Afghanistan, a landlocked country, is located in a strategic location, connecting Central Asia to South Asia and East Asia to West Asia. For centuries, it functioned as the economic corridor for the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes in the region. The political rifts and instability in Afghanistan are often attributed to its strategic location, since major powers have always tried to control Afghanistan in the interest of spreading their political, economic, and ideological hegemony in the region.
Despite being a member of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, the confrontations between the two main power blocs had dragged Afghanistan into hostilities, turning it into a battlefield. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was left alone, drifting into civil war among different guerrilla Mujahideen groups, supported by the neighboring states. Eventually Pakistan managed to nurture and sponsor the Taliban that then controlled most of the country until they were overthrown by the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.
Since their independence, India and Pakistan have been engaged in a protracted mutual hostility, with each country seeking to enhance its security and self-protection. To this end, they have acquired nuclear weapons, purchased sophisticated military technologies, and partnered with powerful states. Moves by one of them would cause the other to feel suspicious and insecure. However, the main reason behind the escalation of a spiral of distrust and hostility is due to the misinterpretation of motives and intentions by the decision-makers in both countries. As a result, both New Delhi and Islamabad seem to be trapped in what international relations scholars would describe as a security dilemma. This has borne costs, such as direct military conflicts between the two countries or, more recently, smaller skirmishes.
In the post-Taliban era, besides other donors in Afghanistan, India has played a significant role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan by providing development assistance worth $2 billion, focusing primarily on infrastructure development, institutional capacity building, agriculture and food security, health, education, and scholarship programs. In contrast, Pakistan, itself being dependent on the security and development assistance of the United States and China, had not been in the position to provide substantial contributions to Afghanistan. Pakistan has however been wary of India’s active role. In other words, Islamabad considers a stable, friendly, and cooperative Afghanistan only beneficial when it is under its influence and with limited Indian ties. Pakistan perceives India’s development contributions in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategic encirclement policy, counteracting Islamabad’s strategic depth policy.
However, Afghanistan does not expect Pakistan to meet India’s development assistance, but to stop harboring and supporting the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups. Time and again, President Ashraf Ghani, in the strongest words possible, urged Islamabad to put an end to its undeclared war and crack down on the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network on their soil. Ghani, in an interview withPakistan’s Geo News last month, reiterated that Afghanistan is not part of any one country’s strategic depth, nor is it going to be anyone’s dependency. Whoever has tried this in the past has failed, Ghani warned. He also assured that he will not permit his country to be used for the destabilization of other countries – particularly the neighborhood. However, he emphasized that as a sovereign state, Afghanistan is free to strike partnerships with any state without posing a threat to others, which is the essence of regional stability and prosperity.
In the past decade and a half, Afghanistan, with the partnership of neighboring states, inked a series of regional infrastructure projects — among them the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission project. Both are not only pivotal for the future of Afghanistan, but also for other signatories in the region. As a landlocked state, it ultimately gained direct access to Chabahar port with the partnership of Iran and India. This port should by no means be seen as a competition to other efforts in the region—especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—but a necessity for regional trade and economic cooperation.
Pakistan’s strategic depth policy has not only failed but also brought Islamabad in a critical situation in which it will not be able to continue its duplicity – supporting and harboring the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other insurgent groups in its soil, while also expecting to receive U.S financial support. Washington, has already showed its frustration by withholding $ 300 million in military assistance. If Islamabad does not change its policy,U.S Congressmen and former U.S diplomats suggested not only to cut off the overall financial support but also impose economic sanctions to push Pakistan into a North Korea-type of isolation. Islamabad must take action to win the support of its oldest military ally, who has provided military and development assistance for decades. Islamabad should also acknowledge that Kabul has the sovereign right to establish partnerships with other states; it should not be wary of, doubt, or exaggerate the presence and cooperation of the United States and India in Afghanistan.
New Delhi is equally part of the paradigm in Afghanistan because of its development contribution and security assistance. Islamabad often claims that the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies jointly support the Baloch separate movement. Thus, considering the sensitive security environment in Afghanistan and the region, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech during the Indian independence day, highlighted Pakistan’s atrocities and oppression in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, while refusing to acknowledge parallel atrocities and human right violations in India-administered Kashmir. This will further aggravate security challenges in Afghanistan as Islamabad will remain vigilant and suspicious of India’s active presence across the porous and insecure border.
Since taking office, President Ghani tried to establish good relations with Islamabad but his rapprochement efforts didn’t succeed. Being trapped between India and Pakistan, Kabul is also to some extent part of the problem, since President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have not been able to tackle the epidemic corruption in the security sector and have appointed incompetent officials from their political camps. In the past few months, moreover, Kabul witnessed a range of horrific and brutal attacks that have borne a high toll. Thus, Kabul should take responsibility for ensuring security and stability throughout the country rather than blaming neighbors for its incompetency. Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to work together on the agreed national reform agenda that the National Unity Government was formed on back in 2014. Abdullah recently criticized Ghani for not consulting with him on key decisions; their unity is at the brink of dismantling while only less than two months are left before the 2016 Brussels Conference on Afghanistan.
The murky relations between these three neighbors in South Asia will have direct implications on the peace, security, prosperity, and stability of the broader region. India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan must understand that basing policy on illusions and supported by unrealistic rhetoric will deepen mistrust. Instead, they must pursue rapprochement by addressing differences between them, strengthening state-to-state partnerships, and further confidence building measures.
Najibullah Noorzai is a researcher and development analyst. He worked for the European Union and the United Nations in the areas of rule of law, counter-narcotics, and anti-corruption in Afghanistan. He tweets @NajNoorzai.