Current developments in the three-way equations involving the United States, Pakistan and India highlight that for the foreseeable future, they would need to factor in a “sleeping partner” — Afghanistan. India, in particular, needs to be cognisant of this strange coupling.
To be sure, the number 1 priority in the U.S.’s regional policy for the coming 4-8 years is going to be the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan war is a high stakes enterprise in the U.S.’s global strategies. Many profound questions are already intertwined, namely, the entire future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the 21st century, the U.S.’s containment strategy towards Russia, and indeed the efficacy of unilateralism and war as means of conflict resolution.
Yet, there are complexities, which surface fleetingly, but mostly remain invisible to the naked eye. First and foremost, in the present tense phase in Indo-Pak relations, Pakistani military has gently held out that it might be compelled into a redeployment of its nearly 100000-strong crack divisions from Pak-Afghan border regions to eastern border with India. The threat veiled in innuendos has been stunning, cutting deep into the geopolitics.
Simply put, the GHQ in Rawalpindi underscored that if it sniffed, Afghan war will spin out of control. One, all bets are off regarding what General David McKiernan, commander of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, admitted a few weeks ago as “a shift in thinking at the senior levels in Pakistan that this [Taliban] insurgency is a problem that threatens the very existence of Pakistan, and that they have to deal with it perhaps in ways that they didn’t contemplate a few years ago…a willingness and capacity, although they have a long way to go to conduct counterinsurgency operations on the Pak side of the border.”
We need to factor what went through General McKiernan’s thought process this week. Preserving the Pak top brass’s “shift in thinking” and encouraging its “willingness and capacity” to cooperate with NATO forces will be Washington’s main diplomatic agenda at the moment. Quite obviously, it can’t be otherwise as 32000 American troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan and 20000 more combat and support troops are possibly on their way to the Hindu Kush in the coming weeks.
Two, Pakistani military is literally holding the jugular veins of the NATO as without its troops on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the alliance would be facing the spectre of the Taliban running berserk, which would bring on its trail more armed clashes and death and destruction for western troops. Three, over three quarters of the supplies for the US troops transits through Pakistani territory. The U.S. is unwilling or unable to use alternate Russian or Iranian transit routes. Four, in the absence of Pakistani military presence in the tribal areas, the US will be compelled to press its Special Forces into operations those badlands, which is fraught with frightening downstream consequences.
The geopolitical salient, therefore, remains highly complex. Simply put, the US cannot countenance a nasty Indo-Pak confrontation. The US and Indian interests and concerns at the moment are similar, though their priorities are dissimilar. Clearly, there are serious limits to U.S.’s capacity and willingness to exercise leverage over Pakistan. (Gen. McKiernan also admitted that U.S. and Pakistan militaries are coordinating on the Predator swoops over the tribal areas despite that being a hugely controversial issue in the Pakistani domestic opinion.) All in all, therefore, India needs to engage Pakistan bilaterally at the political and diplomatic level.
No doubt on that score. However, that isn’t all. A contingent of American “experts,” including a few who are distinctly identifiable as cold warriors of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, have begun coming out of the woodwork lately. They advance the thesis that Afghanistan cannot be stabilized unless Pakistan’s security concerns vis-À-vis India are addressed, namely, the “core issue” of Kashmir, which the incoming Barack Obama administration should mediate. What motivates this melodramatic kite-flying is still unclear or who its real mentors are. There is the haze of a twilight zone with 5 different U.S. agencies – White House, Pentagon, CENTCOM, State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency – ploughing independent furrows toward a new Afghan war strategy. All sorts of wire-pulling and behind-the-scene manipulations are going on in the run-up to the incoming Obama presidency.
Fortunately, except for a few jingoists in our midst who pedalled the idea of an Indian military intervention in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, we have all along understood that such a course would be an entrapment that would inexorably internationalise the Kashmir issue. Prudence, therefore, continued to prevail in our policy towards Afghanistan.
