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August 28, 2016

My enemy’s enemy


August 28, 2016

An enemy’s enemy is a friend. This may be sufficient reason for New Delhi and Kabul to court each other. Yet, there is much more to the growing Indo-Afghan ties. Neither Afghans desecrating the Pakistani flag at the Chaman border crossing point, ostensibly in reaction to the burning of the Indian flag in Balochistan, nor former president Karzai backing Modi on his highly controversial statement on Balochistan should spring up any surprise.

The Durand Line drawn in 1893 and endorsed in 1919 by the Anglo-Afghan Treaty sowed the seeds of acrimony between Pakistan and its northwestern neighbour years before the former was born. Little wonder then that Afghanistan was the only state that opposed the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations. Imagine, the boundary was demarcated between India and Afghanistan. How would relations between those two nations have developed?

“[The] Durand Line is a blow which no Afghan can ever forget. We do not accept this border but will not fight over this issue”, said Karzai in an interview to BBC some time back. The statement reflects how the Afghan leadership has consistently looked upon the boundary with Pakistan – an issue that needs to be settled.

For Pakistan, on the other hand, the Durand Line constitutes the permanent border between the two countries. It’s a past and closed transaction; any attempt to redraw it is out of the question.

By the same token, the Islamabad-New Delhi hostility predates the partition of India. The very idea of Pakistan – carving out a separate territory from the ‘motherland’ on the basis of religion – represented repudiation, in a big way, of all that the Indian National Congress, India’s founding party, stood for.

The Sir Cyril Radcliff-headed commission, which was entrusted with drawing the boundary between the two new states, conceded the Muslim-majority Gurdaspur district to India thus providing it an overland link to Jammu and Kashmir. The rest is history.

Imagine: an India that had no direct access to Kashmir. How would subsequent political developments in South Asia have unfolded in that event?

Since the 1990s, Pakistan has seen Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth and looked for strategic assets in that country. Initially, Islamabad pinned its hopes on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But when he turned out to be a good-for-nothing warlord, Pakistan’s security establishment propped up the student militia, the Taliban, and facilitated their rise to power in 1996. Five years down the road, Pakistan was instrumental in the ouster of the same Taliban regime.

This doesn’t mean, however, that India has not had strategic designs on Afghanistan. By all accounts, it has. The notable difference is that New Delhi, as well as Tehran, has put its money on a different horse. In the 1990s, it was the Persian-speaking Northern Alliance. During the last one decade, it has been the ruling coterie, representing a hotchpotch of Persian and Pashto-speaking leadership, in the war-torn country. Not surprisingly, the post-Taliban regime in Kabul has looked upon Pakistan as an enemy – and by contrast New Delhi and Tehran as friends.

The Afghan government has accused Pakistan from time to time of supporting the militants on their side of the Durand Line. While this accusation is difficult to set aside, Pakistan has not been the only bad guy. If Islamabad supported the Afghan Taliban, Kabul has backed the Pakistani Taliban. On the onset of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the top Taliban leadership, including their chief Mullah Fazlullah, crossed over to Afghanistan, where they continue to have sanctuaries.

During Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan after his election in 2014, the two countries agreed not to allow their territories to be used for cross-border terrorism. Kabul also assured Islamabad of action against TTP sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. For Kabul to fulfil its promise, it needed to be sure that the military operation in North Waziristan was against all militant outfits including the Haqqanis and their affiliates, who are a thorn in the side of Kabul.

It appears that the distinction between good and bad militants has not been exclusive to Pakistan. The quadrilateral peace process, which in addition to Pakistan includes the US, China and Afghanistan, is based on this very assumption. The people at the helm in Kabul want Islamabad to force the Afghan Taliban to join the talks. At the same time, they would like Islamabad to crush the militants in case they are reluctant to become part of the peace process. Whether Pakistan has a limited or an enormous influence on the Afghan Taliban is anybody’s guess. But such an approach, as Pakistan’s own case bears out, is contradictory and is not likely to bear fruit.

The Indo-Afghan relationship has a strong economic dimension as well. Afghanistan, being a land-locked country, has remained dependent on Pakistan for its overseas trade. Access was provided to it first through the 1965 Afghan Transit Trade Agreement and currently through the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA).

The problem, however, is that transit trade is a conduit for smuggling. The reason: import tariffs in Afghanistan are much lower, since there’s no domestic industry worth mentioning to protect, than in Pakistan. This is a source of friction between the two countries, since Afghanistan wants less regulation of the transit trade than Pakistan deems necessary.

A related, and graver, issue is allowing Indian exports access to Afghanistan via the land route. The APTTA allows Afghan exports to India through the Wagah border but it doesn’t extend the same facility to Indian exports going to Afghanistan. Pakistan itself has restricted trade with India and even fewer Indian exports are allowed through Wagah.

Not only that, Afghanistan is among the largest export markets for Pakistan. Free transit to Indian exports is likely to result in Pakistan losing an important market. Besides, Afghan trade is a source of substantial commercial activity in Balochistan and KP – in both provinces economic opportunities are otherwise meagre.

India has sought to get over this problem by helping build the Chabahar Port in south-east Iran and connecting infrastructure in Afghanistan, and use it for exporting merchandise to Afghanistan and beyond that to Central Asia. Overall, New Delhi is a major contributor to Afghan reconstruction.

With Iran, India, and Afghanistan on the same page on security and market access, Pakistan appears to be isolated – partly for making the wrong choices and partly for reasons it can’t be reproached for.

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