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Rivalry in Afghanistan

Updated July 22, 2013
File photo
File photo

We are less than 18 months away from the December 2014 transition deadline in Afghanistan. Political and security-related issues that need forward movement during this period are in focus — as they should be.

The India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan is one elephant in the room that seems to be receiving less and less attention. The usual tendency at Track I — understandably so — and off-the-record Track II policy forums — much less understandable given that these are meant as opportunities for candid discussions — is to put a positive spin on this.

Both sides feel compelled to throw out clichés: ‘we stand for peace and stability in Afghanistan’; everything should be ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’; no one should interfere in Afghan internal affairs’, etc.

After all, it is only politically correct to highlight the wonders Indo-Pak cooperation can do in Afghanistan: regional integration, energy flows from Central Asia, joint investment in Afghanistan, joint development projects and all the rest we have heard a million times over.

It doesn’t hurt to aspire. But doing so without taking the logical steps that are required to make such grand ideas a reality is neither here nor there.

For instance, no one dare oppose an Afghan-led process at any policy gathering. And yet, not only have Afghans been deprived of the freedom to decide the fate of their country for decades but any number of external players are busy furthering their interests at the expense of other rivals even today. Of course, these external parties still stand for non-interference in Afghanistan!

Hardly any two countries revel in undercutting each other more than India and Pakistan. Their competition has been a decidedly negative force in Afghanistan since the 1990s and continues to be so today.

Both remain obsessed with the other. The principal driver of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy after 9/11 was the concern of Indian influence — ‘encirclement’ as the establishment would see it — in Afghanistan. Domestic implications of developments in Afghanistan may have overtaken this worry now but the theme of Indian interests in Afghanistan continues to play on the minds of the security elite.

India’s outlook in Afghanistan was no less fixated on Pakistan. Rightly so, at no cost does New Delhi want to see Pakistan use Afghan territory to damage Indian interests like it did during the 1990s. Its development priorities and project choices, especially in the south and east of Afghanistan are not disconnected from this fear.

Both sides are convinced that the other has been up to no good. Indians believe that Pakistan has regularly targeted its interests in Afghanistan through its proxies. The Pakistani establishment is equally certain that India has been using Afghan territory to fish in troubled waters in their country.

Privately, both sides would even tell you that their goals in Afghanistan may be mutually exclusive. Indians would hate to see Pakistan regain excessive clout over southern and eastern Afghanistan (the general sense in the Indian policy elite is that Pakistan not only wants this, it still seeks to reinstall the Taliban regime in Kabul); the Pakistani establishment cannot help see a conspiracy in everything India does relatively close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The conventional wisdom is that Indian and Pakistani behaviour towards each other will depend on what transpires in Afghanistan post-2014. This is only partly true. In reality, their competition has a direct bearing on how things actually develop in Afghanistan over the next 18 months and beyond.

If both parties are convinced that the current Afghan reconciliation process won’t deliver and that Afghanistan will fall into a civil war situation, they will begin to hedge more actively with their traditional partners — India in the north and Pakistan with the hardline Pakhtun elements in the south and east. In doing so, they’ll make healthy Indo-Pak coexistence in Afghanistan even less likely.

The point here is not to say that dreaming up positive engagements and transformative economic developments is a waste of time. The contention simply is that the route to this end-state of cooperation and regional integration is a two-step process; Indo-Pak coordination and collaboration requires prior steps aimed at reversing the negative trends in their competition.

Both sides will at least have to begin considering the possibility of cooperating in Afghanistan seriously before lofty goals can be entertained. From what I can tell, this is not the conversation taking place in either Islamabad or New Delhi.

Making this transition requires Indo-Pak engagement specifically over Afghanistan. Let me single out what is perhaps the most important aspect of this engagement: high-level dialogue between intelligence officials. The goal won’t be to talk cooperation; it will merely be to figure out mutually acceptable ways of coexistence such that the negative fallout of their bilateral competition on Afghanistan’s stability is eliminated.

Whichever activities bother one or the other side need to be discussed one by one; the accused should come clean or resolve to rectify problematic actions. A verification mechanism must also be devised to ensure some level of satisfaction on both sides.

Since intelligence battles signify the operationalisation of efforts by both sides to directly undercut the other, sorting out issues through this channel will have a force multiplier effect across the board.

To be sure, these dialogues will require a tough, coldhearted, and gloves-off approach. But there is no way around it. Both sides must give it their best shot in a quiet, backchannel format.

Of course, discussions on avenues for cooperation and positive contributions to Afghanistan can continue simultaneously. But they are unlikely to get too far unless the intelligence track moves forward. Failing this, we will probably be consumed by feel-good statements. Sadly, they won’t mean anything to the average Afghan who desperately wants to see external powers cease their proxy games.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.