William Dalrymple’s â€œdeadly triangleâ€ that comprises India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is going through a number of important events these days and the developments might give regional peace and stability some trying times ahead. But, the question arises here that whether the region would continue to face the same old challenges when the new leadership is at the helm in these three countries. Keeping in view the recent initiatives, and the fact that Indian and Pakistani governments have unprecedented political power while Afghanistan has a resilient government, it can be said that there is every possibility that the leadership of these countries would launch a sustainable process of cooperation to stabilise the region.
At present, Taliban and ISIS continue to establish their military networks in areas of Afghanistan vacated by the US and UK forces. The Taliban are making advancements in Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, Nooristan, Badakhshan, Kundoz and Ghazni provinces with the support of the local population alienated by the Afghan police and Afghan National Army (ANA). Afghanistan is fluttering its wings for another civil war. This war may see new domestic and international players sharing their guns with the Afghan army, local militias, Taliban and the ISIS.
Faced with the prospect of a military vacuum, Nato and the ISAF are withdrawing from the country anytime soon. That’s why Afghanistan now wants to cling to India for stability and a military build-up. Afghanistan wants a bigger Indian role and in this context the recent visit of India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to Kabul is extremely significant.
From Kabul’s perspective, India’s role and its military deployment will help the country defeat the Taliban insurgents. The Afghan government wants to bolster its ethnically divided army with big ticket military hardware from India and Russia. The new President, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, realises the importance of China as well as Pakistan. That’s the reason why he headed to China for crucial talks, only days after he assumed the office of the president. His next stop was Pakistan where after holding initial talks with senior officials in the Pakistani capital, he and Afghan army chief General Sher Muhamad visited the GHQ in Rawalpindi in what is being described as a significant development in Pak-Afghan ties.
Now, with the withdrawal of US forces from the country, new players like China, Russia, India and Pakistan are expected to fortify their strategic interests. India’s relations with Afghanistan have improved steadily since the fall of the Taliban but relations with Pakistan have been traditionally strained.
India needs to walk slowly into mountainous Afghanistan because the return of the Taliban or other anti-India forces might pose a major threat to its interests in the near future. It is also true that to preserve its strategic interests in Afghanistan, India will need close cooperation and coordination with Pakistan and China.
But, keeping in view this scenario, there is a degree of hope amidst scepticism in forecasting regional stability beyond 2014.
There are, however, reasons for this scepticism.
India’s relations with Afghanistan in the past have been a source of concern for Pakistan because New Delhi’s military support and intelligence cooperation with Kabul has exacerbated its security challenges. Conversely, India suspects that the attacks on its personnel and infrastructure in Afghanistan are not entirely indigenous. There is also a concern that there may be a spectacular terrorist â€“ even if false flag – attack in India which may reverse the embryonic reconciliation process with Pakistan. Such an incident would test Modi’s election promise that he would not exercise past restraint if the attack turns out to be linked to entities that are considered quasi-state sponsored.
The most critical challenge to stabilise the region would be to ensure that any movement across the Afghan-Pakistan border does not lead to a spike in terrorism in Afghanistan, India or Pakistan. The common goal would, then, be to continually ensure that the Taliban and other militant outfits are contained in their locations.
Terrorism is a regional concern and the acts of terrorism are not unidirectional. Bilateral Indo-Afghan intelligence cooperation should, at least, be trilateral and include Pakistan. The cooperation should involve intelligence sharing, as encapsulated in the 2009 Sharm el Sheikh statement after a prime ministerial summit between India and Pakistan. Effective intelligence cooperation would reduce the chances of destabilising terrorist incidents.
The prospective intelligence cooperation would remain ephemeral until there is consensus amongst the regional countries and other players regarding strict non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. This policy of non-interference would also imply that the Afghan territory has no scope for anyone using it to destabilise others. Such interference can be consequential, destabilising for the region and would run against the pre-election goals of the leaders who hold the reins in India and Afghanistan.
Until the three states fully commit to trilateral cooperation in stabilising Afghanistan, the times beyond 2014 would be a new Dickensian, ‘Tale of Three Cities’. These would only be the worst of times; it would be age of foolishness; it would be an epoch of incredulity. Afghanistan, India and Pakistan make the most populous region in the world and regional cooperation is the only panacea for 2015 and beyond. Being the larger states, the onus lies primarily on India and Pakistan.