Conflict Over Afghanistan
The February 2010 attack on the Indian guest houses was a rare overt act of hostility in the long covert struggle India and Pakistan have been waging on and off for more than sixty years over their competing influence in Afghanistan. But it was not the only such act. In fact it was the third in less than three years.
Fifteen months before, on October 8, 2009, a massive car bomb had been set off outside the Indian embassy in Kabul killing 17 people and wounding 63. Most of the dead were ordinary Afghans caught walking near the target. A few Indian security personnel were wounded, but blast walls built following a much deadlier bombing the previous year which killed 40 and wounded more than 100—also thought to have been sponsored by Pakistan—deflected the force of the explosion, so that physical damage to the embassy was limited to some of the doors and windows being blown out. In the case of the 2009 attack, American officials went public with details from phone intercepts which they said revealed the involvement of the ISI.
The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan.
The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.
Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.
Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, many of his fellow tribesmen view his presence as mere window-dressing for a U.S.-devised realignment of long-established power relations in the country, dating back to 2001 when the U.S. toppled the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban.
The Pashtuns had held sway in Afghan politics ever since the state assumed its current boundaries in the 1860s. By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the U.S. saw itself making common cause with the forces of secularism against militant Islam; but it was unwittingly taking sides in a complex civil war that has been going on since the 1970s—and that had roots going back much further than that. To this day, because the Pashtuns feel dominated by their ancestral enemies, many support or at least feel some residual sympathies for the Taliban.
There is also an age-old Pashtun-on-Pashtun element to the conflict. It pits Taliban from the Ishaqzai tribe, parts of the Nurzais, Achakzais, and most of the Ghilzais, especially the Hotak and Tokhi Ghilzais, against the more “establishment” Durrani Pashtun tribes: the Barakzais, Popalzais and Alikozais.
Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers—both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan. Compared to that prolonged and deadly contest, the U.S. and ISAF are playing little more than a bit part—and they, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit.
July 1999: U.S. President Bill Clinton (r) shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif outside Blair House following their talks on de-escalating tensions between Pakistan and India over Kashmir in Washington July 4.
Since the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars—the most recent in 1971—and they seemed on the verge of going nuclear against each other during a crisis in 1999, when Pakistani troops crossed a ceasefire line and occupied 500 square miles of Indian Kashmir, including a Himalayan border post near the town of Kargil. As tensions rose, the Pakistanis took ominous steps with their nuclear arsenal. President Bill Clinton mediated a solution. In intense negotiations at Blair House in Washington over the Fourth of July weekend, Clinton persuaded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to order a pullback of his country’s forces to the Pakistani side of the line. That concession cost Nawaz his job and, very nearly, his life. The army commander, Pervez Musharraf, mounted a coup and sentenced Nawaz to death. Clinton intervened and Nawaz was exiled to Saudi Arabia.
It is easy to understand why Pakistan might feel insecure. India’s population (1.2 billion) and its economy (GDP of $1.4 trillion) are about eight times the size of Pakistan’s (180 million Pakistanis generating an annual GDP of only $210 billion). During the period of India’s greatest growth, which lasted from 2006 to 2010, there were four years during which the annual increase in the Indian economy was almost equal to the entire Pakistani economy.
In the eyes of the world, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark as it is now: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower, famous for its software geniuses, its Bollywood babes, its fast-growing economy and super-rich magnates; the other written off as a failed state, a world center of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and the only ally of the U.S. whose airspace Washington has been ready to violate and whose villages it regularly bombs. However unfair this stereotyping may be, it’s not surprising that many Pakistanis see their massive neighbor as threatening the very existence of their state.
In December 1971, Pakistani and Indian forces clashed in Khulna, in what is now Bangladesh. The battle was the last major engagement fought on the eastern front of the third war between India and Pakistan. In this photo, Indian soldiers walk past a destroyed Indian tank.
To defend themselves, Pakistani planners long ago developed a doctrine of “strategic depth.” The idea had its origins in the debacle of 1971, when, in less than two weeks, India crushingly defeated Pakistan in their third war. That conflict ended with East Pakistan, which had risen up against West Pakistan, becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. According to the Pakistanis’ narrative, the dismemberment of their country—which they blame on India—made it all the more important to develop and maintain friendly relations with Afghanistan, in large measure in order to have a secure refuge in the case of a future war with India. The porous border offers a route by which Pakistani leaders, troops and other assets, including its nuclear weapons, could retreat to the northwest in the case of an Indian invasion.
For the idea to work, it is essential that the Afghan government be a close ally of Pakistan, and willing to help fight India. When the Taliban were in power, they were seen as the perfect partner for the Pakistani military. Although widely viewed in the West as medieval if not barbaric, the Taliban regime was valued in Pakistan as fiercely anti-India and therefore deserving Pakistani arms and assistance.
