At first sight, the Afghan-Pakistani differences and disputes pose the single biggest negative feature of the regional security scenario in South Asia. However, that will be to underestimate the potency of the dark clouds gathering on the horizon of India-Pakistan relationship.
While the Afghan-Pakistan problem is easily definable, that is not the case with the unfinished business of the Partition involving India and Pakistan in 1947 where politics mixes with religion, national identity and a huge backlog of blood-soaked history.
To be sure, the disputed Afghan-Pakistan border and the vast vacant spaces in eastern Afghanistan provide a natural habitat for the Taliban, which regrouped in that region following the ouster from power in Kabul in 2001 under the guidance and supervision of the Pakistani establishment. Indeed, Pakistan even airlifted the Taliban cadres marooned in northern Afghanistan availing of the safe passage given by the US.
Indeed, the Taliban eventually began tapping into the popular disaffection in Afghanistan resulting from the excesses of the NATO and US military operations on the one hand and the overall dismal record of governance on the part of the Kabul government on the other.
Having said that, there can be no two opinions that the revival of the Taliban ultimately would be largely attributable to the big support they received from the Pakistani military and security establishment, which was bent on the pursuit of creating ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan.
This has also been at the core of the tensions between Kabul and Islamabad. Kabul tried in vain over the years to get Pakistan to disengage from the Taliban and to cooperate in countering the insurgency. And Kabul eventually began waging its own ‘low intensity war’ against Pakistan, bleeding Pakistan systematically and letting it feel the pain of cross-border terrorism.
This was not difficult to do not only because it was ‘cost-effective’ but also because most of the time all it needed to do was to simply allow the Pakistani Taliban groups to operate from safe havens on Afghan territory. The trans-border tribal affiliations also immensely helped in this enterprise.
Given the close affinities that began developing between the Afghan and Indian intelligence during the recent decade once Hamid Karzai began to be assertive and stepped out of the American shadows, Pakistan lost no time to reach a conclusion that Kabul and Delhi are co-mentoring and sponsoring some of the Pakistani Taliban groups that have a score to settle with Rawalpindi for their own reasons of perceived injustice and betrayal in the past at the hands of the Pakistani security agencies tied to the military.
Of course, Pakistan has failed to provide empirical evidence of Indian-Afghan sponsorship of cross-border terrorism, but what is important here is that it remains rooted in the belief in such a thing going on, and the existential need to balance it by deploying its own ‘strategic assets’.
In sum, the Afghan-Pakistan problem, which historically devolved upon the disputed Durand Line and the Pashtunistan issue, has assumed through the past decade or more an added Indian dimension.
The fact of the matter is that in a historic departure from the traditional Indian policies not to allow itself to be sucked into the vortex of the Afghan-Pakistan problem (even spurning overtures by the Afghan Mujahideen groups offering their ‘services’ to work against Pakistan) – or, to put it differently, not to add an Afghan dimension to the already complicated India-Pakistan adversarial relationship – Delhi would appear to have decided in the second half of the 1990s to plunge right into the Afghan civil war by taking up the cause of the non-Pashtun groups in their fratricidal strife with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
That historic departure in Delhi’s Afghan policy soon reached its logical conclusion, namely, India incrementally came to be a sleeping partner on the Afghan-Pakistan bed.
That's is to say, for as long as Karzai remained in power, Afghan problem virtually remained unsolvable. For, on his part, Karzai also breached the traditional Afghan reserve to walk a fine line and never to antagonize Pakistan, by calibrating carefully the dealings with Delhi. The Afghans, in fact, had mastered into a fine art their diplomatic skill so as to touch Delhi to the extent they needed to create space to negotiate better with Pakistan, but never to push Pakistan beyond a point. Under Karzai, this caution was thrown to the winds.
Of course, Karzai, being a proud Afghan, had his own reasons for showing such strategic defiance, since Pakistan never really have him respect or recognized his legitimacy and all the time bypassed him to deal with the Americans instead, as if he was an inconsequential puppet on a string held by Washington.
On the other hand, it was left to Delhi to exercise self-restraint by refraining from going full steam on military cooperation with Karzai’s government. The pro-American leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh constantly worried about the negative reaction that any abrasive Indian interference in the Afghan war would trigger in Washington.
Truly, if the Manmohan Singh government had gone even half-way to meet Karzai’s wish list for military hardware and defence cooperation, it would have upset the apple cart that Washington was laboriously steering in the Hindu Kush. Simply put, the American yardstick was that Delhi should not unduly stir up the misgivings in the Pakistani mind and the Manmohan Singh government largely complied with the American expectation.
The departure would have been in the Indian-Afghan security cooperation, which began surging during the period since the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai and blossomed once Karzai spun out of American control.
Now, what could be Washington’s real assessment regarding the Pakistani apprehensions of an Indian-Afghan joint sponsorship of terrorism in the region? Frankly, it is anybody’s guess. All that can be said with certainty is that Washington has so far been very cautious and selective in endorsing the Indian allegations regarding Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism. The US-Indian intelligence sharing never really took off, since Washington’s top priority has been to somehow keep the lid on India-Pakistan tensions from flaring up.
The transition in Kabul to the new leadership of President Ashraf Ghani has been promptly seized by Washington to break the Afghan-Pakistan jinx. The Obama administration hopes that within the next two years when the current presidency runs its course, an Afghan reconciliation process could be put on track if only Pakistan cooperated.
For President Obama, that would mean redeeming an important election pledge he made in 2004 that he would end the Afghan war. No doubt, Obama still counts on Afghanistan as a foreign-policy legacy of his administration – alongside Cuba, Guantanamo Bay, Iran, et al.
In political terms, a critical mass is developing in Afghan-Pakistan relations accruing around the following hopeful signs:
• Change of leadership in Kabul, which strengthened the US control over Afghan policies;
• Pakistani military’s willingness to crack down on the militant groups operating out of North Waziristan (which has been a longstanding demand by the US);
• New receptiveness in Kabul with regard to Pakistan’s sensitivities with regard to the functioning of the Afghan intelligence (and curbing the perceived preponderance of Indian influence);
• Intense high-level exchanges between Kabul and Islamabad;
• Phone call by Obama to inform Sharif of his intention to visit India in January;
• Unprecedented 2-week visit by the Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to the US;
• The resumption of the US-Pakistan defence dialogue after a 3-year gap;
• Handing over of the notorious Taliban leader Latif Mehsud by Kabul (under US advice) to the Pakistani intelligence;
• Reported killing of Taliban leader Fazlullah in the first-ever cross-border operation of its kind by Pakistani military on Afghan soil (possibly, with Afghan and US coordination);
• Ongoing discussions regarding joint or coordinated security operations against Taliban by the Pakistani and Afghani forces with US participation;
• Affirmation by Sharif in the wake of the Peshawar school attack that Pakistan no longer distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban – meaning that it is prepared to discard the notion that the Afghan Taliban are its ‘strategic assets’.
• Release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison to the custody of the Afghan government (which would possibly increase Kabul’s leverage in any talks with the Taliban).
(To be concluded)