Facing the India-Pakistan contest in Afghanistan

From the earliest days of the current, and by all accounts undiminished, insurgency in Afghanistan, conventional wisdom has regarded Pakistan as a key, if not the key, to Afghan stability. But for Pakistan to become a part of the solution in Afghanistan, India will have to be recognized as part of the problem.

The recent White House review of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan[i] does not deviate from the conventional wisdom. Pakistan is once again declared to be central to US-ISAF[ii] counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan. At the same time a recently leaked intelligence estimate,[iii] also to no one’s surprise, reports that the Government of Pakistan remains unwilling to end its covert support for the Afghan Taliban and thus for ongoing instability.

Conventional wisdom isn’t wrong because it’s the convention, so it is hardly surprising that there are those who seek an escalation of US military operations in Pakistan,[iv] beyond the current drone war and operations by CIA-backed militias. Others find it more compelling to address what is behind Pakistan’s apparent determination to continue fomenting instability in Afghanistan.[v]

One of those more sober voices was that of the late Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region. Not long before his death he told Time Magazine writer Joe Kline that “the conflict [in Afghanistan] would only be resolved diplomatically, that equilibrium could only be reached in Afghanistan if the Pakistanis and Indians established better relations, and stopped seeing Afghanistan as a strategic prize.” Klein describes Holbrooke as “frustrated by the inability of all the regional players to understand that peace was in their best long-term interests (especially the Pakistanis, whose obsession with military matters–and paranoia about India–was crippling their ability to build the buoyant economy necessary for a stable state).”[vi]

In other words, justified or not, rational or not, Pakistan’s obsession with India – and vice versa – cannot help but be played out in Afghanistan. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Jessica Mathews recently reminded a forum on Afghanistan, “Pakistan’s principal strategic worry is not Afghanistan. It’s India.”[vii]

That does not need to imply that peace in Afghanistan must await the establishment of sweet harmony between India and Pakistan. Such a peace is obviously not imminent, but it is realistic, make that necessary, to work more effectively toward insulating the Afghan national conflict from surrounding regional conflicts and competition.

As Holbrooke suggested, the issue is not to first build Pakistani/Indian peace, rather it is to help both understand that to make Afghanistan an arena for their enduring conflict serves the interests of neither of them. Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation calls for a three-track diplomacy effort on Afghanistan: “talks with the Taliban groups, talks with the neighbours, and talks among all Afghan parties. Some efforts are already under way, but none is backed by a serious commitment from the key players: the Afghan government, the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran and China.[viii]

Reports that President Barack Obama used his recent meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh[ix] to appeal for a more constructive regional approach on Afghanistan are encouraging, as is Canada’s decision to include regional diplomacy as one of its four priorities for the next stage of Canadian involvement in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s involvements in Afghanistan are multi-dimensional, but it is unlikely to end its destabilization tactics as long as it fears that a stable Afghanistan will be aligned to India. Pakistan has a history, as US General David Petraeus also noted recently, of supporting non-state extremist groups as a hedge in its rivalry with India.[x]

And destabilization in Afghanistan, a country brimming with both grievances and weapons, is and will continue to be easy to foment. Pakistan will continue to have no difficulty finding political/military aspirants in Afghanistan ready to accept “help” and to undermine any government in Kabul that is potentially hostile or unfriendly to Pakistan. No military operation will be able to prevent it as long as Pakistan regards an unstable Afghanistan to be more in its interests than would be a stable Afghanistan with strong links to India.



[i] “Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review,” The White House, 16 December 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/16/overview-afghanistan-and-pakistan-annual-review,

[ii] International Security Assistance Force.

[iii] Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, “U.S. intelligence reports cast doubt on war progress in Afghanistan,” Los Angeles Times, 15 December 2010. http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/dec/15/world/la-fg-afghan-review-20101215.

[iv] Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins, “U.S. Military Seeks to Expand Raids in Pakistan,” The New York Times, 20 December 2010.

[v] Nicole Waintraub, “India-Pakistan relations and the impact on Afghanistan,” The Ploughshares Monitor, Winter 2010, p. 13-15. http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/monitor/pdf2010winter.pdf.

[vi] Joe Klein, “Holbrooke’s Last Words, Take Three,” Time Magazine Blog, 14 December 2010. http://swampland.blogs.time.com/2010/12/14/holbrookes-last-words-take-three/.

[vii] Jessica Tuchman Mathews, “Afghanistan Strategy Review,”  The Diane Rehm Show, 15 December 2010. http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=42146#.

[viii] Patrick Doherty, “Rethink ‘fight then talk’ in Afghanistan,” New America Foundation, Special to CNN, 16 December 2010. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/12/16/doherty.afghan.strategy/index.html.

[ix] Haroon Siddiqui, “Obama plays Indian wild card on Afghanistan,” The Toronto Star, 19 December 2010. http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/909121–siddiqui-obama-plays-indian-wild-card-on-afghanistan.

[x] “Mullen: Taliban Hideouts Can Be Shut Down,” Associated Press, 17 December 2010. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=132086633.

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