Would peace between India and Pakistan help stabilise Afghanistan?

August 4, 2008

File photo of Indian soldiers behind pictures of victims of Kabul embassy bombingAs far as a strategy for Afghanistan is concerned, it’s a long shot. Bring peace to India and Pakistan and not only will that stabilise Pakistan but it will also ease tensions in Afghanistan. Indeed it’s such a long shot that it has not been considered as a serious policy option. That was until last month’s bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. 

A spate of allegations that Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),  was involved in the bombing has forced India-Pakistan rivalry back onto centre-stage. This is not just about India and Pakistan, or so the argument goes. Their rivalry is undermining U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban since the ISI is maintaining links with Islamist militants to counter Indian influence in the region. And Pakistan’s denial of involvement in the embassy attack has done little to quell the speculation.

File photo of Wagah border crossing between India and PakistanIn The Atlantic.com, Robert Kaplan argues that the war in Afghanistan is part of Pakistan’s larger struggle with India. “Afghanistan has been a prize that Pakistan and India have fought over directly and indirectly for decades,” he writes. ”To Pakistan, Afghanistan represents a strategic rear base that would (along with the Islamic nations of ex-Soviet Central Asia) offer a united front against Hindu-dominated India and block its rival’s access to energy-rich regions. Conversely, for India, a friendly Afghanistan would pressure Pakistan on its western border-just as India itself pressures Pakistan on its eastern border-thus dealing Pakistan a strategic defeat.”

His argument is that the ISI will never rest easy as long as it fears that Pakistan is threatened by a hostile Afghanistan on one side and a hostile India on the other.  “Unless we address what’s angering the ISI, we won’t be able to stabilize Afghanistan or capture al-Qaeda leaders inside its borders,” he says.

File photo of U.S. solider on patrol in AfghanistanIn the Globe and Mail Saeed Shah writes that the ISI was supposed to have severed ties with Islamist militants and the Taliban after 9/11. ”Only it didn’t. The links were loosened, but they remain, for the simple reason these militants are viewed as vital pawns in a bigger game: Keeping Afghanistan unsettled to limit the United States’s – and by extension arch-rival India’s -influence in the region,” he writes. “This is a military doctrine about national survival, not an ideology of religious fanaticism. Civilians are not welcome to meddle with it,” he says.

To understand where these writers are coming from, it’s important to remember that the Pakistan Army — and by extension the ISI — sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of Pakistani survival. And although it has stepped into the background from time to time to allow civilian governments into power, it will never allow Pakistan to become as vulnerable again as it was in 1971 when what were then West and East Pakistan were torn apart with the creation of Bangladesh.

“ISI’s primary duty is defending Pakistan,” writes Eric Margolis in another article which tries to explain the behaviour of the ISI.

The arguments are contentious, not least because Pakistan has repeatedly denied using militant groups as pawns against its much bigger neighbour.  India too is extremely touchy about the subject of Afghanistan, arguing that as a regional power it has a legitimate role there that does not deserve to be dragged down to the level of India-Pakistan rivalry. It has also spent years accusing the ISI of fomenting violence, from the Punjab insurgency in the 1980s to the Kashmir revolt in the 1990s, to Afghanistan in the 21st century — charges rebuffed by Pakistan — until the issue has become both impossibly murky and highly emotive.

But just suppose for a moment the arguments were correct.  Then would renewed efforts towards peace between India and Pakistan help stabilise Afghanistan? And conversely, what would be the price of their fragile peace process disintegrating?



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