On India-Pakistan thaw and the changing Afghan dynamics

February 7, 2010

siachensaluteThere is a time and a place for everything and back in the days of the Obama election campaign the idea that progress on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan could help turn around the flagging military campaign in Afghanistan looked plausible. The argument, much touted by Washington think-tankers, was that Pakistan would not turn against Afghan Taliban militants on its western border as long as it believed it might need to use them to counter India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, and as long as it felt the need to keep the bulk of its army on its eastern border with India.

Even in the middle of last year, when Pakistan and India made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to revive peace talks which had been frozen since the attack on Mumbai at the end of 2008, the possibility of a “grand bargain” from Kashmir to Kabul still carried some resonance.

But time has moved on, so it is a little bit strange to see these arguments resurfacing now after India proposed to resume talks with Pakistan.  (See Newsweek’s “Kashmir is the key to peace in Afghanistan” or the op-ed by David Ignatius in the Washington Post)

As I wrote in this analysis, a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan would be too little, too late to achieve results in time for Washington’s 2011 deadline for drawing down troops in Afghanistan. Real progress on Kashmir would require them to get back to a roadmap for peace sketched out between India and Pakistan in 2007 under former president Pervez Musharraf. But Pakistan, whose vulnerability to attacks by Islamist militants has been demonstrated in a spate of gun and bomb attacks over the past year, probably no longer has the political space to offer the kind of concessions Musharraf made to get there without risking a backlash at home. And while the roadmap provided a framework for further negotiations on Kashmir, a lot of ground had yet to be covered to translate that into a real agreement; even if indeed it would ever have worked.

So public opinion in the West, already weary of the long Afghan war, is unlikely to have the patience to support ongoing military operations in Afghanistan for the kind of time it would take to achieve a breakthrough on Kashmir.  That is not to suggest the India-Pakistan thaw is not important for Afghanistan – by talking both countries may be able to reduce their suspicions about each other’s involvement there so that they don’t end up backing opposite sides in any renewed civil war which might erupt as U.S.-led forces begin to leave.  But the road to Kabul no longer runs through Kashmir, if indeed it ever did (as regular readers of this blog know, it is a hotly contested subject.)

Perhaps of more significance even than the long timeline for progress in relations between India and Pakistan  is the way in which Western governments are looking at the war in Afghanistan.  In a sea-change to their approach to Afghanistan which surfaced in the days before last month’s London conference, the United States and its allies acknowledged that lasting peace there would need to involve the Taliban. As a result, the talk in the corridors at the London conference was about the possibility of an eventual political settlement with Taliban leaders – right up to and including Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, condemned in the West for his refusal to hand over al Qaeda leaders after the Sept. 11 attacks.

From what I am being told,  Taliban leaders would be willing to negotiate if they believed that they could secure a better settlement through talks than by waiting it out for U.S.-led troops to start to leave and then trying to fight their way to power in a renewed civil war.  Talks would also get them the international recognition denied them when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. To get one perspective on this, do read the statement posted on the Taliban website in which they say they ”want to have good and positive relations with the neighbouring countries in an atmosphere of mutual respect and take far-reaching steps for bilateral cooperation, economic development and prosperous future”.  On the other side, Washington and its allies are insisting that the Taliban sever ties with al Qaeda and renounce violence.

So far the Americans are saying they are not ready to negotiate, hoping to turn the tide with a big new offensive into Helmand province that might secure them better terms in any peace deal.  U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke also dismissed speculation that the United States was already holding direct secret talks with the Taliban.

According to the Islamabad correspondent of the Hindu, as discussed in this article, Pakistan is beginning to sense a resolution of the Afghan conflict which for perhaps the first time since 2001 is turning in its favour. For 30 years – ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – it has pushed for a government in Kabul that would be friendly to Pakistan, fearing encirclement by India were the influence of its bigger neighbour to become too great in Kabul. Recently it has shifted to talking about wanting a neutral, rather than a Talibanised Afghanistan. But it looks unlikely that it would be willing to take military action against the Afghan Taliban in the so-called “Quetta shura” at a time when it thinks its own interests in Afghanistan could be met through a negotiated political settlement.

In that sense. the dispute over Kashmir has become a lot less relevant than it was in 2009 and before.

(Photo: Indian soldier salutes while sliding down a rope in Siachen/Pawel Kopczynski)




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