India, Pakistan and Afghanistan: the impossible triangle

September 25, 2009

A single paragraph in General Stanley McChrystal’s leaked assessment of the war in Afghanistan has generated much interest, particularly in Pakistan.

“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment,” it says. “In addition the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India.”

He did not say anything that anybody did not already know. Pakistan has long been wary of India’s growing influence in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and is seen as reluctant to turn against the Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups as long as it believes it might need them to counter India. The fact that he said it all suggested a renewed focus on the relationship between India and Pakistan, whose confrontation to the east spilled long ago into rivalry over Afghanistan to the west.

Pakistan’s Daily Times said in an editorial the rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan highlighted the need for peace talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, which have fought three full-scale wars since independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

“One must be clear in one’s mind that in many ways the mess in Afghanistan is actually a spillover of the Indo-Pak conflict in the region of South Asia,” it said. “Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth”, which reached a climax with the hijacking of an Indian airliner to Kandahar in 1999, was in reaction to the unresolved dispute over Kashmir which created the “threat of India” that Pakistan felt “from the east”. Even today, as Pakistan struggles against the Taliban, 80 percent of its army is stationed on the Indian border.

Dawn newspaper said McChrystal’s words on India were ”perhaps as significant as any other in the report”.  The Americans appeared to have finally understood, it said, that the war in Afghanistan could not be won without help from Pakistan. “But that means gaining Pakistan’s full cooperation, which in turn means alleviating the national security establishment’s concerns vis-à-vis India.”

However, as discussed in this analysis, India is in little mood to move rapidly towards peace talks with Pakistan until it takes greater action against militants it blames for last year’s attack on Mumbai, although the two countries have been taking incremental steps towards repairing relations. Many argue that the powerful Pakistan Army would be unlikely to turn against militant groups it once cultivated to fight India in Kashmir, without a comprehensive peace settlement with India. (For an understanding of how complicated all this is, read this book reviewby Pakistani strategic analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.)

So, to win the war in Afghanistan, the United States needs help from Pakistan, which Pakistan in turn is reluctant to provide so long as it believes it is threatened by India to both the west and east.  From Washington’s point of view, it needs to nudge Islamabad and New Delhi towards the negotiating table, by leaning on Pakistan to act against militant groups and putting pressure on India to resume peace talks. 

Here is another catch. Although the relationship between the United States and India blossomed under former President George W. Bush, there is far less warmth in New Delhi towards the Obama administration. The relationship started on the wrong foot with India concerned about increasing U.S. economic dependence on its rival China.

Now India and the United States are at loggerheads over President Barack Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation drive.  India has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That row, in turn, complicates efforts by Washington to persuade India to talk to Pakistan.

(Reuters file photos: Obama with Karzai and Biden; a British soldier in Afghanistan; hijacked Indian Airlines plane in Kandahar)

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