Why, at all, a landlocked and backward county like Afghanistan has been on the world chessboard since the 19th century? Why again regional powers like India and Pakistan have made it a theatre of their proxies? I contend that they do it primarily for their own and secondarily for the interests of Afghanistan.
The British and the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the past for imperial and colonial pursuits. The US invaded it in 2001 ostensibly for ‘War against the Global Terror’, though the critics see beneath it a hidden US security and economic agenda.
India and Pakistan also dabble in Afghan jumble to settle their scores on Kashmir, since Taliban support Kashmir’s secessionism from India and perceive relocating a 2001-like theocratic Islamic state in Afghanistan, which India contests, fearing that it would radicalise Kashmir and endanger its national security interests.
Besides, India’s interest is to project its presence in Afghanistan to deflate Pakistan-Taliban anti-India diction, checkmate China and Pakistan and promote trade and traffic with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Pakistan’s interest is to forge a government of its own choice in Afghanistan, with which to sustain its own influence and marginalize that of India, exploit Taliban as a stratagem against India, establish connect with Central Asia for trade etc. and involve Afghanistan in the CPEC regional economic integration project.
For their varying interests, both countries are holding diametrically opposite positions in Afghanistan, and are pursuing mutual proxies with designated strategies and counterstrategies. Their proxies revealed during the post-Soviet Afghan Civil War (1989-1990) among various warring factions. While India staked the non-Pashtun groups of Northern Alliance, Pakistan, with the Saudi support, backed the Pashtuns/Taliban for power control.
With the end-Civil War and Taliban power-take in 1996, Pakistan’s Afghan space widened and that of India squeezed. However, India resurfaced after the US Afghan invasion and the toppling of Taliban regime in 2001. The US solicited cooperation of international community including that of India and Pakistan to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and reconstruct post-2001 Afghanistan under the Bonn Agreement.
Yet, recognising Pakistan as a strategic partner in the said fight, the US floated it sufficient funds and security assistance and endorsed its position on Kashmir by differentiating between Kashmir militancy and global terrorism. However, sometime after, the US-Pakistan relations experienced a chill due to the alleged Pakistan’s ‘double dealing’ during the counterinsurgency. Consequently, it suspended all security assistance to Pakistan; denied training to its military personnel, legitimised India’s involvement in Afghanistan and took U-turn on Kashmir by equating Kashmir militancy with global terrorism.
Seizing the opportunity, India owned the Kabul government by supplying it necessary military hardware; funds for building institution, dams, roads and energy power plants; investing in mining copper and iron ores and railways; developing skill and human resource capacity, commissioning direct cargo flights from its major cities to Kabul and Kandhar and transporting essential food grains via an alternate Chabahar-bound Iranian route. Since India-Afghanistan trade and traffic is disallowed on Pakistan soil, the Chahbahar project is becoming crucial for India’s connect with Afghanistan and Eurasia and also for its intersection with India-Iran-Russia international North-South Transport Corridor. Diplomatically, it is trying hard to isolate Pakistan for its alleged role in regional insurgency, pulling thereby no punches to undercut Pakistan in Afghanistan.
Pakistan reciprocates by underscoring that Pak-Afghan trust-deficit and Afghan-Pakistan cross-border violence is because of Indian RAW agency. It is thus resituating its trade, transport and security (APAPPS 2018) cooperation with Afghanistan, helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan to reclaim their dignity and offering to open up the Torkham border 24×7 to build the mutual trust and security cooperation. To gain regional support, it is joining hands with once its enemy Russia. Eventually, Russia legitimises Pakistan as a ‘dominant regional actor’ and a ‘valuable’ partner for combating regional and global terrorism and drug-trafficking. Even Pakistan is rejigging its relations with Iran to thwart the ISIS and reassure Iran’s support on Kashmir. However, the robust Pak-Iran relations are impeded by the Pak-Saudi tie up, Pak-Iran cross-border insurgency and Iran-India energy and transport deals.
