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Delhi to Islamabad, via Kabul

Following attacks on an Indian mission, can India and Pakistan resolve their differences in Afghanistan?

By Sreeram Chaulia for
Delhi to Islamabad, via Kabul
Credit: REUTERS/ Parwiz

The terrorist attack on August 3 outside the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, has huge implications for India-Pakistan relations. Knowledgeable Afghans and Indian government officials suspect that the suicide bombers who tried to storm the Indian consulate were Pakistani nationals or abetted by Pakistani intelligence agencies. The bloody turf war between South Asia’s old rivals for influence over the gateway to Central Asia is well and truly undiminished.

It is worth remembering that the same Indian consulate in Jalalabad had been attacked previously in 2007, while the Indian embassy in Kabul has been rocked twice by daring jihadist strikes in 2008 and 2009. The fact that India did not lose any of its citizens in the latest outrage at Jalalabad shows that some of the lessons in security and protocol it has adopted in Afghanistan are working. But this does not take away from the larger problem that Afghanistan is now a core issue that bedevils India-Pakistan ties.

Most conventional analyses of India-Pakistan tensions focus on direct bilateral concerns like territorial claims, water sharing, cross-border violence and the separatist aspirations of populations in disputed lands. The brutality of the armed forces on the Line of Control and the futility of bringing perpetrators of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai stand out as particularly troublesome aspects.

But the attack in Jalalabad, a traditional hunting ground for jihadist groups allied with elements of the Pakistani state, reveals that a final settlement between New Delhi and Islamabad has no option but to travel via the detour of Kabul.

I recently spoke with the Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Salman Bashir, on the Afghanistan factor in the state of current relations between the two countries. Mr. Bashir was categorical that Pakistan would not be opposed to extending the range of dialogue with India beyond the bilateral frame and moving into broader terrain about regional geopolitical tussles that have colored the historical animus between the two nations.

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On Afghanistan, Bashir said that he did not think India and Pakistan were locked in any fundamental clash of interests. Rather, he reiterated the diplomatic stance that Islamabad wants to see the same end result in Afghanistan as New Delhi, viz. a national reconciliation and end to the war via an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process. “We do not believe that foreign intervention can ever stabilize Afghanistan or lead it to peace,” he added.

For a land that has suffered historically due to foreign interventions, the idea of all big foreign players backing off and allowing Afghans to determine their own fates is an attractive one. Abstractly speaking, it does also bind New Delhi and Islamabad and places them on the same page. But going from a statement of generic, in-principle, agreement to walking the talk and implementing foreign policies that are genuinely non-interventionist in Afghanistan is an entirely different proposition.

In the Pakistani narrative, India is proliferating consulates all over Afghanistan with a view to counter and weaken Islamabad’s commanding presence in that country. Islamabad also alleges that New Delhi is using Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan to finance and arm anti-Pakistan separatist rebels of Balochistan (which borders south-eastern Afghanistan). The indisputable fact that India has some military and intelligence assets operating under cover in Afghanistan feeds into Pakistani phobias that India has a larger vested agenda in that country to geopolitically flank and hem in Pakistan from both sides of its borders.

On the other hand, the Indian version of why Afghanistan has become a breeding ground for Islamic extremists and endless war points the finger of blame sorely at the Pakistani army’s machinations to consolidate its old “strategic depth” concept. An Afghanistan that is totally controlled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is a nightmarish scenario for many in New Delhi who explicitly hope that the American occupation forces in Afghanistan extend their presence in order to hold Islamabad’s menacing shadow in check.

For years now, the prospect of a vacuum in Afghanistan as the Americans drawdown from their longest overseas war has forged deep insecurities among elites in India and Pakistan that one or the other country would try to fill in the void by imposing itself on a hapless Afghanistan.

By virtue of geography, ethnic commonality, and hosting of millions of refugees, Pakistan has a natural advantage over India in Afghanistan. The responsibility of ensuring what High Commissioner Bashir emphasizes as “non-intervention” in Afghanistan falls relatively more on his own country, because it is widely accepted that, after the U.S., Pakistan has been the most interventionist player in the wars that have plagued Afghanistan.

Most Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds believe that Pakistan has sway over the Taliban unlike no other international actor, and many oppose what they perceive as Islamabad’s manipulation of jihadist proxies that leave Afghanistan boiling. Opposition to India’s diplomatic presence and infrastructural investments in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is not prevalent among ordinary Afghans or the Afghan state establishment.

Absence of geographical contiguity and the lack of any bilateral territorial controversy between Afghanistan and India mean that lay Afghan civilians are less wary of Indian motives and activities on their soil than they are about Pakistani behavior.     

India’s presence in Afghanistan is understandably unsettling to hawks in the Pakistani establishment, but the former’s footprint in that country is lighter than what Islamabad has built up since the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. A pointed dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad on a truce in Afghanistan could begin by stressing differentiated responsibilities instead of mooting unreal parity or equality of fault.

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Should Pakistan move two steps back from Afghanistan, India can offer a reciprocal one step back. A coordinated strategic withdrawal by India and Pakistan will do more wonders to the Afghan peace process than the American troop withdrawal. India has rightly refused to contemplate terminating all its civilian aid projects in Afghanistan. But India could come to an understanding with Pakistan on strategic measures that can help lessen the terrorist threat that shadows Indian diplomats and citizens in Afghanistan.       

If India and Pakistan cannot agree on a modus vivendi to calm Afghanistan when a moderate Prime Minister like Nawaz Sharif is in power, the two nations can never hope to bury the hatchet. It is time for both Delhi and Islamabad to embark on a new confidence building measure: stabilizing Kabul. 

Sreeram Chaulia is a Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His latest book, Politics of the Global Economic Crisis: Regulation, Responsibility and Radicalism is due out from Routledge shortly.