Obama’s Afghanistan Plan and India-Pakistan Relations

Since President Obama unveiled his administration’s ‘new’ Afghan policy in March, 2009, analysis has been a steady feature of the global media, mainstream and alternative. The elephant in the room that few have tackled, however, is the role afforded India in US strategy. Yet, the importance of this element was highlighted in the most recent round of talks between the Pakistani civilian and military establishment, and such high-ranking US officials as Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen. Pakistani officials and media commentators – otherwise seldom on the same page – together declared that the plan was souring Pak-US ties. Of the two reasons cited – the first being US violations of Pakistani sovereignty in the form of predator strikes – the second is US support for India’s activities in Afghanistan and refusal to mediate the Kashmir dispute. So severe was the rift that Holbrooke had to appear before the press yesterday to clarify that differences of opinion are natural, but that relations were not strained, immediately after which, he and Mullen left Islamabad for New Delhi.

To be fair to US policy makers, Holbrooke’s and Mullen’s travel itinerary confirms that the issue of India-Pakistan relations has not been ignored. The problem in Pakistan, though not in India, is the manner in which it has been addressed. As General Petreaus recently stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the ‘new’ plan involves convincing Pakistanis that al-Qaida and the Taliban, rather than India, represent the most “serious threat to Pakistan’s very existence”. President Obama himself used the metaphor of a terminal “cancer”. The hope is that this ‘new’ rhetoric, along with financial aid, will deliver the US a long list of wants. These include persuading the Pakistan military to stay out of political office, work closely with India to muzzle Kashmiri separatists, provide access to A. Q. Khan and the nuclear program, as well as firmly commit to US designs (including further missile strikes and the possibility of joint operations within Pakistani territory) against al-Qaida, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and other anti-US and anti-Indian groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Such arguments may persuade members of the US government, but they are clearly hard to sell in Pakistan. First, it should be clarified that even when the US government’s closest supporters in Pakistan, the administrations of Presidents Musharraf and Zardari, have negotiated ‘peace-treaties’ with Taliban and associated groups, most of Pakistan’s English-language media and intelligentsia have been highly critical. The latter have argued that Taliban, et al., pose a mortal threat to the already precarious status of women in Pakistan. They also threaten the well-being of religious and sectarian minorities in Pakistan, as well as the very fabric of Pakistani culture; particularly, the visual arts, music, dance, theatre and film. They further hamper the development of educational institutions, science and technology, and the smooth functioning, let alone growth, of Pakistani industrial, financial and government institutions. But, an ’existential threat’ to the state of Pakistan? No one has gone that far, recognizing that the Pakistani Taliban is not a single entity with a unified political agenda, while the Pakistani Taliban, Afghani Taliban and al-Qaida harbor broader differences still, even if some in their ranks are united in opposition to a US presence in the region. Thus, in searching for meaning between the Obama administration’s lines, some Pakistani commentators have concluded that Washington’s contention in this regard is no more than a veil obscuring the real ‘existential threat’ to Pakistan.

Particularly since the Bush administration began missile strikes on Pakistani targets, and Obama’s ‘new’ plan has continued this policy with deadly effect, editorial and opinion pages in the Pakistani press have been screaming that such violations of Pakistani sovereignty are part of a US plot to destabilize, invade and extract Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, while transferring nuclear technology to India; a course of action that will ultimately leave Pakistan at India’s mercy (i.e., herald Pakistan’s destruction). Others have argued that recent buzz in Washington about expanding missile strikes into Baluchistan province, is part of a plot hatched with India to break that large region off, thus creating a corridor from Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea that not only by-passes Pakistan, but deprives the remainder of the state a major source of natural resources and strategic value. In other words, there are some in Pakistan who believe the type of statements made by President Obama and General Petreaus are, in fact, laying the groundwork for the US and India to end ‘Pakistan’s very existence’.

These are alarmist perspectives, to be sure, and they certainly do not represent the mainstay of Pakistani commentary, but the alarm itself reveals the broader anxiety caused by India’s role in the region – one that President Obama’s plan seeks to address with no more than unsubstantiated statements of India’s good intentions and fanciful notions of Taliban/al-Qaida’s ‘existential threat’ to Pakistan, not to mention the obligatory ‘bakshish’ promised to those holding the reins of power in Pakistan. However, Pakistani commentators are not alone in recognizing that India’s relationship with the US and role in Afghanistan plays an important part in shaping Pakistani policy towards Taliban and like-minded groups operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations and published in Foreign Affairs, most contributors agreed with the opinion of Shaun Gregory, Director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford, that, “Anyone seeking greater stability in the region, or seeking to wean Pakistan off support for extremists and terrorists, has to address Pakistan’s legitimate security needs”.

