Pakistan’s fear of encirclement and its double-game in Afghanistan
Pakistan’s lingering fear of encirclement from India’s larger diplomatic and commercial footprint in Afghanistan has been underlined by a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Afghanistan and it stated: “India’s diplomatic and commercial presence in Afghanistan and US rhetorical support for it exacerbates Pakistani fears of encirclement”.
Pakistan’s fear of encirclement has engendered a ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’ strategy – to be a partner country in the “war on terror” while on the other side, continue to provide sanctuary and logistics to the insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan undercutting the very objectives the war as has been pointed out in the previously classified documents dubbed ‘Afghanistan Papers’ containing interviews of officials from the American military establishment with direct experience of the Afghan war.
The dual role was conceived as surefire ways to secure a pliable Afghan regime that could ensure it strategic depth vis-à-vis India. Abrogation of the article 370 of the Indian Constitution which allowed Kashmir a special state status by the BJP-led Indian government and integration of the territorial area into the Indian union by turning it into a union territory would have strengthened Pakistan’s fear of encirclement from the eastern side and emboldened it to keep its influence to its west – Afghanistan under tight leash. Disallowing India any influence in Afghanistan would have been also a retaliatory measure to offset the loss in the eastern sphere of influence.
Further, the recent introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the incumbent Indian government has the potential to fuel Pakistan’s existing fear of encirclement. The act designed to bestow citizenship to Hindus migrated from neighboring Islamic states sends a message of a Pan-Hindu vision and could be interpreted as targeting at Pakistan. According to a recent intelligence report, Pakistan’s ISI is forging a partnership between insurgent groups such as LeT and Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan (ISKP) to carry out car bomb suicide attacks on Indian missions in Afghanistan The ISI has given LeT the responsibility to partner with the ISKP to plot the attacks. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pakistan-let-is-attack-indian-missions-afghanistan-1631081-2019-12-24
The evolving circumstances suggest that Pakistan has not only been considered a significant player in brokering Afghan peace considering its influence over the Afghan Taliban, US President Donald Trump has approved the resumption of its military training program for Pakistani security personnel at the American institutions. The phone call of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to congratulate Ashraf Ghani for his electoral wins after the announcement of preliminary official results of the Presidential elections appears to have nominal value compared to Pakistan’s clout in Afghanistan. India being one of the largest regional donors to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has not been able to muster significant support-base within Afghanistan which would defend its stakes post-Afghan peace deal. Much like India’s inability to lend enough support to the Najibullah regime after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan so that it did not fail, New Delhi currently appears clueless as to the way to proceed in the peace process.
Initially, Pakistan’s fear of its encirclement stemmed from its geographic narrowness and the presence of important cities such as Lahore and Karachi and communication networks within short striking distance of India. This strategic concern was first appreciated and expressed in February 1946 by General Arthur F. Smith, then Chief of General Staff in India. It was therefore argued that a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul was necessary to give Islamabad the much required strategic depth to launch a counter-offensive from Afghan territory.
However, gradually the concept of strategic depth has been broadened and related to Pakistan’s strategy of undermining political, ideological and economic influence of India in Afghanistan. For instance, in order to limit India’s economic influence, Islamabad considered blocking its territory for the transfer of goods from Afghanistan and Central Asia towards India and vice versa and invigorating a strategy of linking itself with Central Asia through communication networks.
Such a changing and broader conceptualization of ‘strategic depth’ can be inferred from Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal’s curt response to a question pertaining to US President Donald Trump’s remarks about India playing a role in Afghanistan: “India has no role in Afghanistan”. A cursory look at history drives home an understanding that Pakistan’s policy was geared toward making Afghanistan overly dependent on it for market so that its influence in the country did not get diluted.
Pakistan allegedly lent support to various radical religious groups to create an overarching Islamic identity in order to displace the Pashtun ethnic nationalism. Pakistan’s role in defusing the demand for independent Pashtunistan comprising the Pashtuns straddling the Af-Pak border areas is reflective of its desire to maintain economic influence in Afghanistan. The demand for Pashtunistan, if conceded, would have granted Afghanistan the most desired route to the Indian Ocean. Afghanistan for long was in the lookout for routes that would lessen its dependence on Pakistan. Islamabad made efforts to create such an Islamic identity by raising jihad against Soviet Union following its intervention in 1979 and propping up the Taliban during the civil war period in Afghanistan. Afghan governments tried to undercut Pashtun nationalism even before the jihad in the 1980s. For example, it was in 1973 that the then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulifikar Ali Bhutto provided sanctuary to Islamist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with a view to undermining the established government in Kabul (It was said in a speech delivered by M. K. Bhadrakumar at the international conference, “The Age of Obama: From the Mediterranean to the Greater Middle East” organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and Fondazione Italianieuropei, Rome, November 30, 2009).
