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    South Asia
     Nov 25, 2009
SPEAKING FREELY
A route for South Asian peace via Afghanistan
By Raja Karthikeya

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As the war in Afghanistan takes a turn for the worse, the burden of blame has increasingly come to rest on the state of relations between India and Pakistan and their rivalry in Afghanistan. The conclusions of the report of General Stanley McChrystal, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, the recent bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul, and the continuing reports in Pakistani media about Indians in Afghanistan being involved in fomenting the insurgency in Pakistan's Balochistan province, have ratcheted up tension between the neighbors.

It is therefore relevant to ask if Pakistan and India's interests in

  

Afghanistan are indeed incompatible. It is indisputable that Pakistan and India have deeper cultural and historic relations with Afghanistan than perhaps any of the country's neighbors except Iran, and have a major stake in the stability and future of Afghanistan. But such is the two countries' post-partition history that one can sometimes read too much into it. Diplomacy requires fresh thinking and the courage to act on bold ideas. It needs leaving behind the baggage of history without necessarily forgetting it. If we peel through the layers of perceptions, we can find several converging interests.

Achieving convergence
First, there is a need to recognize that fears based on history are often exaggerated. For instance the fear of "strategic encirclement", a key argument with reference to Afghanistan. A commonly cited fear in Pakistan is that if there is a hostile regime in Kabul, in the event of a war with India, the Afghans would invade to claim Pashtun lands in their pursuit of creating Pashtunistan. And yet, in none of the Pakistan-India wars (1965 and 1971 being the most significant ones) did a government in Kabul commit aggression against Pakistan while the latter was distracted by the war with India.

In the case of India, a longstanding fear involves aggression by China to take advantage of an India-Pakistan conflict or in support of Pakistan. Yet, declassified archives show that during the 1971 war, despite the Richard Nixon administration's appeals in support of the Yahya Khan regime, the Chinese did not open a front against India.

Secondly, the Cold War is now over, and the neighbors must move away the vocabulary, sentiments and perceptions that were imposed on the subcontinent. The concept of "strategic depth", which dominates literature on Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan, is hardly relevant in an age of nuclear deterrence between the two neighbors.

There is also an equal need to dispel mutual misperceptions about the ethos that guides either country's foreign policy. For instance, hardly anybody in India today reads, much less admires, the Arthashastra, an archaic 4th century BC text whose Machiavellian tenets are often cited in Pakistan as the fountainhead of modern India's foreign policy towards Afghanistan. It would equally be a mistake for Indian strategists to believe that Pakistan's foreign policy, which has been highly pragmatic, is exclusively guided by religious identity.

In terms of perceptions, it would be delusional for either side to believe that territorial disputes, including Kashmir, in which both sides have enormous stakes, can be resolved through force (direct or covert), or that a policy of payback can ever act as an enduring deterrent.

Thirdly, as two nations that threw off the yoke of imperialism and achieved self-rule after decades of struggle, India and Pakistan are obligated to respect each other's sovereignty and, at the very least, recognize each other's stake in regional stability. No doubt both nations are aware that a break-up of the other country creates unparalleled dangers and instability. Therefore, repeating pledges to respect each other's territorial integrity and believing each other's pledge would help.

It also involves recognizing that both nations have a stake in South Asia and neither has an exclusive "sphere of influence", and neither can India dictate Pakistan's relationship with Bangladesh, nor Pakistan the relationship between India and Afghanistan. Diplomatic ties go a lot longer than the miles of border shared.

Fourth, either side should acknowledge that national interests are never static and evolve with time and changing ground realities. The respective interests of Pakistan and India vis-a-vis Afghanistan have changed considerably over the past three decades. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan go well beyond containing Indian influence. The dominant reasons for Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s were to ensure a buffer against Soviet expansion that could be an existential threat to Pakistan, and to create conditions for the return of the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

But by the early 1990s, as ambassador S Iftikhar Ahmed has essayed, they had metamorphosed into a need to end the Afghan civil war, restore stability in Pakistan's neighborhood, and to create conditions for uninterrupted trade with Central Asia. This included courting several mujahideen members including, at times, leaders of the Northern Alliance.

India's objectives in Afghanistan have been equally diverse. India, which had been a peripheral player in Afghanistan in the 1980s, began to see its interest piqued in Afghanistan after what Zahid Hussain calls "the privatization of jihad" happened in the late 1980s - a situation in which non-state actors and individuals from across the world had begun declaring "jihad" (in a gross distortion of the word) in Afghanistan with no sanction of their respective states.

