The paramount geostrategic significance of the strife-torn Afghanistan lies in its offering a gateway to Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. And, this very fact explains the voraciousness of various regional actors to hold sway over Afghanistan. The country is often termed as the “Graveyard of Empires” owing to its long history of successful resistance to external incursions.
India is one of the major claimants of preponderance in the war-ridden state of Afghanistan. With broader objectives in the country, India has been tactically leveraging its soft power strategy; apparently sticking to civilian rather than military prowess. Historically, India and Afghanistan have shared a good deal of commonalities, if not affinities, because of the former’s subjugation under the Afghan rulers for rather a longer time. However, Afghanistan especially in the wake of 9/11 and under former president Hamid Karzai tilted heavily toward India, and the relations between the two countries solidified considerably as a result of India’s backing of the Northern Alliance against Pakistan-sponsored Taliban.
Afghanistan’s leaning toward New Delhi has generally been interpreted as sending out signals to Islamabad to meaningfully engage in Afghan peace process. Between New Delhi and Islamabad, at least initially, the new regime in Afghanistan seemed to be courting the latter, reflecting that until Islamabad, being a major stakeholder, was taken on board, no peace initiative would yield any fruit. Following this line, shortly after swearing in, Dr Ashraf Ghani flew to Islamabad to dispel the misunderstandings and ask Islamabad to persuade the Taliban to be on the negotiating table. As the Pakistan army mounted the Zarb-e-Azab offensive, giving a fatal blow to terrorists and chasing them away from their sanctuaries; many of them fled to Afghanistan whence they let loose lethal terrorist attacks not only in Afghanistan, but Pakistan as well.
Insurgency in Kabul, which claimed 56 lives, and fatal suicide attacks near Police Academy, US Special Academy and Army Complex, again invited the wrath of the Afghans on Pakistan for its purported insurgent training camps, and pampering of ‘Good Taliban’. Granted such a huge Indian investment in Afghanistan’s different sectors, and the Afghan regime’s betrayal allegedly by Islamabad, India has bolstered its place well in Kabul and is now being increasingly seen as a reliable friend.
The first and foremost, viewed from the perspective of the geostrategic location of Afghanistan, India’s own security is staked if Kabul lapses into instability and chaos. Firstly, an explosive Afghanistan would hang like the sword of Damocles over its head, as was the case in the past; the terrorists using Afghanistan as a base to plot against Indian targets haunted India. Secondly, neutralizing what is termed “Pakistan’s strategic depth” with its “encirclement policy” may be the chief factor for India to hold field in Afghanistan. Encirclement, a term used in warfare, denotes a war measure that isolates some area of importance to the enemy.
Another factor buckling India and Afghanistan is the former’s capabilities and resources. India is the fifth largest donor to Afghanistan, furnishing huge assistance focusing on infrastructure, humanitarian needs, engineering and training, etc. A number of Afghan civil servants are being trained in the Indian academies. As a symbolic gift of democracy to Afghanistan, India shouldered the construction of the new parliament building. Additionally, India is the first country to sign a security pact with Afghanistan named ‘Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which commits India to furnish military assistance both in terms of training Afghan personnel and providing them with equipment.
Previously, Karzai regime succeeded in obtaining 105mm howitzer artillery pieces; whilst in case of President Ghani’s overture to India, Afghanistan received Mi-25 gunships. This time, the Indian aid to Afghanistan must be plentiful, as the pivot is led by the US. Moreover, during his visit to the Ministry of India, the Afghan Army Chief requested more and more technical support.
Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, in a speech delivered in Afghanistan while alluding to the Pakistani apprehension of being driven up against the wall said, “India is here to contribute, and not to compete; to lay the foundations of the future.”
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, India’s goals in Afghanistan are plainly to deny Pakistan the strategic depth. Given the Indian sinister activities of fuelling up the fissiparous sentiment, inciting insurgency in Balochistan, and using Afghan soil to mount terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, Pakistan’s scepticism is not unwarranted.
As it goes ‘You can change friends but not neighbours.’ Apart from geostrategic reasons, there are a number of factors on account of which Pakistan just cannot afford to get along with strained relations with Afghanistan. Having a long border in shape of Durand Line, it shares common cultural, religious, historical and racial ties with it. However, growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, and latter’s acquiescing to its soil to be used against Pakistan is no less than an existential threat to Islamabad. Recently, Pakistani authorities, albeit with concrete evidence, levelled the charges against New Delhi of recent terrorist attacks as orchestrated by India-backed militants from Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s fears are rooted in the following grounds:
1) The policy of ‘Strategic Depth’ interwoven in Pak-Afghan ties. Strategic depth, in military terms, refers to the internal distance within a state from its Forward Defended Localities (FDLs) or the distance from the frontline to its centre of gravity or heartland, its core population areas or important cities or industrial installations. The term was coined by the former army chief, and an NDU professor, Mirza Aslam Baig.
2) Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan is India-centric. Pakistan seeks to have a strategic depth with the notion of a client state being Afghanistan that would let Pakistan armed forces install military assets in Afghanistan in case of war with India.
3) Pakistan’s fears are grounded in the fact that growing Indian influence is detrimental to Pakistan’s position as an important neighbour. Conversely, Pakistan’s leading role in Afghanistan is likely to take a toll on India’s objectives in Afghanistan.
Lately, the Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, briefed the media on these developments and said that India is using Afghan soil to carry out attacks inside Pakistan, however, adding that Indian involvement had decreased since the adoption of a joint Pak-Afghan policy not to let their soils to be used against each other.
The US and the Afghan Pivot to India
In a bid to cut through red tape in leading Afghan pivot to India US Secretary of State John Kerry has fixed up a trilateral dialogue of the United States, India and Afghanistan. This move clearly bespeaks Pakistan’s dwindling strategic importance as a leading actor in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India in the eyes of the US. Furthermore, the US’s decision of rescinding several defence contracts with Pakistan was a clear signal to Islamabad that it no longer tolerated the latter’s overt or covert patronage of Taliban, and any kind of interference in the war-ravaged Afghanistan. Undeniably, the US wants India to purposefully continue its role in Afghanistan.
During his visit to New Delhi, John Kerry said: “Clearly it is in India’s interest as it is in Afghanistan’s interest and our interest and Pakistan’s interest, frankly, to have a peaceful and stable Afghanistan that is no longer under siege from the Taliban or from any other group that uses its territory to propagate terror.”
If India really wills to help Afghanistan in its rehabilitation process, Pakistan must welcome it; provided that Indian collaboration in Afghanistan entails no Indian troops to be stationed on Afghan soil. For its part, Pakistan should try in good will to facilitate Afghan peace process, getting Taliban on board to engage meaningfully in a dialogue, and should extend every possible material support to help Afghanistan to rebuild itself, for stability in Afghanistan means stability in Pakistan.