The visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, to Afghanistan a few days ago overlapped the Afghan High Peace Council’s visit to Pakistan to establish a joint Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Jirga. Although the overlap of the two events appears to be coincidental, it highlighted the complex trilateral dynamic that must be negotiated.

India has now fully backed the reconciliation process with the Taliban in Afghanistan, although India asserted reconciliation could only happen with those who “abjured” violence and broke links to terrorist organizations. In the past, India had reservations about the Taliban, who were viewed as a pawn of the Pakistani intelligence organization, the ISI. Most likely, the Indian government’s change of heart is related to its concern to limit the resurgence of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

The Afghan perspective on the India-Pakistan conflict taking place on their soil is complex. While Afghans are wary of Pakistan’s hegemonic aspirations, and grateful for Indian assistance in reconstruction, they are also disconsolate about their territory being used for another proxy war. Here is a small sample of opinions in the Afghan Press:

In the pro-government, Pashto language newspaper published out of Kabul, Weesa, M. Shafiq wrote an editorial on 9 January arguing [translation by BBC Monitoring]:

“… it is a fact that Afghanistan is the victim of negative rivalries between Pakistan and India besides other problems. Pakistan blames India for the unrest and violence in Balochistan and even Waziristan and claims that Indian intelligence agency carries out subversive activities in Pakistan from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s media, politicians and even senior government officials complain against the Afghan government. Actually, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to cut off its ties with India and they have openly announced that Afghanistan’s close relations with India are a matter of concern for Pakistan.

India also blamed Pakistan’s intelligence for the attacks on its embassy in Afghanistan. There are concerns that if the Taliban join the system, it will undermine their [probably Pakistan’s] interests. Afghanistan is the victim of rivalries between two countries. Unfortunately, the structure of system following the Bonn Conference should also be blamed for this. The then foreign minister, Dr Abdullah, who was a member of Northern Alliance, based relations with India on his hostility with Pakistan. Unfortunately, India still expects such relations from Afghanistan. Pakistan also expects the Afghan side to have friendly relations with it just as the mujahideen leaders had with them during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. 

This is the outcome of the failed diplomacy of our Foreign Ministry. Afghanistan is suffering from the war of intelligence and is the victim of negative rivalries between the regional countries. Our senior officials, in particular the Foreign Ministry and the president, should persuade the two countries that Afghanistan needs to maintain friendly relations with all countries of the region and world, and to reach reconciliation and end war inside the country. The Taleban, Hezb-e Eslami and the armed opponents of the government, who are the sons of this soil, cannot be eliminated on the instructions of one or another country. 

The door for peace and reconciliation cannot be closed. Every country has its own interests, will and independent position. Why should a country expect the Afghans to sacrifice their will for its interests in the name of friendship? One country should not undermine the national interests of another country. India and Pakistan can ask the Afghan government and system not to allow any country to use its soil against it. However, neither of them has the right to say: If you have friendly relations with that country, it will mean that you are our enemy; or if you reconcile with your opponents to end the internal fighting, it will harm us. 

India and Pakistan have historic disputes. Their main dispute is over water resources in Kashmir. Actually, the dispute of Kashmir is also because of water. It is not a geographical issue. Both countries should pay attention to the present situation. Peaceful life and a new phase in friendly relations are in their interest. However, if they still want to continue their rivalries and fighting, they can test their strength on their long joint border. Why do they cause problems in our country? Our senior officials should persuade the two countries not to continue their rivalries in our country.”

While Shafiq’s analysis of the Kashmir dispute is clearly flawed, simplistic, and narrow, one senses a deep desire for “neutrality” in order to create the space for reconciliation and reconstruction.  The author implies that Afghanistan has been caught up in the proxy fight because of the personal politics of the first foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. In essence, the editorial does not realize the larger regional dynamics at work which have displaced the rivalry from the Vale of Kashmir to the valleys of Afghanistan.

An editorial in Hasht-e-Sobh, an independent, secular, daily, published in Dari on 9 January [translation by BBC Monitoring] states:

“The Afghan government has repeatedly announced that it will not allow its country to turn into the ground for attack against any country, but does Pakistan seek and wait for permission! Pakistan controls the Taliban who do not stick to any principle. Unfortunately, the geographic location of Afghanistan is such that it has turned into the battleground between Pakistan and India.

… Pakistan, as the inheritor of the colonial power, hopes that Afghanistan will not take any step in its foreign relations without the permission of Pakistan. Otherwise, it will be the negation of the existence and identity of a country called Afghanistan and a stigma none of our countrymen will accept. The fact that it is said that Afghanistan wants “honourable or respectable peace” means that we do not want peace at any cost. The peace that denies our identity and existence is not peace but it means that we are under the yoke of slavery, thus a dignified death is better than that.

… India is one of those countries that have made the most contributions to us, unlike Pakistan which launches aggression against our country. Of course, it is clear that Afghanistan also takes into account the legitimate concerns of Pakistan.”

While the editorial is generally hostile toward Pakistan in particular, it is not necessarily advocating a pro-Indian position. In essence, from the Afghan perspective one sees again a desire for “neutrality” even though the immediate threat to sovereignty and autonomy is seen to emanate from Pakistan.

From the Pakistani perspective, a “neutral” and autonomous Afghanistan is de facto hostile to its interests, because Pakistan’s military would have to contemplate a two-front war if another round of hostilities occurs with India. Even though such a full scale war is unlikely given that both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, the Kargil War demonstrates that both states are willing to continue a confrontational posture even in a nuclear era.

A few Afghan analysts seem to understand that a neutral foreign policy harms Pakistani interests.  One analysts who does see the dynamic clearly is university lecturer, Fardin Hashemi.  He stated on Tolo TV on January 8th that creating a balance between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan would be a setback for Pakistan. He expanded that the Taliban’s preconditions for peace talks (i.e. the withdrawal of foreign forces and discarding the Constitution) served to protect the interests of Pakistan. The idea that the Taliban’s is under the control of the Pakistani ISI is probably an over simplification of a rather complex relationship, but it is certainly true that a weak government in Kabul is better for Pakistan and generally more challenging for India.

Afghanistan has yet to articulate a clear regional policy, perhaps with good cause. An openly hostile policy toward Pakistan would be counter productive, particularly at a time when Afghanistan must rely upon Pakistan to destroy havens for the insurgents on Pakistani soil. However, it is also doubtful that a policy of “neutrality” will placate Pakistan. Given the gradual withdrawal of US/ISAF forces in the coming years, an externally imposed solution is also unlikely. India seems to lack the will and perhaps even the capability for a military alliance with Afghanistan. An expansion of the Indo-Iranian partnership in Afghanistan might help limit Pakistani influence but it would create its own round of headaches…

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]