The Afghan anvil: breaking the Indo-Pakistani deadlock?

Can India and Pakistan resolve their differences and follow a course of enlightened self-interest in Afghanistan?

As the war in Afghanistan takes a turn for the worse, the burden of blame has increasingly come to rest on the state of relations between India and Pakistan and their “rivalry” in Afghanistan. The McChrystal report, the recent bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul, and the continuing reports in Pakistani media about Indians in Afghanistan being involved in fomenting the insurgency in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, have ratcheted up tension between the two neighbors. It is therefore necessary to ask whether Pakistan and India’s interests in Afghanistan are indeed incompatible.

Pakistan and India have deeper cultural and historic ties with Afghanistan than perhaps any of the country’s neighbors except Iran, and have a major stake in the stability and future of Afghanistan. But if the countries' interconnected history, particular in the post-partition period, has often proved a burden to decision making. Diplomacy requires fresh thinking, and the courage to act on bold ideas. It is necessary to leave the baggage of history behind without necessarily forgetting it. Behind these superficial disputes and historically tainted perceptions, several converging interests can be found.

Achieving convergence

Uncovering this convergence of interests involves several steps. India and Pakistan must recognize that fears rooted in history are often little more than paranoia. Take for instance the fear of “strategic encirclement”, a key Pakistani argument with reference to Afghanistan. A commonly cited fear in Pakistan is that if there is a hostile regime in Kabul in the event of war with India, the Afghans would invade to claim Pashtun lands in their pursuit of establishing Pashtunistan. And yet, in none of the Pakistan-India wars (1965 and 1971 being the most significant ones) did a government in Kabul commit aggression against Pakistan while the latter was distracted by the war with India. India meanwhile holds longstanding fears of aggression by China to take advantage of an India-Pakistan conflict. Yet, during the 1971 war, despite the Nixon administration’s appeals in support of the Yahya Khan regime, the Chinese showed no signs of opening a second front.

The Cold War is now over, and there is a need to disregard the vocabulary, sentiments and perceptions that it imposed on the subcontinent. The concept of “Strategic Depth” which dominates literature on Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan is hardly relevant in an age of nuclear deterrence between the two neighbors. Both India and Pakistan also need to dispel mutual misperceptions of the overriding ethos of the other's foreign policy. For instance, hardly anybody in India today reads, much less admires the Arthashastra, an archaic fourth century BC text whose Machiavellian tenets are often cited in Pakistan as the fountainhead of modern India’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan. It would equally be a mistake for Indian strategists to believe that Pakistan’s foreign policy which has been highly pragmatic, is exclusively guided by religious identity. It would be delusional for either side to believe that territorial disputes including Kashmir in which both sides have enormous stakes, can be resolved through force (direct or covert), or that a retributive policy can ever achieve as an enduring deterrent.

As two nations that threw off the yoke of imperialism and achieved self-rule after decades of struggle, India and Pakistan are obligated to respect each other’s sovereignty and at the very least, recognize each other’s stake in regional stability. No doubt both nations are aware that their rival's collapse would create unparalleled dangers and instability. Therefore, repeating pledges to respect each other’s territorial integrity and believing each other’s pledge would help. Both nations need to recognise that they have a stake in South Asia and that neither has an exclusive “sphere of influence”, nor can India dictate Pakistan’s relationship with Bangladesh, nor Pakistan the relationship between India and Afghanistan.

Both need to acknowledge that national interests are never static and evolve with time and changing realities on the ground. The respective interests of Pakistan and India vis-à-vis Afghanistan have changed considerably over the last three decades. Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan go well beyond containing Indian influence. The dominant reasons for Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s were to ensure a buffer against Soviet expansion that could be a existential threat to Pakistan, and to create conditions for the return of the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but by the early 1990s, as Ambassador S. Iftikhar Ahmed has essayed, they had metamorphosed into - a need to end the Afghan civil war, restore stability in Pakistan’s neighborhood and to create conditions for uninterrupted trade with Central Asia. This included courting several mujahideen members including at times, leaders of the Northern Alliance.