It cannot be forgotten that although the US entered Afghanistan in 2001, India (with Iran and Russia) and Pakistan had been fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan throughout the previous decade; the former supporting the Tajik-dominated ‘Northern Alliance,’ while the latter backed the Pashtun Taliban. This conflict was practically won by Pakistan-backed forces, when the US charged into the region and placed the Northern Alliance in power. The US presence post-9/11, certainly changed the equation, but did not end the proxy war. Thus, the ‘legitimate security needs’ of which Gregory speaks arise from what fellow contributor Aqil Shah – a Rhodes scholar and PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University – identified as the Pakistan army’s “fear that the United States could simply lose interest in Afghanistan once it captures the senior leadership of al Qaeda (as Washington did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan), leaving Pakistan exposed to Indian (and Russian) ‘encirclement’ — evidence of which it sees in New Delhi’s alleged support for the insurgency in Pakistan’s resource-rich Baluchistan province and Indian funding for a 135-mile road connecting Afghanistan’s Nimroz province with the Iranian port of Chabahar.”

Christine Fair of the Rand Corporation added: “Having visited the Indian mission in Zahedan, Iran, I can assure you they are not issuing visas as the main activity! Moreover, India has run operations from its mission in Mazar (through which it supported the Northern Alliance) and is likely doing so from the other consulates it has reopened in Jalalabad and Qandahar along the border. Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Baluchistan. Kabul has encouraged India to engage in provocative activities such as using the Border Roads Organization to build sensitive parts of the Ring Road and use the Indo-Tibetan police force for security. It is also building schools on a sensitive part of the border in Kunar–across from Bajaur. Kabul’s motivations for encouraging these activities are as obvious as India’s interest in engaging in them. Even if by some act of miraculous diplomacy the territorial issues were to be resolved, Pakistan would remain an insecure state. Given the realities of the subcontinent (e.g., India’s rise and its more effective foreign relations with all of Pakistan’s near and far neighbors), these fears are bound to grow, not lessen. This suggests that without some means of compelling Pakistan to abandon its reliance upon militancy, it will become ever more interested in using it — and the militants will likely continue to proliferate beyond Pakistan’s control”.

Along with addressing India’s role in Afghanistan, the above trio of commentators also raises the importance of the Kashmir dispute. Stated most forcefully by Shah, “The United States has to pay more attention to the Kashmir conflict and be seen to be doing so. Kashmir shapes the Pakistani state’s worldview to a significant degree. It also plays a crucial role in legitimating the military’s virtually open-ended security mission and limits the prospects of reversing military power in domestic politics”.  Shah’s logic is rooted in an awareness of the fact that Pakistan’s history of military rulers, religio-political militancy and the kind of existential fears that led to nuclearization, not to mention at least two conventional wars with India, is very much a legacy of the Kashmir dispute. Furthermore, the undercurrent of mistrust created by the lack of any resolution (armed or diplomatic) has played no small part in leading India and Pakistan to became embroiled in the proxy war in Afghanistan that apparently continues into the present. In other words, a mutually agreeable resolution of the Kashmir dispute is necessary for US interests in the region, particularly if those interests involve weaning the Pakistani military off ‘reliance upon militancy’.

As if US interests in the region were not enough, there are also Pakistani reasons for considering the Kashmir dispute central to the region’s future stability. Although ‘irrational’ historical rivalries and the ‘false consciousness’ of ideological divides are always mentioned in discussions of the Kashmir dispute, the more mundane but infinitely more pertinent fact that the Indus River and two of its major tributaries (the Chenab and Jhelum Rivers) flow from the mountains of Kashmir is seldom added. Yet, this fact has been quietly recognized as central by all parties to the dispute since the conclusion of the first Indo-Pak War in 1948, as evinced by Pakistan’s desire to take the matter of water allocation up with the International Court of Justice, and India’s refusal to venture beyond bilateralism, leading to no talks of any kind between the two states by 1951. It was under these circumstances that an agent of the US State Department visited the area and suggested that the World Bank might step in to broker a water distribution treaty as a means of lowering tensions and building confidence. The result was the World Bank brokered ‘Indus Water Treaty’, negotiated over a period of six years and signed in 1960. In essence, the treaty gave Pakistan exclusive rights to the Indus, Chelum and Jhelum Rivers, despite the fact that they flowed out of Indian-administered areas of Kashmir, while India received the same rights to three other Indus tributaries, despite their flowing into Pakistan. The treaty also set up a ‘Permanent Indus Commission’ to monitor implementation and mediate future disputes.

