The well-coordinated terror attacks in Paris in November, 2015 on the lines of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks prove again the fact that the menace of terrorism can only be contained by coordinated response from nation-states. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which claims responsibility for the attacks has gained a foothold in Afghanistan. Various factions within the Taliban still continue jihad and abhor peace talks with the Afghan government. However, Kabul has so far been unable to attract coordinated actions from countries for a host of reasons.
The success of Heart of Asia conference in building ties among the states having stakes in Afghanistan and in forging Indo-Pak cooperation over the Afghan issues pertaining to its economy and security has to be viewed from a historical perspective despite the formal invitation that Indian External Affairs Minister Susama Swaraj received from her Pakistani counterpart to attend the conference in Islamabad to discuss future of Afghanistan. Swaraj has urged the Pakistani leadership to open the arteries of transit and trade blocked by Pakistan over the years as a beginning step to pave the way for effective transit arrangements between India and Afghanistan while addressing the ministerial meeting of the conference. However a glance through the recent history of major powers’ approach towards Afghanistan suggests no major breakthroughs to be achieved following the conference.
The major powers with stakes in Afghanistan have been trying to foster their geopolitical interests instead of showing enough interests in peace and stability of Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’, the US sought to limit the Iranian and Russian role in Afghan affairs for geopolitical reasons and therefore became more dependent on Pakistan starting from undertaking military and non-military supplies to seeking reconciliation with the Taliban. The major American objective has been to secure pipelines and routes from Central Asia to the world markets bypassing Russia and Iran.
For its part, China was least interested to intervene in the Afghan muddle and antagonize the Taliban given its concerns of Islamic uprising in Xinjiang and had a free ride on American military operations though later on showed an increased interest in Afghanistan due to the gradual draw down of American forces and to execute its Silk Road Economic Belt project by holding peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. American reliance on Pakistan also determined Indian role in Afghanistan to a large extent given Islamabad’s sensitivities towards an increased role of New Delhi had to be taken care of by Washington. There is no gainsaying the fact that Pakistan’s policies involving security issues and primarily its relations with India and Afghanistan are controlled by its military in collusion with the intelligence wing ISI and formulated in Rawalpindi rather than in Islamabad.
Second, absence of a viable and inclusive regional framework to address the Afghan issue enhanced the American role in the region indirectly contributing to Pakistan’s ability to shape the contours of Afghan developments. Russia, Iran and China despite their concerns over the rise of Sunni fundamentalism sought Pakistani cooperation to stem this due to their common antipathy towards the American designs in the region along with the availability of contending regional frameworks to address regional security issues.
Russia has been keen to see the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) playing a major role on security issues while China looks to the Sanghai Regional Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Iran is interested to see other forms of regional groupings to lessen the role of China and Russia in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The long-term relationship between Pakistan and the extremist Islamic groups provided the former with the leverage to broker peace in various regions on the Asian continent. The quadripartite summit of Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in Sochi, hosted by President Dmitry Medvedev, pointed to a redefining of the relationship between the two countries in the post-Cold War era in so far as Kremlin realised that seeing Islamabad as part of the region’s problems did not help to advance the Russian goal of playing a bigger role in the region and underlined it must be part of the solution.
Pakistan’s age-old strategy of exercising influence over radical Islamist groups paid it off well as Pakistan was no more treated as the “epicentre of terrorism” but as an interlocutor in seeking a practical solution the issues affecting their national security. Pakistan was able to limit India’s influence on Afghan issue by exercising influence over other regional powers.
For example, India was not invited for assisting in resolving the Afghan crisis at two significant summits – first, the trilateral summit held in Islamabad for discussing future roles of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and second, the security conference on Afghanistan hosted by Turkey. At the conference hosted by Turkey on January 26, 2010, India was pointedly excluded due to Islamabad’s insistence. Similarly, at the London Conference, regional approach was discarded in favour of Islamic Nations Coalition Approach. This coalition denied Indian representation on a religious basis.
Third, the US, China and Russia and other regional powers perceived threats from different terror groups and therefore lacked a common threat perception and sought Pakistani cooperation to manage their national security concerns particularly for the twin reasons of Islamabad’s geographical contiguity with Afghanistan and its control over radical Islamic groups operating within and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. These countries believe that Pakistan would use its influence over specific terror groups to desist from posing threat to these countries. For example, China expressed its concerns over the Uighur-separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) being trained, armed and sheltered by Al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-I Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Beijing was also wary of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the principal host to this group making significant advances in the northern Afghanistan. Similarly, the US has been worried about the resurgence of the terror groups like Al-Qaeda and continued armed attacks on the NATO and US forces by the militant shades of the Afghan Taliban.
Primary threats to India emanated from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba operating in Afghanistan but New Delhi failed to comprehensively engage the regional powers like Iran and Russia on the Afghan issue partly due to its dependence on American military strategy. India’s estranged historical relationship with China also prohibited it to engage it on regional security issues. This, in turn, led to India’s engagement with Afghanistan taking predominantly a bilateral shape.
Lack of a common-front against terrorism led to the Pakistani belief that it could manage Chinese and American security concerns and promote its geopolitical and geo-economic interests along with them while simultaneously undercutting Indian role. As the American geopolitical objectives seemed to be farfetched with the gradual drawdown of its engagement in Afghanistan, the US welcomed increasing Chinese economic activity and role in the reconciliation process in Kabul.
China has pledged $46 billion to Pakistan for building Gwadar port and interlinking transport corridors between the port and Chinese province of Xinjiang in order to develop the Silk Road Economic Belt linking China to Europe through Central Asia and Middle East. This Chinese initiative has been invited by Kabul, Islamabad and Washington as well. It would enhance Beijing’s economic foot-print in Afghanistan along with Pakistan and would also fulfil the American larger geopolitical aspirations.
All these reasons have made a coordinated response to Afghan issue farfetched and elusive by far and geopolitics has blinded the major powers involved in Afghan affairs to take cognizance of the fact that terror groups function in coordination. Members of Terror groups after defecting from one group get recruited by another group, learn from each others’ modus operandi, share arms and ammunitions and raise their funds from coordinated illegal drugs and arms trade. Thus, believing Rawalpindi can protect its interests defined in zero-sum terms with India while managing the security concerns of the states engaged with Pakistan is an impractical idea.
Rawalpindi’s dwindling control over various factions of Afghan Taliban following the declaration of Mullah Omar’s death and ISIS’s advance into Afghanistan by recruiting members from these factions raises the questions regarding Pakistan’s successful use of these groups for holding peace talks. At the same time, continued insurgency across the Line of Control (LOC) indicates that Pakistan cannot be relied on to contain terrorism which has become an instrument of foreign policy over the years and therefore cannot be trusted to refrain from assisting terror groups for securing a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul and acquiring strategic depth against India.
These reasons are sufficient enough to indicate that Pakistan has neither the capability to bring the Taliban to negotiating table nor could it be trusted to relinquish its age-old strategy of supporting terror groups and bring resolution to the Afghan conundrum. In this context, the stance of New Delhi which does not maintain a distinction between good Taliban and bad Taliban holds good. Therefore, the US, China and Russia and other regional powers can seek Indian cooperation to strengthen counter-terrorist operations and put up a coordinated response to the menace of terrorism. India, on the other hand, should also take this opportunity to engage all the stakeholders and look beyond engaging Afghanistan bilaterally. This would make Rawalpindi isolated from other capitals and push Pakistan to lower its objective in Kabul from aspiring for a pro-Islamabad regime to secure a peaceful Afghanistan.