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Kashmir has nothing to do with stability in Afghanistan

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 18, 2008

    The contention that stability in Afghanistan is linked to the resolution of the Kashmir issue is fallacious. It only serves the interests of a particular interest group, which has consistently tried to link stability in the subcontinent to the Kashmir issue, and which is now illogically stretching this argument to include stability in Afghanistan. This argument gives the impression that the dynamics in the two cases are interlinked, when they clearly are not.

    There is no doubt that the resolution of the Kashmir issue is important for the subcontinent and would in the long run contribute to durable peace. But stability in Afghanistan is not contingent upon peace between India and Pakistan for the conflict in Afghanistan is not driven by India-Pakistan rivalry. Pakistan’s interference in Afghan affairs is driven by many factors, and the competing interests of India and Pakistan is just one of these. Portrayal of the Afghan conflict as a simple case of an India-Pakistan proxy war is a pathetic attempt to shift blame. India and Pakistan are not the only countries engaged in Afghanistan. Several regional and international players are involved, including Iran, NATO countries and the United States, and each of these players has its own interests. This fact has been recognised and given voice to by none other than Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, who has hinted at the necessity of a dialogue among regional countries to resolve the Afghan crisis. And as is becoming clear, such a dialogue would also have a positive impact on Pakistan’s own stability in the tribal areas. Recognising the importance of a regional approach, France has indicated that it would host a meeting of regional actors to seek a resolution of the Afghan problem.

    It is doubtful that Pakistan will stop nurturing the Taliban and work for a stable Afghanistan once its problems with India are resolved. Pakistan’s Afghan policy has several dimensions and its pursuit of strategic depth vis-à-vis India is just one of these. The most significant among Pakistan’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan is the recognition of the Durand Line. So far, no Afghan government has recognised the Durand Line as the border between the two countries, and as a result Kabul and Islamabad have had a hostile relationship since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The dispersed Pushtun population across the frontier has added the problem of a porous border, which is extremely difficult if not impossible to regulate. In addition, opening a trade route and establishing oil and gas pipelines between Pakistan and Central Asia have been important factors in influencing Islamabad to nurture the Taliban.

    Pakistan’s current support to, or at least its reluctance to cut off links with, the Taliban has also arisen out of the policies of the United States and NATO countries rather than being an offshoot of India-Pakistan relations. It is generally believed that Western countries have a short term goal in Afghanistan and that the United States will withdraw its troops sooner than later. This is based on the fact that the objective of the War on Terror was to capture bin laden. In fact, the United States before the initiation of Operation Enduring Freedom was negotiating with the Taliban to convince the latter to surrender bin Laden. Had that objective been achieved, Afghanistan would have seen a different present. After overthrowing the Taliban, the US also diverted its attention towards Iraq. The short term agenda of the United States and Western countries is not lost on the Pakistani establishment. In fact, Pakistan has been preparing for a future role in the event of the inevitable American exit from Afghanistan. Its belief that the US will abandon Afghanistan is based not just on its own past experience of fighting the anti-Soviet jihad but from the various statements that have been emanating from the United States and NATO conceding the fact that the war in Afghanistan in not winnable.

    Recent statements by the British commander and British Ambassador in Afghanistan attest to the fact that Western countries are not prepared for a long drawn out war. Reports about negotiations with the Taliban strengthen the belief that Western countries are reluctant to commit more troops in Afghanistan and are trying to put some sort of a system in place to pave way for the withdrawal of their troops. There is also the belief that Western countries cannot afford to take too many casualties and their willingness to negotiate with the Taliban is being seen as a sign of weakness. What has added to the present uncertainty is their lack of a clear cut policy on Afghanistan. The policies of the United States and NATO have been tenuous and confusing. This has led Pakistan to prepare itself for the post- Western intervention phase in Afghanistan.

    Pakistan looks at Afghanistan as a part and parcel of its security environment, and would resist any Indian role in that country. Therefore, whether peace prevails between India and Pakistan or not, it would not like to give up its desire to play a pre-eminent role in Afghanistan. Though Pakistan is reluctantly recognising India’s interest in Afghanistan, there is no consensus within Pakistan about its stake in the War on Terror. In this context, it is important that Western countries clearly stipulate their long term vision of a stable, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. This would also address the apprehensions of regional countries, which fear the consequences of a hasty American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The more the United States shows signs of uncertainty about its presence in Afghanistan, the less are the chances of stability in that country. Pakistan would sustain the Taliban to retain its influence in Afghanistan if it were to think that American withdrawal is a matter of time. There is a strong feeling in Pakistan that it is the American War on Terror that has led to instability in Pakistan and that US withdrawal would lead to stability. Thus, Afghanistan’s stability is linked to the absence of a clear cut US policy in the region rather than to the India-Pakistan peace process, which in any event is making slow but steady progress.