Originally Published 2010-04-05 00:00:00 Published on Apr 05, 2010
The primary objective of the US is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launchpad by Al Qaeda
We must avoid Pak trap in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is geopolitically important to various countries for different reasons. Currently, the primary objective of the US is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launchpad by Al Qaeda and associated extremist groups for terrorist activity directed at it. Beyond that, Afghanistan is integral to the pursuit of US longer term political and economic interests in Central Asia, and that would include preventing Russia from dominating it militarily and China economically. US presence in Afghanistan also constitutes a potential pressure point on Iran for curbing its nuclear ambitions.

Russia’s interest in Afghanistan is complex

It is very reluctant to intervene unilaterally in Afghan affairs, with the bitter results of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in mind. Yet it cannot ignore the threat of a consolidation of US presence in Afghanistan to its longer term interests in Central Asia, even though for short term pragmatic reasons it is currently providing transit facilities to Nato forces through its territory. It is deeply concerned about the spread of extremist religious forces in Afghanistan, represented by the Taliban, as these could then spread to Central Asia and eventually dangerously infect southern Russia too. Meanwhile, drug trafficking from Afghanistan has become a top priority issue for Russia as almost one- fifth of Afghan heroin flows into its territory, causing societal ravage and 30,000 deaths annually.


China is consolidating its presence in Central Asia, in the energy sector in particular.

It would not want Afghan instability to spill over into Central Asia and jeopardise the progress it is making there. The spread of Islamic radicalism in the region would concern it deeply because of the impact of that on the already troubled situation in Sinkiang.

For these pragmatic reasons it too would not want the US/ ISAF forces to withdraw prematurely, despite the occasional rhetoric about removal of foreign forces from the region. As part of its frenetic acquisition world wide of raw material resources China is making a multi- billion dollar investment in developing Afghanistan’s copper resources, including building a railway line as part of the project. This would fit in with its larger strategy of promoting the economic growth of its provinces by linking them to neighbouring countries and, backed by the dynamism of its economy and the enormous capital resources that it now possesses, to bring these countries or the adjoining regions into the Chinese orbit.

Iran has special interest in the Herat region in which it has already consolidated its interests, especially economic.

It is opposed to the Shia- hating Taliban, supported in the past by Saudi Arabia and, barring the Al Qaeda complication, still linked to that country as is clear from President Karzais open support for a Saudi role in the reconciliation strategy directed at these extremist forces. Iran, as is reported, may well be giving some support to the Taliban groups fighting US/ Nato troops as a form of retaliation against the US for its open support for anti- regime elements in Iran.

Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan has several dimensions, deriving from history, geopolitical realities, outstanding territorial issues, ethnic links, military ambitions, anti- India paranoia and the like. As both rational and irrational elements are involved in shaping Pakistan’s Afghan policy, dealing with it on the Afghan issue is a problem for both its friends and its adversaries. Pakistans desire to dominate Afghanistan contradicts historical experience as, barring Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a non- Muslim ruler of Punjab who ruled Afghanistan, it is the Afghans who have ruled in Delhi. Even the Mughals came to India via Afghanistan. Just because its missiles have been named after Ghazni and Ghauri should not delude Pakistan into believing that it has any historical basis for its imperial ambitions in Afghanistan. Pakistans rationale for pursuing “ strategic depth” in Afghanistan appears equally obtuse.


Such thinking is premised on denying full sovereignty to Afghanistan. How can Pakistan decide unilaterally that it must have such depth? Is the Afghan government ready to concede this abridgement of its security choices to Pakistan? Other than this fundamental perversity, hasn’t Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal given it the security depth it needs against India? If the whole purpose of acquiring this capability, accompanied by a policy of first use whose threshold has been kept relatively low, is to deter an Indian conventional attack of major proportions, then why is strategic depth in Afghanistan needed, as that would presuppose a scenario in which Pakistan, reeling under a strong Indian conventional blow, would not use nuclear weapons and would need space, outside the reach of Indian forces, to recover, recoup and retaliate? Actually, this would imply an alliance between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the two countries joining forces to fight India.

Even if “strategic depth” were only to mean that a government friendly to Pakistan should be in power in Kabul it would still be an unacceptable demand.

Such logic would justify India demanding “strategic depth” in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, not to mention in Pakistan itself. If Pakistan is concerned about Indian influence in Afghanistan working against its security interests, then India would have equal concern about Chinese influence in Pakistan working against Indian security interests, not to mention the threat from both China and Pakistan to its interests in other neighbouring countries. Barring the period when the Taliban were in power in Kabul, ever since 1947 Pakistan and Afghanistan have not enjoyed a close political relationship despite Afghan dependence on Pakistan for transit facilities.

Despite the Pashtun bond, even the Taliban proved unwilling to formally recognise the Durand line.


India’s relationship with Afghanistan too has not been particularly close or fecund.

Afghanistan has stayed aloof from India- Pakistan conflicts and differences; India also has not supported Afghanistan on the Durand line issue. There is no history of India using Afghan soil to foment trouble in Pakistan. It is true that India opposed the ouster of the legitimate government of Afghanistan by the Pakistani sponsored Taliban extremists who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas as remnants of Afghanistans pre- Islamic ties with the Indian civilisation, apart from being complicit with the terrorists responsible for the IC- 814 hijacking. It is worthwhile remembering that no other country apart from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, recognised the odious Taliban regime. If the US had not intervened in Afghanistan after September 11 and ousted the Taliban regime, India would have had to tolerate the existence of that regime.

India is not in competition with Pakistan in Afghanistan. It is in Pakistans interest to project such rivalry in order to resist US demands to act against the Afghan Taliban and shift focus from the countrys eastern border to its western one and accept that the real danger to Pakistans stability comes not from India but from the extremist religious forces let loose by Pakistan itself to serve its ambitions in India as well as Afghanistan. Pakistan wants a political victory over India in Afghanistan to satisfy its hunger to diminish India diplomatically as much as possible.

Neither our historical relationship with Afghanistan nor the stakes today should push us to fall into the Pakistani trap of projecting Afghanistan as a battle ground for the perennial India- Pakistan confrontation.

Pakistan’s overreach in Afghanistan will recoil on it. Lets be patient.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary  and can be reached at [email protected]

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