Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership
Weekly Pulse
Oxford: 15 October 2011
The founding stone of a potentially catastrophic eventuality that must be avoided at this critical juncture of Afghan war was laid on October 4 in the form of a Strategic Partnership agreement concluded by Afghan and Indian leaders in New Delhi. Even though Pakistan’s response to this unsavoury development has thus far been rather muted, it only confirms the country’s fears concerning India’s proactive presence in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and its domestic and regional security implications.

India’s engagement in Afghanistan in the last ten years since the fall of Taliban regime in November 2001 has been confined largely to the development sector. During this period, India has spent approximately $1.5 billion on various infrastructure projects across the war-torn country. While there is no doubt about the viability of these projects for Afghanistan’s future progress, what is questionable is the ill-intended premises of India’s increasing profile in Afghanistan: one geared towards constraining Pakistan’s regional security-strategic space.

Instances of closer Indo-Afghan collaboration seem to coincide with developments weakening Pakistan’s diplomatic profile regionally or internationally. For instance, as the US questioned Pakistan’s counter-terrorism credibility following Osama bin Laden’s killing, and Afghan-Pakistan relations also became momentarily strained, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed in Kabul on an unscheduled visit to announce additional $500 million Indian development assistance to Afghanistan.

Now when US-Pakistan relations have recently appeared to deteriorate even more following Admiral Mike Mullen’s accusation about Haqqani Network’s involvement in recent terrorist attacks against US targets in Afghanistan and the alleged support it receives from the ISI, the Afghan and Indian leaders have used this opportunity to take the two countries’ ties to an even higher, but riskier, level of security cooperation—with India pledging to train Afghan security forces.

Obviously, the US and NATO will welcome the Indian move, as they aimed to withdraw all of their combat troops from Afghanistan and to train sufficient number of Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s statement in India—calling Pakistan as Afghanistan’s “twin-brother” and India as its “close friend”—may be culturally meaningful but is seemingly premised on nasty intensions: Pakistan being an estranged brother cannot be trusted, and confidence can be reposed in India as a friend.

What is gradually becoming evident is an amazing parallel between the potentially devastating course the Afghan and Indian leaders, and their respective governments had adopted back in 1992 and beyond, and what they are resorting to 19 years later. History seems to be repeating itself. Unfortunately, with reference to the Afghan conflict, we seem to be heading back to square one.

Ten years ago, when the US-led war in Afghanistan was in it initial phase and Taliban’s hold over Taliban was nearing an end, Pakistani leader General Musharraf had constantly urged the international community not to let Afghanistan’s political power to fall completely in the hands of the Northern Alliance. This appeal was rationally founded on a bitter Afghan experience in the past decade.

We all know that, in the 1990s, Afghanistan paid a heavy price as India and Pakistan vied for carving out strategic space amid factional warfare following the Soviet demise in Afghanistan. The reason why this tragedy occurred is not difficult to understand. Pakistan felt betrayed by the post-Najibullah regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who befriended India at Pakistan’s cost during his over-four year rule in Kabul, 1992-96.

Seven Mujahideen groups led by him and other Afghan leaders had used Pakistan as a sanctuary to wage the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1990s. During this time, India sided with the Soviets to sustain their occupation of Afghanistan, while Pakistan partnered with the United States and the rest of the international community to end this occupation.

As the United States abandoned Afghanistan in the late 80s, Pakistan was left with no option but to deal with the consequent messy Afghan reality. It had been at the forefront of the anti-Soviet jihad, and was also Afghanistan’s largest neighbour, uniquely sharing with it a long unrecognised border, Pashtun ethnicity straddling across it and common historical, cultural and religious bonds.

Pakistan’s policy was to have a broad-based Afghan regime truly representative of Afghanistan’s complex ethnic, religious and regional realities. For the purpose, with Saudi help, it brokered an agreement among the Afghan Mujahideen leaders in Mecca, but they reneged on it soon. Pakistan’s security establishment had betted on Afghan Mujahideen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but he could not take over even Jalalabad from the Najibullah regime in 1989.

Nonetheless, when Rabbani regime took over in 1992, it was reasonable on Pakistan’s part to expect from it not to be hostile to the country. It is equally reasonable to expect a leader hosted by a neighbouring country for ten years not to turn his back on the host after assuming power in his own nation. Exactly the opposite happened. India that had supported the Soviets made inroads into Afghanistan under Rabbani, while Pakistan, which struggled against the Soviets along with Rabbani, was left out in the lurch.

