Balancing interests in Afghanistan

Published: June 5, 2011
The writer was foreign secretary from 1989-90 and is a former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad

The writer was foreign secretary from 1989-90 and is a former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad

In a decade-old military intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the US has fundamentally altered the existing factors of power in the states and societies it has engaged with. The overthrow of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban produced an unprecedented increase in the power and influence of non-Pashtun nationalities, comprising the Northern Alliance that had provided foot soldiers to follow up the fierce American assault by air. The dramatic reconfiguration of ethnic equations fuelled the Taliban insurgency. The counterpart to this enterprise in Iraq was the reversal of power on a sectarian basis and the resultant ‘Sunni’ insurgency.

The rearrangement of internal power relations in Afghanistan had grave implications for Pakistan. Ethnicity and religion warranted that its Pashtun tribes provide sanctuary and assistance to the Taliban. Haunted by the fear that the Northern Alliance was implacably hostile to Pakistan, the Musharraf regime played a complex game of being allied to the US-led war on terror and, at the same time, protecting Pakistani interests in a future post-conflict Afghanistan through a Pashtun proxy. India and Iran (together with Russia) had generously assisted the Northern Alliance and saw, in the emerging situation, an opportunity to establish their influence. Because of overall American dominance, Iran opted for creating covertly pockets of influence as in the post-invasion Iraq; India set its sights high on the assumption that the US and Nato would allow it to piggyback on their occupation. It established an impressive network of economic assistance and intelligence services.

For a time, the Indian assumption seemed to be correct. India had forged a strong strategic partnership with the US and expected Washington to prefer a secular and economically powerful India to a volatile and ideologically ambivalent Pakistan. Pakistan’s baggage of ‘strategic depth’ was made to look heavy even when it scaled down its ambitions. India kept on insisting, till very recently, that the Taliban be militarily destroyed before considering any disengagement from active combat.

It was at an enormous cost that Pakistan played itself back into the equation. General Kayani played a dexterous hand at demonstrating Pakistan’s salience in the quest for success in Afghanistan. Together with the political leadership, he carried conviction in Kabul and, to a degree, Washington, that Pakistan would be a source of future stability in Afghanistan. In Century Foundation’s impressive report, Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace, (2011), Lakhdar Brahimi and Ambassador Thomas Pickering observed: “Pakistan — long a champion of an inclusive political settlement — will be critical to the viability of a peaceful resolution…”. Pakistan was gradually getting reconciled to legitimate Indian interests in Afghanistan, though veteran observers of South Asia, Howard and Teresita Schaffer, have just repeated the charge that Pakistan wants to freeze India out of Afghanistan.

There are indications that this slow balancing of interests is threatened by recent events, principally by the strain in Pakistan-US relations in the wake of the Raymond Davis case and the Osama affair. India has opportunistically modified its stand on the Taliban. Realising that Marc Grossman’s emphasis on accelerated negotiations reflects President Obama’s resolve, India now seeks a role in the process of talking to the Taliban. A vocal lobby in the US has resumed citing Pakistan’s fragility and ‘unreliability’ to recommend a bigger role for India. Pakistan has a joint commission with Afghanistan and a core group that adds the US to the two countries as a hedge against this ill-advised lobby, but nothing will constrain Washington’s penchant for secret negotiations of their own, which may seem to be sidelining Pakistan. India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan has a long and vexed history and it will continue indefinitely. What can be done is to manage it better and make it more compatible with the interests of the regional states as the US becomes more responsive to the need for a regional consensus. Perhaps it is time for an informal exchange of views between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan to reduce misperceptions.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • ashwin
    Jun 5, 2011 - 11:39PM

    Dude what is wrong with India defending it’s national interests, we are protecting our interests by contributing to society of Afghanistan,India might have in the past supported x ,y, z in Afghanistan, but then didn’t work for India.After 9/11 India got a foot hold in Afghanistan and what did we do with that we built a pro India Economic and social network with Afghanistan and what did Pakistan do after 9/11, you guys held on to your old policy of strategic depth and assets, who paying for this rigid policy. “India has opportunistically modified its stand on the Taliban” what is wrong in exploiting a opportunity if it brings some peace to the region and dear former foreign secretary sir “policies are made as per requirements and opportunities available, i.e smart thinking “.

    informal exchange of views between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan to reduce misperceptions.

    we Indians are clear whatever it takes have peace and prosperous India, we hope Pakistan establishment is clear(strategic depth & assets). Recommend

  • ghazni
    Jun 6, 2011 - 10:25AM

    Sir, it is too discouraging that people like you are still obsessed with foreign policy issues calling other to follow your steps. We are boiling internally (thanks to our state intervention in Afghanistan) but perhaps it does not have much importance for you. Struggling for illegitimate strategic depth in Afghanistan we end up with having taliban enjoying strategic depth not only in FATA but also in key urban centers like Lahore, Multan, Peshawer and D.G.Khan. As for as interference in Afghanistan is concerned almost all neighboring states are interfering in Afghanistan so it is not a question. The question is that who is interfering constructively and who destructively. And you have answered that question “[India] established an impressive network of economic assistance and intelligence services”. Then you have quoted ambassador, to support your argument, who has raised fears about Pakistan probable destructive interference in Afghanistan to sweep what would be built till U,S withdrawal.
    Perhaps antagonists of notorious strategic depth policy do not know that they made history to discriminate against Pakistan and render India a comfortable room in Afghanistan. Saga of Afghanistan is over, now we should focus on our internal security rather than throwing stones into others’ homes. We are living in glass house you know?Recommend

