The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has multi-dimensional implications for Pakistan, ranging from an unstable border and continuing terrorism, to a decrease in the volume of bilateral trade, as well as the plight of both refugees and those who returned to Afghanistan. But more ominous consequences loom on the horizon, if peace and normalcy do not return to the war-ravaged country.
Pakistan’s westward expansion of trade will be in jeopardy if the situation in Afghanistan does not improve. The Central Asia-South Asia power project, commonly known by the acronym CASA-1000, a $1.16 billion project currently under construction that will allow for the export of surplus hydroelectricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the multi-billion dollar Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, would be in danger of getting derailed causing incalculable harm to Pakistan’s economy.
Even the smooth execution of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could, to an extent, be adversely affected. Trade with Central Asia will not take off and Pakistan would not be able to benefit from the mining and extraction of Afghanistan’s huge potential in minerals – estimated in value at more than $1.5 trillion. But when the stakes are so high, there is a need for a concerted and focussed effort to help kick-start a reconciliation process aimed at achieving durable peace and stability.
That laudable objective has, unfortunately, passed Pakistan by. Ignoring the cost of not drawing attention to the root cause of the insurgency, and the continuance of a conflict that has robbed the region of huge economic opportunities, Islamabad has instead remained preoccupied with India’s role in Afghanistan. Questions of how to restrict or redefine India’s role in Afghanistan has been a major consideration or goal that has constrained policy makers from formulating a robust approach for peace-making in Afghanistan.
But what India is actually doing in Afghanistan?
India-Afghanistan formal relations date back to 1947. In 1950, the two countries signed a friendship treaty and, in a break from protocol, the treaty was signed by Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Delhi and by Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Indian Prime Minister. This journey continued through the sixties and seventies.
The Soviet invasion of December 1979 transformed the political landscape of the country. While the Moscow-installed regime drew closer to India, the people of Afghanistan chose to confront and fight against the alien ideology and system.
India, by and large, remained on the sidelines during all the years when Afghanistan was being ruled first by pro-Moscow regimes and then by the Mujahideen from 1992 to 1996. New Delhi had cordial relations with the government in Kabul from 1979 to 1992, but by then the insurgency had taken hold and the Indo-Afghan bilateral front was quiet.
Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 did not bring about any change as far as Delhi-Kabul ties were concerned. Then came the US invasion of October 2001 and the mostly pro-India group of the Northern Alliance was swept into power under American watch.
That was the beginning of a new era of relations between Kabul and New Delhi. India saw huge opportunities in the new, emerging scenario. Several considerations influenced the new Indian approach to Afghanistan.
There was a presumption in India that the Taliban were Islamabad’s strategic assets and could be used to help Kashmiri freedom fighters. Defeating the Taliban was, therefore, seen as a critical turning point in reestablishing India’s historic connections with Afghanistan.
By promoting strong ties with Afghanistan, particularly in the economic sector, India sought to create a powerful pro-Delhi lobby that could counter Pakistan’s influence and deny the so-called ‘strategic depth’ that some in Pakistan wished to achieve.
India could realise its long-term ambitions of accessing the hydro-carbon rich Central Asian States by using Afghanistan as a springboard and thus benefit from its energy resources. Delhi is nurturing hopes of soon becoming a regional power. Afghanistan could be a strong base for its westward expansion. And lastly, the vast mineral resources of the west Asian country would be so tempting for a country like India, which could help with investment, manpower and technology in exploiting the hidden treasures.
In the post-2001 era, India’s role has been consistent, unambiguous and focussed. It has undertaken, in consultation with the Afghan Government, major, high-visibility projects mainly in the relatively less volatile north and west of the country and hundreds of small development projects in the remote areas of south and east Afghanistan.
India’s high-visibility projects include the Parliament building in the capital, the Salma dam in Herat province, power supply and transmission schemes for Kabul, training of police and military officers, diplomats and others, as well as scholarships for more than 1,000 Afghan students in Indian universities. More than 250 small projects include roads and health clinics, and water supply schemes have also been built or are on the anvil.
The donation of Airbus planes to Afghanistan’s national carrier Ariana, the modernisation of the Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, as well as linking all the provincial capitals to the national television network are also significant projects that have had a considerable impact.
How should Pakistan view such deep ingress into Afghanistan by its south Asian rival?
There are, quite naturally, genuine apprehensions in Islamabad. The perception in Islamabad is that by establishing a strong foothold in Afghanistan, India would, in many different ways, try to damage Pakistan’s vital national interests.
There are disturbing reports about Indian agents using Afghan soil for carrying out terrorist attacks inside Balochistan. Islamabad also fears that India would, by its economic investment, acquire a role that could be used to the detriment of Pakistan’s interests.
Islamabad believes it has made tremendous sacrifices to the cause of Afghans since 1978-79, not only in terms of giving shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees, but also by backing the struggle for freedom when the country was invaded by the former Soviet Union, and, in doing so, put itself in harm’s way.
Pakistan also claims rightly that it has strong ethnic, religious ties with Afghanistan and the stability of that country is an indispensable component in Islamabad’s calculations and its view of the region. This important relationship could be threatened by the enhanced Indian presence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan also fears that with a heavy, preponderant Indian influence in Afghanistan’s institutions, Islamabad’s long-term ambitions of expansion of trade, investment and commerce, as well as its plans to import energy from Central Asian countries, could be in danger.
How then, is Islamabad to navigate such troubled pathways? The following factors or points need to be incorporated in any strategy that aims to take into account both the short-term and long-term interests of Pakistan.
There can be no compromise on Pakistan’s position that Afghan soil would not be used, covertly or overtly, against its territory or people.
Afghanistan’s right to formulate its own policies, both internal and external, must be acknowledged and respected. But any policy that creates space for any force or country to operate against Pakistan’s interest should not be allowed by Pakistan.
Beyond this fundamental reality, Pakistan should have no objection to Kabul’s growing relations with India, particularly in the realm of economic cooperation.
The continuing stalemate in Afghanistan, and the deteriorating security situation, poses serious dangers for Pakistan. Not only would the Pak-Afghan border remain destabilised, there would be several other implications. The TAPI gas pipeline, CASA 1000 and even the much-trumpeted, ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) would be in jeopardy if the conflict in Afghanistan is not resolved. For Pakistan, the stakes are high.
It is this issue that needs to be clearly identified and resolved. The true potential of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations would be realised only when the insurgency ends and Afghanistan returns to a state of normalcy and institution building. Pakistan has not been able to initiate a meaningful dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan Government that would seek to mainstream the resistance on mutually agreeable terms.
The principal bottlenecks to peace and reconciliation are the US reluctance or inability to lay down its cards on the table. What does the US want to accomplish? It appears there is no ambivalence – the Americans, for a raft of reasons, are not willing to withdraw from Afghanistan. Containment of China, opposition to CPEC and keeping a menacing watch over Pakistan’s nuclear development programme are some of the reasons for the US to keep its military presence in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Government – the product and beneficiary of the ‘status quo’ also would not like to risk any mainstreaming of the resistance that would undermine or threaten its position, hegemony, control or privileges.
For Pakistan then, there is an enormous challenge. How can Islamabad, in the face of such formidable obstacles, push the reconciliation process?
It can only act decisively by soliciting intervention and help by encouraging a more active role from China, Turkey, Iran and Russia. Such a multi-national endeavour for peace making will be too difficult to contain, ignore or obstruct.
By taking no initiative, Pakistan would only be acquiescing to a situation which is fraught with huge risks. It is this concern or objective that should engage the minds of those in the government, rather than being obsessed only with India’s role in Afghanistan.