By Shamshad A. Khan
Most Pakistani Urdu dailies, known for constructing a negative image of India through their editorials, have expressed unease over the recently signed strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan. The central argument in the Urdu dailies expressed through the editorials and Op-Ed columns is that the agreement will allow Indian forces a direct access to Afghanistan and Pakistan would be “sandwiched” between its “two enemies.” They observe that through this agreement India has entered into a “great game” in Afghanistan at the behest of the US and that the main objective of the agreement is to besiege both Pakistan and China.
The unease and unhappiness expressed by the Urdu dailies is understandable, as Afghanistan signing its “first ever” strategic partnership agreement with India has watered down their campaign for the establishment of a bloc consisting of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. The idea of creating a coalition of Islamic nations gained currency in Pakistani strategic thinking following India’s ascent and recognition as an economic power. Pakistani columnists in Urdu dailies have been trying to drive home the point that India’s new economic status has given it political clout on the international stage. Since major economies of the world have deep interest in the Indian market and no one wants to antagonize India by paying heed to Pakistan’s concern regarding Kashmir and human rights violations there. They suggest that Pakistan should look at alternatives to challenge India’s growing supremacy at the regional and international levels. Pakistani Urdu dailies including Ausaf, Nawa-e-Waqt and Jang have given substantial space to such debates in the recent past. They have launched a sustained campaign to create an alliance to counterbalance India in the region. Some columnists such as Col. (Retd.) Ghulam Rasool, Agha Masood Hussein, Saleem Yazdani and Prof. Mohiuddin have been arguing for the inclusion of China in the ‘Islamic alliance’ since China and the Muslim world have a common goal of countering US hegemony in the region.
Ever since Afghanistan signed the strategic partnership agreement with India, it has become an untouchable for many Pakistani commentators. Some editorials written against the backdrop of the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement have even characterized Afghanistan as an “enemy.” The Urdu daily Ausaf, commenting on the India–Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement, concludes that “Pakistan has been besieged by two enemies from two sides.” Similarly, an editorial in the Nawa-e-Waqt opines that “[f]ollowing the agreement (between India and Afghanistan) we should consider Afghanistan as our enemy at par with India…We should not have cooperation and friendship agreement with an enemy and should nullify the Pakistan- Afghanistan trade transit agreement.” The Pakistani media, which had launched a campaign for creating a bloc consisting Islamic nations to countervail India, is now skeptical about Afghanistan’s worthiness as a member of an Islamic coalition.
Pakistani strategic thinking, that Kabul would “bandwagon” with its Islamic brethren, was misperceived. It is conventional wisdom that countries do not necessarily give much consideration to “ideological preferences” while choosing allies or partners. States seek to secure their interests and maintain strategic autonomy while forging such agreements. A good example, cited by Joseph Nye, is the case of Syria during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Syria, an Arab Sunni secular state, supported the Persian Shiite religious state of Iran rather than the secular Sunni Arab state of Iraq, because it was worried about the growing power of Iraq. The same logic can be applied in the case of Afghanistan as well. Aggrieved with Pakistan’s policy of pursuing “strategic depth” in its territory and its continued “double games”, Afghanistan has chosen a partner who could contribute to stability. This point eludes Pakistani strategic thinkers. Afghanistan chose India for its “first ever” strategic partnership over its “conjoint twin” and Islamic neighbour Pakistan because it has suffered severely because of Pakistani policies.
With Afghanistan slipping out of Pakistan’s perceived “strategic orbit”, Pakistani strategic thinkers continue to pin their hopes on China playing the role of “balancer” in the region. Columnist Agha Masood Hussein, in an opinion column in Jang, writes that “Pakistan, China, Iran and Arab countries would be compelled to realign their defence and security cooperation and it is likely that they will reach a secret agreement” to counter the impact of the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement. Further, “[s]ince the US has sandwiched Pakistan with the help of India and Afghanistan, the time has come to openly talk to China to thwart this design,” wrote the Ausaf in its editorial. For its part, the Jang editorialized that “the US has been working on a strategy of imposing India’s supremacy in the region by isolating Pakistan (from international community) and the recent strategic partnership with India is part of that strategy.” It has suggested that Pakistan must “review its foreign policy” in the changed scenario.
The debate in Pakistan’s vernacular media suggests that India’s deepening relations with Afghanistan has caused much apprehension in Pakistan. However, their perception that India would use the agreement for gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan to counter Pakistan’s and China’s influence is misplaced. Pakistani opinion makers should take note of the fact that India has made it clear that the agreement is not aimed against “any other state”. Also this is not purely a security agreement but also has a socio-cultural component to it. If Pakistan claims that it enjoys civilizational ties with Afghanistan, it should not ignore the fact that Afghans have also maintained cultural and civilizational ties with India for millennia. The Afghan peoples’ perception of India is better than that of Pakistan. The recently signed partnership will deepen ties between the two peoples and enhance that perception further.
(All translations from Urdu by the author)
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheIndiaAfghanistanStrategicPartnershipThroughtheEyesofthePakistaniUrduMedia_sakhan_171011