Two centrally important countries in South Asia recently had elections that attracted international attention – India and Afghanistan. India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, believed by many to be a Hindu nationalist, pleasantly surprised many by inviting Pakistan’s prime minister for his swearing-in ceremony. Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to his credit, resisted pressure from hawks within his own country and attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.
However, as is fairly well known, those in the civilian leadership in Pakistan are not the de facto rulers of that country. Their military establishment, including the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, wields the real power and has overthrown the democratically elected civilian establishment by way of coups on several occasions.
Around a week before Sharif came to India, the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan was attacked. If the Afghan government is to be believed, the attack was an ISI operation to start a hostage crisis, which would make it difficult for India to welcome Sharif with open arms. More recently, an Indian working with an NGO was kidnapped, this possibly being yet another ISI operation. This may come as a surprise to some people in the West, who perceive Afghanistan as a theatre of conflict between the US military and non-state actors like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but as William Dalrymple, a noted expert on South Asia, pointed out in a recent essay, that war in Afghanistan is more or less over, and Afghanistan is now primarily a theatre of conflict between Pakistan and India.
Afghanistan had opposed Pakistan’s entry in the United Nations over a border dispute. India and Pakistan also fought over the disputed territory of Kashmir in 1947-48, and this marked the first major starting point of hostilities in Indo-Pak relations. The mutually shared antipathy to Pakistan brought India and Afghanistan closer to each other, and the two signed a friendship treaty in 1950. Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979, and the United States decided to arm and train rebels to fight the Soviets. Instead of supporting traditional, Sufism-following Afghan rebels, the United States supported radicalized Wahabi elements. The government of Pakistan gave its tacit support in this endeavor.
Eventually, the Soviets had to withdraw and the notoriously fanatic Taliban took over. The Afghan Taliban acted at the behest of the Pakistani establishment, and the latter supported it to gain “strategic depth” against India. The Taliban gave full support to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, and both have now become anti-American, owing to what they perceived as US neo-imperialist policies in the Middle East. Pakistan claims to be America’s ally in the war on terror, but that claim has been found to be suspect by many experts on the region, especially given Osama bin Laden being found in that country in a house not too far away from a military base, suggesting the duplicity of Pakistan’s military establishment. Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, is very well disposed towards India, describing India as Afghanistan’s “best friend” and “ally.”
The Taliban operate as a terrorist organization, with backing from the ISI. In fact, even if Karzai does not re-emerge as president after these elections, Indo-Afghan relations are likely to remain cordial, given that most leaders contesting the elections have expressed their desire to adopt such an approach. Thus, while the Pakistani military establishment wants to regain Pakistan’s “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in the light of what many observers, including several Pakistanis, consider an illusory existential threat from India, by way of terrorism, India has adopted the pragmatic approach of supporting Afghans in their quest for economic development respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty. India has helped Afghanistan in cash (hundreds of millions of US dollars) and kind in diverse sectors such as education (including inviting Afghan students to study in Indian universities on scholarship), health care, telecommunication, security and transport.
Pakistan will have to check terrorism emanating from its own soil if it wants to constructively engage with India and resolve the Kashmir issue. There is not a more opportune moment for Pakistan than now with Narendra Modi, a man adored by Hindu nationalists, as prime minister, because he will not face the stiff resistance others would have while striking a compromise, just as US President Richard Nixon, with his strong anti-Communist image, was able to improve US relations with China.
Terrorist activities against Indians in India or Afghanistan wouldn’t help Pakistan progress, nor would that help Pakistan coercively gain control over Kashmir. The civilian government in Pakistan democratically elected by the people will have to, for its own sake, if not for India’s or Afghanistan’s, work out a strategy to bring the army firmly under its control.