India and Pakistan: the missing piece in the Afghan jigsaw

November 26, 2009

One year ago, I asked whether then President-elect Barack Obama’s plans for Afghanistan still made sense after the Mumbai attacks torpedoed hopes of a regional settlement involving Pakistan and India. The argument, much touted during Obama’s election campaign, was that a peace deal with India would convince Pakistan to turn decisively on Islamist militants, thereby bolstering the United States flagging campaign in Afghanistan.

As I wrote at the time, it had always been an ambitious plan to convince India and Pakistan to put behind them 60 years of bitter struggle over Kashmir as part of a regional solution to many complex problems in Afghanistan.  Had the Mumbai attacks pushed it out of reach? And if so, what was the fall-back plan?

One year on, there is as yet still no sign of a fall-back plan for Afghanistan and the tense relationship between India and Pakistan remains the elusive piece of the jigsaw.

After some attempts at peace-making which culminated in a meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in July, and despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s own determination to try to repair relations, the two countries have descended into mutual recrimination.

India accuses Pakistan of failing to take enough action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group it blames for Mumbai and which analysts believe is still in a position to launch fresh attacks, and refuses to reopen formal peace talks broken off after the three-day assault. Pakistan has put seven men on trial over the attacks but has refused to arrest the group’s founder Hafiz Saeed nor, analysts say, to dismantle the infrastructure of an organisation whose original role was to fight India in Kashmir. It says it wants to resume talks with India.

As a result of the deadlock, both countries remain bitter rivals for influence in Afghanistan; while Pakistan, fighting its own battle against Islamist militants who have turned against the state, is seen as reluctant to move more troops from its eastern border with India to press home a military campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in its tribal areas. India in turn remains vulnerable to another Mumbai-style attack which could trigger Indian retaliation against Pakistan, running a risk of escalation between the two nuclear-armed countries.

“Now India and Pakistan are both playing for broke. Pakistan says it will support a U.S. regional strategy that does not include India, while India is talking about a regional alliance with Iran and Russia that excludes Pakistan. Both positions — throwbacks to the 1990s, when neighboring states fuelled opposing sides in Afghanistan’s civil war — are non-starters as far as helping the U.S.-NATO alliance bring peace to Afghanistan,” writes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in the Washington Post.

“To avoid a regional debacle and the Taliban gaining even more ground, Obama needs to fulfil the commitment he made to Afghanistan in March: to send more troops — so that U.S.-NATO forces and the Afghan government can regain the military initiative — as well as civilian experts, and more funds for development. He must bring both India and Pakistan on board and help reduce their differences; a regional strategy is necessary for any U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to have a chance. The United States needs to persuade India to be more flexible toward Pakistan while convincing Pakistanis to match such flexibility in a step-by-step process that reduces terrorist groups operating from its soil so that the two archenemies can rebuild a modicum of trust. ”

Obama and the U.S. administration are being very careful to avoid being seen as trying to mediate between India and Pakistan — India is sensitive about outside interference, particularly over Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral dispute.

But in reality, the United States has been involved in easing tensions in every recent crisis between the two countries – from the 1999 Kargil war when India and Pakistan fought a brief but intense conflict along the Line of Control dividing the disputed former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, to a military standoff in 2001/2002 when close to a million men were mobilised along the border after an attack on the Indian parliament. Following the attack on Mumbai, it was to the United States that India turned to to put pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Will Obama be able to find a way forward to ease tensions between India and Pakistan, in turn creating a firmer regional foundation to stabilise Afghanistan? Or more precisely, is there a method to his initiatives over the last few months involving not just India and Pakistan, but also China, that in the fullness of time will be seen to be part of an overall strategy to drive a regional bargain that will underpin his plans for Afghanistan?

As discussed in this analysis, the United States faced a difficult balancing act in its relations with India, Pakistan and China.  The financial crisis had made it more economically dependent on China, while its need for support in Afghanistan made it more militarily dependent on Pakistan.

India, which was defeated in a border war with China in 1962, has always been suspicious of Beijing’s role as one of Pakistan’s closest allies. And since Obama’s election it also became wary of what it feared was a U.S. tilt towards China which might undermine burgeoning U.S.-India ties which flourished under his predecessor George W. Bush.

The United States has tried tonavigate its way through these competing rivalries by promising aid and support to Pakistan, while also inviting Indian prime minister Singh to make the first state visit of his presidency. During a visit by Obama to China, the two countries promised to work together to promote peace in South Asia. Analysts variously interpreted the pledge as unwarranted interference between India and Pakistan, a detail in a lengthy statement about U.S.-Chinese relations, and a sign that China might encourage Pakistan to crack down on Islamist militants in ways that would also reassure India. (As yet, the jury is still out on which interpretation is correct.)

When Obama unveils his latest plans for Afghanistan next week, we might get some clues as to whether he has used the long delay in announcing his strategy to build regional support for a grand bargain on Afghanistan.  Failing that, we might get an answer to the question I asked a year ago. What is the fall-back plan?

(Photos: The Taj hotel during the Mumbai attacks, the Dal lake in Kashmir; artillery at Drass on the Line of Control; the Obamas ahead of the state dinner for Prime Minister Singh)

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