Even as the so- called ` end game’ in Afghanistan approaches, in the context of the US and allied forces to withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014, the future scenario is being contemplated in terms of the role of India and Pakistan vying for influence on Afghanistan.
Afghan President Karzai visited India in October, 2011 and signed the strategic partnership agreement with special focus on enhancing security co-operation between the two countries. This was added on to the aid programmes India has been undertaking in road construction, health and power infrastructure sectors.
Though it was clearly stated that `the strategic partnership was not directed against any other State or group of States`, predictably it caused an adverse reaction in Pakistan.
Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and other senior officials re-assured that the accord merely formalised existing co-operation in these fields. Similar message was also exhorted by the Afghan President that this ` great friendship’ would not affect `brotherly ties’ with Pakistan, but Islamabad was not pacified and issued a warning that the Afghan president may behave more maturely.
Such perceptions highlight a possible downside of the agreement for India as well, as its projects and personnel deployed in Afghanistan could become fresh targets of ire from anti- Indian elements there maybe at the behest of Pakistan.
According to Pakistan Foreign Office, there are few overriding objectives for the settlement in Afghanistan and the first one is it should not lead to a negative spill-over contributing to further instability inside Pakistan, in particular causing resentment among Pakistani Pashtuns; -the new government in Kabul should not be antagonistic to Pakistan or allow its territory to be used against Pakistani interests.
Translated into actionable policy, these objectives could mean pursuit of avoiding instability in Afghanistan by trying to bring in an inclusive government that has representation from all interested ethnic groups but is not hostile to Pakistan.
Pakistani policy elite also feel that too large an Afghan Army or ANSF would be economically unsustainable and could pose a threat to Pakistan’s interests, especially in current perception of its composition, its ethnic imbalance and the absence of adequate Pashtun representation in its Officer class could be adverse to Pakistan.
The second overriding objective of Pakistan is it’s reluctant to support the US objectives to crush the rebellion in the Afghan Pakistan region with the help of northern alliance. The pressure from the US to act more decisively against elements like the Haqqani network in North Waziristan is disliked, as it could enhance a militant backlash from there hitting adversely against Pakistan’s own internal security.
Pakistan‘s objective is also to limit Indian presence in Afghanistan to development activities alone. Any Indian hobnob political or military with the US/ ISAF/NATO, northern alliance, Russia is being keenly watched by Islamabad.
Any such adventurism in the ‘endgame’ of Afghanistan may nullify the objectives of reconstruction of Afghanistan for which international support was drummed up for last ten years or so.
What looks more plausible is that Pakistani Foreign Policy officials seem willing to accept a regional framework which seeks neutrality from countries in the neighbourhood but they remain sceptical as to whether these countries would stop short of interfering if their own interests were affected.
In such scenario what are the options before India. New Delhi will have to proceed cautiously in this complex mire yet remain flexible to safeguard its national interests.
The formulation in the Indo Afghan SPA of Oct 4, 2011, with its emphasis to `assist’, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programme for’ ANSF and institutionalising a mechanism for security dialogue at the level of National Security Advisers seems appropriate.
This projects India’s abiding interest to build on its `soft power’ influence on Afghanistan. And this may entail closer inter-action with the US/ ISAF/NATO to associate in the post withdrawal scenario that may unfold in the war torn country.
However, at the same time, India must keep closely evaluating the ground situation to assess what would be its options if the Taliban catapult to power in Afghanistan. In the last Taliban dispensation, India had to close its embassy in Kabul and had totally withdrawn from there. If the similar scenario occurs once again, India may loose all the investments it has made in Afghanistan from last ten years or so.
India also has to keenly watch the deepening ethnic schisms in Afghan civil society in the wake of Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. The impact such developments may have on the relevance of former Northern Alliance elements like the Hazaras under leadership of old warlord, Ustad Mohaqiq or the Tajik factions led by Ustad Atta, the Massod brothers with strongholds in Takhar, Badakhshan or Amrullah Saleh with his Panjsheris.
The relevance of these players will not dissipate in the short-term unless they get a toe-hold in any emerging power sharing arrangement in future Afghanistan.
India’s options of forging or reviving alliances with Russia and Iran or even Central Asian States emerging as new power brokers in a situation of disturbed ethnic or sectarian strife in Afghanistan should not be lost.
However, India’s deepening relationship with the US will allow India’s independent policy objectives is something that needs to be carefully watched
In such complex ethno political turf of Afghanistan the best possible option before India and Pakistan is to eschew competition and work for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. The effort should be to form an inclusive government, accommodating different ethnic elements.
Such reasonable approaches at reconciliation could open up, what now seems a somewhat utopian possibility of Indo- Pak co-ordinated effort, with US backing, for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He recently participated in an international seminar debating political future of Afghanistan in New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org