By Darya Savchenko – an expert at the Centre for Contemporary Afghan Studies.
Contemporary Afghanistan is a territory where interests of world powers and regional countries, especially India and Pakistan clash. New Delhi and Islamabad have shifted their years-old standoff to Afghanistan, and are trying to be actively involved in building future Afghanistan. Both Pakistanis and Indians have their own projects for Afghanistan.
Pakistan in Afghanistan
Concerning the position of Islamabad, there is a need to emphasize firstly that Pakistan is the “key” to a settlement in Afghanistan. The reason here is that the extremists have taken refuge in the border regions of Pakistan, and most likely, only the Pakistani military can defeat them. Moreover, Pakistan does its best to be a participant in any talks concerning the future of Afghanistan and is capable of wrecking any agreement or negotiation between the Hamid Karzai Government, NATO forces and the Taliban. In view of this, it is worth mentioning that attempts by the Afghan authorities to hold independently talks with the Taliban have ended in failure, especially owing to Pakistan’s position. For one, Pakistani intelligence service arrested one of the Taliban leaders, Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar as soon as it became clear that he was ready for negotiations with the Afghan authorities without the involvement of Islamabad. Clearly, in the future, Pakistan will not allow any one to hold talks with the Taliban, if Islamabad will not play the role of a key mediator.
Secondly, the Pakistani military see Afghanistan as their sphere of influence. Afghanistan is perceived by Islamabad as its “backyard” and Pakistan will do its best to preserve this status. Pakistan’s military elite considers Afghanistan as its strategic resource, especially a place where the military can deploy nongovernmental formations and terrorist groups that will operate in the interests of Pakistan. In addition, Afghanistan guarantees strategic depth for Pakistan because a regime in Afghanistan loyal to Islamabad provides a space for manoeuvres and regrouping its forces in case of a conflict with India. Afghanistan is strategically important for the Pakistani authorities in case of a standoff with India.
Thirdly, Pakistan will never allow forming a regime in Afghanistan, which is loyal to New Delhi, because this means it will be in a hostile encirclement. Consequently, Pakistan is doing its best to minimize, more precisely, exclude the influence of India on Afghanistan.
At the same time, extremely dangerous contradictions are growing in Pakistan. Chaos and hostilities linked to the strengthening of political Islam and the crisis of power are spreading throughout the country, and creeping Talibanization is going on in the country. The Islamic sentiment is strong in Pakistani society and the elite. It’s sufficed to mention the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province. His assassin has become a national hero.
At the same time, Pakistan is an active ally of the U.S. in its fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda. At least, Islamabad declares this. Owing to this position assumed by the Pakistani government, the Pakistani army is in an awkward position.
On the one hand, the Pakistani army is an ally of NATO in their war against Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani military are carrying out operations against terrorists in the north-west of the country as part of obligations undertaken as an ally.
On the other hand, the U.S. activities are extremely unpopular in Pakistani society. The residents living in the border regions with Afghanistan where anti-terrorist operations are being carried out have suffered a lot, and many people have been killed when American drowns carried out attacks from Afghanistan. Many people have become homeless and become refugees or internally displaced people. Thousands of residents in northern and southern Waziristan have shifted to other provinces fearing from NATO air raids and also attacks by Taliban, who are behaving brutally in the captured regions of Pakistan by establishing cruel and inhuman order in the pretence of imposing Sharia law.
In these circumstances, complete submission to the U.S. demands by the Pakistani military will inevitably arouse indignation in Pakistani society and lead to a growth in social support to extremists.
Meanwhile, the Taliban that outcast itself by invading the Swat Valley, which posed a threat not only to Pushtuns but also to the other regions of the country, helped the Pakistani government that did not know how to find a way out of this extremely delicate situation. For the first time, the Pakistan army repulsed the Taliban energetically but did not enter the northern Waziristan on the shoulders of retreating militants. Most likely, the reason for this was devastating floods. Perhaps, Pakistan played a double game once again.
