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    South Asia
     May 30, '14

Modi-Sharif relations key to Afghanistan
By Francesco Brunello Zanitti

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.

The next few months are a crucial phase for Afghanistan and the neighboring region. A turning point is represented not only by presidential elections, which will give to Kabul a new administration called to face many issues, but also by reduction of US troops levels at the end of the year. even as US forces will be present until 2016 - then abruptly withdrawn.

The new phase raises fundamental questions for Afghan politics and the economy, and security and strategic terms. And

Afghanistan's many challenges will carry influence in South Asia and countries in the wider region.

The most important South Asian countries, India and Pakistan, have many interests in Hindu Kush, but also the capacity to become a source of stability or instability for Afghanistan. New Delhi's "soft power" increased in the last decade, considering different projects, especially related to exploitation of natural resources and improvement of Afghan security system.

Afghanistan's territory has a strategic position, given its potential to become a bridge between Central and South Asia. This country, as Pakistani poet Allamah Muhammad Iqbal extolled it in the 1930s, can be described as the "heart of Asia": if the heart has some pains, as a consequence all the body (Asia) will be affected.

India has been an important stakeholder in Afghanistan, considering its commitment to invest billions of dollars in the country. New Delhi is involved in security cooperation, energy and mining projects, the development of roads and railway links, strengthening infrastructure and telecommunications, and improvements in the oil and agricultural sectors.The India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, signed in October 2011, was the first formal bilateral contract with a foreign state for the reconstruction of the country. Indian involvement could help trade and teamwork between India and Afghanistan in coming years as well as integrate Kabul in the regional system of cooperation.

The Indian presence in Afghanistan raises visions in Pakistan of strategic encirclement and could therefore increase the possibility of a clash between opposed interests in Hindu Kush. Recognition of Indian and Pakistani interests in Afghan territory could be a step to normalize the relationship between the countries, an option that at this moment appears difficult to cement.

New Delhi, according to the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership, has already agreed to assist Afghan National Security Forces in formation and equipment programs. India could therefore represent a stabilizer in the country, reinforcing its cooperation with United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The reduction of Western troops could also present an opportunity for India to reinforce its collaboration with other historical partners, like Russia and Iran, two important actors who are interested in the stabilization of Afghanistan. All these states are concerned to ensure that Kabul will maintain democratic institutions and rule of law.

The same target is in Pakistan's interest, given instability along the Durand Line, extremist groups' activity in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the expected revival of Pashtun nationalism. Regional cooperation, where the main core is related to Afghanistan-Pakistan-India relationship, therefore is a fundamental element for Afghanistan and South Asia's future stability.

Pakistan remains an important player in Afghanistan's internal situation, not only for cultural and ethnic ties but also from a strategically point of view. Washington aims to obtain Islamabad's cooperation for the Afghan internal reconciliation process but also for logistical support. Routes and links directed to the Arabian Sea through Pakistani territory for NATO's supplies to be sent to Afghanistan are presently a better option, politically and economically. Alternatives are exemplified by Northern Distribution Network (NDN) routes through Central Asian countries and South Russia, and Iran's provinces, which both represent unmanageable solutions at this moment for Washington. That's why Pakistan still represents an important ally for US strategy in Afghanistan.

Given also Saudi Arabia-Pakistan rapprochement in the past few months, important for a common visual in the Middle East and Central Asia, this could also denote Riyadh's interest in preventing a growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries and Pakistan could also have an essential role in the internal Afghan peace process with extremist forces and Taliban. Washington is therefore aware of Pakistan's importance in the region and the bilateral relationship between the two countries has improved compared with the 2011-2012 period.

However, even if a Western military contingent will remain in the country, according to the so-called Resolute Support Mission, agreements between Afghanistan, the United States and NATO allies (the Status of Force Agreement and Bilateral Security Agreement) are in stalemate. Anyhow, all candidates for the Afghan presidency pledged to sign treaties with Washington, so the possibilities for a US military presence after 2014 and a complete withdrawal at the end of 2016 are concrete.

For New Delhi, a Taliban resurgence, increasing strategic differences between outgoing President Hamid Karzai and Western countries, and the gradual reduction of NATO forces are all important matters for the Indian establishment and foreign policy specialists to consider.

Given New Delhi's concerns about medium- and long-term security, it's important for India to adopt a strategy to deal with any kind of situation. Afghanistan is an important part of the extended neighborhood for India, where many Indian companies have invested millions of dollars in the past few years. Apprehension is therefore understandable, especially when viewing a likely political role for Taliban groups in Kabul as well Islamabad's ambitions to increase its traditional influence over Afghanistan. Afghan-Pakistani relations are not good right now, but both establishments agree that bilateral cooperation is vital for stability along the Durand Line.

India considers the danger of extremist ideologies as a serious threat for its national security, which have an origin, according to New Delhi's perception, in the north-west bordering areas, a traditional source of invasion. India wants to adopt development programs for Afghanistan in order to guarantee stability, transforming the country to a potential economic hub linking South to Central Asia through trade for the prosperity of the entire region.