Of all the confidence building measures undertaken and treaties signed between India and Pakistan over the decades, the Indus Water Treaty has been most crucial to stability and so, the most enduring. Yet, this pillar of Indo-Pak entente has been under threat for the last two decade, or so. The first rumblings of change came in 1984, when Indian forces took advantage of Pakistan distraction with the US-backed ‘jihad’ against the Soviets in Afghanistan, to push beyond the 1949 ‘Line of Control’ that separates Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir and seize the Siachen Glacier, whose run-off feeds (through tributaries) into the Indus River. Since then, Siachen has become known as the ‘world’s highest battlefield’, and hostilities there contributed to everything from Pakistan backing armed insurgents in Indian-administered Kashmir from 1989, to Pakistani troop involvement in the Kargil Conflict of 1999, bringing South Asia to the brink of nuclear war, while the US withdrew from the region following the defeat of the Soviets. None of these Pakistani moves, however, have succeeded in wresting back control of Siachen, let alone pushing India to negotiate an end to the broader dispute. Rather, they have led Indian forces into a counter-insurgency campaign that international human rights organizations calculate has cost the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 civilians in Indian-administered Kashmir, as well as routine ‘disappearances’, ‘rapes’ and ‘torture’. As if this mix was not toxic enough, in 2000, India also announced plans to dam the Chelum River, stirring the Kashmiri cauldron further. Although India claimed that the hydro-electric project was necessary for the development of Kashmir, Pakistan argued that it was a clear violation of the Indus Water Treaty. Thus, Pakistan raised objections with the Permanent Indus Commission soon after work on the ‘Baglihar Dam Project’ was initiated in 2000, but under the auspices of the World Bank, the Pakistani case was overruled in 2007, without a word from the recently re-engaged US. India was merely required to lower the height of the dam by 1.5 meters. Under such circumstances, work on the dam was revitalized and, in 2008, it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Singh, despite protests from independent geologists (who warn that it lies on a fault-line) and unrelenting objections from Islamabad on the basis of the Indus Water Treaty.

Adding the issue of water rights to the Kashmir dispute only goes to prove the difficulties involved in bringing about any form of ‘quick-fix’. However, the elemental nature of water also best highlights the fact that from Pakistan’s vantage-point, the state’s ‘very existence’ is not dependent on al-Qaida, Taliban or even the US, but on who governs Kashmir and under what terms. Thus, when added to Indian activities in Afghanistan, it is easy to see why the majority of contributors to the previously cited roundtable discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations argued that addressing ‘Pakistan’s legitimate security needs’ vis-à-vis India, is an essential component of any plan ‘seeking greater stability in the region, or seeking to wean Pakistan off support for extremists and terrorists’.

Nevertheless, there are also voices of opposition, not least of which is the Indian government and its lobby in Washington. At least one voice of dissent was even heard at the aforementioned roundtable. Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and Director of Research at the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University (Bloomington), acknowledged Indian activities in Afghanistan as “a pincer movement designed to relieve pressure in Kashmir”, but nevertheless went on to argue that India does not “constitute a viable threat” to Pakistan, while evidence of Indian involvement in Baluchistan province is “thin”. All of these issues, including the idea that the Pakistani psyche is scarred by India’s role in the separation of half the country from the whole in 1971, Ganguly dismissed as “paranoia”, “obfuscatory [Pakistani] propaganda” and “India-bashing”.  Thus, he ultimately urged US policymakers to induce the Pakistan army to focus on “legitimate threats”, identifying them in the statement that the US must “ask Pakistan to end its ties with jihadi organizations. This is in the American interest, in the interests of India and Afghanistan, and ultimately in the interest of Pakistan itself…. The menace that was spawned on and unleashed from Pakistani soil threatens us all, and we need to be forthright about it”.

Although representative of minority opinion at the Council of Foreign Relations roundtable, the actions and statements of the Obama administration confirm that the brand of opinion forwarded by Ganguly (and the Indian establishment) carries more weight in Washington than all other contributors to the debate, including the government, media and intelligentsia of Pakistan. In fact, in the latest round of talks between Pakistani and US officials mentioned above, the US representatives’ silence on Pakistani concerns about Indian activities in Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and vociferous dismissal of any US role in mediating the Kashmir dispute, reaffirmed that India-Pakistan relations are no more part of Obama’s ‘new’ plan, than they were a feature of the Bush administration’s strategy in the region. Only one reason can be surmised: US relations with India are viewed in the long-term, while those with Pakistan are not, despite assurances to the contrary. From the Pakistani perspective, therefore, the ‘new’ plan, like the ‘old’, acknowledges and pampers an elephant in the room, but asks the cat under its feet to ignore it and other ‘predators’ in the air, because a rat is also present. At the risk of carrying the metaphor too far, such a scenario can only lead the cat and the rat to accommodate each other, lest both risk being crushed. That is to say, when provisions for India-Pakistan relations are considered, Obama’s ‘new’ plan, like Bush’s ‘old’ one, appears to yield exactly the opposite of its stated intention, at least so far as Pakistan is concerned.

M. REZA PIRBHAI is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at: rpirbhai@lsu.edu

[Sources include: “What’s the Problem with Pakistan?” Foreign Affairs (March 31-April 3, 2009); “World Bank Rules on Kashmir Dam”, BBCNEWS.COM (February 13, 2007)]

M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).