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India-Pakistan-Afghanistan Triangle

Aparna Pande

When Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, stated that the cooperation of both India and Pakistan was required for a stable Afghanistan he was recognizing that India has always been the unacknowledged elephant in the room during talks between Pakistan and the U.S.

Pakistan’s fears about India-Afghan ties are both ideological and strategic. As I lay out in my book Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India, (Routledge, 2011) Pakistan’s leaders crafted an ideology-driven national identity for Pakistan at the heart of which lay both religious nationalism and anti-India sentiment. Hence, 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.

Further, Pakistan’s strategists have always feared a ‘pincer movement’ or strategic encirclement if India and Afghanistan become allies. To prevent such an eventuality, Pakistan has sought a pro-Pakistan Afghan regime which does not have close ties with India. Any ties between Afghanistan and India have been seen extremely dangerous to Pakistan’s very survival.

As early as 1950, India and Afghanistan signed a treaty of friendship. For both New Delhi and Kabul, close ties were seen as important. From the point of view of India, there were not only historical and civilizational ties with Afghanistan but strategic and economic ones. India has always sought close ties with its neighborhood which includes not only its immediate neighbors but countries all the way from the east coast of Africa to South East Asia and beyond.

For Indian policymakers, realpolitik dictated that antagonistic relations with Pakistan meant close ties with Afghanistan were critical. During the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s India did not support any of the mujahideen groups but during the civil war India built ties with leaders in the Northern Alliance, including Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani.

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 former presidential candidate and foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Pakistan has repeatedly objected to India maintaining four consulates in Afghanistan in addition to an embassy in Kabul. What Pakistan ignores is that these Indian consulates date back to the 1960s (though they were re-established after 2002) and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors have as many consulates.

The following speech by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could just as well have been made in 2012 as in 1950: “May I say in this connection that, because of the great tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan over various matters, we are continually being charged with having secret intrigues with Afghanistan and bringing pressure upon her to adopt a policy in regard to Pakistan which she might not otherwise have done?”

In October 2011, India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement, the first Afghanistan signed with any country. India has trained some Afghan military officers previously at its defense colleges and is considering an Afghan request to help with training of security forces. As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated, “Our cooperation with Afghanistan is an open book. We have civilizational links, and we are both here to stay. India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.”

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 recently awarded a block in the Hajigak iron ore mines.

From Kabul’s vantage point, India provides a counterweight to Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategists have always viewed Afghanistan as their British predecessors did: a buffer or neutral zone for the British, an ally who allowed ‘strategic depth’ for the Pakistanis. Pakistan’s leaders like General Ayub Khan hoped that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey would form one confederation of like-minded territorially linked Muslim countries. The belief was that this would help Pakistan stand up to India. However, none of the other countries, especially Afghanistan, wanted to be part of any such arrangement or alliance.

Afghan leaders have always resented the Pakistani view that the Pakistanis know what is better 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. It shouldn’t be too difficult for Pakistan to understand what it is like to be next-door to a larger neighbor. And yet, despite Pakistan’s fears, Afghanistan has always supported Pakistan, not India, during all the wars India and Pakistan fought and has never taken advantage of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities during those wars.

India’s aid to Afghanistan and the strategic agreement has 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: Indian investment in Afghanistan as well as talks about the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) pipeline are reflective of this desire.

At the same time, both Kabul and New Delhi realize that ties with Rawalpindi-Islamabad are critical for peace in Afghanistan.This is reflected in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s oft-repeated statement that someday soon he would like to have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Similarly, President Karzai has repeatedly stated, “Pakistan is our twin brother, India is a great friend. The agreement we signed with our friend will not affect our brother.”

Pakistan has no reason to fear close ties between India and Afghanistan, as both countries benefit—strategically and economically—from and seek a stable, democratic and prosperous Pakistan. However, in trying to prevent India and Afghanistan from building close ties—especially in the economic arena—Pakistan may end up being left behind, instead of being encircled.

Pakistan’s fear of a strategic encirclement if India and Afghanistan develop close ties has led Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment to use proxies to implement their foreign policy goals in Afghanistan. However, proxies like the Haqqani Network or the Hekmatyar group, may have a militant network but they do not have a political base in Afghanistan to ensure a stake in a future Afghan government. The Afghan Taliban, which has some political base, may decide at some stage to build ties with India, if only to counterbalance Pakistani involvement.

Maybe it is time Pakistan’s strategists reassessed which of their allies and proxies are really going to help them achieve something in Afghanistan. And instead of seeking a regime in Kabul which is pro-Pakistan, maybe Pakistan would benefit by befriending the existing regime in Kabul.

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