Can India and Pakistan work together in Afghanistan?
There are reports of NATO and Afghan troops massing along the AF-PAK border near North Waziristan following reluctance of the Pakistan Army Chief to take action against the Haqqani network there. The United States is convinced that the Haqqani group has the backing of the ISI in its attacks on the ISAF forces operating in Afghanistan, and as warned, have decided to take action themselves. General Kayani, while addressing Pakistani lawmakers, issued a clear warning to the United States not to mess around with a nuclear Pakistan, implying that any armed intrusion into Pakistan will be resisted! The United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton will be visiting Pakistan to see whether that country can be brought back from the brink that the generals seem to be keen to take it to.
There is frustration in the United States that the Pakistan Army Chief has pleaded over-stretching of his forces, and therefore not in a position to take on the militants in North Waziristan, while at the same time, not allowing the US to go after them.
According to influential US security analysts, “….the generals who run Pakistan have not abandoned their obsession with challenging India. They tolerate terrorists at home, seek a Taliban victory in Afghanistan and are building the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.” Pakistan had been hoping that, through their investments in the Taliban, including the Haqqani network, they would play a decisive role in the Afghan end-game that would give them unassailable influence vis-à-vis India in Afghanistan through their proxies.The latest strategic partnership that was signed between India and Pakistan has only added to the woes of the Pakistani generals, who can only see it as encircling of Pakistan by India! India has millennia-old relations with Afghanistan. We have always had excellent relations with that country, except when the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, was in power.
Our experience of the Taliban rule was certainly not filled with pleasant memories. Kashmiri boys were sent to Afghanistan for training by their mentors, the ISI, and were assigned in al Qaeda camps for this purpose. This was when Osama bin Laden had settled down in Afghanistan after he was forced to leave Sudan under US pressure. This clearly indicates the relationship between the ISI and the al Qaeda. Some of these Kashmiri boys were killed when the United States launched a missile attack on the Khost camp of the al Qaeda in 1998, following the bombing of their embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by this terror outfit. It may also be recalled that when the terrorists demanded the release of Azhar Masood, along with Omar Sheikh and the Kashmiri Mushtaque Zargar, following the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 with over a hundred passengers in December, 1999, the plane was held in Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital. Azhar Masood soon re-surfaced in Pakistan where he lost no time in setting up his own terror out-fit, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which was backed by the Pakistani establishment. The Jaish-e-Mohammad later attacked the Indian Parliament in December 2001, bringing India and Pakistan on the verge of war. The Jaish-e-Mohammad was also responsible, a little earlier, of a suicide attack on the Jammu & Kashmir assembly, in October 2001. They are responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people of Jammu & Kashmir since then, and are even now an active outfit in the Valley. The close relationship between the Taliban and the ISI could be seen in this facilitation of the exchange of Azhar Masood and the other terrorists for the passengers of the ill-fated flight. India re-established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan only after the rout of the Taliban in the United States’ operation Enduring Freedom following the 9/11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda.
Afghanistan once again. India has invested about two billion dollars in Afghanistan’s development through the Afghan government. These include investments in road building, power generation, infrastructure, education and other related fields. With energy rich central Asian states hungry for investment, and a growing India with huge demand for energy, Afghanistan for us, is the gateway to energy. We thus have very genuine interest in maintaining strong relations with Afghanistan.Pakistan resents the close relationship that Afghanistan has with India, further strengthened by Indian investments, which they cannot match. They therefore do what they are best at — use their proxies to attack Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan to discourage India from getting further entrenched in Afghanistan. A number of Indian workers were killed and several more injured in attacks mounted by the Taliban since 2003. The worst attack was on the Indian embassy in July, 2008, in which two senior Indian diplomatic staff were killed, along with several others. However, these attacks have only strengthened India’s resolve to stay the course.
The US decision to leave behind twenty to thirty thousand men for counter terrorism duties after they withdraw the bulk of their forces, operating from a few bases in Afghanistan, must have also been disappointing for Pakistan. The United States has been trying to negotiate with the Taliban keeping Pakistan out of the loop, which created serious apprehension in that country. The latest attack on the US embassy, allegedly by the Haqqani group of the Taliban, and the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan President and leader of the High Peace Council appointed by Karzai by the Taliban have to be seen in this light. The message is that the Taliban are not willing to go by the American script, and that they can be brought in line only by the Pakistanis. The ideal situation would be to allow the Afghans, from all groups and ethnicities, to work out a solution to bring peace to the country, with the regional powers staying out and guaranteeing Afghan neutrality. But this appears a remote possibility. In this background, peace in Afghanistan appears doubtful. The Indo-Afghan strategic partnership agreement has provided for training of Afghan security forces by the Indians. This is certain to ruffle Pakistani feathers. Kayani is on record stating that they were worried about the Afghan forces getting an ‘Indian mind-set’.
They are also questioning the need for the over three hundred thousand strong Afghan national security forces, officered mostly by non-Pashtuns. Given this situation, it looks unlikely that India and Pakistan can work together in Afghanistan. For India, Afghanistan is important for two vital reasons: one, it should not become a training ground for India-centric terrorists and two, Afghanistan is the gateway to the Central Asian Republics which are storehouses of energy, a critical resource for India’s development. If the Taliban were to return to power with Pakistan as their mentor, then it would be difficult for India. But, if the question is — whether it is possible for India and Pakistan to work together in Afghanistan, then the answer will have to be ‘yes’, it is possible and probably desirable. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have got together and signed the TAPI agreement last year for supply of gas, an abundant resource in Turkmenistan, and vital for both India and Pakistan. A 17,000km pipeline will connect the four countries for this purpose. There were reports that Turkmenistan does not have gas as envisaged earlier and that this project would not work. But it appears that this was a false alarm sounded by Turkmenistan’s rivals to scuttle the deal.
Pakistan has now allowed goods from Afghanistan to traverse through its territory to India, but does not allow Indian goods to traverse through its territory to Afghanistan. If this is allowed, then the goods will be cheaper for Afghanistan, and Pakistan can also gain some taxes. But most importantly, the three countries will be united through trade and commerce, with strong business constituencies in all three countries for peace and stability in the region. It would be a win-win situation for all. But will Pakistan agree to this? After the recent visit of the commerce minister of Pakistan to India, their foreign minister announced in the Pakistan National Assembly that in principle decision has been taken to grant India the Most Favoured Nation status — a good augury, though there are sceptics in India who doubt whether this will be implemented in the near future. With the Pakistani generals deciding the country’s foreign and security policies, and looking at India as an enemy, it appears the two countries will continue the present course of slow dialogue followed by disruption, to be followed again by slow dialogue and so on. The Generals’ policy of keeping the pot boiling, to give India a thousand cuts through their proxies, and their aim of destabilising India in this manner will not change unless their mind-set about India changes — though knowledgeable analysts in Pakistan say that there are signs of such a change. If that happens, it would be welcomed by India. Only time will tell.
(The writer retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir. He was also Vigilance Commissioner in Jammu & Kashmir)