international analysis and commentary

The India factor in the “AfPak” conundrum

No armed conflict in the world is as tangled as the one the Obama administration began calling “AfPak” when it came into office – referring to the geopolitical continuum of Afghanistan and Pakistan. No armed conflict encompasses so many diverse and dangerous elements. These include the leadership of al Qaeda, a failed Afghan state, a struggling Pakistani one and a sub-continental nuclear rivalry. India is both at the periphery and the center of the AfPak crisis.

India has no contiguous border with Afghanistan. It has no direct involvement in the fighting there. It strongly supports the US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in Afghanistan. But its support is limited to development aid and holding the hand of President Hamid Karzai. Yet, in an important respect New Delhi is at the heart of the problem because India is Pakistan’s overriding security obsession. It is this obsession that makes Pakistan determined to provide succor to at least a portion of the Taliban. As Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke likes to tell Indian interlocutors: “India says it has nothing to say about Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Pakistan won’t talk about anything except India.” 

It is an open secret that Pakistan has played a double game with the US when it comes to Afghanistan. Islamabad mobilizes its military against the so-called “Pakistan Taliban” who have been launching attacks against the Pakistani state. It provides only half-hearted support to the US against the “Afghan Taliban” – a militant conglomerate whose most prominent members are Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Islamabad has adopted this hedging strategy because it fears being caught between hostile regimes in Afghanistan and India. It believes its only guarantee against this is to ensure that the Afghan Taliban are part of whatever dispensation rules in Kabul. Its best-case scenario is a US withdrawal that would allow Omar and Haqqani to take over in Kabul. Its fallback position is for the Taliban to share power in Kabul – in other words, reconciling the Taliban with Karzai.

Islamabad has argued with Washington that the US should pressure India to reduce its profile in Afghanistan and make concessions on the long-standing Kashmir dispute. Aware of India’s prickliness regarding foreign policy guidance from third countries and unwilling to harm a nascent bilateral relationship with India, Washington has, Indian officials say, “only gone through the motions.” Many in Washington also believe that even if India reduced its presence in Afghanistan to nothing, Pakistan would still insist on an Afghanistan that took its cue from Islamabad. This school, taking its cue from scholars like Chatham House’s Farzana Shaikh, argues Pakistan’s problems are less about India than its own distorted internal political setup.

Finding the right mix of carrots and sticks, that would persuade Pakistan to give up pursuing a quasi-colonization of Afghanistan through its quasi-allies (the Afghan Taliban), lies at the heart of the AfPak conundrum.

The Obama administration would love to end the US military role in Afghanistan. However, Washington has more or less concluded that a withdrawal in the present circumstances would almost certainly mean a Taliban takeover. That, in turn, would mean the resurfacing of al Qaeda and continued attacks against the US elsewhere – but this time with the benefit of a state sponsor.

There are other schools of thought. isolationists argue for the US to withdraw, and use aerial drones to keep al Qaeda off balance. Both the Afghan Taliban and, more discreetly, the Pakistani military have argued that a new Taliban regime would have nothing to do with al Qaeda and that the US would never have to face another September 11th-style attack. These positions have been treated with skepticism in the White House, though some Democratic Party leaders – and several European governments – take them at face value.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who argue that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would be likely to turn on Pakistan. And this would even place the latter country’s nuclear arsenal in jeopardy.  

In India’s view, based on official and unofficial discussions with the Obama administration, the US has come to accept it has little choice but to stay the course in Afghanistan. However, Obama’s need to placate the left wing of his own party means political calculations are muddying military strategy: this is why the logic of US political and military strategy in Afghanistan is marked by bouts of inconsistency.

For example, India believes the announcement of the US policy of trying to win over lower-rung Taliban fighters with money should have followed rather than preceded the present military “surge”. In any case, there is enough inconsistency in US policy for India to maintain an Afghan hedge, however weak. Which is why it keeps an open line of communication with Tehran and Moscow on Afghanistan. India was initially surprised by the emphasis on “reconciliation” at the London conference on Afghanistan last January, though Washington was quick to reassure that it believed in “reintegration” of low-level Taliban soldiers and not power-sharing in Kabul. 

There are few governments as fervently supportive as New Delhi of the US military posture in Afghanistan, hoping that Washington will fight “as long as it takes.” India publicly opposes “quick exit strategies”, privately referring to such thinking collectively as “the British school”: a Taliban return would only mean increased terrorist activity within Indian borders.

But despite the large stakes it sees in the West’s struggle in Afghanistan, India plays a relatively passive role in that country. There are three reasons for this.
First, India is constrained from playing a significant military role because of the Pakistani military’s fears of having Indian troops on both its western and eastern borders. India offered a blank check to President George W. Bush after the Taliban fell, but the then Pakistani ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, made it clear that his cooperation in the war against terror was contingent on a non-role for India. This has not stopped India from deploying over 4000 soldiers in Afghanistan – largely to guard its aid workers.

Second, India broadly believes the US will have to stay the course in Afghanistan: attempts to negotiate with Omar and Haqqani are bound to fail simply because the Afghan Taliban believe they are winning the war. And it is these two leaders who carry out the bulk of the attacks on ISAF troops in Afghanistan.

Third, India believes the ultimate origin of Afghanistan’s ills lies in Pakistan. The focus of Indian policy has not been Kabul but Islamabad. And the focus of Indo-US cooperation on AfPak policy has been on how closely they can work together on “managing” Pakistan. New Delhi and Washington, for example, agree that the primary desire of hardliners in the Pakistani military is to trigger an Indo-Pakistani crisis and provide an excuse for Pakistan to abandon its anti-Taliban troop deployments to the west of the country. Hence India’s restraint in not mobilizing its military after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 – despite Pakistani involvement.

India also agrees with Washington that it should attempt a dialogue with Pakistan to ease the latter’s increasing sense of siege. Polls in Pakistan show that a majority of urban Pakistanis believe the terrorist attacks within their country are a conspiracy hatched by the US, India and Israel working together.

However, New Delhi has insisted there must be no third country role in such talks as this would make them impossible to sell domestically. Which is why the two countries have held semi-secret “back channel” diplomatic negotiations for over six years independently of the lackluster official talks.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is, according to his aides, determined to use his considerable political capital to find a common ground with Pakistan. This is partly personal: his birthplace is in Pakistan. But it is also driven by a fervent belief that Pakistan, as he says, constitutes the only “external constraint” on the rise of India.

Pakistanis hate the term “AfPak” because it implies that they are in the same league as Afghans. Also, for the military in particular their Afghanistan strategy is merely a subset of their India policy. Therefore, for Islamabad this is really an “AfInd” issue.  India and the US have come to accept that this is the reality. And New Delhi has been trying to ease Pakistan’s insecurity. 

Whether any of this will work is, in the final analysis, dependent on whether Pakistan can arrest its own internal decay. The real issue, in other words, may actually be “PakPak”.