The continuing violence of the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the complications these present to US-Taliban peace efforts and American troops’ reductions are only one-half of the key to the troubles of the war-torn state. The other half of the key is closely held by Pakistan. While US policy-makers broadly understand this, it has not translated to action on the ground.
Seeking a way forward on a weekend visit to Afghanistan, Mark Esper, the US secretary of defence, suggested no fundamental rethink on peace moves with the Taliban. But Esper and Washington would also need reminding and perhaps even fresh illumination of the half-key held by Islamabad which is not always manifest and which needs equal address for a durable peace in Afghanistan.
The Afghan half-key in the possession of Pakistan visualizes Afghanistan in a two-front paradigm in which India constitutes the second front. Anything that concerns Pakistan about India naturally concerns the Kashmir question as well. While the United States’ occupation of Afghanistan has to end sooner or later, its leaving is not a simple matter of extracting counterterrorism guarantees from the likely future Taliban rulers of the country. Unless the Kashmir issue and tangled Afghanistan-Pakistan relations are settled to the satisfaction of all parties, peace will prove elusive in Afghanistan and in northwest South Asia as a whole.
The troubles of today go back to the hurried, untidy and, at least on the side of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the unwanted partition of the Indian subcontinent. The Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan is well-known but its centrality in Pakistan's quest for an Islamic identity is only superficially understood. Jinnah's political vehicle in the competition with the Congress party for leadership of India, the Muslim League, was weak in the Muslim-majority provinces of the undivided country. This naturally discounted his boast of speaking for all Muslims in seeking a Muslim homeland called Pakistan, which in fact was a bargaining chip for a meatier portion of shared power with the Congress.
When shared power became impossible and Jinnah, so to speak, was hoist by his own petard in getting a Pakistan he did not really want, Kashmir was needed to bridge the perceived deficit in Islamic identity for the newly formed state. His Indian opposite number for all practical considerations, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a non-resident Kashmiri Pandit. Their possessiveness for Kashmir has magnified beyond their mortal lives to become national obsessions that pit two nuclear-armed neighbours against one another amidst mounting risks.
Paralleling the Kashmir dispute is the one between Pakistan and Afghanistan concerning Pashtunistan and the Durand Line which also dates back to the 1947 Partition. Drawn in 1893, the Durand Line marks the frontier of Afghanistan with former British India and its successor state in the northwest, Pakistan. The Durand Line divides what is appropriate to call the Pashtun nation into its Afghanistan/ British India-Pakistan parcels and sunders Afghanistan’s traditional though thin claims to Balochistan with its access to the sea.
Signed under duress, the Durand Line was nominally accepted by Afghanistan before the creation of Pakistan and by none of its various regimes, from monarchic to republican and communist to Islamist, after 1947, including the one of the Taliban considered the least hostile to its interests by Islamabad. From opposing Pakistan's UN recognition; to seeking an independent Pashtunistan of present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that would eventually merge with Afghanistan and facilitate Balochistan’s absorption; to cross-border raids and instigation of Pakistani Pashtuns; to siding with India against Pakistan: Afghanistan became a regular thorn in the side of Pakistan except for the ten years of an Iran-brokered peace starting 1963.
By then, the US's Cold War alliance with Pakistan and Soviet Russia's inroads into Afghanistan had made their own contributions to soured ties. Pakistan particularly feared coordinated pincer moves by India and Afghanistan. Those fears incentivised its intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 to control its rulers, keep it weak so it never challenged Pakistan again, and make the Afghan soil infertile for India's two-front strategy. Proactively, it sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India.
The eighteen-year US occupation of Afghanistan has not changed Pakistan’s basic calculus for the country. Throughout these eighteen years and scarcely calmed by the prior history of New Delhi-Northern Alliance quasi-military ties, Pakistan has steadfastly opposed India's engagements in Afghanistan and guarded against Kabul-New Delhi collusion. India’s $3 billion non-military investments in Afghanistan since 2001 and the Chabahar trade corridor have not escaped Pakistan's suspicions either. The point is not about Pakistan being right or wrong, although that should also matter. Pakistan has squandered most of its founding promises of 1947 to neutralise perceived threats from India and Afghanistan on two fronts. Having ruled the country for over half its existence, the Pakistan army sees itself as the sole protector of the country’s geopolitical interests. It will not give up its fundamental suspicions of Afghanistan and India nor cede its claims on Kashmir without advantages gained from a negotiated or mediated settlement.
Like it or not, these factors are immutable and constitute the objective reality. Although India no longer shares a land border with Afghanistan, it does not detract from the outcome that India-Afghanistan-Pakistan still comprise a contentious triangle. Their contests rigidly conducted on two of the three triangular sides do not establish a balance of power but instead create a perilous asymmetry. That could gain monstrous new life with a US troops’ drawdown from Afghanistan whenever that happens.
More than ever, the northwest region of the subcontinent, united by irredentism, needs the most actively-mediated international peace efforts.