Indeed, the leitmotif of Pakistan’s Afghan policy has never been Kashmir. Instead, it always was and continues to be the unresolved Pashtun nationality question, which leaves the Durand Line a disputed border with over 8 million Pashtuns straddling it on both sides. To compound, the 100-year treaty, which brought Durand Line into being also lapsed in 1993. Let us remember that the Shah of Iran mediated on the issue, and it was much before the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto got the then Afghan Islamist student leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to take up residence in Peshawar to carry out subversive activities against the Kabul regime. India had nothing to do with all this, though by the mid-1990s, we couldn’t take anymore the incessant bleeding engendered by ISI’s hostile activities from militant camps located on Taliban-controlled territory.
In short, unless Kabul recognizes the Durand Line, Pakistan will prefer a weak, disunited Afghanistan. When this entire co-relation is very obvious, the intriguing part is why influential "Afghan experts" – the most glaring is the article in Foreign Affairs magazine by two Pentagon consultants Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin – still pedal the thesis that Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan is driven by its adversarial relationship with India over the Kashmir problem.
Conceivably, these “experts” are worried about Delhi’s Afghan policy in the post-UPA era and aim at rattling Indian nerves by holding out a “Kashmir card.” Or, they intend to pressure Delhi from coordinating with regional powers such as Russia, Iran and the Central Asian republics, which may undercut the U.S. objective of possessing the Hindu Kush as its exclusive geopolitical turf. Of course, Pakistan also stands to lose if a regional consensus on Afghanistan’s stabilization emerges.
Delhi needs to navigate choppy waters. The coming period will be turbulent when the Obama presidency settles in and Washington’s new Afghan strategy is yet to gain traction. What complicates the geopolitical manoeuvring is the underlying reality that Pakistani military remains petrified about Mr. Obama’s Afghan strategy. Mr. Obama subscribes to the Pentagon strategy the US military adopted in Iraq with success in vanquishing Al-Qaeda — “surge” coupled with “Awakening” of Iraqi Sunni tribes.
The Afghan variant of this “kinetic” strategy devolves upon bribing select Pashtun tribes to bear the brunt of the fighting against the large number of insurgent groups, which include the Taliban and the al-Qaeda. The move is controversial as it may let loose more violence and anarchy in the Pashtun tribal areas bordering Pakistan and will likely stoke the fires of Pashtun nationalism. Secondly, Pakistani military will be nervous about Mr. Obama’s tough posturing toward the Pakistani military’s doublespeak on the war — saying one thing and acting contrarily. Mr. Obama has threatened he wouldn’t hesitate ordering US forces move into Pakistani territory if the security situation so warranted.
A third aspect of the US strategy that makes Pakistani military extremely nervous is Washington’s game plan to rapidly build up a 134000-strong Afghan National Army as part of the U.S. “exit strategy.” The Afghan army’s officer corps is predominantly Tajik, who are more professional and motivated in fighting the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
But, then, Tajik nationalism has always been an obstacle before Pakistani domination of Afghanistan – which largely explained the Pakistani ISI’s deep, irreconcilable hostility toward the late Ahmed Shah Massoud. If the NATO agenda of building up an Afghan army officered by Tajiks really gets under way, that will upturn the entire Pakistani agenda to dominate Afghanistan. As the former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Najmuddin Sheikh (who served under Benazir Bhutto) recently warned, “It would in fact be the realisation of Pakistan’s worst security fears.”
The unstated Pakistani fear is also that the Afghan Tajiks have cordial ties with Russia and Iran – and India. Thus, Pakistani military may need a Plan B, if Mr. Obama gustily plunges into the Pentagon’s new Afghan strategy. A viable Plan B will be based on finding an alibi to disengage from the “war on terror” so that the U.S. strategy doesn’t work, the present stalemate continues, and as the Taliban would say, the Americans keep the watch while time works in favour of the insurgents. India has to be on guard from being projected on to the chessboard as the Pakistani military’s alibi.
(The writer is a former ambassador and an Indian Foreign Service officer.)