After the collapse of the mujahideen government, India's support to the Northern Alliance was predicated on regional stability and a fear of such non-state actors. The hijack of an Indian airliner to Kandahar in December 1999 and the subsequent drama in which the Taliban allowed the escape of the terrorists released by India in exchange for the passengers, and the fact that non-state actors like al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba freely used Afghanistan as a sanctuary in the late 1990s precipitated India's role today in Afghanistan. Understanding these interests would help reject the web of suspicion into which the neighbors have woven themselves.

Breaking the deadlock
After crossing the barrier of history, there is a need now to look ahead. This means that besides identifying the neighbor's national interests, one needs to appreciate his legitimate interests. As Rajmohan Gandhi recently wrote, "Indians should recognize that ties of geography, ethnicity and family bring to the Pak-Afghan relationship a depth that can never enter the India-Afghan relationship." To translate this into action, India should quietly encourage Afghanistan to resolve the Durand line dispute with Pakistan, a major source of concern for Pakistan's strategists.

India should never refrain from stating that it sees preserving Pakistan's territorial integrity as a priority. On its part, Pakistan should encourage rather than oppose India's efforts at infrastructure reconstruction in Afghanistan, the fifth-poorest country on the planet. Pakistan should also effectively act against the presence in Waziristan of groups like the Haqqani network, whose attack on the Indian Embassy last year and ties to other terrorist groups have threatened peace efforts between the two neighbors and between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The moot political question remains the Taliban. Here again, there is more convergence of interest between Pakistan and India than acknowledged. Pakistan and India have been in and out of favor of Afghanistan's Pashtuns in turn over the past two decades. But both India and Pakistan want the same - that Pashtuns have adequate representation in power in Kabul.

So should the Taliban be that Pashtun voice? The Afghan Taliban's agenda lacked (and continues to lack) any plan of governance. It also damaged Pakistan's relations with Iran and sowed the seeds of widespread Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian violence in the region - indeed, as a senior Pakistani diplomat of that era confessed, "after 1999, Pakistan's government could no longer affect the trajectory of the Taliban and they increasingly fell under the influence of the Arabs [that is, al-Qaeda]".

Given the fact that the Taliban today is more of an ideology and a worldview than a political movement, they are a threat to the subcontinent's stability. However, as long as an insurgent gives up the tag, violence and radical worldview of a Talib, he can be recognized as a legitimate voice of the Afghans and be reconciled with. Despite differences in articulation, this political vision is common to both Pakistan and India. In fact, Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna's recent statement supporting a political solution in Afghanistan can be seen as an allusion to this.

The benefits
There are at least four benefits accruable from believing in a convergence of interests. Having a strong, stable, pluralistic government in power in Afghanistan helps regional stability, secures Pakistan and almost by corollary, India.

Secondly, terrorism is a threat to both countries today, and sooner than later, the same elements threaten both countries - as in the case of Jaish-e-Mohammed, founded by Masood Azhar, one of the men released by India to the Taliban in Kandahar after the 1999 hijack. The group is since believed to have been involved in both the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and the recent attack on the Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Thirdly, the two neighbors are the most energy-deficient nations in the region. Tapping into the energy resources of Central Asia (for example, through the trans-Afghanistan or TAPI pipeline) would help cater to their energy demand and also reduce their disproportionate dependence on the Middle East, especially as piracy and periodic saber-rattling between the West and Iran imperils oil supplies from the Gulf.

Fourth, allowing transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan would not harm the interests of Pakistan. On the contrary, the transit tolls from Indian goods can actually help the Pakistani government make up for the loss of coalition's goods traffic to former Soviet republics. Indeed, allowing Afghanistan-India two-way transit trade through Pakistan could lay the foundation for much-needed direct commerce between Pakistan and India.

Although the idea of recognizing converging interests is not new to diplomats on either side, it has often been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. However, arrival at this understanding should not be done in a back-channel process away from the glare of the media. There is a need to take the people along.

In the interim, the neighbors should desist from blaming each other for terrorist attacks. Conspiracy theories should be quickly de-legitimized. Diplomatic relations cannot fall prey to irrational rabble-rousers, talk-show hosts or conspiracy theorists. Instead of being a new theater for conflict, Afghanistan can be a new beginning for Pakistan-India relations. Exploring and building upon this convergence is our responsibility not just to the Afghan people, but to the people of India and Pakistan.

Raja Karthikeya is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

(Copyright 2009, Raja Karthikeya)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


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