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Getting Afghanistan Right: South Asia’s Predicament

Commentary, 18 August 2009
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
It is unlikely that the forthcoming presidential election in Afghanistan will have an immediate impact on the ground. However the political direction of Afghanistan and the determination of NATO to maintain stability will be of crucial significance for the long-term security of South Asia and the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

It is unlikely that the forthcoming presidential election in Afghanistan will have an immediate impact on the ground. However the political direction of Afghanistan and the determination of NATO to maintain stability will be of crucial significance for the long-term security of South Asia and the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

By Harsh V Pant for RUSI.org

Leaders of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan (PTI)

The explosions that rocked the diplomatic district of Kabul, a week prior to elections, killing seven people and wounding scores of ordinary Afghans was a reminder, if one was needed, that the Taliban will not allow the Presidential poll to go uneventful. These elections will be the second since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001 and the US President Barack Obama has described them as the most important event of the year for his country. It is unlikely however that the electoral outcome will change ground realities in Afghanistan in the short to medium term. The new ‘Af-Pak’ strategy of the Obama Administration is still a work-in-progress and so far much of it remains on paper. The United States’ troubles are compounded by the fact that the Obama Administration does not have much faith in the ability of the current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, to lead his country out of the current mess. Karzai’s inability to tackle widespread corruption in the functioning of the Afghan government and his unwillingness to curtail the power of the nation’s warlords is widely viewed as the main contributing factors providing legitimacy to the Taliban’s claims about the downsides of Western interference. However it seems as if Karzai might just win another term in office, prompting a certain toning down of his criticism from Washington for fear of losing the potential interlocutor in Kabul.

The elections have also forced the new US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to postpone the completion of his review of the security situation. The main goal of Washington is to ensure that the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida would not return and the country does not destabilise the neighbouring nuclear-armed Pakistan. Defeating the Taliban is viewed as a precondition for the defeat of Al-Qa’ida and it is clear that Afghanistan cannot be sorted out without fixing the Pakistani state. Yet the surge announced by Obama in February 2009 remains focused on the Taliban in South and East Afghanistan, whereas the Taliban forces are operating from their hardened sanctuaries around Quetta in Pakistan. NATO is facing pressures of its own as even the closest of US friends are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the direction of US policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Britain’s Chief of General Staff-designate, General David Richards has suggested that the mission in Afghanistan could last up to forty years. Clearly this is something that the political leaderships in London and Washington don’t want to hear. The recent death of terror mastermind, Baitullah Mehsud, was certainly a blow to Al-Qa’ida’s plans for the region but the jihadists could gain ground soon if steps are not taken to build on this success.

Suspicious minds

The progress towards stabilisation and development in Afghanistan is being heavily influenced by India and Pakistan, and the rivalry between them. Pakistan has always been suspicious of Delhi and Kabul co-operating against it, and as India's influence in Kabul has increased in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Pakistan has stalled in its efforts to curb extremists. Its failure to contain cross-border militancy has been a key factor behind its deteriorating relations with the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul.

India’s approach towards Afghanistan remains a function of its Pakistan policy. It is important for India that Pakistan does not get a foothold in Afghanistan. India would like to minimise Pakistan’s involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan and to ensure that a fundamentalist regime of the Taliban variety does not take root again. Pakistan, on the other hand, has viewed Afghanistan as an effective means of balancing out India’s preponderance in South Asia. Good India-Afghanistan ties are seen by Pakistan as detrimental to its national security interests as the two states flank Pakistan’s borders. A friendly political dispensation in Kabul is viewed by Pakistan as essential to escape the strategic dilemma of being caught between a powerful adversary in India in the east and an irredentist Afghanistan with claims on the Pashtun dominated areas in the West. Given its Pashtun-ethnic linkage with Afghanistan, Pakistan considers its role to be a privileged one in the affairs of Afghanistan. Given these conflicting imperatives, both India and Pakistan have tried to neutralise the influence of each other in the affairs of Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s frustration at the loss of political influence in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban has been compounded by the welcoming attitude of the Karzai government towards India. Karzai may not be deliberately crafting a Delhi-Kabul alliance against Islamabad but he is certainly hoping to push Pakistan into taking his concerns seriously. India has used its vocal support for Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun educated in India, to demonstrate its keenness to revive its close ties with Pashtuns.

Existential threats force Af-Pak co-operation

It is imperative for Pakistan and Afghanistan to co-operate if they are to tackle the existential threat posed by the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida combined. Yet Karzai remains suspicious of Pakistan. It remains unclear if the security establishment in Pakistan has any intention of reining in the Taliban operating from their tribal areas. With the perception gaining ground that the US has no stomach to be in Afghanistan for long, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will do its best to bolster the Taliban so as to make Afghanistan a Taliban dominated client state.

There is a convergence between India and the Obama Administration in viewing Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan’s insecurity and the suggestion that the world must act together to cure Islamabad of its political malaise. In recognising that the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute the single most important threat to global peace and security, arguing that Islamabad’s security establishment is part of the problem rather than the solution, and asking India to join an international effort in managing the Af-Pak region, the US has made some departures from the American policy towards South Asia since 11 September 2001. India, however, remains concerned about the lack of a fundamental change in the operational dynamic of the US strategy towards Pakistan. For India, Obama’s approach is no different from that of George W Bush as the Pakistani army remains the primary instrument for attaining Western goals in Afghanistan. Moreover, the US seems to have bought into the argument that Pakistan is unable to act against extremism and terrorism on its Western borders because of the tensions with India on its eastern frontiers. India’s problem with the new strategy is that the Obama administration seems to have given the Pakistan army the perfect alibi for not complying with American demands for credible co-operation in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida. The Pakistan army now has very little incentive to reduce tensions with India in the hope of bargaining more from the US.

The consequence of abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security. The brunt of escalating terrorism will be borne by India, which already has been described as ‘the sponge that protects’ the West. A hurried US withdrawal with the Taliban still posing a threat to Afghanistan will have serious implications for India. Indian strategists remain worried that the ISI would be emboldened to set up terrorist attacks against India once it is satisfied that the Taliban would provide it strategic depth in Afghanistan. There is a general consensus in India that it should not send troops to Afghanistan. Yet beyond this there is little debate about what policy options it has if greater turbulence in Af-Pak region spills over into India.

The Afghan elections may not help solve the structural dilemmas that various regional actors seem to be caught in but they may just force the various stakeholders into recognising the dangers if the present trends continue.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King’s College London.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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