Trotted out on every outing like a favourite suit, the ‘mantra’ of regional cooperation in and on Afghanistan was seen once again at the end of April, at the SAARC Summit in Thimphu, and at the early-May Washington visit of President Hamid Karzai. In both instances, regional cooperation was touted as a key element of the way out of the Afghan conundrum. Like an old suit, however, the concept has long since ceased to fit. The slender window of opportunity for reshaping the regional engagement that emerged post-2001 has all but disappeared. Largely responsible for holding back any regional cooperation is the mutual distrust between India and Pakistan, which exhibits itself as a zero-sum game in the context of Afghanistan. Historically divided on their interests in Afghanistan by the mutually confrontational positions held during the Cold War, India and Pakistan have thereafter adapted their hostility to the realities of a unipolar world. Proximity to the US government – based on a longstanding relationship for Islamabad and a new one for New Delhi – is being used by both to jockey for footholds in Kabul. Though traditionally the division saw Pakistan supporting the Taliban regime and the Indian government supporting the Northern Alliance arraigned against it, New Delhi’s relationship with the Kabul political configuration has long since moved on. President Karzai, goes the thinking, will provide the moderate Pashtun leadership required to preserve Indian interests than if there is a more belligerent anti-Indian government in Kabul, supported by Pakistan.
Unfortunately, Indian officials have chosen to follow the rather narrow approach of singling out Pakistan and its influence as the sole barometer of their diplomacy in Afghanistan. Influencing the international community and the Afghan government in order to reduce Pakistan’s influence has thus become the overriding Indian focus. The result is that India is not emerging as a critical player at a time when the new Afghan state is being shaped – not in the image of Western democracies, but rather in the image that many Western countries have of ‘third world’ countries. According to their view, ‘Western’ values of human rights, freedom of speech, and civil and political rights are an unnecessary imposition, and democracy and democratic values are seen to have relatively limited value. Ironically, this fundamentally undermines the conditions for the emergence of social and political forces that would support a more tolerant and inclusive polity – the only sustainable bulwark against violent extremism.
Any such extremism, of course, is bound to affect both Pakistan and India. Yet caught in mutual hostility, New Delhi and Islamabad have made no attempt to present a regional vision of a future Afghanistan, thus ceding any ‘nation-building’, or lack thereof, to Western intervention. Given India’s larger regional and global clout, and its image as the world’s largest democracy, it is unfortunate that New Delhi is not seeking a higher standard for its Afghanistan policy.
In pursuit of their own limited strategic interests, both Islamabad and New Delhi have appealed to that universal referee, the United States. Pakistan, with its proximity to Afghanistan and the sanctuary it provides – willingly or unwillingly – to extremist groups, has primacy in terms of the tactical military war against the insurgents. India, on the other hand, provides a balance against Pakistani domination and is the US’s global ally, one that cannot be avoided or marginalised only on account of American interests in Afghanistan. The US establishment therefore plays a fine balancing act between the two, maintaining the status quo in the hope of a breakthrough at some time in Indian-Pakistani relations. The result, however, is that the Indian and Pakistani presences in Afghanistan, and their roles, are circumscribed by their consonance with US interests.
Washington is certainly bolstered by India’s unquestioning embrace of the US presence in Afghanistan, a factor that helps it to withstand both Russian suspicion and Iranian belligerence on the matter. New Delhi, in turn, has all but jettisoned its relationship with Tehran and Moscow in favour of its new ally. In pursuit of its narrowly defined interests, however, the US has chosen not to support a more pluralistic model of state-building, but rather is keen on pursuing a narrower stability that would leave the Afghan state more dependent on Pakistan. Ironically, Indian attempts to pressure Pakistan on the issue of ‘terrorism’ have increased Islamabad’s fears of isolation, resulting in stepped-up efforts to influence the situation in Afghanistan so as to prevent pro-Indian forces from hemming in the Pakistani government.
As the Western compact, led by the US, starts to disengage from Afghanistan on multiple fronts, hostility between India and Pakistan is likely to increase as they jostle for influence in Kabul. By the time this issue of Himal hits the stands, Afghanistan will probably have had its ‘peace jirga’ – a big-tent gathering of community elders, tribal leaders, elected representatives, government officials and a smattering of civil-society representatives currently slated to begin 29 May. The jirga is touted as a decisive moment in determining the path to reconciliation with the country’s armed opposition groups, with wide-ranging consultations to decide Kabul’s mandate in talks with insurgent groups. Also invited as observers are 200 guests, among whom will be an array of diplomats. Included, doubtless, will be the representatives of India and Pakistan, who will be weighing each decision for its strategic fallout. Unfortunately, they will be hoping for diametrically opposite outcomes.