Future Battlegound of Indo/Pakistan Rivalry
by Jon P. Dorschner
In May 2012, The United States and Afghanistan initialed a strategic partnership agreement committing the US and its ISAF partners to withdraw their combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014. The US plans to leave behind a residual force (estimated at 10,000) for the next decade to train Afghan forces and hunt down al Qaeda. This presents a policy dilemma for India. As the South Asian regional hegemon, India is committed to preserving the security of the nascent Afghan state. Terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have launched deadly attacks against India and it would view any deterioration in Afghan security as a threat.
According to South Asia expert Harish V. Pant, “India expects anarchy to intensify in the northwestern subcontinent, as insurgents in Afghanistan have been repeatedly successful in undermining local and international confidence in the viability of extant political structures in Kabul amidst the withdrawal of Western forces.”1 The power vacuum resulting from the departure of Western troops opens up the possibility that Afghanistan would resume its role as the battleground for continued warfare by forces backed by India and Pakistan.
While such a conflict is far from certain, India enjoys a number of distinct advantages over its Pakistani rival. India has made significant investments in Afghanistan post 9/11. It has pledged $2 billion in aid, making it Afghanistan’s fifth largest donor. As of 2012, India has spent $1 billion in Afghanistan on a series of high visibility development projects throughout the country. The total value of bilateral trade has increased from $80 million in 2001 to $280 million in 2010. India sponsored Afghanistan’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 2010 and in 2011 Afghanistan and India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement calling for increased political, security, and economic cooperation.2
Although India is far from optimistic regarding the challenges facing the Afghan government after Western forces depart, it has made it clear that it is committed to Afghanistan and will not pack up and leave. Should the country again slide into civil war, India is prepared to resume support to its former partner the Northern Alliance in a conflict with a resurgent Taliban, and has started negotiations with Tajikistan to reopen the same Farkhor Airbase that it used to support Northern Alliance forces prior to 2001.3
Pakistan, as the founder and backer of the Taliban and its associated terrorist and insurgent groups, would be the key determinant in the post 2014 scenario. Should Pakistan decide to back an all-out Taliban offensive aimed at establishing a Taliban government in Kabul, India would be a key component of an anti-Taliban alliance likely to include Iran and Russia.
Indications are that there remains strong sentiment within the Pakistani military and its intelligence agency the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) for such a move. The previous PPP government of Asif Ali Zardari opposed such military adventurism and hoped to bring more stability to the South Asian region by pursuing normalization of relations with India. It is not yet clear what position the newly established government of Nawaz Sharif will take. The position of Pakistan’s nominal civilian leadership may be irrelevant, however, as Pakistan remains a military dominated state. The real debate will take place within the Pakistani military.
Should the Pakistan military determine that it must take concerted measures to win “strategic depth,” by putting the Taliban back into power, it will find that conditions have changed since 2001 and it will no longer be so easy to “fish in troubled waters.” With the exception of the Pashtun group, which is the principal component of the Taliban, Afghans generally maintain a positive image of India and Indians. Indian cultural interaction with Afghanistan dates back centuries. Afghans’ fascination with India’s Bollywood film culture is just the latest manifestation of these cultural ties.
For most Afghans, the most attractive thing about India is that it is not Pakistan. Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs is widely blamed within the country as the force behind the imposition of the disastrous and widely unpopular six-year rule of the Taliban. During the struggle between the Taliban and its Northern Alliance enemies for the domination of Afghanistan, India was the principal NA backer, while the United States took a hands-off approach and appeared willing (at least initially) to acquiesce to Taliban dominance of the country. This willingness of India stand up to the Taliban and its Pakistani backers at a time when the travails of Afghanistan and its people were largely forgotten, has increased Indian popularity. Should the conflict resume, India’s stock with the Afghan people will be higher than Pakistan’s.
Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan has included support for the obscurantist and fanatical Islam propagated by the Taliban and its Salafist backers from the Middle East. The Taliban attempted to aggressively coerce the Afghan people to abandon their moderate Islam, heavily influenced by Sufism, for a harsh an intolerant form of Islam totally foreign to the region. India, by contrast, is a secular state, which does not interfere with religious practice. While Salafi Muslims proselytize actively in the country, the Indian government takes a hands-off approach and Salafis have made little headway there. As a result, the vast majority of India’s Muslims continue to practice moderate Islam. This stands in stark contrast with Pakistan. Likewise, Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority faces growing persecution from Sunni hardliners and attacks by Sunni terrorists. Shia Muslims in India practice their religion unhindered. This makes India more attractive to Afghanistan’s Muslim population, both Sunni and Shia.
In the years immediately following the US led invasion of Afghanistan, and the overthrow of the Taliban, India was content to let the United States and its allies combat the Taliban insurgency. India, at the urging of the US, was conscious of Pakistani sensitivity to Indian involvement and restricted its activities to “soft power” initiatives, focusing primarily on economic development. India made it clear that it would not commit troops to Afghanistan and provided only limited assistance to Afghan security forces.
In July 2008, terrorists attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The bombing killed 60, including an Indian Foreign Service Officer and a Defense Attaché. Another attack against the Embassy in October 2009 killed 17. India, Afghanistan, and eventually the US, blamed the attacks on the Pakistani-backed Haqqani group and confirmed heavy ISI involvement. Despite the attacks, India remained active in Afghanistan, while continuing to refrain from increased military involvement. This does not mean that India is not prepared to quickly activate a military alliance with Afghanistan should Pakistan provide sufficient incentive post 2014. India is conscious of its status as the South Asian regional hegemon and has aspirations to win recognition as a global power. It cannot make this step, however, if it cannot establish security in its own region. After American forces depart Afghanistan, India would not abjure its regional power status by abandoning its Afghan allies and allowing the Taliban to resume control.
