the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly in September. Modi’s refusal to be drawn into a squabble over Kashmir took the wind out of Sharif’s desperate attempts to gain legitimacy back home where he was battling an emboldened opposition and a brooding army, together leading to the public losing hope and faith in Sharif to deliver on his promises.

New Delhi can wait for Sharif to first secure his ground before taking steps to reopen the dialogue or empower him by opening up trade and transit possibilities between the two countries. Sharif’s options may be limited but Modi has some freedom to choose. There are some things which he can do besides monitoring, and ensuring rehabilitation of flood victims in Kashmir and rebuilding much of what was destroyed in the flood waters. One could be to reorder military deployment in the valley, and call for a unilateral ceasefire on the Line of Control, much like his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee did in 2004, and alongside open a dialogue on issues like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the possibility of making the state less dependent on federal munificence. These are, however, time consuming processes which not only need political commitment but also suitable conditions. While it is too early to judge Modi’s intent and commitment, the present conditions in the region hardly appear conducive.

 

The recent incidents are symptomatic of a larger problem which confounds India-Pakistan ties. A number of flashpoints exist in the bilateral dynamic that can act as spoilers, derailing whatever little progress that has been achieved over the years. Policymakers in both countries have been unable to insulate achievements in one field from problems in other areas. Consequently, incidents such as cross-border terrorism, skirmishes along the Line of Control or the reignition of differences over Kashmir have, more often than not, set back relations by a few years. This has become a recurring pattern in the bilateral dynamic and neither country has managed to escape it. Even Modi has categorically informed his Pakistani counterpart that any progress in bilateral ties will be possible only if incidents of cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan are kept under check.

Besides the simmering dissent, for reasons more real than perceived, the looming threat of terror in Kashmir and elsewhere in India has added to the existing tensions in bilateral ties. The Wagah suicide bombing (November 2014) has shown how a ‘far enemy’ could reach the doorsteps of the country. There is no shortage of ‘near enemies’, many of them supported by the Pakistan Army, who are in the process of being galvanized for a ‘showdown’ once the international forces leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

 

Afghanistan has been a site where the India-Pakistan rivalry has often played out. On several occasions, Indian interests in Afghanistan have been targeted in an attempt to prevent it from playing any meaningful role in the country. As Afghanistan enters a new phase in its history with the draw-down of foreign forces set to be completed by January 2015, the unfolding situation may trigger events that could act as spoilers, forcing either India or Pakistan to react in a manner that is not conducive for pushing forward the dialogue between the two countries. How the new Indian government reacts to the possible provocations highlighted above could determine the future trajectory of India-Pakistan relations.

Afghanistan presents a unique set of challenges. For India, the problems are multiple – instability in Afghanistan could bolster extremist forces and leave Pakistan much more vulnerable and desperate. India is therefore worried not only about what might happen in Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond, but also how Pakistan will act in Afghanistan – to what end and at what cost.

 

This brings us to the challenges Pakistan faces in Afghanistan and the relationship between the two Sunni Muslim neighbours who, despite sharing culture, traditions, ethnicity and language, have long been at loggerheads. The disputed nature of the Durand Line – an imaginary line on the map created by the British to separate British India from Afghanistan in 1893 – had sown the seeds for bitter relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. When Pakistan came into existence in 1947, the Durand Line marked its western boundary with Afghanistan. The Afghan rulers refused to accept the Durand Line as a legitimate border between the two countries, strongly opposed Pakistan’s membership to the United Nations and generally adopted a negative attitude towards the new Islamic state on its eastern front. Military skirmishes, incursions and rhetoric about Pashtunistan or a greater Afghanistan further soured the relationship and accentuated the dangers lurking over a contested border.

Pakistan, since the mid-1970s, has actively pursued a policy of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs to shape political developments in a manner that would be conducive to its own political and strategic interests. This has been one of the prominent aspects of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan, where it has sought to cultivate a regime in Kabul that would recognize the disputed Durand Line as the international border between the two countries, and undermine the allure of Pashtun nationalism. It is for this reason that Rawalpindi has supported different Afghan factions or individuals in the hope that they would toe Pakistan’s line after assuming power in Kabul.

 

Pakistan has always been wary of India’s role in what it sees as its own sphere of influence. The fact that India has traditionally enjoyed good relations with Afghanistan has done much to fan Pakistan’s apprehension of being encircled by two hostile nations. This has particularly been the case post-2001, as India cemented good ties with Hamid Karzai’s government and earned much goodwill among the Afghan populace due to its contribution towards the country’s reconstruction.

The spectre of an Afghan National Army friendly to India makes the perceived encirclement appear even more real, and India’s growing footprint in Afghanistan only adds to this anxiety. It is no surprise that Pakistan has been wary of India’s commitment to maintain and increase its support to the Afghan security forces. While Pakistan does need a stable regime in Afghanistan, it wants one which is sensitive to its concerns. It thus views India’s role in Afghanistan with deep suspicion and would like India to cut down investments and keep a low profile in its immediate neighbourhood. A regime friendly to India is not exactly what Pakistan hopes to find in a Kabul bereft of US military presence.

