Ensnare Pakistan in Afghanistan
Sushant Sareen

With the Americans having conceded a central role to Pakistan in the latest round of the never-ending ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan, the spectre of Taliban returning to power in Kabul is all too real for countries with vital interests in Afghanistan to ignore. Unfortunately, despite sharing deep antipathy for the Taliban, important regional powers like India, Iran and Russia are unable to read from the same page on how to counter Pakistan's pernicious game-plan in Afghanistan which also holds extremely serious ramifications for their own security. This has a lot to do with the fact that as of now the interests of these three countries, which had cooperated closely against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, are like skew lines. All three of them seem to be waiting and watching how events unfold in Afghanistan before they decide their next move.

More than anything else, the Iranians, who unlike India and Russia share a border with Afghanistan, are interested in seeing the back of the Americans from the region. By projecting that everything will sort itself out once the Americans exit from the region, the Iranians appear to be in a denial mode of Pakistani proportions. Of course, quite like the Pakistanis, the Iranians too haven’t thought things through on what will happen once the foreign forces abandon Afghanistan to the brutality and barbarism of the Taliban, much less the impact of this on their own country.

As far as Iran is concerned, the US is a bigger and more immediate threat than the Taliban. Indeed, many Afghans allege that Iran is covertly supporting and providing sanctuary to sections of both Taliban and Al Qaeda against the Americans. And while the prospect of Pakistan calling the shots on what happens in Afghanistan is anathema for India, Iran is much less antagonistic to seeing the Pakistanis in the driving seat in Afghanistan and feels that it can do business with Pakistan.

With the US in a withdrawal mode, the conviction that they will leave (timing is hardly important) is driving the strategising of regional powers. The defeatism that has descended on the foreign forces, fuelled in no small measure by the too clever by half peace deals and plans that the British are hard-selling to the Americans, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and is, in a sense, making the US irrelevant to the future plans of regional players like India in Afghanistan. So much so that even the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, appears to have lost confidence in the Americans. He appears increasingly inclined to go over the head of his American benefactors to try and strike some sort of a deal with the Pakistanis who are pushing for an accommodation with Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is not only the de facto head of the infamous Haqqani network and a close ally of both Al Qaeda and Taliban supremo Mullah Omar, but also a ‘strategic asset’ of Pakistan.

Karzai, like most other Afghans (including large sections of the Taliban), has little love lost for Pakistan. But he is left with very little choice except to try and see if he can gain something by playing along with the Pakistanis. He probably understands that he will survive so long as the Pakistanis see some utility in him. Karzai is too steeped in the treacherous world of Afghan politics to be not under any illusion that while the Taliban and their allies might open a dialogue with him, they will do a ‘Najibullah’ on him the moment they get a chance.

While Karzai is probably hoping that a dialogue with sections of the combatants splitting the Taliban movement, warlords like Sirajuddin Haqqani have entered into a dialogue for their own reasons. Quite aside the Afghan culture of combatants holding a dialogue even as they fight, Haqqani readiness to talk to Karzai on Pakistani nudging is nothing if not classical deception. He knows that the insurgency in Afghanistan has reached the tipping point. The last thing that the Islamists would want at this stage is a military offensive by Pakistan in their redoubt of North Waziristan which could disrupt and degrade the potency of the insurgency by denying the insurgents a safe haven. The charade of talks is only a ploy to forestall any possibility of a military operation in North Waziristan.

Like Karzai, India too is being forced to re-evaluate and re-work its policy options in Afghanistan. India’s problem is that until now it has been riding on the back of the US to build its influence in Afghanistan. But now the seeds of an independent Afghan policy, not dependent on the Americans, are germinating. But what shape this policy takes – whether India adopts an aggressive ‘forward’ frontier policy or slips into ‘masterly inactivity’ or even decides on a half-way house between these two extremes – is still not clear. To a large extent, the policy will depend on the objectives India sets for itself in Afghanistan. Strategically, India would like to see a stable and friendly Afghanistan which doesn’t become a playground for Pakistan's sinister strategic designs in the region. Interestingly, this objective can be achieved not only if Afghanistan remains stable, friendly and immune to Pakistan's baleful influence but also if Afghanistan descends into chaos and civil war, something that will most likely happen as and when the foreign forces quit leaving behind enormous quantity of arms and ammunition and propping up proxies to carry on the fight.

One big problem that India faces in following a ‘forward policy’ is that it has to tie up with Iran and/or Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours to implement such a policy. But with Iran operating on quite a different plane than India, the complexities of a ‘forward policy’ increase, more so because of the logistics involved in operating through Central Asian states like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Perhaps, if and when the American withdrawal starts, Iran too might review its policy on Afghanistan and find it in its interest to tie up with India. Until then, India will, more or less, have to play the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan on its own.

The sense of resigned acceptance developing in some policy making quarters in India to imminent marginalisation in Afghanistan because of the apparent compact between Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani military establishment is quite needless simply because all is never lost in Afghanistan for all times to come. The situation in Afghanistan is always fluid and can change rapidly, practically overnight, making underdogs top-dogs and vice versa. The chances of Pakistan being able to manage Afghanistan for any length of time are, therefore, negligible, even less so given Pakistan's bankrupt economy and its society which is at war with itself? Eventually, Pakistan will get sucked into the Afghan vortex. The real existential challenge to Pakistan is not from India; it is from Afghanistan, and it must be India’s endeavour to force Pakistan to divert all its attention, energy and resources from its eastern border with India to its western border with Afghanistan.

Given the dialectics of Afghanistan, it perhaps makes a lot more sense for India to build leverages and create conditions that converts Afghanistan into a strategic black-hole for Pakistan. In other words, instead of trying to keep Pakistan out of Afghanistan, India needs to devise a policy that aims to draw Pakistan deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire.

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