Manish Tewari | Why India must gird itself for Pak-Afghan showdown

The Asian Age.  | Manish Tewari

Opinion, Columnists

The fundamental conflict between Afghanistan-Pakistan can be traced back to the late 19th century.

Afghanistan's Hashmatullah Shahidi. (PTI Image)

On the 23rd of October, 2023, Afghanistan steamrolled Pakistan in the recently concluded cricket World Cup. In a vivid demonstration of the strained relationship between the two neighbours, skies across Kabul were aglow with fireworks as the war-torn country celebrated its victory over its frenemy, a nation it can’t do without but which every self-respecting Afghan loves to hate.

Afghanistan’s captain and man of the match, Hashmatullah Shahidi, dedicated the win over Pakistan to the 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan who are being forcibly deported in blatant violation of international refugee law and the principle of refoulement.

Even the Taliban, who had once banned cricket and scowl upon all forms of entertainment, lavished copious praise on that team even though the flag they play under and the anthem they sing is that of the former Afghan Republic.

In August 2021, Islamabad’s long-standing objective to have a government that was dependent on it came true. The strategic depth that Afghanistan could provide is what Pakistan always yearned for after its dismemberment by India in 1971 and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh.

Writing for The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper, on October 16, 2015, Lt Colonel Khalid Masood Khan (retd) defined strategic depth: “Thus, in the opinion of some military strategists, the Afghan territory could provide a strategic depth to Pakistan in case of an Indian onslaught where, at the time of need the Pakistan Army can withdraw, reorganise, and after gaining their balance, carry out counter-attacks in order to evict the enemy form the captured areas. The factors of terrain, demography and sustainability in this regard are best suited for Pakistan, provided the political government in Afghanistan is friendly and supportive.”

However, two years down the line, after obtaining that strategic depth in the form of a Pakistan-created, incubated, nurtured and protected ‘friendly’ Taliban that controls large parts of Afghanistan, the chickens have come home to roost.

Pakistan today is evicting by force close to what it claims are 17 lakh undocumented Afghan refugees settled in Pakistan. This is retribution by Pakistan for the failure of the Taliban regime to rein in extremist tanzeems, such as the Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), an offshoot of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, that was responsible for the recent attack on the M.M. Alam airbase in Mianwali on November 4, 2023.  

Pakistan charges that the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) is fundamentally controlled from Afghanistan. The pace of the group’s attacks in Pakistan rose soon after the Afghan Taliban seized Afghanistan.

With their natural partners now established in Kabul, the US and Nato forces permanently AWOL, the TTP have been able to hit Pakistan repeatedly and with greater impunity. Pakistan demanded that the Afghan Taliban must expel the Pakistani insurrectionaries, or proscribe their movements.  The Afghan Taliban, smarting under Pakistan’s “whimsical benevolence” during their two decades in exile, are now slyly running with the hare and hunting with the hound, ostensibly mediating a peace deal between the TTP and Islamabad. In November 2022, the talks collapsed and attacks intensified further.

The fundamental conflict between Afghanistan-Pakistan can be traced back to the late 19th century. Afghanistan played a significant role during the Great Game, the rivalry between British-India and the Russian Empire. The British were paranoid of any external threat that could jeopardise their dominance over India.

To consolidate their northwestern flank, the British waged three unsuccessful wars against Afghanistan. The first was fought in 1839–42, the second from 1878–80 and the final one in 1919.

One of the outcomes of those wars was the Durand Line, a 2,670-kilometre border to fix the limit of the spheres of influence between Afghanistan and British-India. It was arrived at on November 12, 1893, as a consequence of an agreement between Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the British Indian government and Abdur Rahman Khan, the emir of Afghanistan. The agreement was signed in Kabul on November 12, 1893.

As a consequence of this covenant, historical Pashtun territory was partitioned, displacing an overwhelming number of people intimately connected by antiquity, culture and blood on both sides of this stroke of the pen. The Durand Line put the resource-rich province of Balochistan in erstwhile British India, thereby denying the Afghan nation their natural access to the Arabian Sea, thus turning Afghanistan into a landlocked state.

Before 1947, Balochistan comprised of four princely states, namely, Kalat, Lasbela, Kharan and Makran, and the British Baluchistan Agency established in 1877. The tribal relationships between the Baluchis and Afghans were not always cordial.

However, when the princely state of Kalat acceded to Pakistan on March 27, 1948, under duress, Prince Abdul Karim, the brother of the then Khan of Kalat, Khan Mir Ahmed Yar Khan, took refuge in Afghanistan and waged a guerilla campaign against the fledgling Pakistani state till 1950.

After Pakistan came into existence, it inherited the Durand Line that was opposed by Afghanistan on the ground that there should exist a separate state for the Pashtuns called Pashtunistan. Moreover, Afghanistan also refused to acknowledge the existence of Pakistan and did not vote to admit it into the UN on grounds that the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region and Balochistan belonged to them. No Afghan government since 1947 has ever recognised the legitimacy of the Durand Line.

Even the Taliban which was envisaged as a valuable strategic asset by Pakistan refused to do so between 1996 and 2001 when they were the government in Kabul and persist with that position even after returning to power since April 2021 given that that the Taliban is essentially a Pakhtun movement.

The current state of affairs between Pakistan and Afghanistan provides a unique opportunity to India. The Taliban may not be India’s preferred choice but statecraft is on the basis of given reality. How then should India approach that Taliban-controlled territory? Through finetuned calibration.

For starters, letting the Afghan Embassy run by the representatives of the erstwhile regime shut shop in Delhi may not have been the most pragmatic thing to do. It decreased India’s leverage.

India must make its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan contingent upon the improvement of human dignity indicators in Afghanistan, especially qua its girls and women who are neither being allowed to study nor work, and upon reducing violence by the Taliban against people who served the erstwhile regime.

Above all, India must seriously ask itself the fundamental question: What strategic interests does India have in Afghanistan, given that the graveyard of empires seems all set to claim its latest victim, Pakistan?

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