Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan-Indian Friendship Isolates Pakistan

Burgeoning relations between Afghanistan and India leave Pakistan out in the cold.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
Afghanistan’s head of state has become quite the diplomatic jet-setter. Last month, President Hamed Karzai returned from a three-day trip to India, where he and more than 100 advisers secured lucrative commitments from Delhi and cemented a budding friendship.

The warm smiles and rich promises could not have been in starker contrast to his February visit to see Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, which ended in recriminations and public name-calling. Musharraf told reporters that Karzai was “oblivious” of what was going on in his own country, while the Afghan president told the international media of his concerns about Pakistan’s failure to curb the insurgents crossing into his country.

But Karzai’s charm offensive in India could backfire in his homeland, say observers. Pakistan, threatened by the rapprochement between two of its long-time foes, could step up efforts to destabilise neighbouring Afghanistan, with whom its shares a porous border and a troubled history.

The lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan are among the most conflict-prone in the region. Insurgents who many say are trained and equipped in Pakistan pour across the border into Kandahar, Kunar, and Zabul provinces, mounting suicide attacks, intimidating or recruiting an already disaffected population, and creating major headaches for the central government and its foreign backers.

Analysts say the ensuing mayhem keeps Afghanistan off-kilter, and thus less of a threat to Pakistan.

A strong, stable Afghanistan, bolstered by American military and diplomatic support, and further strengthened by an alliance with India, could on the other hand make Pakistan very uncomfortable indeed.

“Every time Afghanistan has tried to get closer to India, Pakistan has reacted very negatively,” said Habibullah Rafi, political analyst and member of the Afghan Academy of Sciences. “But Pakistan must realise that destabilising Afghanistan will not benefit it, either.”

Pakistan may also be feeling threatened because it no longer enjoys the unconditional support of the United States. In a lightning visit to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan in early March, US president George Bush did not conceal where his favour lay. He left India having signed a much-coveted deal on nuclear energy, while his visit to Pakistan left Musharraf with nothing.

“Pakistan has lost its strategic importance to the United States,” said Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, an Afghan political analyst and head of the Regional Studies Centre.

Afghanistan and India are natural allies, added Liwal, since they both have serious problems with Pakistan - India over disputed Kashmir, and Afghanistan over the border.

Some in Afghanistan still have hopes of regaining territory ceded to what is now Pakistan back in 1893, when the British rulers of India established the Durand Line that marked out the southern Afghan frontier. While this border remains internationally recognised, many Afghans look with longing at the large Pashtun population in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and dream of a united “Pashtunistan”.

“India wants a strong government in Afghanistan while Pakistan has always wanted a weak one,” said Liwal.

Delhi may also welcome the thought that if Afghanistan keeps Pakistan preoccupied with its western flank, Islamabad will be less active in Kashmir.

“When Pakistan became confident of its western borders during the Taleban regime, it brought a lot of military pressure to bear on Kashmir,” said Mohammad Ismail Youn, a political analyst and lecturer at Kabul University.

India and Pakistan have conflicting interests in Afghanistan, added Youn. “Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be economically and politically dependent on it,” he said. “Pakistan also wants to keep India from finding a way to Central Asian markets.”

The result can only be more conflict, he said.

“It is clear that Pakistan is very afraid of close relations between India and Afghanistan,” said Youn. “Karzai’s recent visit to India has had a very bad effect on Pakistan and it will try to create more problems in Afghanistan, including shutting down transit routes between India and Afghanistan.”

Youn pointed to a temporary ban on cement exports to Afghanistan as a sign that Pakistan is trying to halt reconstruction efforts in its war-ravaged neighbour.

In recent weeks, Pakistan has also begun closing refugee camps, calling for the swift repatriation of the Afghan refugees on its soil.

Lou Fintor, press attaché at the US embassy in Kabul, disputes the view that America has lost interest in Pakistan.

“It is wrong to say that America is giving priority to one or two of the three countries,” he said. “All of them are America’s allies and have equal importance.”

Officials at Islamabad’s embassy in Kabul refused to be interviewed, but Sartaj Aziz, a former Pakistani foreign minister, has acknowledged in an interview with Radio Liberty that Pakistan is concerned about Afghanistan and India’s relations.

Azis pointed to recent statements from Islamabad claiming that India was using its consulates in Afghanistan to instigate trouble in Baluchistan, a Pakistani frontier province that has seen a sharp increase in violence over the past few months.

Sandeep Kumar, a senior official at the Indian embassy in Kabul, vehemently denied that India was playing a role in the Baluchistan insurgency.

“We have heard these claims through Pakistan’s media,” he said. “They are completely false.”

Kumar said the emergence of the Afghan-Indian relationship was of historic significance, adding that other countries should not worry about it.

“I do not think that good relations between Afghanistan and India will have a negative effect on Afghan-Pakistani relations,” said Kumar. “India wants there to be friendly ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The Afghan president has stated publicly that he wants cooperation among all three countries, even offering his services as a peacebroker between Islamabad and Delhi.

But the tension between India and Pakistan on the one hand, and Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other, is palpable.

Afghan presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi grew quite heated when asked about Pakistan’s claims of Indian meddling in Baluchistan.

“These claims are baseless,” he said. “The international community is present in Afghanistan and is witness that Pakistan’s claims are groundless.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is the IWPR local editor in Kabul. Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada also contributed to this report.

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