COMMENTARY
 
Keeping Indo-Pak rivalry out of Afghanistan
Weekly Pulse
March 5-11, 2010
Throughout the 1980s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community was on one side, India, the Soviet Union and the Communist regime of occupied Afghanistan was on another. So humiliating was the scale of Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan that within two years of Soviet troops’ withdrawal from there, the Communist superpower itself collapsed. What continued, however, was India’s intervention in Afghanistan.

As various Afghan Mujahideen factions began infighting after the fall of pro-Indian Najibullah regime in Kabul in 1992, India was able to lure the very Mujahideen leadership who operated from Pakistan throughout the anti-Soviet jihad but was ready to betray the host nation the moment they seized power in Afghanistan. The regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his powerful defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, who did Pakistan’s biding in Afghanistan against President Daoud’s regime as far back as the 1970s, vividly pursued an anti-Pakistan agenda on India’s instigation.

In the Indo-Pak proxy war that followed, Islamabad backed the Taliban while New Delhi along with Russia and Iran supported the Northern Alliance. With additional support from Saudi Arabia, Taliban captured power in Kabul in 1996 and paved the way for al-Qaeda’s comeback to Afghanistan from Sudan the same year. The rest of the story—Taliban’s reign of terror in Afghanistan under their occupation, facilitating al-Qaeda’s international terror spree leading up to the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, the fall of Taliban regime in late 2001 in a US-led international war that has intensified with each passing year in the last over eight years—is a story we are all quite familiar with by now.

Critical Times

Just as it was in the aftermath of the Soviet defeat two decades ago, Afghanistan stands at a critical juncture in 2010. Once again, there is extreme danger of the very factor that made this war-raved land a battlefield for South Asia’s two arch rivals in the 1990s resurfacing to restart the same heinous process which eventually brought the extremist Taliban regime to power, providing safe haven to al-Qaeda, facilitating the 9/11 terror events and contributing to the last over eight years of al-Qaeda inspired and Taliban-led terrorism and international war in the region.

Neither Afghanistan nor South Asia and the world can afford the repeat of the same deadly process of the last 20 years, when the preliminary signs of the start of yet another Indo-Pak proxy war in the Afghan theatre are becoming increasingly visible. In fact, this back-to-square-one situation is also clear from the new goals of reintegrating Taliban and reconciling the moderate leaders of Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan in the American AfPak strategy.

If the international community had to arrive at this conclusion after eight long years of war, then why did it not listen to Pakistan in the post-9/11 run-up to the Afghan war in October 2001? After all, during those few weeks, the then regime of General Pervez Musharraf was urging the world to prevent this war by co-opting moderate Taliban and taking al-Qaeda to task without waging a war in Afghanistan. Certainly there is no use crying over split milk now, since the war has already occurred for so many years.

While it is still premature to make the final judgment about its eventual political outcome, what we can appreciate is that, apart from purely military options, the international community is now ready to resolve the Afghan conflict through AfPak strategy’s focus on reintegrating insurgents and reconciling their leaders if they are willing to renounce violence and rejoin the political process in Afghanistan. Even if we cannot predict the eventual outcome of the ongoing AfPak strategy, we can be absolutely certain about the fact that the international community is not ready to abandon Afghanistan this time around the way it did over 20 years ago.

Afghanistan will never see the dawn of an era where regressive forces of Taliban and al-Qaeda will be able to play with the destiny of Afghanistan, its neigbourhood and the world the way they did until the start of the current war in late 2001. Still we must be deeply concerned about one factor: that of Indo-Pak rivalry, which predates the post-1979 Afghan conflict for well over three decades (since the partition of 1947), once again jeopardizing future peace efforts in Afghanistan.

Pivotal Position

Pakistan is connected with Afghanistan historically, geographically and ethnically in ways that no other neighbour of the war-torn country does. It has also paid perhaps the greatest price for this very linkage in the shape of terrorism and insurgency by Taliban. Therefore, it is but natural on Pakistan’s part to be excited about the impending political resolution of the Afghan conflict, which simply means letting the majority Afghan Pashtuns to have their due share in the internationally assisted political governance of their country, and its security structure and development sectors.

Since India has always placed its bets on the so-called Northern Alliance, a largely non-Pashtun grouping of former Afghan Mujahideen such as late Ahmad Shah Massoud and communist leaders like Rashid Dostum, it will most likely resist any international bid to politically resolve the Afghan conflict on the basis of Afghanistan’s complex ethno-religious demographic composition.

The fear of majority Pashuns, the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, recapturing political power in the country is a nightmarish scenario for India’s ruling elites. What has most complicated the ground reality in Afghanistan is the enhanced political and economic clout New Delhi has obtained in Afghanistan after the demise of Taliban regime in late 2001. Having invested over $1.2 billion in projects to improve roads, communications and medical facilities in post-Taliban Afghanistan, New Delhi should be envious of any key role that Pakistan obtains in Afghanistan’s settelement in coming months.

