South Asia hosts eight Saarc states namely Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan. The region comprises most ancient cultures in the world, housing over a fifth of population. South Asia holds a significant strategic importance because of its geography (warm water access and numerous resources) and strategic location. The region became more significant after India and Pakistan declared their nuclear status. The world understands that the nuclear weapons in South Asia are alarming for the rest of the world.
South Asia has always been a source of strategic and economic attraction for regional and international powers. From ancient Central Asian invaders and Medieval Muslim conquerors to European colonisers, this resource-rich region has assumed irreversible significance even in the modern era. For instance, during the Cold War period, the capitalist world under the leadership of the US, and the communist bloc led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) sought to win allies in modern South Asia. Little wonder then, post-partition India, ensconced in the Nehruvian understanding of global capital and politics, opted to apparently stay non-aligned. However, the Indian state, in real terms, could not hide its socialist inclinations that were only to be thwarted during the 1962 Sino-India war. On the other hand, Pakistan, from very early on, chose to ally with the US and its allies. Pakistan’s strategic vision was largely shaped by the individual, if not institutional, socialisation of its first generation political and bureaucratic leaderships.
Beside India and Pakistan, Afghanistan has also been an active actor in regional politics. Indeed, since the Czarist days, Russians looked to Afghanistan for strategic, political and economic penetration inside South Asia and beyond. Moreover, the modern Indian state viewed Afghanistan as a potential source to make inroads into Central Asia along with the containment of Pakistan. Paradoxically, Afghanistan declined to recognise Pakistan as a sovereign and independent state in 1947, more on account of its nationalistic aspirations than any conspiracy theory. However, once grounded in the Afghan state mentality, mutual distrust further grew, especially during the 1970s.
The following decade did bring Pakistan almost into mainstream Afghanistan strategically, economically and even politically. The US and the USSR fought the final round of the Cold War, which ended in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. In the post-Cold War period, South Asian politics and economy were greatly influenced by political and strategic developments that engulfed the poor and war-ravaged country. By and large, there is now a consensus among the scholarly and political communities that Washington’s engagement level with Afghanistan was much lower during the 90s. By default, this provided an opportunity to both Pakistan and India, along with other regional stakeholders, such as Iran and China, to make and maintain a strategic presence inside Afghanistan.
The so-called strategic depth doctrine can be seen in this respect. Unsurprisingly then, Pakistan became one of the three states to recognise the establishment of an Islamic state by the Taliban in 1996. Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Iran and India, viewed the Taliban government in oppositional terms. The US, which was least interested in the strategic game in South Asia, became the topmost stakeholder not only in South Asia but also Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. ‘Either with or against us’ was the communicated policy of the US to bring a strategic paradigm shift in South Asia.
Acting very rationally, Musharraf-led Pakistan saw more benefits than cost in cooperation with the global superpower. This apparent policy shift on the part of the Pakistani security establishment gave birth to concepts such as soft strategic depth, which believed in cooperation with Western powers, the Taliban and the like simultaneously. Moreover, regional actors, India in particular, also sought to cultivate the Afghan power elite in the hopes of building a long-term relationship based on mutual exchange of views and products. Iran and China also became alert given their security and commercial concerns. In other words, since the replacement of the Taliban-led Islamic state with the Karzai-led nation state, international and regional actors engaged each other in a constant game of strategic, political and socio-economic influence building. Collectively, the US played the role of an arbitrator and financer of such activism. Afghanistan and Pakistan were the chief beneficiaries, at least economically. Nevertheless, Pakistan did face the human and infrastructural cost of the conflict but this is largely because of our ambiguous strategic policy for the South Asian region.
Now that the US has already pursued its (partial) withdrawal policy, the political and strategic situation that Afghanistan and South Asia are likely to face demands our serious attention. How will Ghani-Abdullah-led Afghanistan rebuild itself? What role can the US and its NATO allies play in this respect? How are Russia and China viewing the political change in Kabul? Is Pakistan going to fully support the new political setup? Will India agree to Pakistan’s role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan? What role can be played by Iran? These are some relevant questions that need to be addressed by policymakers, academics, etc. More importantly, owing to its involvement in Afghanistan’s internal matters, Pakistan, at this critical juncture, needs to decide for its own larger interests whether it has concluded a meaningful revisit of its strategic vision of South Asia and the world around it. In this respect, the recent public statements by the former army chief (Pervez Musharraf) and the serving army chief (Raheel Sharif) merit attention. The former lamented the recognition of the Taliban government by the Pakistan state whereas General Raheel Sharif, while referring to Pakistan’s efforts in the war on terror, argued that â€œthe enemy lives within us and looks like usâ€.
One wonders why the former general was criticised by the US and others for playing a dual policy with respect to the Taliban whose government was recognised by the Pakistan military. Why did he not realise the flaws in the recognition policy when he was ruling the roost? General Raheel Sharif’s statement can be contextualised in his recent visit to the US. Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, if not in South Asia, has been termed as a â€œbinding forceâ€ by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Monetary assistance assured the other day, under the terms of the Coalition Support Fund, is still conditional. This, in the view of Dr Ehsan Ahrari, who has advised the Obama Administration on Pakistan and Afghanistan. He points to the fact that the US is still not clear and satisfied with the strategic policy of the Pakistani security establishment. By default, this also complicates the debate on the strategic paradigm shift in South Asia. In order to be revered regionally and globally, this is the time Pakistan should engage itself in a serious debate on its grand policy.