Originally Published 2004-09-23 08:58:20 Published on Sep 23, 2004
One proposal that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could offer to President Pervez Musharraf, when they meet this week in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, is cooperation in the reconstruction in Afghanistan.
A meeting ground in Afghanistan
One proposal that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could offer to President Pervez Musharraf, when they meet this week in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, is cooperation in the reconstruction in Afghanistan. The notion that India could work with Pakistan in Afghanistan would seem far-fetched even for those in New Delhi who tend to be hopeful about the future of bilateral ties. Dr. Singh, however, has been demanding ideas from outside the box.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> What sounds heretical today often becomes policy tomorrow. That has been the pattern of India-Pakistan relations in the recent past. The idea of discussing issues relating to natural gas pipelines with Pakistan was taboo for many years. Today, India has agreed to start talks on the subject. The suggestion of bus services perforating the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir would have been dismissed as crazy some moons ago. It will soon be considered by the two sides. Promoting a free trade area in the subcontinent was a fool's errand until recently. In a little over a year, the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) will kick in. Foreign policy debate tends to stay behind the lines drawn by official positions at any given moment. But in recent years, India's political leadership has steadily broadened permissible limits of discourse on foreign policy. Dr. Singh has everything to gain by putting creative ideas on bilateral cooperation on the table and attempting a transformation of the discussion on both sides of the border.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Sceptics would insist that any discussion on regional security with Pakistan would be premature at this stage. An India-Pakistan peace process launched earlier this year has just about survived the first round of consultations. New Delhi and Islamabad are continuing to squabble over the Kashmir question - on how to conduct negotiations on the contentious question and its relationship with the rest of the peace process. India remains concerned about the continuing cross-border terrorism.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The proposed meeting between Dr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf could yet be derailed if the "annual Kashmir itch" overwhelms the latter in his address to the UNGA. Given the fragility of the current peace process, realists would argue that the principal objective of Dr. Singh in his first encounter with Gen. Musharraf should be to consolidate the peace process rather than identify new elements of cooperation. Nevertheless, there is considerable merit in the argument that Dr. Singh should not limit himself to a narrow agenda that the two nations are currently coming to terms with. India has nothing to lose by unveiling an offer for cooperation with Pakistan on Afghanistan. It would certainly gain international support and provide a benchmark for the public debate on India-Pakistan relations.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The idea that India and Pakistan should cooperate on Afghanistan may be bold, but it is not new. In the wake of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, the then External Affairs Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, travelled to Islamabad offering a joint approach to the new security challenges in the subcontinent. Pakistan, which was riding high then as the newly declared "frontline" state in Washington's Cold War against Moscow, predictably rejected the proposal.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The regional situation since then has radically altered. The war against the Soviet Union degenerated into a civil war in Afghanistan which produced the Taliban. The Pakistan Army, which instrumentalised radical Islam to bleed the Soviet Union, under the American mandate, has now been given the task of cleaning up the mess. The war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has shifted to the territory of Pakistan. The Army had entered areas that it had never been in before in pursuit of Al-Qaeda. That war, for example in Waziristan, has been both costly and unpopular.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The changed conditions in the north-western parts of the subcontinent provide an opportunity for rethinking many of the traditional premises of enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. That India and Pakistan have eyed each other warily in Afghanistan ever since the Partition of the subcontinent is a fact. Pakistan has been deeply uncomfortable with the active diplomatic presence of India in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban. But that does not necessarily suggest that this rivalry must remain eternal.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Pakistan has long seen Afghanistan as constituting its strategic depth. It has dreamt of putting in place a regime that is politically close to Islamabad. These dreams have shattered amidst an unprecedented internationalisation of Afghanistan's security after the ouster of the Taliban regime. There might be sections of the Pakistan Army that still hope that once American attention is no longer riveted upon Kabul, it could go back to the old ways in Afghanistan.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> But the history of Afghanistan and in particular the tragic consequences of Pakistan's own approach to that nation over the last quarter of a century should suggest that Islamabad cannot hope to control the destiny of its western neighbour. International involvement in Afghanistan is likely to continue for quite some time and New Delhi, which enjoys good standing in that country today, will be an important partner for Kabul.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India, on the other hand, cannot wish Pakistan away in Afghanistan. The simple geopolitical reality of a long and uncontrolled border between the two nations will always provide political opportunities for Pakistan. The emphasis on short-term interests and a sense of rivalry have meant New Delhi and Islamabad undercut each other in Kabul.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Whether India and Pakistan acknowledge it or not, they do share an interest today in promoting a stable, independent, politically moderate and modernising Afghanistan. A recognition of this reality should help change the way India and Pakistan have related to each other in Afghanistan. The long-term regional economic interests of both India and Pakistan demand that they cooperate in Afghanistan.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Gen. Musharraf has indeed begun to articulate the view that Pakistan could benefit as a potential bridge state between the subcontinent, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. A stable Afghanistan, then, holds the key to Pakistan's own geo-economic future. Pakistan could then become a transit hub for trade and communications between India and the regions to the west and the north.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> For India, too, the simplest routes to the west and the north-west, are through Pakistan. Given the current hostility with Pakistan, which is reluctant to provide transit facilities to India, New Delhi is exploring alternative access routes to these vital regions. If Pakistan and India choose to cooperate, rather than compete, they would at once enhance their individual weight in a region that is critical to the whole world.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> If there is political will, a range of possibilities for India-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan and beyond presents itself. The two sides could take up joint economic projects in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Both New Delhi and Islamabad are already involved in many projects such as road-building in Afghanistan. Creating synergy should not be impossible.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Two, India and Pakistan could jointly work out a trade and transit treaty with Afghanistan. Such an arrangement would benefit all three and link the subcontinent with Central Asia. Similar arrangements could also be negotiated with Iran. India has agreed to study a free trade arrangement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising six Arab Gulf states. There is no reason why such an arrangement should not include Pakistan.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Mutual cooperation has not been a principal feature of India-Pakistan relations in the past. The imperatives of globalisation and regional integration have put economic cooperation squarely on the India-Pakistan agenda and have created a broader framework in which to consider their own longstanding disputes. Similarly, political and security cooperation between the two sides would also help overcome deep distrust that has accumulated over the years.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Ideas on political cooperation have already begun to impinge on the India-Pakistan agenda. At their meeting a few weeks ago in New Delhi, the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries hinted at cooperation on global nuclear issues when they demanded a conversation with all the nuclear weapon powers. If India-Pakistan cooperation is conceivable on the nuclear front, there is no reason why a mutually beneficial engagement cannot be constructed around their shared interests in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Gen. Musharraf is likely to respond to any Indian proposals on political cooperation in Afghanistan and beyond by suggesting that he could consider them only after a resolution of the Kashmir conflict. If Dr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf manage to find a way in New York to reassure each other on Kashmir and terrorism and come up with a mutually acceptable negotiating format on the subjects, they should not find it difficult to start thinking the unthinkable on regional security issues. <br /> <br /> The author is Professor of South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Advisor, US Studies Progeamme, Observer Research Foundation. <br /> <br /> <em>Courtesy: The Hindu, Chennai, September 23, 2004</em> </font> </p> <p align="justify" class="greytext1"> <font size="2" class="greytext1"> </font> </p> <p align="justify" class="greytext1"> <font size="2" class="greytext1"> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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