Skip to content

Fall 2017 Content Call Winner | Resolving South Asia’s Cold War: Pakistan, India, and the Pursuit of Peace in Afghanistan

Since its founding in the 18th century, Afghanistan’s destiny has been shaped by the imperial and geopolitical machinations of others, stymying its transition to a nation-state. The most consequential iteration of this in current times is a byproduct of the enmity between Pakistan and India; Pakistan’s decades-long quest to gain strategic depth against India, through the support of an extremist-backed proxy state in Afghanistan, has impeded the international community’s efforts to develop a working government in Kabul. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, NATO and the international community made the error of focusing on the imposition of a national solution to Afghanistan’s woes while ignoring the regional nature of the conflict. If it wants its attempts at fostering enduring peace and denying extremists safe haven in Afghanistan to succeed, the international community needs to pursue a détente between India and Pakistan by focusing on their most significant points of contention.

Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Of the multiple conflicts that have taken place between the two countries, the most enduring one is arguably for India-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan demands for Kashmir the right to self-determination since its Muslim-majority population would presumably align itself with Pakistani interests, a fear that keeps the Indian military preoccupied with the region. Afghanistan is an important component of this specific conflict because of its proximity to Pakistan, porous border on the Durand Line, shared Pashtun population, and weak central government. During the 1980s, as the Afghan mujahideen’s success against the USSR mounted, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency began diverting resources allotted for that war towards its conflict for Kashmir through the still-ongoing Operation Tupac. To serve as a guarantor of the region’s independence, the international community should support a multi-national peacekeeping force. It would ideally include the interested actors–Pakistan and India–and those there to play a neutral role, such as the NATO countries, modeled after the success of Kosovo, where NATO and Russia, despite opposing goals and interests on the issue of the region’s independence, were able to work together under the aegis of international cooperation. This would undercut Pakistan’s stated rationale for supporting militants in both Kashmir and Afghanistan, while allowing India to devote its military resources to other areas.

Military aid from the United States and the rest of NATO is another leveraging mechanism for the international community. Despite its clandestine support for terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Haqqani Network, the United States has provided the Pakistani government more than 30 billion dollars in military aid since 2002. This policy has given Pakistan little incentive to decrease its support for militants who engage in violence targeted at NATO coalition forces, the coalition-supported government in Afghanistan, and India. While Pakistan insists that it is committed to eradicating terrorism, the fact that the majority of its armed forces are still stationed on its border with India rather than focused on anti-terrorist operations demonstrates the gulf between its public assurances and reality. Because of these factors, President Donald Trump’s August 21 announcement of a shift in US-Afghanistan war strategy, which makes aid to Pakistan contingent on reining in its support of terrorist groups, is a long-awaited step in the right direction in dialing back tensions.

Where the long-term effectiveness of the strategy is diminished is in Trump’s threat to side with India over Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s support for militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir is based largely on its quest for geopolitical parity with India, this threat could force Pakistan to rebalance its partnerships with other nations in a way that allows it to continue to meet what it perceives as the threat of India. A more effective approach is putting conditions on military aid to Pakistan without using the threat of India. This would allow Pakistan a way forward without backing it into a corner that validates the most paranoid fears of its military and ISI.

Perhaps no attempt at ameliorating relations between Pakistan and India would be as beneficial to Afghanistan as the encouragement of better economic cooperation. Afghanistan’s economic growth has been a casualty of its need to rely on bilateral agreements with either Pakistan or India. A recent example of this is the failure in 2015 to solidify a significant transportation deal between Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the former’s unwillingness to allow transportation through India. One recommendation the international community can follow to help better integrate India and Pakistan is to use the South Asia Free Trade Area agreement, of which the two are already a part, to push for the elimination of non-tariff barriers between the two countries. The pursuit of regional trade deals including Afghanistan are less likely to fall apart due to petty rivalries if the international community is involved to make sure that trade deals do not unfairly favor one party over the other.

Overcome by the speed with which the Taliban was forced to flee Afghanistan in late 2001, NATO and the international community took a narrow approach to the country’s security that neglected to analyze regional realities. Little has changed since then. In terms of scope, the Trump administration’s acknowledgement that Pakistan plays a role in harboring extremists is an important step in broadening the potential for a regional solution. However, what is still missed is why Pakistan pursues this course of action. A more comprehensive approach necessitates recognizing that better relations between India and Pakistan are key element to peace in Afghanistan. This will require an engaged international community to push the two countries closer together. Unless significant progress is made in this area, Afghanistan will remain a battlefield in the India-Pakistan shadow war, preventing a lasting peace.

Zach Dickens is a Fellowship Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He obtained a Master’s degree in Diplomacy from Norwich University with a focus on international terrorism. Aside from having a broad interest in international relations, his area of expertise is US Foreign Policy and the states comprising the former Soviet Union.


Zach Dickens

Posted in

Leave a Comment