As Islamabad and New Delhi Spar for Influence in Afghanistan, Nuclear Rivals Trade Accusations
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) welcomes the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan (2nd R) with a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 19, 2020. (Afghan Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As Islamabad and New Delhi Spar for Influence in Afghanistan, Nuclear Rivals Trade Accusations

Pakistan PM Khan, during Kabul visit, pledges support for peace process

(ISLAMABAD) Pakistan will fully support efforts to end violence and establish a durable peace in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan said during his first visit to the war-torn country since taking office in 2018.

“There is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement is the only way forward for enduring peace, stability and prosperity in the country,” the Pakistani leader said during a one-day visit to Kabul on Thursday, reiterating his longstanding stance.

He spoke during a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“After Afghanistan, Pakistan is the country most interested in peace in Afghanistan,” Khan continued. “Pakistan has played its role, first in getting the Taliban’s talks with the Americans started, and then on the intra-Afghan dialogue.

“We assure you that we will exceed your expectations,” Khan told the Afghan president.

Ghani, also addressing the press conference, said he had “a very productive engagement with Prime Minister Imran Khan.

“Our common objective is to take a leap of faith to overcome the distrust that has haunted our relationship,” Ghani continued. “A comprehensive political settlement for enduring peace within the framework of our values and our constitution is the future of Afghanistan.”

After Afghanistan, Pakistan is the country most interested in peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan has played its role, first in getting the Taliban’s talks with the Americans started, and then on the intra-Afghan dialogue

Khan and Ghani met one-on-one and discussed ways to strengthen ties between their countries.

Muhammed Sadiq, Pakistan’s special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted: “The meeting focused on further deepening the fraternal relations between the two countries, the Afghan peace process, and regional economic development and connectivity.”

Khan was accompanied by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the prime minister’s commerce adviser Razak Dawood and other senior officials.

Despite frequent minor clashes between their respective security forces, relations between the two countries have significantly improved during Khan’s time in office.

Ghani visited Pakistan in June 2019. He and Khan also held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Mecca in May 2019. Senior officials from the countries have been meeting and visiting each other regularly in recent months.

Although relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to be improving, Pakistani policymakers fear that India is trying to sabotage this trend.

Indian leadership has always accused Pakistan of harboring separatists in the disputed Kashmir region. On the other hand, Islamabad says Indian intelligence services are using Afghan territory to destabilize Pakistan, accusing New Delhi of being behind all acts of terrorism within the country.

In the latest recrimination on November 14, Qureshi and Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, director-general of the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces, held a press conference in Islamabad and accused India of sponsoring terrorism to destabilize Pakistan and undermining its relations with China.

“Pakistan will present its evidence to the United Nations,” Qureshi said.

Babar said that “India was training, harboring, and launching terrorists into Pakistan, from 87 training camps: 66 in Afghanistan and 21 in India.”

Following the press conference, Khan wrote on Twitter: “We expect the international community to force India to end its terrorism & bring to justice those responsible for killing thousands of innocent people in Pakistan.”

The Indian Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations as “fabricated” and “figments of the imagination.”

Relations between nuclear-armed neighbors have been hostile since the Partition in 1947. The countries have fought three wars and have a long, ongoing dispute over Kashmir.

To better understand the situation as both Pakistan and India try to grow their influence in Afghanistan, The Media Line spoke exclusively with prominent experts on South Asia.

Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that “India has had deep ties with all post-Taliban governments, including a nearly decade-old strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that entails generous amounts of economic assistance as well as training programs for the Afghan Armed Forces. So India has a strong incentive to maintain influence in Afghanistan.

“New Delhi’s broader goal with its influence-building in Afghanistan is to crowd out Pakistan, which has its influence in the country that can be leveraged through its close ties to the Taliban,” he continued.

“India and Pakistan share few interests in Afghanistan, which is no surprise given the bitter rivalry between the two,” Kugelman said.

However, “they do, broadly speaking, support the idea of a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan, as this would give them more space for influence-building,” he added. “Both countries support some shared concrete goals like building infrastructure. Additionally, both countries fear the spillover effects of an Afghanistan at war, including terrorism, drug trade, refugee flows and more.”

Responding to another question from The Media Line, Kugelman said, “I can certainly envision a future conflict between India and Pakistan, but I see it breaking out over Kashmir, for example large, deadly attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir that India blames on Pakistan, sparking retaliation and counter-retaliations, as opposed to over Afghanistan.

