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A proxy battleground: India's and Pakistan's rivalry in Afghanistan

February 5, 2010

India has offered to resume bilateral talks with Pakistan. The whole region might benefit from improved relations between the two - including Afghanistan, which has become a kind of proxy battleground for them.

The "Friendship Gate" at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Chaman
The "Friendship Gate" at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in ChamanImage: picture-alliance / dpa

India is the sixth-largest donor to Afghanistan. It has provided airplanes and buses to Afghanistan, it is building the new parliament building in Kabul and strategically important new roads. The Karzai government has excellent ties with New Delhi. All of this has been watched suspiciously by Pakistan, which feels encircled by India and Afghanistan and claims India is supporting Pakistani Baloch separatists from within Afghanistan.

But Kamran Shafi, a columnist with Pakistan's DAWN newspaper, says Islamabad has simply failed to match New Delhi's development programs:

"Whining will get us nowhere. We have to be pro-active in this. We have to extend the hand of friendship to the Afghans. If we keep ‘assets’ there, and our senior military officers are on record as having said that some of the Taliban or some of the old mujahedin elements are still assets, then how can you make friends with the Afghan people?"

Pakistan's 'backyard'

Many observers have argued that Islamabad keeps Islamist militant groups as 'assets' which could also be used against India. They also point out that the India-Pakistan conflict must be resolved. Only then will Pakistan stop interfering in Afghanistan. But Kanti Bajpai, an expert on the region at Oxford University, cautions that Pakistan's interests there are broader:

"Forces within Pakistan that see Afghanistan as almost their backyard – I refer here to the more extremist elements within the Pakistan ISI or the Pakistani armed forces more generally – these forces are not so concerned just about India, they are looking at the American presence there and don’t want it. There is also a rivalry with Iran we shouldn’t forget!"

A possible arrangement

Given that the West wants to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible, the need for a regional solution involving both India and Pakistan has become more acute. Kanti Bajpai argues that both India and Pakistan will have to recognise the interests of the other in Afghanistan:

"I think India has to accept that Pakistan has certain kinds of political interests in the future of Afghanistan, particularly with respect to the future of the Pashtun people and their representation in any future government of Afghanistan. And Pakistan has to accept that India has got historic links in Afghanistan and has an interest in making sure that the Pashtuns don’t dominate and other ethnic groups, including the minorities, are not sidelined."

India isolated over Taliban stance

Pakistan, however, has not been keen on giving India a say in Afghanistan, arguing that it is not an immediate neighbor. And Kamal Mitra Chenoy, an expert on international relations at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University, says New Delhi missed a big opportunity at the recent London conference:

"In the London meeting, to which India was invited, it did not accept any difference between the moderate Taliban and the extremist Taliban. Now that was a strategic blunder because that shut India off from all the other participants."

In the meantime, India has already softened its stance. Regarding the involvement of the Taliban in a future political solution in Afghanistan, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna now says that India is willing to "give it a try". No wonder, since not trying might mean having to leave the field to Pakistan.

Author: Thomas Bärthlein
Editor: Grahame Lucas