Crisis in ties with Afghanistan

October 13, 2011


RECENTLY, President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement with India in New Delhi. Among other things, it provides for the training of Afghan army officers in India.

Before departing for India, President Karzai had accused Pakistan of some involvement in the murder of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Afghan High Peace Council. Irrespective of the merits of such a claim, merely the charge may have serious consequences and isolate Pakistan further during the forthcoming regional conferences in Istanbul, Bonn and later in Chicago that have been called to work out the Afghan transition.

Investigations into the death of Mr Rabbani may solve the mystery of his assassination. However, the party most threatened by peace in Afghanistan may be Al Qaeda as it would come under extensive pressure to move out of the region.

Secondly, the haste of the Indian government in pleasing Mr Karzai at the risk of harming its relationship with Pakistan may mean that another zero-sum game is in the offing. Normally, India makes decisions with prudence and after doing its homework. Can it be assumed that the agreement was actually negotiated some time ago and signed now to suit the circumstances?

The Indo-Afghan agreement gives a clear indication that it is aimed at Pakistan's purported sphere of influence in Afghanistan. Does that mean that the US, India and Afghanistan have decided to jointly mount pressure on Pakistan? If so, this portends yet another conundrum for Pakistan.

The Indian military recently began manoeuvres near the Pakistan border in Sindh and Punjab. The simultaneous move of sophisticated Su-30 fighter jets to the region lends credence to Pakistani worries that India may be on the threshold of executing another 'Cold Start' exercise to place Pakistan under pressure.

Why India would generate pressure in the region now when it is at the threshold of huge economic growth is inexplicable. One possible explanation may be Indian suspicions of a jihadi attack inside India. The exercise may be a pre-emptive message to force Pakistan to act more responsibly.

If such an event should occur, it would prove disastrous for the whole region; thus, extra care and vigilance is required of Pakistan. India's moves and the strategic agreement are clearly meant to put Pakistan on notice regarding acting against jihadi networks in the country.

In June 2009, the US secretary of defence directed Centcom to prepare a report advising the US government on how the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) could achieve its objectives in Afghanistan. The report was prepared by Gen McChrystal, the Isaf commander in August 2009.

It highlighted many issues related to the challenges facing the international coalition in Afghanistan. Although it was not followed in letter or spirit, the report was honest and realistic and drew some forthright conclusions that are worth revisiting.

Amongst other conclusions drawn by Gen McChrystal, an important one was that “The Afghan government has not integrated or supported traditional community governance structures — historically an important component of Afghan civil society — leaving communities vulnerable to being undermined by insurgent groups and power brokers”.

The breakdown of social cohesion at the community level has increased instability, made Afghans feel unsafe, and fuelled the insurgency. He further added: “The insurgency … is predominantly Afghan.”

If the Afghan government has been unable to increase its capacity due to various reasons, is it not possible that the death of Mr Rabbani may have been the result of ethnic rivalries or the dynamics of Afghan politics?

Then, Gen McChrystal had said that “Stability in Pakistan is essential, not only in its own right, but also to enable progress in Afghanistan. While the existence of safe havens in Pakistan does not guarantee Isaf failure, Afghanistan does require Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy, particularly against those groups active in Afghanistan”.

He cautioned about expanding India's role in Afghanistan: “Increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”

International politics are based on realism: relations are based on competition and conflict rather than cooperation. Realists consider states to be concerned with their own security and act in pursuit of their own national interests in their struggle for power. International politics are characterised by active or potential conflict among states.

In the current situation, the US, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan are obviously following the realism route. Pakistan, however, must calculate the cost of confronting a mounting coalition against it for its alleged support to the jihadis, including the Haqqani group.

Clearly, the survival of the Pakistani state is more important than tactical preferences. The parallels of the current crisis with the East Pakistan situation in 1971 are too close for comfort.

Pakistan's geography on the junction of Punjab with Sindh has remained its Achilles heel. To cover this weakness, Pakistan considered Afghanistan as within its legitimate sphere of interest, and resultantly the new strategic agreement between India and Afghanistan is viewed with alarm. However, realism teaches us to watch out, for there is greater danger lurking.

The pieces on the chessboard clearly do not augur well for peace or for an orderly withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Common sense would suggest that the best strategy for bringing peace to the region would be to engage both India and Pakistan in a collaborative mode for the endgame in Afghanistan.

Such a result may best be achieved by the appointment of a special representative of the secretary general of the United Nations with a mandate to expeditiously consult the states concerned on how to create a regional consultative mechanism to ensure peace in Afghanistan and an orderly drawdown of forces by 2014 while also assisting in maintaining regional security.

The writer is the chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.