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Pakistan wants to play a central role in the Afghan settlement

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 18, 2010

    During his recent visit to Pakistan (10-11 March 2010) Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that he did not want to see India and Pakistan fighting a ‘proxy war’ in Afghanistan. A BBC report of 11th March quoted him as saying that "Afghanistan does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. It does not want a proxy war between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan." He further noted that "Without Pakistan and without its co-operation with Afghanistan, Afghanistan cannot be stable or peaceful… It is also, I believe, recognised in Pakistan that without a stable and peaceful Afghanistan there cannot be stability or peace in Pakistan.” Karzai also described Pakistan as a ‘conjoined twin’ and India as a ‘friend’ thereby making a qualitative distinction between Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan and India.

    The Afghan president’s use of the word ‘proxy war’ in relation to India’s reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan is puzzling. It will strengthen Pakistani propaganda that the Indian presence in Afghanistan is to destabilise Pakistan and underplay the importance of Indian assistance.

    Afghans are generally appreciative of India’s humanitarian assistance now running at over $1.2 billion and spread over several projects. India is helping train Afghan youth in large numbers. It has helped build key physical and social infrastructure in Afghanistan. Unlike Western countries, it has worked wholeheartedly with the Afghan government and local authorities to build Afghanistan. In the course of helping Afghanistan, Indian diplomats and nationals have paid with their lives. Even today nearly four thousand Indian workers are engaged in Afghanistan’s numerous projects. Most of them have gone there voluntarily on employment contracts with which the Government of India has nothing to do.

    It therefore comes as a surprise that the Afghan president, who himself has appreciated the Indian help, should talk about a ‘proxy war’ between India and Pakistan. The reason for such a reading of the situation is the rapidly changing political and security context in Afghanistan.

    In recent weeks, Pakistan has apprehended Mullah Biradar, a top ranking Afghan Taliban leader and also arrested some other Afghan Taliban functionaries. It is now emerging that the arrest of Mullah Biradar was perhaps an accident rather than a pre-planned move. It has also been speculated that Mullah Biradar was arrested because he was not listening to the ISI. Pakistan has refused to extradite Mullah Biradar to Afghanistan and also restricted American access to him.
    Whatever may be the truth, Pakistan has come to occupy in Western eyes a central role in Afghanistan’s fast moving political scenario. The US intention of starting troop withdrawal from July 2011 and the London Conference’s signal of starting a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban have led to a sense of urgency in thinking about the next phase in the Afghan war. The key question is: what will be the nature of political settlement that may help the Obama administration to leave Afghanistan in an honourable way? Pakistan has concluded that it must play a central role in such a settlement and at the same time deny India any part. Therefore, it has sent out signals that it has a hold over the Afghan Taliban and only those Taliban who follow the Pakistani diktat will be allowed to negotiate with the Karzai government. Pakistan wants to retain complete control over how future negotiations proceed. In the meantime, Indian personnel in Kabul continue to be attacked.

    Has Pakistan changed its strategic stance of sheltering the top Afghan leadership and providing them safe havens and sanctuary? Pakistan’s sincerity is in doubt. Pakistan’s going after some Afghan Taliban leaders selectively is designed to show that in any settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan would have the highest claim. Pakistan wants to tell the world loud and clear that no settlement is possible without Pakistan’s will. It will retain complete hold over key Taliban leaders and punish those who do not fall in line.

    It is in view of the West’s fatigue in Afghanistan and the growing importance of Pakistan that President Karzai chose to describe Pakistan in the terms he did. However, it is also a matter of debate whether the Taliban, if they come to power as a result of a negotiated settlement, would not fall out with Pakistan in due course, particularly over the question of the Durand Line. The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has historically not been smooth and unlikely to be so in future irrespective of the regime in Afghanistan.

    India’s noncontroversial humanitarian assistance has been presented by Pakistan as a ‘proxy war’. Western counties and Afghans know the truth but there is reticence in articulating the importance of Indian assistance in rebuilding Afghanistan. This is because Western countries are in thrall of Pakistan, which can play a hugely negative role if not kept in good humour. That explains why the Afghan President, despite his previous criticisms of Pakistani interference in Afghanistan, now sees Pakistan in a positive light.

    Pakistan would like to see India out of Afghanistan. India is being intimidated by terrorist attacks in Kabul and through vicious propaganda. The Foreign Secretary has clarified that India would not pare down its assistance programmes in Afghanistan. India has followed the policy of assisting the people of Afghanistan to the extent it can. That is the policy which will play dividends in the long run. Nevertheless, given the recent developments, India will need to keep its policy under review and be prepared to be flexible to make tactical adjustments. In particular, India needs to be clear about its strategic priorities in Afghanistan.

    The views expressed here are his own.