Pakistan's Bogeyman in Afghanistan

On the eve of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stopover in Pakistan en route to India, Pakistan’s Information Minister repeated the old refrain that Pakistan would make sure “India has no role to play in Afghanistan.” Outsiders might find it surprising that one country (Pakistan) is asserting the right to decide who “plays” a role in another country (Afghanistan). Shouldn’t the right to decide what kinds of relations Afghanistan will have with other countries lie with the Afghans?

Not so for Pakistan, whose leaders often cite imaginary misgivings about India’s presence across its northwestern border as the reason Pakistan supports the Taliban and hinders American goals in Afghanistan. Had India stationed troops or created a military base there, Pakistan would have good reason to protest. But Pakistan’s knee-jerk opposition to economic, cultural, or even educational ties between India and Afghanistan is not easy for Americans to comprehend.

Pakistan’s policy has its origins in the policy of the British Raj toward Afghanistan. The British saw Afghanistan as a buffer between Russia’s Central Asian empire and their own empire in the subcontinent. Afghanistan’s foreign policy was, for all practical purposes, subject to a British veto. In an earlier era, civil servants and generals in British India even determined who would sit on the throne in Kabul.

Since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s leaders have sought influence over Afghanistan similar to that enjoyed by the erstwhile colonial power that partitioned India and devolved power to Pakistan. Officials in Islamabad wish to arrogate to themselves the right to decide who wields power in Afghanistan, and want their smaller neighbor to the west to subordinate its decision-making to Pakistan’s preferences.

Pakistan’s stated rationale for insisting that Afghanistan remain in its sphere of influence is that it fears Afghanistan joining India to encircle Pakistan. Some Pakistanis claim that India has not accepted Partition and seeks to undo Pakistan by supporting irredentist demands within the country, whether Bengali, Muhajir, Pashtun, or Baluch.

The real fear motivating Pakistani leaders is that overlapping ethnicities might lead some Pakistanis to feel greater affinity with Indians or Afghans across the border than with co-religionists of other ethnicities within Pakistan. This is more a psychological fear than a serious likelihood, which is why no substantive policy concession or internationally backed negotiation has ever been able to address it.

Pakistanis claim that they cannot forget Afghanistan’s vote at the United Nations in 1947 against Pakistan’s membership. Few of them acknowledge that Afghanistan later withdrew its objection, recognized Pakistan, and established full diplomatic relations with the new country. Similarly, there is no admission that Afghanistan supported Pakistan, not India, during several India-Pakistan wars and never took advantage of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities.

Pakistani arguments about past Afghan behavior are less cause than pretext for an agenda of subordinating Afghanistan to Pakistan. Using one rationale or another, Pakistan has consistently sought a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul, insisting that Afghanistan should not have close ties with India. This explains Pakistan’s support for Afghan Islamist groups during the 1970s, the anti-Soviet mujaheddin during the 1980s, and for the Taliban from the 1990s onwards.

Pakistani leaders have sometimes even voiced the belief that they should have the right to decide who wields power in Kabul. Immediately after the end of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s, then-military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq stated that “We have earned the right to have [in Kabul] a power which is very friendly toward us.”

This belief, rather than any action on India’s part, is at the heart of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Pakistani strategists seem blind to the notion that any government in Kabul would, after initial bonhomie, start resenting interference from Islamabad-Rawalpindi and look to Delhi to provide some balance.

Pakistan’s security establishment has also attempted to convince Americans of Indian perfidy in Afghanistan. Hoping to mediate their differences, President George W. Bush arranged a meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf, only to discover that Pakistan’s fears were not backed by facts. For example, Pakistan alleged in 2006 that India’s external intelligence agency (R&AW) was training Baluch insurgents inside Afghanistan using its “24 consulates,” even though the number of India’s consulates in Afghanistan is the same as that for Pakistan –four.

After years of accepting Pakistani falsehoods regarding Indian’s role in Afghanistan at face value, even otherwise pro-Pakistan Americans have started to push back. In 2016, then-Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Olson, noted that India was a “supportive partner” that provided “limited” but “important military assistance” to Afghanistan. Affirming that India only had four consulates, Olson stated that Pakistan “overestimated” Indian influence.

India and Afghanistan signed a treaty of friendship in 1950, and have ever since built strategic and economic relations on the foundations of historical and civilizational ties. Unlike Pakistan, India has avoided taking sides in intra-Afghan disputes. During the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s, India did not support any of the mujaheddin groups.

It was only during the civil war that broke out in 1992 that India built ties with leaders in the Northern Alliance, including Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani—and that came in response to Pakistan’s backing first of Gulbeddin Hekmatyar and later of the Taliban.

Immediately after 9/11, New Delhi offered assistance to the U.S.-led international efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s then-military dictator General Pervez Musharraf and his advisors demanded that Indian presence and influence be limited if the U.S. government wanted Pakistan’s help in Afghanistan.

With India now a “natural ally” of the United States, and Kabul-Delhi ties restored after the fall of the Taliban regime, it is clear that any balancing act between India and Pakistan envisioned by Washington has not panned out. Meanwhile, India has become the largest regional donor to Afghanistan, providing over $2 billion in aid since 2002. But, sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns, India has limited its Afghan aid and assistance to three key areas: infrastructure, healthcare, and education.

India’s influence in Afghanistan comes from soft power. Indian engineers build highways, roads, and government buildings; Indian doctors and nurses run clinics across the country; and India provides scholarships for Afghan students to study in India’s first-grade schools. For decades Afghans have studied in India, including former President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan, on the other hand, seeks dominance over Afghanistan through hard power.

After signing a strategic partnership agreement India started training Afghan military and security officers and provided four military helicopters. But India is not about to send troops to Afghanistan any time soon, no matter what the Pakistanis may believe.

States can only deal with realities, not paranoia. If Pakistan identified specific concerns, then India and Afghanistan could be persuaded to address them. But so far it seems that Pakistan’s anxieties about Afghanistan’s ties with India either cover up its ambitions of dominance or are a function of Pakistan’s ideological hatred of India. U.S. policymakers should bear this in mind when fielding their Pakistani counterparts’ inevitable complaints about India and Afghanistan.

This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and the American Interest.