Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s arrival in Islamabad last week to deliberate on Afghanistan at the Heart of Asia Conference was both surreal and spectacular.
After all, why would Pakistan want to discuss a taboo subject with India at a time when the two rivals are not on talking terms?
Even more unexpected was India’s acceptance of the offer. Displeased by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan, India apparently snubbed Kabul at the sixth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan this September.
But the surprise breakthrough in Bangkok where India and Pakistan’s national security advisors met—shortly after their prime ministers spoke in Paris—paved way for what is being termed a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue.
And Afghanistan is central to this recent thaw in India-Pakistan ties—both as a curse and a potential blessing.
It is a curse because of the powerful but unimaginative trope that Afghanistan is a proxy battlefield. Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in the 1990s, and India’s counter-balancing strategy of arming the anti-Taliban United Islamic Front, was perhaps the peak of such shadow boxing.
It is also a potential blessing because resolving differences about Afghanistan requires relatively little political capital from both sides, and can pave way for better communication on ostensibly intractable issues such as Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.
After all, the unending conflict in Afghanistan feeds into the existing mistrust between the two countries.
Pakistan, for instance, alleges that India, with support from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency (the National Directorate of Security), covertly supports the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch insurgents. Though no corroborative evidence is offered in support of such claims, Islamabad’s allegations cannot be entirely discarded in light of popular Indian (and Afghan) rhetoric of giving Pakistan a taste of its own medicine.
India, in contrast, offers evidence of Pakistani complicity in a series of attacks on Indian nationals, consulates, and embassy in Afghanistan via the Haqqani Network, select Afghan Taliban factions, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
But why talk about Afghanistan now?
Arguably, Pakistan’s unflinching support to the Afghan Taliban has made it indispensable to ensure stability, if not peace, in Afghanistan, and that too on terms that it deems favourable. (Whether it can deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table both timely and effectively is a separate, but not unrelated, matter). India on the other hand, despite its heavy economic and political involvement, remains marginal in influencing Afghan politics, making it seemingly unimportant a player.
Yet, instead of being a strategic genius, Pakistan is caught in a dangerous vortex of fire-fighting that it may not be able to either contain or sustain.
For example, Islamabad cannot curb the various militant proxies that it has nurtured over the years even if it wants to, given the expected blowback at home. It also cannot just continue to nurture them given the proactive regional pushback. The recent failures of the Afghan Taliban to credibly capture Kunduz (or gain control of the Kandahar airfield), and that of the Lashkar-e-Taiba to substantially infiltrate into Kashmir, then, only increase Pakistan’s operational costs of cultivating these so-called strategic assets.
In such a scenario, where the cost of supporting proxies is higher than the benefits, talking to India on traditional bilateral disputes, but also on Afghanistan, is an attractive option. For treating Afghanistan as taboo only toughens India’s resolve to maintain its presence in Kabul and contain Pakistan’s influence. Little success can be made on resolving strictly bilateral disputes, without addressing Pakistan’s concerns over Indian involvement in Afghanistan.
The timing suits India too. Already under pressure from the US to open talks with Pakistan, New Delhi has already employed a variety of coercive methods ranging from no-talks and heavy firing along the border to, allegedly, increasing covert funding and support to various anti-government elements in Karachi, Balochistan (via Afghanistan), and Pakistan-administered Kashmir (big protests were held in Muzzafarabad, Gilgit and Kotli recently seeking ‘freedom’ from Pakistan), to pressurize Islamabad. Reciprocating to Islamabad’s overtures for talks is imperative to reap the benefits of its proactive Pakistan policy on the negotiation table.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s strong mandate and the Pakistani military’s consolidation of power make it viable for such talks to succeed. Ghani’s steadfast engagement with Pakistan also helps India’s quest for resolving differences with Islamabad, by creating a conciliatory environment across the region, instead of being stuck in a dangerous cold-peace/hot-war dynamic that only promises instability and insecurity.
This is not to say that talking about Afghanistan is a sufficient condition for sustaining the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, for India-Pakistan talks are highly accident-prone. But it surely is a necessary condition that imparts credibility to these talks.
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