WASHINGTON: India’s growing influence in Afghanistan compounds Pakistan’s fear of encirclement and plays a key role in shaping its Afghan policy, says an official US report.

“Pakistan’s security establishment, fearful of strategic encirclement by India, apparently continues to view the Afghan Taliban as a relatively friendly and reliably anti-India element in Afghanistan,” the report adds.

The report, prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and sent to American lawmakers this week, however, acknowledges that Pakistan remains the most important external player in Afghanistan.

“Regional dynamics, and the involvement of outside powers, are central to the conflict in Afghanistan and the neighbouring state widely considered most important in this regard is Pakistan,’ says the report, adding that many see Pakistan playing “an active but negative” role in Afghan affairs.

Defining Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan the report points out that “Pakistan’s security establishment, fearful of strategic encirclement by India, apparently continues to view the Afghan Taliban as a relatively friendly and reliably anti-India element in Afghanistan. India’s diplomatic and commercial presence in Afghanistan — and US rhetorical support for it — exacerbates Pakistani fears of encirclement.”

Analysing India’s interest in Afghanis­tan, the report adds: “Indian interest in Afghanistan stems largely from India’s broader regional rivalry with Pakistan, which impedes Indian efforts to establish stronger and more direct commercial and political relations with Central Asia.”

The report claims that Pakistan’s security services maintain ties to Afghan ins­u­r­gent groups, most notably the Haqqani Network, a US-designated Foreign Terr­orist Organisation (FTO) that has become an official, semi-autonomous component of the Taliban. CRS notes that Afghan leaders, along with US military commanders, “attribute much of the insurgency’s power and longevity either directly or indirectly to Pakistani support.”

The report points out that despite Pakistan’s fears of an Indian encirclement, US President Donald Trump has encouraged India to play a greater role in Afghanistan, “compounding Pakistani concerns over Indian activity in Afghanistan”. It notes that India has been the largest regional contributor to Afghan reconstruction, but New Delhi has “not shown an inclination to pursue a deeper defence relationship with Kabul”.

The report also quotes from a 2018 statement by President Trump, accusing Pakistan of “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting”.

CRS claims that Pakistan “may view a weak and destabilised Afghanistan as preferable to a strong, unified Afghan state,” particularly one led by an ethnic Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul because “Pakistan has a large and restive Pashtun minority”.

The report, however, warns that instability in Afghanistan could rebound to Pakistan’s detriment as Pakistan has struggled with indigenous Islamist militants of its own.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2019