Progress, Not Proxy War

India Today - - WINNING - by San­deep Un­nithan

Even two years ago, the Afghan Great Game ap­peared en­tirely pre­dictable: The United States-led coali­tion forces would com­plete their with­drawal by the end of 2014, the Tal­iban, op­er­at­ing out of sanc­tu­ar­ies in Pak­istan, would over­throw the Western-backed regime in Kabul, and the re­gion would be plunged into tur­moil that would spill over into In­dia. This, af­ter all, was what hap­pened when the Soviet Union’s army with­drew from Afghanistan in 1988.

But as the dis­cus­sion, “Can In­dia out­flank Pak­istan in Afghanistan”, be­tween Min­is­ter of State for HRD, Shashi Tha­roor, and ac­claimed Pak­istani jour­nal­ist and au­thor Ahmed Rashid un­der­lined, the un­fold­ing sce­nar­ios could go along a dif­fer­ent tra­jec­tory be­cause of the changed ground re­al­i­ties.

The Pak­istan army not only trained and raised the Afghan Tal­iban in the mid- 1990s but also propped up the regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. In­dia sup­ported the North­ern Al­liance rebel forces that op­posed the Tal­iban. The North­ern Al­liance later merged into a coali­tion that has ruled Afghanistan since the US-led in­va­sion in 2001. The Tal­iban have re­treated into sanc­tu­ar­ies, from where they con­tinue to wage war against the govern­ment in Kabul.

Rashid be­lieves the situ- ation in Afghanistan will be dif­fer­ent af­ter United States and coali­tion forces with­draw later this year. Pak­istan can’t af­ford a neigh­bour that is col­laps­ing be­cause it is be­set with trou­bles of its own, from an en­ergy cri­sis to eco­nomic tur­moil to ter­ror­ism. It is host­ing about 3 mil­lion refugees from Afghanistan and can­not take any more.

The Pak­istan army, Rashid be­lieves, is too pre­oc­cu­pied with its in­ter­nal wars against the Pak­istani

Tal­iban and Baloch sep­a­ratists to be able to fo­ment trou­ble in­side Afghanistan. In­ter­nal trou­bles have also re­sulted in a re­assess­ment of the Pak­istan army’s at­ti­tude to­wards In­dia.

“The anti-In­dia rhetoric that has been part of Pak­istan’s en­tire make-up for over 50 years has now dra­mat­i­cally al­tered even within the army, which recog­nises that we have to deal with the Tal­iban threat,” Rashid says.

Is­lam­abad hopes the April 5 na­tional elec­tions in Afghanistan will bring sta­bil­ity to the coun­try, for chaos in Afghanistan will only em­bolden the Pak­istani Tal­iban.

Tha­roor, on the other hand, be­lieves Pak­istan is still fo­ment­ing sev­eral of Afghanistan’s in­ter­nal se­cu­rity trou­bles, which does not au­gur well for the fu­ture of the re­gion. Proxy war clearly is not an op­tion for ei­ther In­dia or Pak­istan. Tha­roor flatly de­nies In­dia ever pur­sued proxy war. It was Pak­istan, he says, that cre­ated prox­ies to go af­ter In­dian in­stal­la­tions and in­ter­ests. “We are sim­ply not in­ter­ested in these sta­bil­i­sa­tions,” Tha­roor says, ex­plain­ing why he does not see Afghanistan as a bat­tle­ground for In­dia and Pak­istan. In­dia, he says, does not see Afghanistan as a zero-sum equa­tion be­cause it has huge stakes in a sta­ble Afghanistan. This is one rea­son why it is the sin­gle largest re­cip­i­ent of over­seas de­vel­op­ment as- sis­tance from In­dia—more than $2 bil­lion in aid for power trans­mis­sion lines to light up Kabul, con­struc­tion of a high­way and a po­ten­tial trade route into Iran as well as the new Afghan Par­lia­ment build­ing that will be ready by mid-2014.

This be­lief in soft power is also why In­dia has not pro­vided mil­i­tary aid to Afghanistan. So while In­dia will train the Afghan forces, it will not sup­ply ar­tillery and tanks.

One of the big­gest ir­ri­tants to the re­con­struc­tion of Afghanistan, Tha­roor be­lieves, is the lack of a tran­sit trade agree­ment that would al­low In­dian goods to be trans­ported through Pak­istan into the land-locked coun­try. “The Kab­u­li­wal­lahs of yore can only come by plane,” Tha­roor says. “If Pak­istan is com­mit­ted to help­ing Afghanistan, giv­ing tran­sit rights would be a very ob­vi­ous thing they could do.”

Rashid and Tha­roor agree that co­op­er­a­tion be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan is the way for­ward. This, Rashid sug­gests, could start by bring­ing in greater trans­parency. Both coun­tries need to set up a di­a­logue on Afghanistan which can then ex­tend to shar­ing the fruits of re­con­struc­tion. Rashid sug­gests Pak­istani firms can be­come ju­nior part­ners to large In­dian con­glom­er­ates in­volved in Afghanistan’s re­con­struc­tion. And Afghanistan can be­come a ground for co­op­er­a­tion in­stead of com­pe­ti­tion.



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