The Friday Times (Pakistan)

Pakistan’s Nightmare

If Islamabad does not change its outlook on Afghanistan, it may cause its own strategic encirclement

Research Fellow, India and South Asia
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during a meeting in New Delhi on May 27, 2014.(RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during a meeting in New Delhi on May 27, 2014.(RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Hamid Karzai’s presence at the swearing in ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Dafdar Spanta’s visit to Pakistan demonstrate how Afghan leaders view their post 2014 future. Kabul perceives Delhi as the aid giver and – with American military drawdown – hopes India will be a potential guarantor of Afghan stability and views Islamabad (aka Rawalpindi) as the spoiler. What is also clearly evident is that despite overtures from Islamabad, under both the previous and current Pakistani civilian administrations, Kabul seems to prefer Delhi.

Mr Karzai was in India to meet with top officials of the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. His discussions covered not only continuation of developmental aid and economic investment but also potential military assistance from India. The Indian consulate in Herat was attacked while Mr Karzai was in India and he made sure to publicly state that his government believed the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba was responsible for this attack. That he chose to mention this knowing fully well that his Pakistani counterpart Mr Nawaz Sharif was also in Delhi at the same time is important.

Dr Spanta was in Pakistan to convince the Pakistanis that this time round their military operations in North Waziristan should target all militant groups, without favoritism. While the two countries publicly vowed to “defeat the common enemy” tensions were evident. Pakistan asserted that if Afghanistan really wants to help it must close its border to all terrorists trying to cross the Durand line. Afghanistan alleged that Pakistan is allowing the main terrorists to get away and that Pakistani plainclothes soldiers were involved in a cross-border attack in Kunar province. On his return to Kabul, Dr Spanta said in an interview that if the United States wanted Afghanistan to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) it would have to choose between Pakistan and Afghanistan: “How can you call a country who has sacrificed so much your strategic partner, and on the other hand, call those who send suicide bombers a strategic partner as well.”

To understand the India-Afghan-Pakistan relationship we need to go back in history. Pakistan has always been wary of close ties between its two immediate neighbors, India and Afghanistan. The belief from 1947 that India and Indian leaders did not accept partition and the creation of Pakistan led to the perception of India as an existential threat to Pakistan. In order to prevent any strategic encirclement (‘pincer movement’) of Pakistan it was therefore critical that Afghanistan, the neighbor on the west, be an ally. Close ties between Afghanistan and India have been seen as extremely dangerous to Pakistan’s very survival.

As I lay out in my book Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India, (Routledge, 2011) Pakistani concerns about India-Afghan ties also have an ideological tinge. Pakistan, a state built on ideology, felt challenged by two neighbors — India and Afghanistan — both of whom shared historical and civilizational ties, seemed hostile to its very existence and emphasized their ethno-linguistic identities.

Despite Pakistan’s attempts to submerge ethno-linguistic differences under a religious nationalism the country faced challenges right from the beginning, with Bengalis initially and in later years with Pashtun and Baluch irredentism. Indian support for East Pakistan during the 1971 civil war and subsequent India-Pakistan war convinced Pakistan’s leaders that India sought to break up Pakistan.

Afghan support for Pashtun and Baluch irredentism and close India-Afghan ties reinforced the fear of a pincer movement. Further, Afghanistan was the only country which voted against Pakistan’s inclusion in the United Nations and refused to accept the Afghan-Pakistan border, the Durand line, as the international boundary.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan’s leaders pursued the idea of a federation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s first military ruler, General Ayub Khan, championed a regional confederation of like-minded territorially linked Muslim countries i.e. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. At the core of this idea lay the hope that this would solve Pakistan’s ideological and strategic problems. If Afghanistan agreed to be part of this federation there would be little fear of Afghan support for Pashtun irredentism. Further this federation would provide Pakistan with military-economic resources and strength in numbers to stand up to a much bigger India. Afghanistan, however, refused to be part of any such alliance or federation.