“Any India-Pakistan conflict in Afghanistan would play out in the shadows, covertly, through proxy efforts by each side to work with local partners and push back against the other,” Kugelman said.

Adil Faroque, a defense analyst based in Rawalpindi, in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, told The Media Line that “Indians follow the philosophy of their political godfather Chanakya, who teaches them to maintain good relationships with their neighbor’s neighbor.

“India has no direct land link with Afghanistan, but adopting Chanakya’s philosophy, Indians further preach arm-twisting tactics using that neighbor[‘s territory as a base] to create its [India’s] hegemony and to destabilize Pakistan,” he said.

Chanakya, a teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist and royal adviser who wrote the political treatise the Arthashastra, a text dated to roughly between the third century BCE and the third century CE, is considered the pioneer of political science and economics in India.

Faroque continued, “Besides this political ideology, the economic interests of India also favor a policy of maintaining influence in Afghanistan with its huge iron ore reserves, which are critical to India’s huge steel industry.

“Both countries possess devastating weapons and the outcome of a [full-blown] war would be mutually assured destruction, and nobody wants that. However, this [rivalry in Afghanistan] could intensify the ongoing hybrid warfare between the countries, which is a mixture of proxy and disinformation warfare,” Faroque said.

Faisal Raja, an Islamabad-based defense analyst, told The Media Line “there is no doubt that India has been trying to destabilize Pakistan.

“The top priority of India is to create two-front security concerns for the Pakistani military establishment,” he said. “Pakistan has always been focused on the eastern front [with India], but since India has invested in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s western front has also become active and the Pakistan security forces are actively engaged there.

“Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have sufficient proofs that cross-border terrorist activities are being planned and executed on a massive scale from Afghan soil, spearheaded by various Indian intelligence agencies,” Raja said.

Rohit Sharma, a leading New Delhi-based political and security analyst, told The Media Line: “History shows that any instability in Afghanistan leads to an increase in terror activities in India.”

“In 1999, an Indian airplane was hijacked and taken to Kandahar [in Afghanistan], and India was forced to release Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a banned Pakistani outfit. Masood subsequently led the terror activities in India and Kashmir,” Sharma said.

“Jaish training camps were run on Afghan soil and were fully managed by Pakistani Intelligence agencies, but after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, these training camps were shifted to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir areas. India’s interest in countering such activities in Afghanistan is natural,” he added.

“India does not want to increase its influence but it wants to maintain good relations with Afghanistan,” Sharma said. “India is helping the Afghan government in rebuilding and reconstructing devastated infrastructure.

Sharma continued, “Pakistan has always been trying to sideline India when it comes to the Afghanistan peace process.

“In April 2020, India was excluded from UN-backed peace talks on Afghanistan. China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were included in the list [of participants], but India was sidelined,” he said.

“It was no mere coincidence that India was excluded from the talks; it happened after extensive lobbying from Pakistan and China,” Sharma said.

He further told The Media Line that “India is a large, centuries-old market for Afghan traditional spices, dry fruits and saffron. India is also interested in investing in copper and some other metals.

“A war is not likely to happen between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, but there can be clashes of interests between India and Pakistan,” Sharma said.

“Tamanna Salikuddin, director of South Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, told The Media Line that “both India and Pakistan have shared historic and cultural ties with Afghanistan.

“In the last several decades, given the international military and development effort in Afghanistan, both India and Pakistan have had strong strategic and national security interests in the future of Afghanistan,” she continued.

“While Pakistan may object to India’s relationship and any form of presence in Afghanistan, and India objects to Pakistan’s influence in the peace process with the Taliban, over the years both countries have tacitly accepted these realities as a feature of the Afghan war,” Salikuddin added.

She noted that “Pakistan’s recently signed statement with Afghanistan acknowledges the need for Afghanistan to have a posture of ‘multi-alignment,’ pursuing friendly relations with various regional countries, alluding to Afghanistan’s relationship with India.”

“At the same time, Afghanistan and Pakistan in this statement pledge to pursue a relationship founded on predictability, transparency, mutual and full respect for one another’s sovereignty,” she said.

“Pakistan and India share an interest in seeing a peaceful and stable Afghanistan that does not bleed terrorism, instability or chaos into the region. Finding a workable path for the region to cooperate regarding Afghanistan’s prosperity and stability is essential for both India and Pakistan,” Salikuddin said.

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