All the murkiness of Af-Pak

Written by Jeevan Deol | Jeevan Deol | Updated: Jul 19 2010, 06:32am hrs
Pakistans activities in Afghanistan have been making headlines again. Army chief Kayani and ISI director-general Pasha visited Kabul, sparking speculation that Pakistan is seeking to ramp up its influence, as America and Britain signal their intention to withdraw troops.

If the speculation is true, it would not be the first time that Pakistan has tried to play its hand in Afghanistan. Pakistans complete control over the flow of CIA and Saudi weapons and money to the mujahideen during the war against the Soviets meant that the Taliban have enjoyed official and unofficial Pakistani support since they first arose in the early 1990s. Pakistans army and intelligence services have been accused of not attacking militant groups, which stage and train in Pakistan for attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Some analysts have claimed that Pakistans arrest of the Talibans deputy commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in February this year was an attempt to ensure Pakistani influence in domestic peace talks by forestalling Baradars own peace negotiations with the Karzai government. Others claim that Pakistani pressure in favour of its Taliban and Haqqani led to resignations by Afghan interior minister and intelligence chief, who opposed negotiations with the Taliban.

Whatever the truth of these allegations, other signs point to the beginnings of a more visible shift in the dynamics of the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. After a number of unsuccessful Pakistani offers, the Afghan government has agreed to send some of its army officers for training to Pakistan. Afghan diplomats and bureaucrats have also been offered training opportunities and Afghan students are already accepting scholarships to study in Pakistani universities.

Pakistans recent shift to soft power diplomacy in Afghanistan pales next to Indias own commitments to the country. India is the fifth-largest donor to Afghanistan after the US, the UK, Japan and Canada, and over 100 development projects are currently under way. While some flagship projects like the construction of the Afghan Parliament building showcase Indian values, the majority of Indian development work in Afghanistan has focused on fulfilling more immediate needs such as power and road infrastructure, clean water, health and education. India also runs very successful capacity-building programmes that bring accountants, economists and bureaucrats to India for training and provides university scholarships for Afghan students. It almost goes without saying that Indian TV serials and Bollywood movies are wildly popular among Afghans.

In many ways, India is doing everything that a regional power would be expected to do. Its aid has been useful to Afghans, subtly presented and effective. The major failure has been Indias inability to influence the security situation. This reflects a sensible reluctance to antagonise Pakistan, whose reaction to Indias growing soft-power influence in the country makes clear how violently it would react to Indian military presence in Afghanistan. This is also a symptom of the USs reluctance to recognise Afghanistan as part of Indias sphere of influence: US policymakers have been unmoved by Indias contention that NATO forces should stay in the country until the Taliban is defeated.

If these obstacles to Indian influence in Afghanistan are not enough, the ground is likely to shift even further by 2013: that is, when China will mine the first copper from its Aynak mine near Kabul. It is also seeking control of the major iron ore deposits at Hajigak (for which a number of Indian companies have also bid). Control of these projects would make Chinese concerns the major revenue contributors to the Afghan exchequer and China would become one of the biggest stakeholders in Afghanistans security and development. China has also expressed interest in joining the long-proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline, if it is ever built (and if India does not participate); this would link its economic and security interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan together even more tightly. Whatever be the outcome of the Hajigak and other projects, China looks likely to be a major player in Afghanistan for a long time to come. Its preference for low-key approaches and reluctance to engage in military deployments means that it will most probably structure its engagement with Afghanistan through its strategic partnership with Pakistan.

This complex mesh of competing interests means that Afghanistan will be the first major test of Indias mettle as an emerging regional power. India will not be able to shift Pakistans strategic priorities in the country on its own, and neither the US nor China seems likely to give any help on this account. Pakistans perception of its interests in Afghanistan means that India will remain impotent to influence security policy in any major way, and Indias weak bilateral relationships with Pakistan and China will prevent it from convening regional players in Afghanistans interest.

Despite these serious difficulties, doing nothing in Afghanistan is not an option for India. It will not be cheap and more lives may well be lost, but history may come to see Afghanistan as the proving ground of Indias regional ambitions.

The author is a researcher in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge