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Pakistan's Endgame in Afghanistan?

Aparna Pande

As preparations for the American draw down from Afghanistan get underway, there appears to be another game in town: played by Pakistan’s leaders, strategists and for lack of a better word, sympathizers. The argument put forth is this: all problems would be solved if only India would stop playing a role in Afghanistan and if the world, especially the U.S., understood (read ‘supported’) Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. In itself this sounds simple, however, in reality it is not.

Old South Asia hands will agree this is nothing new. In the 1980s, once the Geneva Accord discussions started, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Zia ul Haq insisted that the Americans help install a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan before they withdraw from the region. As Zia stated in an interview to an American journalist: “We [Pakistan] have earned the right to have a friendly government in Kabul. We wont permit it to be like it was before, with Indian and Soviet influence there and claims to our territory.” Pakistan’s leaders and policymakers have always believed what Zia openly stated.

Right from 1947, Pakistan has feared a strategic encirclement (also referred to as “the pincer movement”) by its two neighbors, India and Afghanistan. The nightmare scenario for Pakistan’s security establishment has been an attack from both its eastern and western borders. The need for a pro-Pakistan (read “anti- India”) Afghan regime was hence deemed crucial to the foreign and security policy of Pakistan. Not only did Pakistan seek a friendly Afghanistan to prevent encirclement but also for decades Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment sought ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan i.e. an allied territory where Pakistan could relocate arms and personnel in the eventuality of an Indian attack.

As early as the 1950s, Pakistan’s first military ruler, General Ayub Khan argued for a federation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ayub also championed a regional confederation of like-minded territorially linked Muslim countries i.e. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The belief was this would help Pakistan stand up to India as it would provide strength in numbers and enormous resources. Pakistani strategists often cited British historian Fraser Tytler who wrote not long after Pakistan’s independence: “history suggests that fusion [of Afghanistan and Pakistan] will take place, if not peacefully, then by force.” As a Pakistani foreign secretary once remarked “Pakistan and Afghanistan have a symbiotic relationship.”

This policy led Pakistan down the path of supporting proxies or assets like the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s, the Taliban during the 1990s and today an assortment of groups comprising the Haqqani network, Hekmatyar’s group, the Afghan Taliban and their supporters.

If we turn to Afghanistan, Afghan support for Pashtun and Baluch irredentism as well as its ties with India has always been Afghanistan’s way of standing up to a neighbor they believe interferes in their country. It has also to do with Afghanistan’s own domestic ethnic issues, since Afghanistan shares borders with Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states. No Afghan government, not even the Taliban, has recognized the Durand line, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

From Kabul’s vantage point, India provides a counterweight to Pakistan. As early as 1950, India and Afghanistan signed a treaty of friendship. For both New Delhi and Kabul, close ties were seen as important. Realpolitik dictated that antagonistic relations with Pakistan meant that for India, close ties with Afghanistan were critical.

Today India is one of the leading regional donors to Afghanistan, providing around $2 billion in aid since 2002. India’s aid to Afghanistan and the strategic agreement of 2011 have to do with how both countries view the region and the future. Both India and Afghanistan are concerned about a significant withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014 and both fear the return of the Taliban. Both India and Afghanistan also want to grow economically.

Let us now turn to the key player in this game, the United States. Despite being allies for almost six decades the current U.S.-Pakistan tensions lie in the flawed relationship where both sides have different goals, even if during certain times their short-term interests have converged. Pakistan has always viewed its ties with the U.S. in the regional or subcontinental context i.e its rivalry with India and desire for strategic balance (read ‘parity’ with India). Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has been based on Pakistani hope that American aid — both military and economic — would bolster Pakistan’s meager resources in countering Indian economic and military might.

American policymakers, however, have always seen Pakistan from the prism of their global strategy: as an ally against communism during the Cold War, a key ally during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s and a frontline ally in the war against terror after 9/11. And in return Pakistan received both military and economic aid from United States.

While violation of Pakistani sovereignty, including the Osama bin Laden raid and killing and the cross-border attacks, and public anger at regular drone attacks are the arguments put forth by Pakistan’s policymakers and leaders for the ongoing Pakistan-U.S. tensions, the real reasons lie in the differing Pakistani and American views about India and about Afghanistan.

Like during the 1980s so too today, Pakistan’s leaders and strategists believe that Pakistan has the right to be one of the (if not the sole) kingmakers in Afghanistan. While in the 1990s the United States did not have a stake in who came to power in Afghanistan, today the U.S. does. Further, those groups or leaders whom the U.S. would like in power in Afghanistan, Pakistan does not want in power and those groups or leaders that Pakistan would like to see holding power in Afghanistan are groups the U.S. would like to eliminate.

While the United States gave Pakistan considerable aid American policymakers never stopped building ties with India and never viewed India as an enemy or a threat. Today India and the U.S. have close economic and strategic ties. The U.S. also views Indian influence in Afghanistan as beneficial both from a regional and a global prism.

The argument put forth by some analysts that as long as Pakistan is worried about strategic encirclement it will keep supporting proxies is not pragmatic policy. The world has changed and one needs to look at what are the drivers of policy today: economic growth.

India, as a regional and global player, seeks strategic and economic ties with all the countries in Asia and beyond, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Pakistan’s land-locked neighbor, Afghanistan depends on Pakistan and would benefit from close ties. Bordering two of the fastest growing economies of the world, China and India, Pakistan would benefit if it concentrated its resources on economic growth instead of the seemingly impossible task of achieving parity with India.

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