Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
India-Afghan strategic pact:the beginnings of regional integration
A strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan would ordinarily have evoked howls of protest from Pakistan which has long regarded its western neighbour as part of its sphere of influence. Islamabad has, in the past, made no secret of its displeasure at India’s role in Afghanistan including a$2 billion aid effort that has won it goodwill among the Afghan people, but which Pakistan sees as New Delhi’s way to expand influence.
Instead the reaction to the pact signed last month during President Hamid Karzai’s visit to New Delhi, the first Kabul had done with any country, was decidedly muted. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said India and Afghanistan were “both sovereign countries and they have the right to do whatever they want to.” The Pakistani foreign office echoed Gilani’s comments, adding only that regional stability should be preserved. It cried off further comment, saying it was studying the pact.
It continued to hold discussions, meanwhile, on the grant of the Most Favoured Nation to India as part of moves to normalise ties. Late last month the cabinet cleared the MFN, 15 years after New Delhi accorded Pakistan the same status so that the two could conduct trade like nations do around the world, even those with differences.
And on Thursday, Gilani met Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on the margins of a regional summit in the Maldives and the two promised a new chapter in ties, saying the next round of talks between officials as part of an engagement on a range of issues will produce results. Afghanistan or the pact, was scarcely mentioned in public, although it is quite conceivable that the two would have talked about it.
Is there a shift in the ground, in both India and Pakistan ? Pakistan is battling multiple crises, including ties with the United States that at the moment certainly look worse than those with India. It is also struggling to tackle a melange of militant groups that have metastasized into a mortal danger for the Pakistani state itself and a deep economic downturn that a nation of 180 million people can ill-afford at this time. While it continues to invest time and energy in Afghanistan, a large part of the war has come home too and it is struggling to enforce its writ on its side of the Pasthun-dominated lands that straddle the two countries. A lessening of tensions with India can only help at this point.
India, meanwhile, has shot out of the blocks building a trillion-dollar economy that dwarfs everyone else’s in the region, not just in size but also growth rates even if it is slowing down now. It still has a long way to go to meet the aspirations of a billion plus people and realise its own potential, though. It needs peace within and on the borders and it needs closer economic ties with all its neighbours. Its economic stakes are rising across the region including Afghanistan where Indian firms, along with the Chinese who preceded them, are the only ones prepared to risk blood and treasure to exploit its mineral resources. Conversely if a pomegranate farmer in southern Afghanistan- the Taliban heartland – wants to sell his produce to the booming Indian market, New Delhi wants to do whatever it can to try and make that possible.
A hostile Pakistan until now has balked at trade and transit, but if India and Pakistan begin to have normal trade ties following the breakthrough on MFN, then easier flow of goods from Afghanistan seems a natural possibility. The long-running project to pipe gas from Turkmenistan and through Afghanistan, Pakistan and then India may seem less of a dream as the economies of India and Pakistan begin to interlock and both sides develop stakes in the well being of the other to protect their investments and trade.
Indeed, Sajjad Ashraf, a former Pakistan ambassador to Singapore and now a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, cautioned against a knee-jerk Pakistani reaction to the Indo-Afghan treaty. In a paper for the Institute of South Asian Studies, he said that a careful reading of the pact suggests that the countries involved want to develop Afghanistan as a hub linking South and Central Asia since it sits in both regions. Which isn’t such a bad thing for the countries of south Asia but especially Pakistan which by its geography as landlocked Afghanistan’s neighbour with the longest border has a key role to play.Ashraf said :
“If the three countries can reach an understanding and let India develop Afghan capacity leading to regional economic integration, Pakistan too becomes a winner. In the age of globalisation, following any other course will result in Pakistan lagging behind.
For India, peace in Afghanistan is important to be able to exploit the vast economic potential of the Central Asian states. It shares Afghanistan’s concerns about the security of the nation after the western withdrawal from a combat role in 2014. Ashraf wrote :
India is concerned, which everyone should be, at the return of a medieval Taliban like regime in Kabul that could become the staging ground for cross border extremism into India.
It makes little sense for India to keep the borders with Pakistan tense, least of all turning up the heat on its western flank with Afghanistan, Ashraf said. India doesn’t have a contiguous border with Afghanistan and the last thing it needs is a costly entanglement there. Besides, it is obvious to everyone, including the stategic community in India, that there cannot be lasting peace in Afghanistan without the support of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s security establishment would worry about potential security cooperation between India and Afghanistan flowing from the strategic pact. ( A separate one is under negotiations with the United States) But so far New Delhi had been sensitive to Pakistani concerns, according to U.S. Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Michele Flournoy. She said New Delhi had avoided a playing a major role in the training of Afghan security forces.
Ultimately, the key to Afghanistan’s future was unlocking its potential, tying it into the economies of its neighbours and hope that it will strengthen the state to stand firmly on its feet once its powerful backers retreat three years from now.