For Afghan Peace, India, Pakistan Must Cooperate

South Asia’s two major powers are the key to stability in the region.

Since Western powers invaded Afghanistan to weed out Al Qaeda, the level of violence in South Asia has remained high. It’s not just Afghanistan is facing the consequences of more than a decade of war but the entire subcontinent.

Many of Al Qaeda’s top leaders are dead but the situation in Afghanistan has hardly improved. Rather the fundamentalist forces are extending their reach and continuing to battle NATO troops and undermine liberal elements in their society.

Afghanistan has been a battlefield for major powers for centuries. Invaders always failed to establish themselves there permanently however.

Most recently, the Soviet Union tried to convert Afghanistan into its corridor but failed due to the tangible support that was given by America and Pakistan to the anti-communist mujahideen. Now, the Americans have made the same mistake by engaging what may well be the most warmongering ethnic group in South Asia in an enduring, never ending conflict.

Despite past superpower involvement, the two most relevant external powers in Afghanistan today are India and Pakistan.

India had a significant presence in Afghanistan into the 1970s but the collapse of communist rule and the emergence of the Taliban enabled Pakistan to establish a greater influence there. The 2001 invasion was an opportunity for India to reassert itself. New Delhi allied with the Northern Alliance and Hamid Karzai to oust the Taliban and frustrate Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” in the country.

The real struggle will begin after the NATO exit in 2014. The Afghan question will be one that is posed to the whole of the subcontinent. India has made economic and political investments in the country that it will surely try to safeguard while Pakistan is likely to try its best to protects its strategic interests.

Pakistan considers the Indian presence in Afghanistan a direct threat to its security. The Pakistani army, despite its support for the War on Terror, always recognized that it inadvertently helped bring the Northern Alliance to power which it so detested because of their ties with India, Iran and Russia — all Pakistani rivals.

The army has also been deeply perturbed by the sudden influx of Indians in Kabul. It believes that New Delhi is financing and training exiled Baloch leaders who live in Afghanistan. It would rather have the Taliban back in power than instability and possibly foreigners conspiring against it on its western frontier.

Instead of vying for influence in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan may be best served by cooperating to reap the economic benefits. It would be better for the region to engage in order to stem an escalation of Indo-Pakistani rivalry in Afghanistan.

There are few options to face the post-2014 challenges in Afghanistan. After the military pullout, the situation is probably not going to change. The Taliban will surely use violent means to attempt to come back to power. Warlords remain active and await the opportunity to establish themselves over the current power structure. Afghanistan could once again succumb to civil war.

A regional security force, drawing personnel from all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation member states, could be stationed in Afghanistan to guard the fragile peace. These nations have previously worked together in peacekeeping missions in Africa under the banner of the United Nations. Their commander should be elected on a rotational basis.

A second step toward stabilizing Afghanistan would be drawing representatives from all ethnic groups that live in the country into a power-sharing arrangement. It is the only way to neutralize the warring factions which are patiently awaiting the chance to occupy Kabul by force and rule the other groups.

Thirdly and most crucially, India and Pakistan would have to work together to restore a modicum of normalcy in Afghanistan. They would have to give up their infighting in the interest of Afghanistan and stability in the region. Both recognize that the talibanization of Afghanistan has not been good for South Asia. It has disturbed the peace in their own countries; inspired terrorist activity in India and radicalized segments of Pakistani society which has caused an uptick in militant activity within Pakistan’s borders.

There is no viable option for the nations of South Asia except to work together if they seek peace in Afghanistan. Unless the SAARC states recognize the gravity of the situation and their shared objective, they too will suffer the aftershocks once foreign troops pull out in 2014.