Though India contributes to Afghan reconstruction, New Delhi appears marginalized in the Western strategy for Afghanistan. An Indian dilemma concerns whether to persist in its support for the Western approach or to adopt an autonomous policy realized through an independent dialogue with the diverse components of the Afghan mosaic.

Since instability is seen through Western eyes as a consequence of Indo-Pakistani rivalry and the failure to solve the territorial dispute over Kashmir, India perceives its contribution in Afghanistan as little appreciated by Western powers. India seems not be included in the US and NATO regional plan for Afghanistan, whereas Pakistani support for the US strategy in Central Asia is seen as vital.

Another option for New Delhi, and an alternative to the Western approach, is represented by the implementation of a Russia-India-China dialogue on Afghanistan, given their common views on Islamic extremism, which in the past operated in these countries' territories (Caucasus, Kashmir and Xinjiang), and some shared visions on the global stage. Assuming a US and NATO departure from Afghanistan after 2014 or 2016, India, Russia and China could be thus be influential actors for Kabul's future. Afghanistan could represent another exemplification of the new multipolar global order.

The idea of a deal and reconciliation process with some Taliban groups has shown the limits of the Western war over more than a decade. The peace process could further divide the country and create conditions for clashes between different ethnic groups. But India's deepest worry is a return to power for the Taliban.

New Delhi's establishment and business sector aspire to an Islamic state in Afghanistan that is relatively moderate, able to reply to Pakistan's ambitions and to cope with the security issues surrounding Islamic extremism. All this would help Indian investments in Afghanistan and Central Asia and the spread of Indian influence in the region.

Active extremist forces and the Taliban in power would severely damage India's interests in Afghanistan and completely marginalize New Delhi. A Taliban resurgence could also have negative repercussions for Kashmir, which could face new insurgency phenomena.

Islamic extremism, which influenced and "created" the Taliban, is characterized by feelings of hatred against India - not only towards the West - which originate from the India-Pakistan wars and from disputes in the subcontinent after 1947. It's a common interpretation, both in India and Pakistan, that, since Bangladesh's independence in 1971, encouraged by New Delhi during the third Indo-Pakistani war, Islamabad started to think of Afghanistan as a possible strategic territory for retreat, in case of an hypothetical Indian invasion from the east. A friendly and "controllable" government in Kabul would be essential for Pakistan to cope with that threat, which Pakistan regards as having increased in recent decades due to the regional and global rise of India.

Both India and Pakistan will attempt to weaken each other's influence in Kabul, with India working with anti-Pakistani groups, as happened during the Afghan Civil War (1992-96) when India backed Northern Alliance along with Russia and Iran. Conversely, in this context extremism and violence find legitimacy; that's why a "normalization" in the Indo-Pakistani relationship could be therefore be an important aspect for stability in Afghanistan.

Threads of religion, culture and ethnicity connect the three neighbors to each other, so "rapprochement" is possible, and also essential. Islamic extremism and minorities' independence are nevertheless a source of huge concern also for Pakistan. Extremist groups represent dangers for Pakistan and India, threatening to erode civilian power and exploit popular discontent over the general bad economic and social situation. A clear policy to protect and favor religious pluralism, preventing the reinforcement of sectarian identities, is needed along with strengthening laws against those who pronounce discourses based on religious hatred.

Considering all these factors, an important element for the prosperity of South Asia and security of Afghanistan is change in the discourse on Indo-Pakistan relations, a core factor that should also interest the international community. A negative approach to Indo-Pak relations could hurt the region's development and security.

Indian and Pakistani civil societies, especially youths, should be involved in shifting the discourse, which would bet on seeing the sense of the common social and economic advantages that can derive from an improvement in relations, and also on cultural and historical links.

Divisions and the spread of nationalism in South Asia represent other dangers for the future and should be diverted by cooperation between countries at many levels, for example in civil societies, as well in diverse international organizations, such as the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation.

Af-Pak will face many challenges in next years, influencing both Pakistan and India. All these themes analyzed in this article are particularly deepened in a new book recently published in Italy, Af-Pak: The challenge of Stability, by the author.

The coming months represent a crucial phase for the region, given the Afghan presidential election and Narendra Modi's victory in the Indian general elections. The swearing in of the new Indian government was characterized by the presence during the official ceremony of the nearest countries' representatives (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Mauritius).

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Hamid Karzai were also present, with Modi and Sharif using the opportunity to engage in formal talks.This is an important signal, also because after their meeting Sharif said that the the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan "would be meeting soon, to review and carry forward our bilateral agenda, in the spirit of our meeting today".

New governments in Afghanistan and India will face important challenges that impact the entire South Asian region. Considering that Afghanistan can be seen as the heart of Asia, the international community and Asian countries should pay attention to developments. One of the challenges for the so-called Asian Century is related to stability of the continent and to addressing unresolved issues of Asia's "hot zones", bearing in mind the poet Iqbal's assertion that if heart has some troubles, all the body will be affected.

This takes shape in a more recent quote, from Modi's predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who in 2007 said: "I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, when one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live." Let's see if Singh's wish can become reality.

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. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Francesco Brunello Zanitti is Scientific Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliarie - IsAG, Rome), where he is also Southern Asia Research Program's Director.

(Copyright 2014 Francesco Brunello Zanitti)




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