Pakistani aspirations of keeping Afghanistan and Central Asia away from Indian sphere of influence and to keep them under its own influence as much as possible were evident in its use of the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965 to deny overland route to India to supply goods to Afghanistan let alone Central Asia which could be construed as Islamabad’s attempts at gaining economic depth versus New Delhi.
Islamabad’s geopolitical interest in the Central Asian region was expressed soon after the states of the Central Asian region emerged as independent republics and India’s influence in the region waned significantly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government of Benazir Bhutto, under its Interior Minister General Naseerullah Babur initiated steps at utilizing the Taliban in an effort to bring stability to southern and eastern Afghanistan and open routes and trade links to different resource rich Central Asian states.
Further, Afghanistan’s membership in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) provided India with an opportunity in its reach out to Central Asia. But such prospects were doomed as Islamabad has been reluctant to allow its territory being used as a conduit for Indo-Afghan or Indo-Central Asian trade. Pakistan was seen opposing Afghanistan’s membership in SAARC and taking advantage of its geo-strategic position in blocking the transfer of goods through its territory. Pakistan perceived India’s non-military and developmental role in Afghanistan as a policy of New Delhi’s strategic encirclement and viewed India’s enhanced diplomatic presence in the country with suspicion and alleged it with involvement in promoting anti-Pakistani elements. On the other hand, New Delhi continued to allege Pakistani involvement in terror attacks on its embassy, consulates and construction sites in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s double-game since the inception of War on Terror
Pakistan managed to salvage its policy on Kashmir and Afghanistan even after joining the US-led ‘War on Terror’ by maintaining an ambiguous stance. General Pervez Musharraf highlighted the phrase ‘safeguard the cause of Kashmir’ as one of the most important reasons to join the ‘War on Terror’ (S. Pattanaik, “War on Terror and its Impact on Pakistan’s Kashmir Policy”, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 3, May 2008, p. 389). He linked Pakistan’s decision to join the ‘War on Terror’ to India’s attempt to get violence in Kashmir recognized as terrorism at an international level.
While Pakistan was claiming to battle against militants in the AfPak region on its western frontier in the war against terror, violence in the east was characterized as a freedom struggle. Pakistan’s ploy to join the ‘War on Terror’ reaped rich dividends in terms of showing it as being serious about getting rid of terrorists on its soil. This led the US view militancy in Kashmir as a secondary affair to be dealt with after the War on Terror. Immediately following Pakistan’s declaration of support for the US-led Afghan war, terror incidents in India increased manifold. According to Kanti Bajpai, terrorist violence since 9/11 was continuous and audacious. Terror attacks on Kashmir Assembly on October 1, 2001, attacks on Indian Parliament two months later on December 13, 2001, attacks on army camp in May 2002, killing of Abdul Ghani Lone, a moderate leader in the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference and attacks on Hindu pilgrims on their way to sacred Amarnath temple in Kashmir and the Akshardham temple in Gujurat pointed to spiraling of terror in the aftermath of 9/11 attack (K. Bajpai, “The War in Afghanistan and US Policy”, Salman Haidar, (ed.), The Afghan War and its Geopolitical Implications for India, Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 2004, p. 40).
Pakistan joined the American-led ‘War on Terror’ in order not to be isolated internationally. Second, as India swiftly declared its support for Washington, Pakistan might not have wanted India to move closer to the US, which would have disturbed regional balance of power and third and more importantly, it was obvious to the Pakistani leadership that the country’s geo-strategic location with a shared border with Afghanistan would pay rich dividends as the US would have to depend on it for military operations. However, the decision to support the US in its ‘War on Terror’ did not come easily as Pakistan had to make a volt face to take such a stance.
Supporting the Taliban was considered crucial to Pakistan’s security and regional calculations. General Musharraf even at times thought of estranging relationship with the US rather than abandon his allies in Afghanistan. Prior to the 9/11 attack on the US, Musharraf had openly admitted Pakistan’s ongoing support for Taliban, declaring, “This is our national interest…the Taliban cannot be alienated by Pakistan. We have a national security interest there” (R. Ahmed, “Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation-Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia”, Viking, New York, 2008, pp. 50-51).
On the other side, the US was aware that Pakistan had the potential to use coercive measures in order to multiply its support for the radical groups and impede its war efforts. Similarly, mounting pressures on Pakistan (a nuclear weapon state) could turn it into a failed state enabling militant groups’ access to the weapons.