Making Sense of the Latest India-Afghanistan-Pakistan Drama

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President Hamid Karzai’s provocative two-day trip to India this week continues to resonate across the subcontinent.  His announcement of an unprecedented strategic partnership with India has put Pakistan on edge, with potentially significant consequences for the region.

We talked to C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor of South Asian affairs at Georgetown University, to make sense of the unfolding geopolitical drama and what it bodes for America’s intentions to draw down troops in Afghanistan.

Why was President Karzai in India, and what were his objectives for the trip?

“[In negotiating with the Taliban,] I think Karzai has realized that rather than talking to the floor manager, he has to talk to the CEOs, and the CEOs are Pakistani intelligence and military officials in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.”

India has been a longstanding partner, not only of President Karzai, but of Afghanistan.  India has certainly been the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan, and it’s been one of the Afghanistan’s most important global donors.

There’s a lot of antagonism towards Pakistan in Afghanistan, whereas India is held in high regard.  So I think [the visit was motivated by Afghan] interest in understanding where India is vis-à-vis Pakistan in Afghanistan. What will be its long-term goals as the U.S. security umbrella continues retreating?

India is having a big debate about how important it is for India to remain in Afghanistan, with what objectives and at what cost.

During his trip, President Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh under which India will provide assistance to Afghanistan, including stepping up trade and training Afghan forces after U.S. forces leave in 2014.  What’s the significance of this accord and why has it set off such fears in Pakistan?

Pakistan’s concerns with this partnership stem from their conviction that India will use its position in Afghanistan to the detriment of Pakistan.

The basic problem is that, according to my sources, who are not Pakistani – British diplomats, UN diplomats and increasingly Americans as well – India has been supporting the Baloch insurgents from Pakistan, [who are waging an ethnic nationalist rebellion in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan].

This is not the first time that India has done this.  Balochistan has been a historical place of intervention for the Indians, so this is very disconcerting to the Pakistanis.

The Indians have also historically – although they haven’t made the official proclamations to this effect in recent history – supported Afghanistan in its irredentist claims on Pashtun parts of Pakistani territory. Pakistan is concerned about India using Afghanistan to deny Pakistan strategic depth.

Finally the Northern Alliance – and of course [assassinated former president Burhannurdin] Rabbani was a key figure in that – was aided and facilitated by the Indians, and they were the only rival to Pakistan’s proxy, the Taliban.

For all of these reasons, Pakistan sees this strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan as completely detrimental to its interests. 

Are Pakistan’s fears well-founded?

“There is a growing realization that without some massive scaling down of the conditions for security transfer to the Afghans, the Americans won’t get out when they want to get out.”

The Americans would dismiss Pakistan’s fears, and so would Indians.  They would basically say the Indians have no interest in destabilizing Pakistan, but that’s not entirely true.  If that were true India would not be manipulating affairs in Balochistan to the varying levels that it is, and it’s certainly not at the levels that Pakistan claims.

So Pakistan does have concerns. Pakistan fears India and its partnership with the Americans: the American commitment to build it up as a global power; the Indian-American nuclear deal. … So the Pakistanis want to have the opportunity to deny India’s rise as a regional hegemon, much less a global power.

President Karzai has tried to do some damage control.  He clarified the agreement wasn’t directed at Pakistan and said, “Pakistan is a twin brother, India is a great friend. … The agreement that we signed yesterday with our friend will not affect our brother.” Will his words placate any concern in Pakistan, or are they merely lip service?

Pakistan will not be reassured by this.  Karzai can say whatever he wants to say; it’s not going to reassure Pakistan.

Pres. Karzai also announced that Afghanistan would be calling off peace talks with the Taliban, saying, “We have decided not to talk to the Taliban because we do not know their address … therefore we have decided to talk to our brothers in Pakistan.” Has Karzai given up on negotiations with the Taliban?

I think he’s realized that rather than talking to the floor manager, he has to talk to the CEOs, and the CEOs are Pakistani intelligence and military officials in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

What does that mean for the peace process, and for the American military’s role in Afghanistan?

The American’s military role in Afghanistan is going to end no matter what, in terms of this high-intensity counterinsurgency initiative.  There’s just a growing realization that there are limits to what the Americans can do given Pakistan’s intransigence on supporting the Afghan Taliban.

I think the best that the Americans can hope for is to put some modicum of stability and to try to put some pressure on Pakistan, but I think there is a growing realization that without some massive scaling down of the conditions for security transfer to the Afghans, the Americans won’t get out when they want to get out.

By get out, I don’t mean pull out and then go home. I mean scale down counterinsurgency activities in preference to a more normal relationship with Afghanistan, with the ability to conduct robust counterterror operations when needed.

Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan have reached new heights since Rabbani’s assassination.  Afghan officials say Pakistan’s intelligence agency was involved in the murder, a charge Pakistan denies.  Is this an unusually low point in Afghan-Pakistan relations, and how long will these tensions likely last?

They’re going to last forever. They’ve never had good relations.

Pakistani is waging a proxy war in Afghanistan. Pakistan has shown that it has no intention of backing away from the Taliban, and that it was likely involved in the Rabbani assassination. The ISI has twice been tied to attacks on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan.  So I would say it’s pretty bad and I don’t really see a lot of prospects for improvement.

Afghanistan hasn’t handled this in a terribly sophisticated way either.  Afghanistan has been really happy to use the Indian card to beat up on the Pakistanis, and this will not be in Afghanistan’s advantage, because no matter what India does, it’s not going to be able to insulate Afghanistan from what the Pakistanis are doing.

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