Afghan President Hamid Karzai went to New Delhi last month and signed a long-term security agreement, making many believe that Kabul can choose India over Pakistan for its key strategic partner in the region. Yet the notion that India can be a substitute for Pakistan is an unwise gamble. If Kabul continues down this road, the most probable outcome would be Islamabad waging a full-blown proxy war.
Pakistan is paranoid about its arch rival gaining a major foothold in Afghanistan. This is its chief motivation for all the trouble its intelligence agencies have caused by supporting the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura Taliban.
This problem is bad enough as is, but it could grow more severe. In a worst case, as NATO winds down its effort in Afghanistan, Pakistan could seek to stir up even more trouble, with the possibility of civil war and even the partition of Afghanistan becoming much more real. In turn, the country could once again become a terrorist sanctuary.
To be sure, it would be useful if New Delhi and Kabul expanded their economic interactions. However, even as Kabul seeks better ties with New Delhi it must work hard to strengthen relations with Islamabad. Kabul should seek a bargain in which it addresses some of Pakistan’s fears in exchange for Islamabad reining in the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura.
One step Kabul should take is clarifying the nature of military relations with India. In the aftermath of President Karzai’s trip to India, where New Delhi and Kabul agreed that India would help train Afghan security forces, Afghanistan could promise Pakistan that such training will occur only under the auspices of NATO’s training mission, as long as NATO remains in Afghanistan.
Second, Kabul also could request that India close its consulates in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Islamabad sees these Indian outposts in Jalalabad and Kandahar as intelligence collection sites and covert action staging bases in disguise. Though it’s doubtful that the consulates are as threatening as Islamabad thinks, they are not important enough to risk antagonizing Pakistan.
Kabul also should commit to respect the Durand Line that has separated Pakistan and Afghanistan since British times as the effective border indefinitely. Afghans continue to resist accepting this arbitrary line as their boundary. But it makes little sense for small, weak Afghanistan to pick a fight with its big neighbor over where the border should be, especially since what is at stake are remote mountain regions that are hardly the heartland of either country.
Finally, Kabul should further develop Afghanistan-Pakistan border management discussions, with high-level government participation on both sides. In this forum, Islamabad could also convey its preferences as to who among the Haqqanis or other tribes might be accorded government jobs in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. Islamabad should not get to choose Afghanistan’s local leaders, but there is no reason to deprive it of a chance to advocate for certain interests. Afghanistan might do the same in reverse.
None of this will be easy. But for those looking for fruitful peace talks to secure Afghanistan’s future, a conversation with Pakistan is a more promising arena for diplomacy than with India, and certainly better than those between Kabul and the Taliban.