While Afghanistan recognizes that Pakistan cannot be the anchor of its post-U.S. exit foreign and strategic policies, Kabul is equally aware that it needs support from Islamabad (and, more importantly, Rawalpindi) to ensure a durable settlement. The path ahead to secure a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict is difficult and it is in New Delhi’s interests to step up and offer new ideas to Kabul to ensure that the intra-Afghan talks truly remain “Afghan-led” and “Afghan owned.”
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of High Council for National Reconciliation, is planning to visit Pakistan as part of his efforts to improve bilateral ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the intra-Afghan dialogue, an integral part of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal, has entered the most crucial phase of the ongoing peace process, Abdullah is keen to move beyond the unending cycle of mistrust and blame game. Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with Pakistan, Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, recently asserted that “Pakistan has a positive role in the U.S.-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks.”
Given the specific geopolitical, historical, and cultural circumstances of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, Pakistan presents a substantial challenge to India’s Afghanistan policy, and its larger strategic interests in Central Asia. Pakistan’s major priorities vis-à-vis Afghanistan are twofold. First, the United States must withdraw — but not as hastily as in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal. Second, Pakistan seeks a regime in Kabul that is pro-Pakistan and preferably anti-India.
Pakistan would like a power-sharing mechanism in Kabul that accommodates its proxy, the Afghan Taliban. The reasoning is straightforward: If the Taliban have a substantial presence in the Afghan governing structures, Kabul will remain friendlier to Pakistan. Whether or not that will prove true is as yet unknown, but that is what the Pakistani security establishment believes. Yet, there is little doubt that Pakistan would be the net beneficiary of a U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan-Pakistan relations have rarely been free of friction, with each accusing the other of patronizing terrorism. At periodic intervals, Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has offered to improve relations with Afghanistan. This happened under Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and has once again started under General Qamar Javed Bajwa. With the Taliban upping the ante and rising attacks inside Afghanistan, it is difficult to believe that Pakistan’s deep state is now ready to move on.
In Pakistan’s eyes, both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are viewed as close to India. Ghani tried soon after becoming president for the first time to move away from New Delhi and closer to Islamabad, but it did not work out as Pakistan refused to change its policy. So then Ghani reverted to his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s policy of keeping good ties with India.
Now Abdullah too may try to move away from India and build relations with Pakistan. During the 2019 presidential elections, New Delhi, like Washington, supported Ghani. India was seeking stability and continuity by siding with the incumbent president. While Pakistan may try an outreach to Abdullah, it will be difficult for Pakistan’s security services either to move beyond their perception of Abdullah as only partly Pashtun, or to forget that he was a key member of the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban front in the 1990s.
As in the past, Pakistan has sought to use transit trade as a way to rebuild trust with Afghanistan. Islamabad recently opened two key trade routes – Angor Adda point in South Waziristan and the Kharlachi crossing in Kurram districts – to promote business activities. In June, Torkham crossing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chaman point in Balochistan, and Ghulam Khan in North Waziristan tribal district were also opened.
While Pakistan has technically “restored” Afghan exports through the Wagah border with India, this arrangement still does not permit Indian goods to be loaded onto trucks for transit back to Afghanistan.
The trilateral dialogue between foreign ministries of China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has also been revived. The last such meeting was in September 2019, while the latest round was held online in July.
While such initiatives are welcome, there has always existed a gap between what Pakistan promises to do and what it actually does.
It is naïve to believe that Pakistan has substantially changed its strategic orientation toward Afghanistan or Afghan-India relations. The ball still remains in Islamabad’s court as far as improvement of ties with Afghanistan is concerned. Over-promising and under-delivering could reopen the mistrust and acrimony that has plagued Afghanistan-Pakistan ties. Unfortunately, there are no signs yet that Pakistan’s ruling elite has given up narratives sympathetic to jihadist groups. Not long ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan disturbingly referred to Osama bin Laden as a martyr.
The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan has been combined with reduced pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorists that operate from its territory. Despite Pakistan’s claims that it will not allow its soil to be used as a safe haven for terrorists, the Haqqani Network is still headquartered in Pakistan’s North Waziristan district. The U.S. State Department recently confirmed that the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban continue to maintain safe haven in Pakistan.
It’s true that after the military clashes with China, New Delhi’s strategic mindspace is totally occupied with the complexities of disengagement process from the Himalayas. Nonetheless it cannot afford to write off Afghanistan as a strategic priority in India’s foreign policy calculus. For the last two decades, New Delhi’s policy was to coordinate closely with the United States, as much of India’s developmental and diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan became possible only due to American military presence in the country. However, with the U.S. withdrawal, India will need other options.
New Delhi should continue to insist in bilateral and multilateral settings with the U.S. and other global stakeholders that Pakistan must demonstrate its sincerity in dissociating itself from terrorism if it wants to reap economic and diplomatic benefits for its role in facilitating the U.S.-Taliban peace talks. The pressure on Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and in the United Nations Security Council should continue.
Iran’s decision to drop India from a plan to build a rail link from the Chabahar port to Zahedan on the Afghan border is a setback for India. The Chabahar port’s link overland through Iran to the Afghan border was seen as New Delhi’s reply to Islamabad’s denial of the trading route through Wagah to Afghanistan. Closer China-Iran relations combined with deep China-Pakistan relations are also problematic for New Delhi.
India cannot stop Pakistan trying to repair its fractured relationship with Afghanistan. But New Delhi should keep an eye on these developments and ensure that they do not harm Afghanistan’s stability or Indian interests.
Pakistan’s key geopolitical interest or objective in Afghanistan has always been to weaken or break the bonds of friendship between New Delhi and Kabul, and it uses its allies across the Afghan political and insurgency spectrum to pursue its interests. Therefore, a strong New Delhi-Kabul partnership is critical to both Indian and Afghan security. Both must cooperate to deepen their social, economic, and diplomatic links, and each will find strength in the other to protect their common interests.
India should continue its policy of good relations with Afghans, both elite and the public, as that is what has helped India achieve the image it has in the country. The majority of the Afghan elite and public admire and support India for its support to Afghanistan. That is not under dispute. What New Delhi needs to also work on is how to prevent Pakistan’s security establishment and its nonstate proxies from hurting the close India-Afghanistan relations.
Aparna Pande is research fellow and director of Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. Her major field of interest is South Asia with a special focus on India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, foreign and security policy. Pande has contributed to The American Interest, The Hindustan Times, The Live Mint, Huffington Post, Sunday Guardian, and Real Clear World.
Vinay Kaura is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan, India. He is also an adjunct professor on the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.