In the past Pakistan has resorted to various means to limit India’s influence in Afghanistan. It used its role as a partner nation in the Global War on Terror as leverage to get the US to put pressure on India to decrease its role in Afghanistan. The US, right up till 2012, repeatedly discouraged active Indian military and non-military involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistan has also denied transit to Indian goods bound for Afghanistan through its territory. More worrying for India, its consulates and embassies in Afghanistan have been repeatedly attacked by groups linked to the Pakistan military establishment. The attacks on the Indian Embassy in 2008 and 2009, the Jalalabad Consulate in 2013 and the Herat Consulate in 2014 have all been traced back to Pakistan. As India is likely to make efforts to increase its engagement with Afghanistan post-2014, the possibility of further Indian targets becoming victims of attacks orchestrated by Pakistan cannot be ruled out.

 

While Pakistan’s overall policy objectives vis-a-vis Afghanistan have remained static, Pakistan itself has undergone drastic changes. This is a post-2001 world where terrorism is both global and autonomous, no longer subservient to state interests as in the past, particularly in Pakistan. The Taliban is no longer the same entity; it has experienced drastic factionalism and not all groups are friendly to Pakistan. Terrorist groups, many of whom were hailed as ‘patriots’ by the army not so long back, are today posing an existential threat to the country. The enemy is within, and more rampaging and perilous than the external enemy. A military counter-offensive in recent months met with brutal reprisal; the latest North Waziristan operations to flush out the most lethal anti-Pakistani group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was responded with a brazen attack on the Karachi harbour and most recently at the Wagah border. In the past too, military operations were countered with attacks on nuclear establishments, a naval base, GHQ and offices of ISI and beheadings of hostage paramilitary troops.

Pakistan has lost out in the process, first economically and then politically, while facing the brunt of a terrorist blowback since 2007. In the last seven years, more Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks carried out by its own nationals than in all the wars fought against its arch enemy, India.

Such internal challenges have been acknowledged by the Pakistan military itself, which has led to speculation about a possible strategic rethink on the part of the military establishment, especially with respect to its strategy towards India and Afghanistan. However, from India’s perspective, there is so far no visible sign on the ground to suggest such a change of heart. The terror infrastructure in Pakistan remains intact and groups are allowed to operate freely out of the Punjab province, going as far as openly declaring jihad against India.

 

Terrorist groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) remain ‘strategic’ assets for the Pakistan military. There is concern in New Delhi that such groups will likely ramp up their anti-India activities following the American withdrawal from the region. As a result of Pakistan’s involvement in the War on Terror, a number of these groups were asked to lie low – with the Mumbai attacks of 26/11 being the most glaring exception – and it is quite possible that with the drawdown, Pakistan may no longer exercise restraint and allow these groups to plan and launch terrorist operations against India.

An unstable Afghanistan in the past has caused many problems for India. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen had operated out of Afghanistan. The US State Department in August 2014 revealed the existence of Hizb-ul Mujahideen camps in eastern Afghanistan. It is no surprise that India fears that a prominent role for Pakistan in determining the end game in Afghanistan could fuel both Islamic radicalism as well as strengthen the presence of anti-Indian groups in the region.

India has invested considerable resources in Afghanistan over the years and thus has a significant stake in its stability. A united, democratic Afghanistan could conceivably keep extremist forces at bay. A stable Afghanistan could prevent Pakistan from losing its grip on itself. Instead of a sanctuary for transnational terrorist groups like al Qaeda, Afghanistan could prove to be a firewall against radicalism sweeping the region.

2014 presents an opportunity for Pakistan, India and Afghanistan to rewrite history. But this would require much more than mere words. It would require Pakistan to play straight, extend a hand of unconditional friendship to the new government in Kabul and view India not as an enemy but as an opportunity to reclaim economic growth and political stability, and a better future for its 170 million people.

Pakistan has already given assurances to the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that it will cooperate with Kabul to improve bilateral ties and treat ‘all militant outfits…as a threat to peace.’ However, it remains to be seen whether the Pakistan Army will follow through on such assurances.

The current trends suggest that there is little possibility for such a genuine – and revolutionary – change any time in the near future. The Pakistan Army continues to see the Taliban as the only political faction within Afghanistan, which is likely to serve its interests. In particular, it sees the Haqqani network as a ‘reserve force’ that can leverage events in Afghanistan in its favour post-2014. A greater likelihood, thus, is of Pakistan hedging bets, keeping its proxy terrorist groups in tow and making a desperate attempt, against insurmountable odds, to turn the tide of events in its favour which, irrespective of its outcome, can only further estrange its two immediate neighbours, India and Afghanistan.

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