After a brief spell of charm and glamour created in New Delhi by the visiting Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, with her designer outfit and the usual anodyne, diplomatically worded joint statement following talks with her counterpart on 27 July, it seems that the India-Pakistan peace process has been placed firmly back into its usual position of stalemate. That is what always happens after ‘candid, cordial and constructive’ talks take place between the two countries.
The outcome was not unexpected, but the fact that India managed to fudge the real issues by bringing the focus on Khar’s personal charm and extraordinarily elitist fashion accessories – including, as we have been repeatedly told, Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, oversized Hermes Birkin bag and classic pearl jewellery – did disappoint the people of Pakistan. Given the troubled history and complex nature of India-Pakistan relations, even Paul the Octopus, now presumed dead, could have predicted this deadlock. In his suo moto statement in the Indian Parliament on Khar’s visit, India External Affairs Minister S M Krishna revealed that, in their talks, the two sides did not go beyond reiterating their respective positions on Kashmir and agreeing to continue discussions for a ‘peaceful negotiated’ settlement of this issue.
While this, again, is the same old narrative, it seems to have been losing relevance ever since Southasia became part of the new US-led ‘great game’. The military stalemate in Afghanistan today represents a new reality for the India-Pakistan peace process; it now becomes a critical factor for the prospect of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. In the early days of his presidency, President Barack Obama seemed to understand this linkage. In a pre-election interview, Obama stated that his administration would encourage India to solve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, so that Islamabad could freely cooperate with the US on Afghanistan. In his view, ‘the sources of Afghan instability are in Pakistan; those in turn are linked to Islamabad’s conflict with New Delhi, at the heart of which is Jammu & Kashmir.’
Obama knew that no strategy or roadmap for durable peace in the region including Afghanistan would be comprehensive without focusing on the underlying causes of conflict and instability. For any regional approach to succeed in Afghanistan, Obama was convinced that the India-Pakistan equation would have to be kept balanced, not numerically but strategically. In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of facing the multiple challenges of costly wars, the US’s eroded image and shattered economy. He vowed that these would be met, and promised to pursue a fresh doctrine of ‘security through peace not war’. Besides ending the war in Iraq, he pledged to bring the Afghan war to its ‘logical conclusion’. After the first three years of his presidency, however, there is no sign anywhere of the promised change. Obama has yet to deliver on his promise for peace.
Nonetheless, Southasia has indeed remained as one of the US’s top foreign-policy priorities. Just as during the Cold War era, when Pakistan and Afghanistan played a decisive role in dismantling what was once called the ‘evil empire’ of the former Soviet Union, these two countries remain the pivotal frontline of the ongoing global ‘war on terror’. Yet the role that they are now required to play is conditioned by the overall political, socio-economic and security environment of the region as a whole. As such, Southasia’s problems are no longer an exclusive concern of the region itself.
An objective assessment of the region’s volatile environment reveals that Southasia’s issues of peace and security, in their essence, emanate from India-Pakistan hostility and conflict. And at the core of all their problems is the Kashmir issue, which has perennially kept them in a confrontational mode. No wonder, then, that in no time in the past has Southasia ever figured so prominently in US foreign policy.
Balance and ascendency
What we need today is not the induction of new destructive weapons and lethal technologies but the consolidation of peace, stability, development and democratic values that the region lacks so much. Southasia needs stability through balance, not asymmetry of power. For many years, the foremost requirement for the world’s major powers, the US in particular, was to avoid any policy that disturbed the strategic balance of power in the region. But for Washington, new priorities have arisen in response to China’s rise within Asia and the ongoing post-9/11 Central Asia-focused ‘great game’.
In 2005, Washington signed a long-term multi-billion-dollar military pact with India. It also entered into a country-specific nuclear deal with India, introducing an ominous dimension to the already volatile and unstable security environment in the region. This new partnership raised serious concerns in Pakistan about its impact on the overall strategic balance in the region, including prospects for durable peace in Southasia. If the region’s turbulent political history offers any lesson, one would think that Washington’s engagement would have been aimed at promoting strategic balance rather than disturbing it. US officials should have been geared towards developing a sense of security and justice in the region by eschewing discriminatory policies (for instance, in dealing with India-Pakistan nuclear equation). But this is not what happened.
Pakistan is especially perturbed by the US’s indifference to its legitimate security concerns and sensitivities. Islamabad’s Afghanistan-related problems are aggravated by the growing Indo-US nexus as well as India’s resultant strategic ascendancy in the region. New Delhi’s overbearing presence in Afghanistan gives it an ominous nuisance potential for crossborder trouble in Balochistan and Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas.
