x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

America and Nato leave Afghanistan to regional tussle

India and Pakistan, still trapped in their old pattern, will step up their efforts to use Afghanistan for their own purposes.

As the US and their allied forces begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, a process that will be completed by the end of next year, India and Pakistan continue to jostle to fill the vacuum they will leave behind. Kabul is “the new battleground for the India-Pakistan rivalry” says Ahmed Rashid, the best selling author and analyst.

The importance of Afghanistan for both New Delhi and Islamabad stems from its location. Any country dominating Afghanistan potentially dominates the natural resources of Central and South Asia. Afghanistan has long been the victim of political games. But these games are only going to become more cut-throat in the months and years ahead.

The 2,700 kilometre Pakistan- Afghanistan border is rugged, and nearly impossible to control. It straddles the Durand Line, which successive Afghan governments have refused to recognise, and which plays into Pakistan’s psyche: afraid of domination by India, and preoccupied with Afghan policy of avoiding encirclement by India.

For much of Pakistan’s first three decades of independence, Afghan territory was used to fan demand for a Pashtun homeland. And India covertly supported this demand. This separatist irritant weakened only after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but it remains a potent card in the hands of future trouble makers.

This experience compels Pakistan to continue to try to shape the make-up of the Kabul government. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, says Pakistan would like Afghanistan to “cut all ties to India, send army officers to Pakistan for training, and sign a strategic agreement” of cooperation.For its part, India has historically supported successive Afghan governments, except the one under the Taliban. The Indian-Afghan alliance has thus heightened Pakistan’s paranoia that India wants to use Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan.

Pakistani intelligentsia and decision makers believe that in its aversion to Pakistan, India follows Kautilya, the ancient Indian military philosopher, who argued that “immediate neighbours are considered as enemies, but any state on the other side of a neighbouring state is regarded as an ally”. Pakistan therefore believes India attempts to deny Pakistan a healthy relationship with Afghanistan, thereby hoping to contain Pakistan both militarily and economically.Pakistan watches warily when relations between India and Afghanistan deepen. India’s aid disbursements of over $2 billion (Dh7.34 billion) during the past decade puts India among the top four aid donors to Afghanistan. That is a number that Pakistan cannot match.

Projecting India’s soft power serves India’s strategic goals and encourages governments in Kabul to remain at odds with Pakistan, or so the thinking goes.

Pakistan is deeply suspicious of India’s consulates and embassy in Afghanistan; some Pakistani intelligence officials see these as covert centres of subversion against their nation.

But there are more concrete links between Kabul and New Delhi. For instance, over 200 Afghan military officers attend Indian military institutions under a strategic partnership agreement. Pakistan’s attempt to engage the Afghan military in a similar fashion has yet to succeed. In fact, Pakistan’s deal to get 11 Afghan military men to take part in a simulated military exercise at a staff college in Quetta collapsed at the last minute in late March.

Concerns of double-dealing are decades old. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, India accused Pakistan of pushing the Mujahideen towards Indian-held Kashmir. Minimising Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan remains one of India’s goals in Afghanistan. “[T]here is a history of Afghan soil being used for terror attacks on India,” the Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson says. “We can’t have that again.”

India is desperate to reopen land access to Afghanistan for trade reasons. Presently Pakistan allows road access for Afghan exports to India, but denies it for India’s exports to Afghanistan. Politically there are reasons for this. Economically, however, Pakistan may be hurting itself unnecessarily by denying itself huge transit fees and regional economic engagement.

But unless Pakistan is secure in its relations with India and Indian intentions in Afghanistan, it will continue to believe that its interests are best served through securing a friendly government in Kabul – at India’s expense. Unless and until that changes, India is likely to seek to keep the Pakistan-Afghan border boiling.Of course, these self-serving policies do little to help the country in which the India-Pakistan struggle is playing out. What all sides must recognise – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – is that three-way cooperation is a prerequisite for economic development across the entire region.

Sajjad Ashraf, a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service, is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore