Possible reset in Af-Pak ties: Need for India to realign Afghan policy

It is critical for India to make some uncomfortable choices to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan, write Prashant Rastogi and Swati Sinha for South Asia Monitor

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In international relations parlance, a persisting security dilemma - one’s attempt to fulfil its security needs leads to insecurity for the other - has shaped the nature of socio-political ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan emerged as an indispensable player in the post-2001 reconstruction efforts with a significant bearing on the domestic politics of Afghanistan. In this context, considering Pakistani influence on the Taliban since its inception, all roads to peace go through the good offices of Islamabad.

With the intra-Afghan peace process moving in a direction where the US withdrawal seems imminent, many existing vulnerabilities have reinforced distrust and suspicion in Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral relations. Together, the recent developments point that though Afghanistan-Pakistan ties are ready for a reset, the concern of violence and the failure of negotiations are potential spoilers - having implications not only on Afghanistan but also on the extended neighbourhood particularly India.

Resetting the relations

Despite the overwhelming differences, Af-Pak relations seem to be shifting in a positive direction in the contemporary discourse. The objective of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s November last year visit to Kabul was to overcome the distrust between the two countries, with the main focus being  support for the Afghan peace process and regional economic connectivity. High-level exchanges between Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest that there is some convergence of interest that they share. In all likelihood, stability in Afghanistan is favourable for Pakistan. The visit was also significant considering it took place in the backdrop of the rising tide of violence.

With the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah adopting a conciliatory tone and PM Khan expressing concern that he is determined to do everything to reduce violence and move towards a ceasefire, it is expected that the Af-Pak relationship is ready for a reset. Addressing the challenges, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has reiterated the need to remain vigilant against the "peace spoilers" in the region. Under such circumstances, if Pakistan is willing to step up its game in the war-torn nation, it is a welcome move that can prove beneficial, desirable, and achievable for the road ahead.  Furthermore, the two neighbours have agreed to uphold mutual and full respect for one another’s sovereignty, together with acknowledging that unless they work together, durable peace will remain a distant dream.

However, there are several existing challenges that can slow down the efforts to improve the ties which need to be addressed for the successful execution of the peace-negotiations as well as the burgeoning bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Divergences in the bilateral ties

Despite President Ashraf Ghani’s rapprochement with Pakistan intended to obtain assistance for negotiations with the Taliban and PM Khan’s public reiteration of support to an “inclusive and the comprehensive political settlement,” the prospects of broad-based intra-Afghan negotiations have become a victim to certain obstacles present in the bilateral relations. Such challenges are governed both by domestic and regional concerns. Firstly, the fear of sanctions by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) leading to a loss of prestige and economic benefits generated an urgent requirement for Pakistan to facilitate the US withdrawal process by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, the absence of the Afghan government from many other multilateral forums particularly - Moscow process in 2019 and the US-Taliban peace agreement signed in February 2020, enhanced the pre-existing suspicions between the two neighbours.

Secondly, the emergence of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) alleged to be an appendage of the Afghan government reinforced fear of secessionism within the Pakistani establishment. The presence of Pashtun activists Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir during Ghani’s oath-taking ceremony in 2020, cemented PM Khan’s suspicion. Several other tweets posted by Ghani and Vice President Amrullah Saleh against the Khan administration’s handling of the protests together with the rising sloganeering of ‘Ler ao ber Yao Afghan’ (Afghans live on both sides of the border) led to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister acknowledging both President Ghani and India as spoilers of peace in Afghanistan. Thirdly, the prospect of permitting one faction to acquire full control over Afghanistan is discomforting to Pakistan. 

There have been reports suggesting that to consolidate its position in the country Pakistan had assisted the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) as a counterforce to the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Kabul gurudwara attack in March 2020 carried out by four Pakistani nationals owing allegiance to the ISKP chief Aslam Farooqui is one such evidence.

With the intra-Afghan peace negotiations moving forward, there are two further challenges emanating from Ghani’s resolve to stay in power and Pakistan’s intensifying criticism of India’s support to the Afghan government. In turn, if the agreement is successfully implemented, the chances of the Taliban assuming power in Afghan politics are high. As a result, India might likely consider realigning its Afghan policy.

Options for India in Afghanistan

India’s support to an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ peace process anchors a reassuring policy approach towards the Afghan government vis-à-vis the Taliban. Additionally, the expectations from the new Joe Biden administration to focus on more stringent counter-terrorism efforts to eliminate the terror groups along with coercing the Taliban to accede to a ceasefire has influenced Indian options in the country. However, it has kept New Delhi distant from the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. It is here that India needs to follow a model grounded in regional consensus, bilateral understanding, and obliviousness towards history.

To begin with India, like Iran, Russia and China, needs to formulate an issue-based approach that communicates to the changing events in Afghanistan. Secondly, it also needs to recognise Pakistan’s centrality in the peace process and influence on the Taliban. Thirdly, New Delhi needs to reciprocate the gestures of the Taliban with the latter publicly proclaiming that it would not interfere in the domestic affairs of India after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019 that revoked special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

Therefore, perceiving the recent developments, it is critical for India to make some uncomfortable choices to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan.

The past effort of reaching a quick settlement in Afghanistan has only added to its predicament; therefore, any approach toward sustainable peace in Afghanistan must be dealt with patience and determination. Not only is peace a prior requisite of prosperity, but it is also a sustainable requirement to reconcile the differences between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Therefore, a reset in Af-Pak ties must be governed by rational calculations and a degree of cohabitation to sustain ever-lasting concord for the region and beyond.

(The writers are doctoral candidates at the Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University. The views are personal. They can be reached at prastogi@jgu.edu.in and ssinha1@jgu.edu.in)

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