This, then, brings us back to the situation in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan is long overdue. The US might have its own political compulsions in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, but both Afghanistan and Pakistan have already suffered for too long and cannot afford another cataclysm. The effectiveness of their role and capability in any peace process will suffer if other conflicts and disputes continue to engage and divert their attention and resources. The Afghan war, now in its tenth year, has been the costliest conflict in America’s history and also one of the longest, prolonged not with any strategy to end it but by its own inertia. No wonder people in the US and its allied European countries are sick and tired of this unwinnable war and want their troops back from Afghanistan sooner rather than later. President Obama, who wasted two years in an ill-advised ‘surge’ operation, is now facing public as well as Congressional pressure for a speedy pullout.
A basic lesson of military history ignored in this case is not to start a war without a plan for how to end it. At least till now, Washington does not seem to have any fresh thinking, much less a strategy, to end the Afghan war. According to a group of academics at New York University two years ago, the ‘war on terror’ has been waged as a ‘legal perversion’ and constitutes a ‘wicked’ problem – an academic term used to refer to problems characterised by social complexity, many players, significant fragmentation and contested of causality. Stakeholders in a conflict beset by ‘wicked’ problems fail to arrive at a common definition of the problem at hand, often because they disagree on the very cause of the problem.
According to this study, the ongoing forms of conflict in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are characterised by decades of failed US policies and are classic examples of ‘wicked’ problems. The US claim that fixing the security situation in Southasia is what is required to address the region’s other pressing problems is questioned by those who believe that poverty, deprivation and economic underdevelopment are the primary causes of violence, and that these are what need to be redressed.
‘Wicked’ problems require holistic analyses that do not ignore the possible effects of changes to other elements in the system, rather than strictly linear forms of problem-solving. In the Afghan conflict, the US forced the Taliban from power but never defeated it; conscripted its NATO allies to fight a war that after a decade remains far from conclusive; and entered into a strategic alliance with India at the cost of regional stability.
The Afghan crisis, both during and following the Soviet occupation, has had a direct impact on Pakistan’s social, cultural, political, economic and strategic interests. This is a reality that even US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton acknowledged in Congressional testimony last year. But with almost daily violations of its territorial integrity and sovereign independence, and a regular accusations and slander hurled at it, Pakistan wonders whether it is a partner or target in fighting a common enemy.
Whatever the endgame, durable peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive as long as Pakistan’s security concerns remain unaddressed. Pakistan has already staked everything in support of this ‘war on terror’ and has continuously been paying a heavy price for it, in terms of violence, massive displacement, trade and production slowdown, export stagnation, investor hesitation and a worsening law-and-order situation. Pakistan has also been the main target in an al-Qaeda-led war, with almost 35,000 Pakistani civilians and security personnel having lost their lives in terror attacks in the last few years.
Instead of continuing with a lamentable blame game, using Pakistan as an easy scapegoat for their own failures in the war, the US and its allies must accept the ground reality: for Pakistan, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic importance. If the Soviet presence in Cuba almost triggered a nuclear war with the US during the early 1960s, India’s continued ascendancy in Afghanistan is seen as a danger of no less gravity to the already volatile security environment of this nuclearised region.
The risk of a Pakistan-India proxy war in Afghanistan is fraught with perilous implications for regional and global peace, and must be averted at all costs. Yes, the real Afghan issue now starts and ends with Pakistan. Washington knows this reality. But it is time that the US also realised that if the region’s stability was predicated on stability in Pakistan, special attention is warranted on reducing, not fuelling, radicalism in Pakistan and redressing the imbalances in the India-Pakistan equation.
Pakistan has direct historical stakes in Afghan peace, and it is in its interest to have an independent, friendly and united Afghanistan. But for Pakistan to play its role in the peace process effectively, its concerns will have to be addressed by ensuring that the Afghan soil is not used for undermining its security and territorial integrity. A final peace settlement in Afghanistan must contain international guarantees for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan with solemn mutual undertakings by all neighbouring and regional countries to respect the principle of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
At the same time, peace would remain incomplete without addressing the bilateral India-Pakistan issues, which are not without direct impact on the overall situation in the Afghan theatre. Ironically, despite his initial enthusiasm for India-Pakistan peace as a sine qua non for Afghan peace, in the actual execution of his ‘Af-Pak’ policy President Obama was soon detracted from his stated goals. The November 2008 attacks in Mumbai triggered the exclusion of Kashmir from President Obama’s larger policy canvas on this region. Whosoever perpetrated that atrocity, the Kashmir cause was its first casualty.
~ Shamshad Ahmad is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.