The US, as the global hegemon, could play a key role, even after its troops have departed. Pakistan has repeatedly retained US economic and military aid, despite a long history of ill will and broken promises. Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pakistan switched sides, joined the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and was rewarded with large amounts of American financial assistance. This US/Pakistan alliance, never very strong and always under strain, has all but evaporated. Both Pakistan and the United States were never fully committed. The two countries concluded an alliance of convenience with specific policy objectives. The US could not pursue al Qaeda and its Taliban allies without Pakistani assistance, and Pakistan needed vast infusions of American cash to stave off economic collapse and supply its enormous military.
There has been a significant shift in priorities. With Osama bin laden dead and al Qaeda infrastructure in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region vastly reduced, the United States no longer needs Pakistan. Since 2001, Pakistan continued to overplay its hand and presume US support despite repeated provocations. Pakistan continued to support international terrorism, providing sanctuary to Islamic extremist groups allied with al Qaeda. Pakistani surrogates such as the Haqqani group continued to attack American forces and kill American troops in Afghanistan with Pakistani acquiescence. The 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, linked to Pakistani intelligence, killed American citizens.
While Pakistan was alienating the United States, India/US relations continued to improve. There has been a concerted shift in US policy away from Pakistan and towards India. US/India military cooperation has increased significantly over the past decade. The United States has repeatedly tried to work with Pakistan to end the conflict in Afghanistan, but the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments continue to provide sanctuary and backing for the Taliban Shura and its extremist allies while sabotaging US efforts to start negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban “moderates.”
Should Pakistan decide to place its surrogates in power in Afghanistan after the departure of Western military forces, it will represent a serious miscalculation. Pakistan has repeatedly pushed the Americans to the very edge, while remaining confident they are too important for the US to finally cut them off. During the last Afghan civil war, India worked closely with Russia and Iran to support the Northern Alliance. The US looked the other way, while Pakistan used Arab funding to back the Taliban. India, Russia, and Iran have already made it clear they will resume their anti-Taliban partnership if the civil war resumes. It would be highly unlikely that in this new power equation, the United States would again stand idly by and allow Pakistan to embark on yet another military adventure in Afghanistan.
The US would be compelled to move assertively against Pakistan in this new scenario. It would continue to nurture close ties to India, including in the military/security area, while cutting support to Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. US support to Pakistan has been so massive and so vital to Pakistan’s survival that no other power could step in and replace it. In actuality, no power has expressed willingness to do so. China, despite its close ties to Pakistan, would not buck an international consensus to support its isolated ally in an ill-conceived Afghanistan venture.
Renewed Pakistani support to Afghan civil war would be a high-stakes gamble. The chance for success of such a venture has diminished considerably, while the risks have increased many times. Rationality could prevail in Pakistan. Pakistan’s leadership could arrive at an internal consensus. It could conclude that the window for further military adventurism has closed and that the risks are now too high. With Pakistan in economic free fall, a misstep could threaten Pakistan’s very existence.
There is a growing international consensus that Pakistan must stop its support for cross border terrorism and acknowledge that armed struggle is no longer a viable option. Should Pakistan decide to reignite a civil war in Afghanistan, it could find itself the sole backer of a discredited Taliban largely restricted to extreme elements from the Pashtun ethnic group, and facing armed opposition from the remainder of the Afghan population. In such a scenario, the Taliban’s opponents would enjoy wide international backing. An energized India would be a key player.
This year has seen a political transition in Pakistan as Nawaz Sharif’s more conservative and nationalist government replaced the PPP government of Ashraf Ali Zardari. Next year India goes to the polls to elect a new government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not be a candidate, and no one from the Gandhi family has stepped forward as the standard bearer for the Congress Party. Most observers expect the BJP to return to power and Narendra Modi to become India’s next Prime Minister. The BJP is a right of center nationalist party, which harbors strong animosity against Pakistan. It is determined that India play an assertive role in the South Asian region and internationally. This new government would take office just as Western forces depart. Afghanistan could be one of its first international challenges. With its credibility on the line, it could be expected to take a hard stance and provide strong backing for the Afghan government to counter the Taliban threat.
While India is not optimistic about the possibilities for a peaceful end of the conflict in Afghanistan after the departure of Western forces, all indications are that it is determined to play an assertive role. It is highly unlikely that India would back down and acquiesce to the reinstatement of a Taliban regime in Kabul by Pakistan. India sees too much at stake and is far more likely to express strong support for the Afghan government. India could also redefine and expand its relationship with Afghanistan into an active military alliance. While India is unlikely to commit armed forces to Afghanistan, it would vastly expand its support to the Afghan army, including the provision of weapons, ammunition, and training.
In such a conflict, India could expect strong support from the international community, including reactivation of its alliance with Iran and Russia. US relations with Iran are undergoing transition and the two countries are engaged in serious negotiations to end the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. Should Iran and the US resolve their issues and normalize relations by 2014, it would be one further incentive for the United States to extend support to the anti-Taliban alliance.
Pakistan’s international position continues to slip and it faces growing internal governance and economic problems. Would it be in any position to risk its future survival to pursue an ill conceived and increasingly out of date Afghan policy? Perhaps by 2014, cooler heads will prevail in Pakistan and it will pursue closer ties with India in hopes of reaping the considerable economic gains that could result. Pakistan cannot revitalize its economy as long as it is committed to support for terrorism. Perhaps Pakistan will realize that it must cut its losses, and convince the Taliban to renounce armed conflict and work for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.NOTES
1. India’s Changing Afghanistan Policy: Regional and Global Implications, Harish V. Pant, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, December 2012, page iii