These Iran-India deals had sometime past become susceptible to the US Iran economic sanctions. For Afghanistan, however, the US allowed India to continue work on the Chabahar project. But, it bound it to halt total oil supply within six month of its sanctions announcement. While, complying with the US sanctions, India is exploring other options, including worth $5 billion oil imports from the US annually.
But, China is unlikely to toe the US line for compulsions of its acute energy crisis and growing trade war with the US, besides availing the given opportunity of buying cheap Iranian oil due to its shrinking buyers after total us embargo on Iran. It is making it still cheaper by transporting it via the shortest and economical trans-surface CPEC than the long South Pacific maritime route. In this situation, Chabahar is becoming a route for transporting only ‘non-sanctioned’ Indian goods to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, trudging mutual ‘love hate conundrum’, the US-Pakistan re-engaged for Afghan peace under the ‘US Format’ led by its special envoy, Zalamy Khalilzad, though Russia initiated its own ‘Moscow Format’ for almost the same purpose. Pakistan, for the US pressure and the CPEC security, is proactively persuading Taliban to shun violence and engage with Khalilzad. Hopes of peace are surging fast for the unabated US-Taliban peace talks, presupposing its ‘significant progress”, as Trump announced troops’ withdrawal, Taliban agreed power-sharing with the non-Pashtuns and Pakistan committed unstinted support to the process a success.
The US is keen about its immediate end-results to exit Afghanistan and save $50 billion annual expenses on the Afghan war. Taliban is desirous of peace, this time than ever before, to come out of the ‘war fatigue’, strike a better deal for reoccupying 50% of the territory lost in 2001 and lessen Pakistan pressure.
However, the final peace agreement has several insurmountable complications. Taliban is averse to talks with the ‘puppet’ Kabul government, enforce ceasefire until total US troops’ leave Afghanistan and compromise with its hard line Islamic approach about the state formation.
Equally important are other issues: Can a power-sharing government with Taliban domination sustain, knowing that it is a ‘gun-toting force’ than a real Afghan face? What would be the fate of the militant groups created by the US during its fight with Taliban? Can the US so easily allow its influence to ebb with its total troops’ withdrawal? Analysts contend that the ‘precipitous [troops] pull out could risk its hard-war gains’? Can it retain its Afghan bases and how would Russia and China respond? Would the US reinvade Afghanistan in case Taliban back out from its given promise to redeem its soil from other militant groups? How would new government account for the Daesh and the treat of the militants groups created and paid by the US over the years? What can be the future Afghan-Iran relations? Assumption is that the US may, now, reuse Taliban against Iran, since it has offered employment and security to Taliban. Shall Pakistan cherish the same influence on Taliban as it had in the past, considering its ‘behind-the-scenes’ munificent support to the US-Taliban Peace initiative?
More important, shall India-Pakistan proxy terminate with the peace agreement, and can it pre-empt their resolution of Kashmir as both conflicts have a co-relationship? What would be the status of India’s Afghan stakes and investments, including its $315 million Chabahar-bound transport project with Iran? Rumours are that the project can puncture for Iran’s internal crisis or the could-be-US-Taliban patch up. How would those Taliban behave to whom the Jihad (holy war) is a way of life? Reportedly, they perceive to redirect their energies towards Kashmir, once free from Afghanistan. The Indian government is ready to reckon with such a spill over from Afghanistan.
Undeniably, compared to India, Pakistan’s Afghan space is foreseen to swell after the peace agreement. But, it won’t make India either irrelevant to Afghanistan, since it is a partner to a number of internationally-announced regional economic integration projects for and over Afghanistan. In addition, it is the fast growing Asian economy after China, and can contribute to the Afghanistan’s economic development more than Pakistan. This warrants India and Pakistan to complement each other to wash out nascent Afghan people from perpetual pangs and tribulations. May be, it will open up vistas for the settlement of Kashmir issue, sooner or later.