For Pakistan’s leaders a pro-Pakistan anti-India Afghan regime was critical to Pakistan’s survival both in the spheres of domestic and foreign-security policy. Unable to convince the Afghans why it was critical for them to seek a closer alliance with Pakistan and why they should not have ties with India, Pakistan sought to adopt a different policy. Right from the mid-1970s, Pakistan supported non-state actors and groups in Afghanistan in the hope that one day these groups would come to power in Kabul and would help Pakistan achieve its aim of a pro-Pakistan anti-Indian Afghan government.

As part of this policy Pakistan supported primarily Islamist Pashtun non-state actors and groups in Afghanistan so as to counter nationalist (read secular) Pashtun irredentism. Pakistani support for groups like Jamiat e Islami Afghanistan of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Hizb e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar started before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and before any American assistance and aid poured into Pakistan. And Pakistan continued to support these groups and others even after the Soviets withdrew and the Americans lost interest in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Over the years Pakistan has supported groups like the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s, the Taliban during the 1990s and today it supports an assortment of groups comprising the Haqqani network, Hekmatyar’s group, the Afghan Taliban and their supporters. The rationale is still the same: a zero sum game where Pakistan believes that any Afghan government which has close ties with India will be by default anti-Pakistan.

India’s ties with Afghanistan date back to the early 1950s when the two countries signed a treaty of friendship. For Delhi, there were not only historical and civilizational ties with Afghanistan but strategic and economic ones as well. Further realpolitik dictated that antagonistic relations with Pakistan meant 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. Primarily out of Pakistani concern (read ‘fear’) India has limited its Afghan aid and assistance to areas like infrastructure (building highways, roads and government buildings) health (health clinics and doctors) and education (scholarships for Afghan students to study in India), an area not new in India-Afghan ties. For decades Afghans have studied in India, including President Hamid Karzai and foreign minister and current presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

In recent years India’s strategic ties with Afghanistan have grown. The two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement in October 2011. India has trained Afghan military officers previously at its defense colleges and is considering an Afghan request to help with training of security forces. As Indian leaders often point out: India has no exit strategy in Afghanistan and is there for the long haul.

Trade is a key part of India-Afghan ties both for bilateral reasons but also because for India, Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asian markets and energy resources. Unfortunately, since Pakistan has not yet allowed open transit trade between India and Afghanistan, India has been forced to trade via Iran. Indian companies have invested in Afghanistan and a consortium of Indian steel companies led by Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) was awarded a block in the Hajigak iron ore mines in 2013.

It is in this context that the current Afghan elections should be viewed. The two leading contenders are Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. As viewed from Pakistan’s blinkered vision they would prefer Dr Ghani to Dr Abullah. The rationale: Dr Abdullah was a close associate of Ahmed Shah Masood, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and was antagonistic towards Pakistan and its role in Afghanistan. Dr Abdullah is a Tajik, not a Pashtun, is a politician, has spent years in India and hence automatically comes in the pro-India anti-Pakistan camp. Dr Ghani on the other hand is a Pashtun, an academic and technocrat, and has no close ties with India and hence is preferable.

What is forgotten in this zero sum perspective is that at the end of the day whoever becomes Afghanistan’s president he will act in Afghan interests. From Kabul’s vantage point, India provides a counterweight to Pakistan. Afghan leaders have always resented the Pakistani view that the Pakistanis know what is best for 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. What Pakistan’s leaders tend to forget is that even its protege the Taliban refused to recognize the Durand line.

We live in a world of global economic integration and those countries move ahead who have open borders and open trade. Afghanistan needs Pakistan just as it needs India and the way to move forward is to see this as a positive sum game in which all will benefit. If Pakistan has genuine concerns then India and Afghanistan would benefit by assuaging Pakistan. However, if the concerns are based on a simple fear of India then there is little that can be done. States can deal with reality, not paranoia. If Pakistan persists in keeping its blinkers on it may actually achieve its own nightmare: countries in the region building ties with each other and isolating Pakistan, strategic encirclement in reverse.