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Battle for Afghanistan

Shamil ShamsNovember 19, 2014

Experts say the impending departure of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan could push India and Pakistan toward a proxy war in the conflict-ridden state, as New Delhi and Islamabad fight for influence in the country.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (2L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (3R) arrive for a ceremony at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad on November 15, 2014 (Photo: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images/F. Naeem

"The danger for Pakistan is [...] the Indian influence in Afghanistan," former Pakistani President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf recently told the AFP news agency in an interview in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. "They (India) want to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan."

"If Indians are using some ethnic groups in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will use its own support, and our ethnic allies are certainly Pashtuns," Musharraf continued.

Musharraf, a former military dictator who ruled the Islamic country from 1999 to 2007, has been under house arrest on treason charges, but his words still carry weight. Some Pakistani observers believe that the former general is still close to the current military leadership of the nuclear-armed state, and that he is probably only echoing his former institution's views on India and Afghanistan.

The South Asian country's civilian leadership, too, has similar views on Afghanistan, terrorism and Islamist militants. On November 17, Sartaj Aziz, national security adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told the BBC that there was no need for Pakistan to target militants who did not threaten the country's security.

Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf meets journalists after attending the CLSA Investors Forum in Hong Kong in this September 15, 2010 file photo (Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
'India wants to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan,' says MusharrafImage: Reuters

"Why should enemies of the US unnecessarily become our foes," Aziz said. "Some of them were dangerous for us and some are not. Why must we make enemies out of them all?" he said, referring to the militant Haqqani network.

These are two different statements by two Pakistani leaders but they carry a single narrative: Islamabad feels threatened by New Delhi's close ties with Kabul; hence it will likely continue to use some factions of the Taliban as counter-balancing forces in its western neighborhood.

Same old policies

There is nothing new about Pakistan's Afghanistan policy though. The country's military and civil establishment, analysts say, still consider the Taliban an important strategic ally, who they think should be part of the Afghan government after the NATO pullout. Observers say that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies toppled the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001.

"Kabul is friendlier towards New Delhi now, whereas Islamabad continues to back the Taliban, as now officially admitted by Sartaj Aziz. Pakistan wishes to change this scenario and turn Afghanistan into its political backyard once again," London-based journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW.

German soldiers of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) arrive at the site of a bomb blast on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan 15 August 2007 (Photo: EPA/SYED JAN SABAWOON +++(c) dpa - Report+++ pixel)
Afghanistan faces the daunting task of ensuring strong security forces after 13 years of foreign occupation and fire powerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Matt Waldman, a researcher on the Afghanistan conflict at Harvard University, believes that Pakistan won't relinquish its support for the Taliban until the regional dynamics undergo a transformation. "The evidence indicates that the Pakistan hasn't fundamentally changed its Afghanistan policy," Waldman told DW.

Siegfried O. Wolf, a political science expert at Heidelberg University, is of the same view. He told DW that he was convinced that several elements within the Pakistan security apparatus still believe that the Taliban could be used as a strategic tool to counter Indian presence in Afghanistan.

A lost cause

Earlier this year, New Delhi announced a two billion USD aid package for Afghanistan - the biggest India has ever given to another country.

While India has been active in rebuilding Afghanistan since 2001, Pakistan's role has been negligible in this regard, says Sulehria. "By backing the Taliban, Islamabad has contributed to the country's destruction. I frequently visit Kabul and I can say that Pakistan is very unpopular in Afghanistan. Sadly, Islamabad is not ready to change course," the expert added.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai before the start of their meeting in New Delhi May 27, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan)
New Delhi managed to forge close ties with Kabul during former President Karzai's ruleImage: Reuters

Vivek Kumar, a New Delhi-based journalist, says that the Indian and Pakistani interests have always clashed in Afghanistan, and that he does not foresee a major change in these dynamics. "The Indian government would want the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to follow his predecessor Hamid Karzai's path. India has invested a lot in Afghanistan, and all this investment is strategically aimed at minimizing Pakistan's influence," he said, adding that Indian PM Narendra Modi would also like to enhance his country's partnership with Kabul in the security sector.

Sulehria says that Afghanistan has changed a lot over the past years, and that objective realities and subjective factors are not in Pakistan's favor anymore. "Pakistan will not be able to dictate terms to the Afghan administration and the rest of the world now. I think Pakistan has already lost the proxy war."

Long term vs short term goals

But with a bilateral security agreement (BSA) between Kabul and Washington in place, it will be difficult for either Pakistan or India to destabilize Afghanistan. The pact, which was approved by President Ghani in September, is aimed at strengthening Afghan security forces while they work to stave off the Taliban. Under the deal, international forces will provide training and support to Afghanistan's security forces.

Commenting on the BSA and the future of Afghanistan, Owais Tohid, a Karachi-based senior journalist, said that the security pact was a "wake-up call" for Pakistani rulers, who should not hope for a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, from left, speaks as Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah listen during a joint press conference in Kabul (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Most Afghans do not want the US to abandon their country, some experts claimImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The journalist is of the view that instead of focusing on short-term benefits, Islamabad should forge a long-term alliance with Afghanistan based on commercial and economic interests. "In the long run, it will be a blessing in disguise for Pakistan. These short-term strategic gains only reflect the myopic mindset of Pakistani policymakers," Tohid said.