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The current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai has been the dominant political figure there since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. An ethnic Pashtun, he is a member of the Popalzai tribe. He has lived, worked and studied in both India and Pakistan. His second presidential term ends in 2014, and he has said that he will step aside.
After the Taliban were ousted by the U.S. after 9/11, a major strategic shift occurred: the government of Afghanistan became an ally of India’s, thus fulfilling the Pakistanis’ worst fear. The president of post-Taliban Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, hated Pakistan with a passion, in part because he believed that the ISI had helped assassinate his father in 1999. At the same time he felt a strong emotional bond with India, where he had gone to university in the Himalayan city of Simla, once the summer capital of British India. When I interviewed Karzai in Kabul in early March, he spoke warmly of his days in Simla, calling them some of the happiest of his life, and he was moved almost to tears as he recalled the sound of monsoon rain hitting the tin roof of his student lodgings and the sight of the beautiful cloud formations drifting before his windows. He also expressed his love of Indian food and even admitted to liking Bollywood films. Karzai views India as democratic, stable and relatively rich, the perfect partner for Afghanistan, a “best friend” as he frequently calls it.
With Karzai in office, India seized the opportunity to increase its political and economic influence in Afghanistan, re-opening its embassy in Kabul, opening four regional consulates, and providing substantial reconstruction assistance totaling around $1.5 billion, with an additional $500 million promised within the next few years.
For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals.
An Afghan soldier searches a Pashtun voter at the polling station during parliamentary elections in Spin Boldak near the Afghan/Pakistan border September 18, 2005.
REUTERS/Saeed Ali Achakzai MK/TC
That said, India’s presence is still, even now, quite modest. According to Indian diplomatic sources, there are actually fewer than 3,600 Indians in Afghanistan, almost all of them businessmen and contract workers in the agriculture, telecommunications, manufacturing and mining sectors. There are only 10 Indian diplomatic officers, compared to nearly 140 in the UK embassy and 1,200 in the U.S. embassy. But the Pakistani military, which effectively controls Pakistan’s foreign policy, remains paranoid about even this small an Indian presence in what they regard as their strategic Afghan backyard—much as the British used to be about Russians in Afghanistan during the days of the Great Game.
For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals. The fear of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker is so great that it has led the ISI to take steps that put Pakistan’s own internal security at risk, as well as Pakistan’s relationship with its main strategic ally, the U.S. For much of the last decade the ISI has sought to restore the Taliban to power so that it can oust Karzai and his Indian friends.
In a nation whose government has often been run by the military, and whose foreign policy has been seen as carried out by the ISI, General Kayani has held the leadership of both institutions. Currently chief of staff of the army, a position he has held since 2007, Kayani reversed Musharraf's policy of staffing military officers in the government's civilian posts. Forbes magazine ranked him the 28th most powerful person in the world in 2012.
To achieve this goal, the Pakistani military has relied on “asymmetric warfare”— using jihadi fighters for its own ends. This strategy goes back over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calculates that there are currently more than 40 such extremist groups operating in Pakistan, most of whom have strong links with the ISI as well as the local Islamic political parties.
Pakistani generals have long viewed the jihadis as a cost-effective and easily-deniable means of controlling events in Afghanistan—something they briefly achieved with the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996. By the same means, the Pakistanis have kept much of the Indian army bogged down in Kashmir ever since the separatist insurgency broke out in 1990. The generals like using jihadis because they help foster a sense of nationalism based on the twin prongs of hatred for India and the bonding power of Islamic identity.
A Short History of India - Pakistan Relations
It is unclear how many Pakistanis still endorse this strategy and how many are having second thoughts. There are clearly those in the army who are now alarmed at the amount of sectarian and political violence the jihadis have brought to Pakistan. But that view is contested by some in both the army and the ISI who continue to believe that the jihadis are a more practical defense against Indian hegemony than even nuclear weapons. For them, support for carefully chosen jihadis in Afghanistan is a vital survival strategy well worth the risk. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army, was once in this camp. As he put it in a speech in 2001, “Strategically, we cannot have an Afghan army on our western border which has an Indian mindset and capabilities to take on Pakistan.” How far he has now changed his position remains a matter of debate.
Brookings President Strobe Talbott interviews the author about the contest for power and influence in one of the world's most dangerous regions.
Pakistan-watchers are unanimous that, while Kayani is mindful of the Taliban threat in his own country, his burning obsession is still India’s presence in Afghanistan. As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad, "At the moment, Afghanistan is all [Kayani] thinks about and all he wants to talk about. It’s all he gets briefed about and it’s his primary focus of attention. There is an Indo-Pak proxy war, and it’s going on right now.”