Experts believe that the latter was the reason. In fact, on the one hand, the Pakistani extremists should have undoubtedly been pressed to the Afghan border and localized in the border regions. Most likely, following the outcome of the operation a secret agreement on the rules of coexistence between the armed Islamist-Pushtuns and the Pakistani government will be concluded. On the other hand, Pakistan will surely continue to support the Taliban militants operating in Afghanistan. This is the reason why the Pakistani military do not launch operations to expel militants from northern Waziristan, Taliban’s main hiding-place.
India in Afghanistan
India is one of the largest donors of Afghanistan and is trying to occupy a place in Kabul relevant to its investment. Moreover, Afghanistan is the “gate” to energy resources in Central Asia. India is interested in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and curbing Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan.
India is on the sixth place in the amount of investment in the Afghan economy, which is estimated at $2.1 billion. At present, over 4 thousand Indians are in Afghanistan. They are mainly guards and specialists who are involved in various projects aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan. This includes training Afghan police and granting assistance in such areas as education, healthcare service, power generation and communications. Besides the embassy in Kabul, four Indian consulates have been opened in Heart, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jelalabad and Kandahar.
India is involved in the reconstruction of dams in the Heart province and is planning to complete the construction of a new parliament building this year.
As a whole, India has chosen a policy of “soft force” to apply in Afghanistan and hopes for success. Public opinion towards India in Afghanistan is favourable, Indian goods are winning the local market and television programmes and films are very popular among Afghan people.
The Indian government partially financed the development of the port of Chabahar in Iran, and the reconstruction of the Delaram-Zaranj highway in 2008 guarantees an additional exit to sea through Iran. In short, an alternative mechanism of supplying goods to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan was created.
The stabilization of Afghanistan and the strengthening of its central government meet the interests of India because this will lower the terrorist threat in the region. During the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a safe haven for terrorists and many terrorist-training bases were set up on its territory. At present, those who completed religious schools in Pakistan are now fighting against NATO forces in Afghanistan. New Delhi is aware that another radical regime in Kabul will export its ideology destabilizing the entire region, including Central Asian countries. This means that Afghanistan will become an ally of Pakistan that has not abandoned the plans to launch attacks on Kashmir.
Islamists are trying to disrupt the strengthening of India’s position in Kabul. The Indian embassy in Kabul has been consistently receiving threats from Taliban and other extremist organizations that are operating in Afghanistan. In 2008, a suicide bomber launched an attack on the embassy killing over 40 people, and later another attack was carried out on the Indian territory itself by the end of the year, which drove India and Pakistan to the brink of a new war. In November 2008, a terrorist attack was carried out in Mumbai, the largest one since the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. The attack was launched on the richest and densely populated city. The attack carried out by the Islamist terrorist groups in Pakistan was aimed at aggravating relations between the two countries and perhaps, triggering a real war between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Evidence shows that the radical organization Lashkar-e-Taiba masterminded the attack in Mumbai that could have been put India and Pakistan at the brink of war. The terrorists played objectively into the hands of Taliban and al-Qaeda because unexpectedly worsened situation prompted Islamabad to send its forces to the Indian border from the north-west of the country, which is under Taliban control. This move was in the interests of the terrorists group.
However, the terrorists’ prediction did not come true. The war did not breakout because the U.S. exerted strong pressure on both New Delhi and Islamabad or most likely, the two sides realized possible consequences of a large-scale conflict. No one should forget that India and Pakistan have been under the state of a “hidden conflict” for decades and any worsening situation like the provocation by extremists, may lead to a new war.
The International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan will start handing over power gradually to the Afghan security agencies in the middle of the year. This will stimulate future developments in the region. To make this move successful, the countries that are interested in the future of Afghanistan, especially India and Pakistan should find a compromise. In this case, the U.S. should play the key role. The question is whether the Barack Obama Administration can find conditions that are acceptable to all countries, which are involved in the Afghan project.