May 25, 2015 by Darius
[The US tends to look at Afghanistan through a security lens, but Afghanistan is part of a neighborhood, a neighborhood that includes Pakistan, China, India, and Central Asia. Afghanistan’s neighborhood will influence the country’s future long after the US leaves the region. Last week, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Afghan-Pakistani Reconciliation: A Brief Thaw or Something More?” Yesterday’s and today’s posts are a brief summary of the discussion.]
Khalid Nadiri of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies spoke about Afghan-Pakistani relations. He said that it is a positive development that Kabul and Islamabad are now talking to each other directly rather than relying on the US as a conduit. However, he felt that real reconciliation between the two is impossible as long as Pakistan continues to provide senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban with “arms, cash, and sanctuary.” He added that Pakistan has no credibility with Afghanistan because Pakistan has promised to stop supporting militant groups in Afghanistan three times in the past 20 years. Each promise has been blatantly broken. Nadiri felt it was important that the US signal that it will remain politically involved in the region over the long term. More concretely, Nadiri felt the US could be helpful by working to keep the current Afghan unity government together.
Reza Rumi from the National Endowment for Democracy discussed internal Pakistani politics. He said there are four factors shaping Pakistan and its relationship with Afghanistan. The first is the fallout from the December terrorist attack against a school in Peshawar. The attack has led the Pakistani military to get more serious about going after all militant groups in Pakistan, rather than just the ones the Pakistani military doesn’t support. The second factor is Pakistani public opinion. According to Rumi, for 10 years, there has been a broad consensus in Pakistan of support for the Afghan Taliban. That consensus is now dwindling, especially in the face of the December attack, which caused many Pakistanis to realize that there is no good/bad Taliban. The third factor is China’s increasing role and its desire for regional stability. The fourth factor shaping Pakistan is a greater awareness and concern over the growth of the Pakistani Taliban and an understanding that the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates are an outgrowth of the Afghan Taliban and not some fiction created by agents of India.
Rumi also said that over the last 30 years, there has been an exponential growth and concurrent fragmentation of armed groups operating in Pakistan. The Pakistan government and intelligence services simply cannot control them all anymore.
Walter Andersen, a former head of the South Asia division at the US Department of State, talked about India’s role in Afghan-Pakistani reconciliation. He said that India is not necessarily threatened by Afghan-Pakistani reconciliation. Instead, India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been all about economic development. Specifically, according to Andersen, Modi believes strongly in South Asian connectivity. Modi wants to boost trade ties with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Andersen said Modi’s doctrine represents a departure from India’s previous security-based posture towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Andersen, Modi’s reasoning is fairly straightforward: India’s economy is projected to grow at a rate of 7-8.5% per year, and to feed its economic growth, India will require vast quantities of metals and energy. Modi sees the Central Asian republics as a source of oil and gas and Afghanistan as a source of many metals. To get these materials to India, it is imperative to have connectivity and trade routes throughout the region. India is happy to see Chinese investment in Afghanistan and Afghan infrastructure for similar reasons.
Andersen warned, however, that militant groups have the potential to wreck Modi’s vision. Another attack similar to the one in Mumbai in 2008 would scupper everything. Ironically, though, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban would mean much less space for both China and India in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban is hostile towards China and India, including the Taliban in the Afghan government would be a disaster for relations with both neighbors.