In Pakistan’s perception, in the guise of its enhanced developmental role in post-Taliban Afghanistan, India has accentuated the country’s insecurity dilemma, with Indian consulates in Afghanistan allegedly financing and arming Taliban insurgents in tribal areas and fueling separatist forces in Balochistan. Pakistan would, of course, oppose any Indian bid to jeopardise international bids aimed at securing Afghan peace settlement through co-opting the Pashtun majority in the country’s political, security and economic structures.

New Priorities

The international community has already invested so much in the counter-terrorism effort in Afghanistan. Barring traditional international concerns regarding Pakistan’s willingness to combat terrorism, the latter’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns in tribal areas and the rest of the country have largely been a success story and is increasingly being viewed as such by the international community. In fact, the US-led counter-insurgency operation in Marjah town of Helmend province draws upon the successes Pakistan has achieved in its own security operations in Swat and South Waziristan—at least in the ‘clear and hold’ stages of the AfPak strategy, while the outcome of the remaining two stages of ‘build and transfer’ also looks as promising as in Pakistan’s case.

In fact, Pakistanis appear to be cashing in on the unique opportunity currently available to them in the AfPak strategy’s focus on resolving the Afghan conflict politically, and using military means also as part of the same goal. Most recently, Pakistan helped arrest the military commander of Afghan Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and, consequently, of two northern Afghanistan Taliban “shadow” governors, Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz and Mullah Mir Mohammad. Reportedly, almost half of the so-called Quetta Shoora led by Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Umar is now either dead or arrested.

Pakistan’s increasing cooperation in eliminating diehard Taliban leaders, who cannot be expected to lay down arms and rejoin the political process—and, therefore, have to be removed from the battle scene forcibly—naturally implies that the country will have a leading role in politically resolving the Afghan conflict in coming months. This is the most likely specter in Afghanistan that haunts India—which explains why New Delhi is increasingly unnerved and ready to sabotage an Afghan peace settlement that it perceives to threaten whatever inroads India has made in the last eight years of President Hamid Karzai-led Afghanistan.

Talking Peace

The most recent manifestation of India’s dilly dallying on the issue of peace in South Asia was its obdurate stand during the February 25 Indo-Pak foreign secretary level talks in New Delhi. This was the first diplomatic interaction between India and Pakistan after the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. There is no doubt that the ice has been broken in post-Mumbai standoff in the two countries’ ties through this diplomatic intercation, yet India appears unwilling to negotiate key conflicts with Pakistan, primarily the Kashmir dispute.

India’s preferred option is to continue to buy time and delay resolution of these conflicts. Rather than appreciating Pakistan’s recent successes in counter-terrorism, India continues to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism, a pretty old discourse which, to Pakistan’s amusement, is becoming irrelevant and outdated due to the qualitatively changed regional circumstances and the international preference for resolving the Afghan conflict not through a reckless war but by exercising potentially fruitful political options.

At the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh last July, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gillani had agreed in a joint statement that “action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.” Despite this, the Indians continue to threaten surgical strikes against Pakistan as part of their so-called “cold start” strategy, if another Mumbai-like terrorist act with roots in Pakistan occurs in future. This is a maddening behaviour, with potentially horrific consequences in South Asia, even if Pakistan has not yet disclosed its options of what it will do in retaliation when and if India ventures “cold start” action against it.

And when India’s state minister for external affairs and former assistant secretary general of the UN, Sashi Tharoor, said recently during Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia that "we feel that Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia even a more valuable interlocutor for us," hell broke loose in India. The opposition, including both the Hindu nationalists and the communists, backed vociferously by Indian media, questioned the minister’s remarks, arguing that they violated the country’s established foreign policy position on not seeking any external mediation for resoling its bilateral conflicts with Pakistan.

Never Again

Obviously, India wants the world to stay focused on its own terrorism concern vis-à-vis Pakistan and not to even wish for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, which indirectly fuels cross-border terrorism. Now another life and death issue has been added to the list of Indo-Pak disputes: that of water. Pakistan is drying up with India building dams on the Chenab and Jehlum rivers. Pakistan says this contravenes the Indus Water Treaty. Even otherwise, whenever in the guise of terrorism, India has threatened Pakistan—many times since the December 2001 attack on Indian parliament—Islamabad has found it difficult to concentrate fully on its counter-insurgency/terrorism effort in tribal and Frontier regions bordering Afghanistan.

What is absolutely clear from above discussion is the fact that peace between India and Pakistan, which means resolution of the two countries’ core conflicts, is crucial for politically resolving the Afghan conflict. Equally crucial need for the purpose is to spare Afghanistan from another round of Indo-Pak rivalry.

The international community must not allow India to sabotage the peace in Afghanistan. For this purpose, it has to encourage—and, if need be, force—India’s recalcitrant leadership to resume the composite dialogue in its entirety, engage in a fruitful political dialogue to resolve bilateral conflicts at the highest level, and accept international mediation by Saudi Arabia or any other international power or regional organization for the purpose, if bilateralism is not producing conducive results. Of course, for its part, the Pakistani leadership also has to move beyond its traditional security concerns vis-à-vis India, if the latter is willing to forego its own and move together to chart a new peaceful course in Afghanistan and South Asia.

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