Progress, Not Proxy War
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.