This is actual Afghan context in mid-90s that explains Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, whom it saw as a credible indigenous Afghan alternative to Rabbani rule. That Pakistani security establishment pursued an Indo-centric strategic depth policy regarding Afghanistan in the process was not something occurring in isolation, but truly in response to Rabbani regime’s unethical approach in connivance with India at the time.

Fast forward history of this sordid nation, we now have Karzai acting in the same unethical manner as late Rabbani did a little less than a couple of decades ago. He and his family were hosted by Pakistan throughout the Afghan jihad and thereafter. Pakistan’s current civilian leadership has been ever ready to extend a hand of friendship to his government and support its recent initiatives for reconciliation to end the ten-year old war and accompanying death and destruction. For its part, the Indian leadership also seems to be acting equally irresponsibility. Little does it realise that there are certain constants when it comes to Afghan-Pakistan relations—the ethnic, religious, historical and, most importantly, geographical factor that cannot simply change as India wishes them to. It was because of these constants that the US preferred Pakistan over India after 9/11 as a frontline state in the War on Terror while knowing Pakistani connection with the Taliban regime. India was ready to hand over to the US anything, bases and what not, for the purpose.

Even now, while the Afghan war is on, or in future, when moves for Afghan reconciliation may gain momentum, neither the US/NATO nor the Afghan regime are or will be able to accomplish anything without Pakistani support. India has carved out a role for itself in Afghanistan in the development sphere. There is no problem with this. The trouble arises only when the intensions behind such role somehow start to reflect India’s historically rooted quest for undermining Pakistan’s legitimate security-strategic interests in the region.

Indian leaders refuse to accept the post-1947 fact that a vast territory lying between them and Afghanistan is the state of Pakistan. It is Pakistan’s unique connection with Afghanistan, through shared border, ethnic and religious bond, and common history—and not India’s status as Afghanistan’s proximate or distant neighbour—that will determine the nature and dynamics of Afghan affairs in future.

Recently, India’s former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal said quite vociferously that Pakistan did not have a veto over the right of Afghan government to have a relationship with India. He termed Pakistan’s consistent political and military intervention in Afghanistan as a major factor responsible for the decades-old Afghan conflict. The occasion was a conference in London on ten years of the war in Afghanistan, co-organised by Asia-Pacific Foundation and George C Marshal Centre for Security Studies.

Foreign Secretary Sibal argued the same while critically responding to my presentation on Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror. This was despite my plea in the paper that progress in India-Pakistan peace process was imperative for preventing the recurrence of their proxy war following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. This is the only way, I had argued, to address Pakistan’s insecurity dilemma caused by India’s proactive role in post-Taliban Afghanistan and India’s principal worry about Pakistan attempting to re-install the Taliban in power.

Just as it was the case with the War against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it is Pakistan that has played the role of a frontline state in the War on Terror in Afghanistan since late 2001. Each time, it is also Pakistan that has played the price for playing this pivotal role on behalf of the international community. Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan cannot be confined to a wartime role but must be seen in terms of post-conflict stabilization and peace-building in the war-torn country. A country that has shared much of the burden of war cannot be left out when the time comes for sharing the spoils of war—if there are any.

Even otherwise, given Pakistan’s multi-pronged connection with Afghanistan, and the gravity of anti-Indian sentiments among Afghan insurgent forces, it would be a mistake on the part of India to transform its engagement in Afghanistan from one motivated by developmental concerns to that intended to train supposedly non-Pashtun Afghan security forces. By doing so, India effectively chooses to entangle in itself further in the Afghan quagmire—a choice that potentially brings with it India-specific extremist-terrorist consequences emanating from Afghanistan.

The Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership pact also goes against the spirit of the notable progress that the Indo-Pak peace process seems to have made since its resumption early this year. The two countries are engaged in trade expansion and visa liberalization process, which will go a long way in institutionalizing on both sides permanent constituencies of peace.

So, in the end, it all comes down to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India—as three major South Asian countries—to stop taking unilateral or bilateral initiatives that sustain conflict in the region and scuttle its progressive path. The Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership pact is, therefore, a step in the wrong direction. Rather than securing Afghanistan or bringing major strategic advantage to India, it will reinforce Pakistani security establishment’s long-standing fear of being encircled by India and, consequently, undermine regional security.

The commentary can be accessed at