India’s objectives in Afghanistan have been equally varied. India, which had been a peripheral player in Afghanistan in the 80s, began to see its interest piqued in Afghanistan after what Zahid Hussain calls “the privatization of jihad” – a situation in which non-state actors and individuals from across the world had begun declaring “jihad” in Afghanistan, without the sanction of their respective states. After the collapse of the mujahideen government, India’s support of the Northern Alliance was predicated on regional stability and a fear of such non-state actors. The hijack of an Indian airliner to Kandahar in December 1999 and the subsequent drama in which the Taliban allowed the escape of the terrorists released by India in exchange for the passengers, and the fact that non-state actors like Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba freely used Afghanistan as a sanctuary in the late 90s precipitated India’s role today in Afghanistan. Understanding these interests would help disentangle the web of suspicion in which India and Pakistan are enmeshed.

Breaking the deadlock

After discarding the baggage of history, future possibilities must sustain the Indo-Pakistani relationship. This means that besides identifying the neighbor’s national interests, one needs to appreciate his legitimate interests. As Rajmohan Gandhi recently wrote, “Indians should recognize that ties of geography, ethnicity and family bring to the Pak-Afghan relationship a depth that can never enter the India-Afghan relationship”. India should quietly encourage Afghanistan to resolve the Durand line dispute with Pakistan, a major source of concern for Pakistan’s strategists. India should never refrain from stating that it sees preserving Pakistan’s territorial integrity, as a priority. For its part, Pakistan should encourage rather than oppose India’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, the fifth poorest country on the planet. Pakistan should also effectively disrupt groups like the Haqqani network in Waziristan, whose attack on the Indian embassy last year and ties to other terrorist groups has threatened peace efforts between the two neighbors and between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The moot political question remains the Taliban. Here again, there is more convergence of interest between Pakistan and India than generally acknowledged. Pakistan and India have been in and out of favor in the eyes of Afghanistan’s Pashtuns over the past two decades. But both India and Pakistan desire adequate Pashtun representation in power in Kabul.

But should the Taliban be the representative voice of the Pashtuns? The Taliban’s agenda lacked (and continues to lack) any plan for governance. Their rule further damaged Pakistan’s relations with Iran and sowed the seeds of widespread Sunni-Shia sectarian violence in the region Indeed, as a senior Pakistani diplomat of that era confessed, “after 1999, Pakistan’s government could no longer affect the trajectory of the Taliban and they increasingly fell under the influence of the Arabs” (i.e. Al Qaeda). Given the fact that the Taliban today is more of an ambitious ideology than a political movement operating within the confines of a single region, they are a threat to the subcontinent’s stability.

In short, as long as an insurgent gives up the violence and ideology of his Talib identity, he can be recognized as a legitimate voice of the Afghans and be reconciled with. Despite differences in articulation, this political vision is common to both Pakistan and India, a point alluded to by the recent statements of the Indian foreign minister, SM Krishna, in support of a political solution in Afghanistan.

The Benefits

A recognition of a convergence of interests could bring four significant benefits. Having a strong, stable, pluralistic government in power in Afghanistan helps regional stability, secures Pakistan and almost by corollary, India.

Secondly, terrorism is a threat to both countries today and the same elements increasingly threaten both countries - as in the case of Jaish-e-Mohammed, founded by Masood Azhar, one of the men released by India to the Taliban in Kandahar after the 1999 hijack. The group is believed to have been involved in both the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the recent attack on the Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Thirdly, the two neighbors are the most energy deficient nations in the region. Tapping into the energy resources of central Asia, by investing in the TAPI pipeline for example, would help cater to their energy demand and also reduce their disproportionate dependence on the middle east, especially as piracy and periodic saber-rattling between the West and Iran imperils oil supplies from the Gulf.

Fourth, allowing transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan would not harm the interests of Pakistan. On the contrary, the transit tolls from Indian goods can actually help the Pakistani government make up for the loss of coalition goods traffic to former Soviet republics. Indeed, allowing two-way transit trade between Afghanistan and India through Pakistan may help invigorate sorely needed direct commerce between Pakistan and India.

The idea of recognizing converging interests is not new to diplomats on either side, but it has often been sacrificed on the altar of short-term political expediency. This needs to be remedied. However, arrival at such an understanding should not be done in a back-channel process away from the glare of the media. For there is a need to reconcile the people, along with their governments. In the interim, the neighbors should desist from blaming each other for terrorist attacks. Conspiracy theories should be quickly de-legitimized. Diplomatic relations cannot fall prey to irrational rabble-rousers, talk show hosts, or conspiracy theorists. With the right investment, Afghanistan could be a new beginning for Indo-Pakistani relations, rather than another theatre of conflict. Seizing upon this convergence of interest is our responsibility not only to the Afghan people, but to the people of the entire subcontinent.