In a poll conducted by ABC News in 2007, India enjoyed the most favourable ratings amongst all external actors in Afghanistan. On the other hand, for all its political clout, Pakistan is not favourably viewed by many Afghans
“Raat din gardish mein hain saat aasmaan
Ho rahega kucch na kucch, ghabraein kya”
The seven heavens whirl continuously through the days and the nights,
Something must be happening, why should we fear?
Unfortunately for those of us currently in the Indian subcontinent, we can ill afford the luxury of Mirza Ghalib. The rapidly unravelling political situation in Afghanistan has created a situation where the international community, whether it is the United States, Pakistan or India are much like the blind men who try to fathom the shape of an elephant, each of them content with their partial successes that ultimately amount to a complete failure.
It would be an understatement to say that the next few years are going to be decisive for Afghanistan. With the impending withdrawal of US forces and the completion of Karzai’s second (and constitutionally last) term, Afghanistan once again finds itself at a crossroads. Its institutions are weak, external funding is drying up and there is a good chance that the consolidated gains of last few years could go up in smoke. And obviously, whatever happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan. It has ramifications for the whole region, including India and Pakistan.
Described by Karzai as conjoined twins, Pakistan and Afghanistan have a very interesting equation. On a societal level, both countries are tied by kinship, religion and cultural similarities. However, this societal closeness has not always manifested itself at the political level. Historically, Pashtuns have refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Durand Line, and is also the case with the Taliban. Secondly, Pakistan has always been wary of a Pashtun nationalist movement brewing on its frontiers. The arrival of the Taliban in the 1990s provided Pakistan some relief, and for the first time in history, Islamabad found a friendly dispensation in Kabul. By and large, it seemed that Islamabad’s strategy of ‘strategic depth’ had paid off. However, despite the closeness between the two regimes, it would be inaccurate to assume that the Taliban were totally subservient to Pakistan’s interests.
Since 9/11, Pakistan’s strategy of ‘strategic depth’ has undergone a slight transformation. Due to various factors, Pakistan knows it cannot expect a repeat of the 1990s. Its strategy is now based on two planks, i.e. ensuring that Pakistan has a voice in Kabul through the accommodation of Taliban in any future political setup, and secondly, ensuring that India does not gain a strategic foothold in the country that can be used to its disadvantage. Thus, it supports a multitude of actors, from various Taliban factions to the Haqqani network in order to achieve its goals.
However, there are some flaws in Pakistan’s current approach and the policy planners in Islamabad/Rawalpindi have made some erroneous assumptions. Inherently, the security establishment in Pakistan is still viewing Afghanistan from the prism of the Cold War. The first and probably the most oft repeated flaw in Islamabad’s policy has been the creation of a Good Taliban-Bad Taliban binary. Broadly speaking, this translates into support for those non state actors that are not inherently against Pakistani state and careful management of those that are aligned against it using a combination of negotiations with somewhat friendly factions and selective use of military force.
The rationale behind such a policy is quite evident. Why fix something that isn’t completely broken? The army fears that a head on confrontation could seriously result in a serious overstretch and the antagonisation of otherwise friendly actors. However, the army fails to realise that their short term expediency can have long term socio-political ramifications within Pakistan. This outcome, aptly termed as ‘all-bombs-are-at-home-but-triggers-are-outside’ by Dastageer[i] is the exacerbation of insurgency and militancy in Pakistan. Even in the context of Pakistan’s external ambitions, one needs to realise that the Taliban are much more fragmented today and there are no guarantees that even the friendlier factions will heed the GHQ’s call in the future.
The second peg that forms Pakistan’s Afghan policy is its India-centric aspect. The fear of India emerging as a dominant political actor and possibly opening up a ‘second front’ against Pakistan is what fuels the military establishment’s paranoia. The rhetoric of ‘six/eight consulates’, training of the ANSF by Indian armed forces and India’s alleged support of Baloch insurgency is often used as a rationale to justify this approach. However, considering the ground realities, such assumptions are wildly exaggerated. Pakistani planners often forget that despite its size and recent economic growth, India remains a poor country that can ill afford such great games. As far as the bogey of consulates is concerned, the Karzai government had already suggested that Islamabad should build its own consulates opposite Indian ones in order to quell its apprehensions.
A bulk of India’s involvement in Afghanistan revolves around reconstruction and capacity building. This includes constructing infrastructure; building institutions and fostering a human resource pool that will help Afghans rebuild their nation. The most security related aspect of this cooperation has been the training of Afghan security forces in India. Although some American thinkers have argued for India’s military presence in Afghanistan, such suggestions have so far not found any serious takers in New Delhi. Broadly speaking, India has strayed clear of any direct involvement in political affairs in Afghanistan. This is an issue of both will and capacity. Most policy makers and analysts in India acknowledge that unlike Afghanistan’s neighbours, beyond encouraging negotiations and reconciliation between various factions, India just does not have enough leverage to mould Afghan politics.
Thus, India’s approach in Afghanistan is inherently based on the application of its soft power. So far, this strategy has worked to India’s advantage. In a poll conducted by ABC News in 2007, India enjoyed the most favourable ratings amongst all external actors in Afghanistan. On the other hand, for all its political clout, Pakistan is not favourably viewed by many Afghans. Its security centric approach has nullified the advantage that it has over other countries due to its geographic and cultural closeness to Afghanistan. Given its understanding of Afghanistan’s specific socio cultural conditions, Pakistan could have potentially played a much more constructive role in state building and reconstruction in Afghanistan. However, the domination of the military in policy making has prevented Pakistan from even considering a more broad based Afghan strategy. This strategic myopia has only contributed to the further deterioration of the region’s security.
Given the current levels of mistrust between the two countries, it might seem far fetched at the moment, but the only way out of the current zero sum game is cooperation on Afghanistan. For its part, India has already shown willingness to discuss Afghanistan with Pakistan. Given its apprehensions, however, it is highly unlikely that such an approach will have any takers in Rawalpindi as of now. It will require lots of incremental steps and consensus building with all sections of Pakistan’s strategic community in order to prod Pakistan’s policy makers. A good platform to initiate such a discussion would be SAARC. After all, Afghanistan is a SAARC member nation and it is a duty of other member states to discuss the possibility of a joint Afghan strategy. As Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” It was power politics that created the problem in Afghanistan and it is only cooperation that can ultimately solve it.
|Amit works as a Project Assistant with IDSA-DRDO Strategic Trends 2050 and is a self proclaimed expert on South Asian politics.|