  • Tony Singh
    Jun 6, 2011 - 12:47PM

    The article is about India’s role in Afganistan. Now how about Pakistan’s balancing act Mr. author? What role does its doctrine of “strategic depth” in shaping its policy towards Afganistan? What role does Quetta Shura and Haqanni Network play in Pakistan’s line of thinking? You have not elaborated any of those issues. In that sense this article lacks depth.Recommend

  • Sanjoy Das
    Jun 6, 2011 - 1:03PM

    Why does the author have to look at Indo-Afghan ties strictly from the Pakistan’s security standpoint?
    India builds roads and power lines in Afghanistan and helps fund their education system. Just recently, India promised US $2 billion economic aid to Kabul. What has Pakistan done to Aghanistan, except prop up a fundamentalist regime in the form of the Taliban only for its own self-serving “strategic depth“?
    It is not that India is showing a disproportionate amount of interest in Afghanistan alone. India also gives billions of dollars of aid to Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. India is building a shipping port in Sri Lanka, much like China is in Gwadar. What India aims for is to obtain more regional goodwill and influence.
    In fact last month, India promised distant Ethiopia more economic assistance than it did to Afghanistan.
    In fact if India and Pakistan were to establish a friendly relationship (and I certainly hope that they do!), India might someday extend Pakistan economic assistance too. After all, Pakistan, unlike India, is a net recipient of economic aid. There are ways that India can help Pakistan that China cannot, for example developing information technology, managing Pakistan’s railways, improving democratic institutions, etc.Recommend

    Jun 6, 2011 - 3:04PM

    The important thing which the key players in Afghanistan have to realize is that where as it will be possible to bring stability in Afghanistan by keeping India out of the peace process it may not be possible to do so without Pakistan’s involvement. Similarly any peace process without involving Taliban leaders will be a futile exercise. With all their might and sophisticated technology, the US and NATO have not been able to conquer their spirit, will to fight and resilience. Obviously the US will not be able to finish the Taliban even if they keep killing them for another 10 years. Sympathetic population, knowledge of terrain and above all the cause of driving out the occupational forces from their mother land are their strengths. Unfortunately, instead of opening the negotiations channels with Taliban, US has been betting on wrong horses. A meaningful shift in US strategy is required if we are really sincere in bringing peace and stability to this region and also an honourable exit for the US and NATO troops.Recommend

  • FactCheck
    Jun 6, 2011 - 10:15PM

    “The important thing which the key players in Afghanistan have to realize is that where as it will be possible to bring stability in Afghanistan by keeping India out of the peace process it may not be possible to do so without Pakistan’s involvement.”

    Do you even realize how stupid and dumb this is? Pakistan itself is collapsing and Pakistan is bring stability to Afghanistan, soudln’t you stabilize Pakistan before venturing into stabilizing into other countries. In 67 years, you have not built a civil society of any kinf in Pakistan, FATA was never part of Pakistan and you want to give advise on nation building. Ridiculous.Recommend

    Jun 7, 2011 - 12:01PM

    @ FactCheck

    “Pakistan itself is Collapsing”. This could be your desire or wishful thinking. I can tell you this will never happen as our nation has tremendous potential and resilience and our judiciary is independent which is essential for the survival of any nation. I wouldn’t have even bothered to give any response to your statement which is reflective of your malice and ill will towards Pakistan but I have done so because I do not have any malice or ill will towards India. It is my sincere desire to see lasting peace between India and Pakistan and I hope this happens in our life time. No doubt this is our weaker moment but just see Pakistan single handedly has dealt with the economic downturn on account of US invasion of Afghanistan and the massive spill over of terrorism. This is the robustness of Pakistani nation which still has ample will and potential to bounce back. As for as my statement regarding stability of Afghanistan is concerned you have to realize that Pakistan’s geographic location, ethnic affinity, bondage of religion and presence of approximately four million Afghan refugees on its soil, place Pakistan in such a strategic position which no other country can claim to have. If you look back into the pages of history you will realize that these elements have always played a significant role whenever there has been a turmoil in Afghanistan. At the end my friend, I would like to wish you well with the hope that you will take my assertions in a positive stride. Recommend

  • Bitter Pill
    Jun 7, 2011 - 11:27PM

    The battle is for the heart & minds of the Afghan people, they & they only can decide who will have strategic depth in their nation…… I’m sure most Afghan’s will not forget Pakistan’s support for the brutal Taliban regime or India’s support in building hospitals/roads & schools & of popular sitcoms & bollywood movies which air on their tv’s plus thousands of scholarships to Afghan students annually,,,,,Recommend

  • Sebastian Foulkes
    Jun 10, 2011 - 9:16AM

    Ashwin – I don’t think the author is trying at all to defend strategic depth strategy developed in the military barracks of Pakistan. I think you miss the point with your rather childish “dude” message. Nor is he saying what India is doing is wrong. He is providing an overview of the complex situation and encouraging a dialogue as ultimately all parties will need to come to a resolution if Afghanistan is to ever be a peaceful place. The Pakhtun ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan are unique – friendship resulting from Bollywood’s wildly swinging hips and tacky lines (as someone referred to above) can’t surely compare with the extent of this bond in the India-Af relationship.Recommend

  • Mir Agha
    Jun 27, 2011 - 12:59AM

    The Afghan people haven’t forgot about Pakistan’s help during the soviet invasion days. They also haven’t forgot who discreetly opposed the foreign invaders and their subsequent occupation (Pakistan) of their country versus who always supported invasion and occupation (india). That calculus is alive and well amongst the vast majority of afghans, whom the majority of which support the afghan ‘taliban’ resistence. Pak should keep up its non-confrontational approach towards the afghan resistence as they are bound to gain immense power (thanks to widespread support amongst the people) in whichever dispension afghanistan is in the future.Recommend

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