The United States military engagement in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, is coming to a close. Like many geopolitical shifts, this withdrawal is proving to be a test of the worldviews and foreign policy attitudes of the many countries with a stake in Afghanistan. One is obviously the US itself. The chaotic nature of its pullout seems to signal how inward looking the world’s superpower has become. The other, as far as India goes, is Pakistan.
Pakistan has been claiming that this time its Afghan policy is different. Its military has told Washington and other governments that it seeks a stable and independent Afghan regime. It has claimed it is not interested in doing what it did in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal — trying to set up a proxy Taliban regime in Kabul and then using Afghanistan as a support base for militant activity against India. One would think Pakistan did learn a lesson. The Taliban regime eventually became host to al-Qaeda who subsequently attacked the US and propelled Pakistan into a conflict that has now engulfed much of its western frontier.
In addition, the Taliban has now metamorphosed into a group of tribal militias of which several see Islamabad as an enemy rather than a patron. However, the evidence is piling up that Pakistan has, in fact, learnt nothing from the US war in Afghanistan. Recent and credible reports of Pakistan demanding that Afghan President Hamid Karzai sever all ties with India in return for supporting his attempts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban is only the most extreme sign that Islamabad sees the 2010s as a retread of the 1980s. It is definitely the case that Pakistan has scuppered the Qatari-backed Doha peace talks.
This follows earlier acts such as the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban deputy leader, as he sought an agreement with Karzai. There is also a broader policy of intimidation and haranguing of Karzai and other Afghan leaders to accept that with the US withdrawing, India a neutered spectator to events in their country, and China — Pakistan’s closest ally — as the rising global force, the best option for anyone in Kabul is to accept a colonial status with Islamabad.
The other sign that the bloody wheel of history is going full circle in the Af-Pak region is the spike in violence along the Line of Control, the return of fidayeen attacks in Kashmir and increasing militant infiltration into India that has been evident this past year. It is important to realise that the worst years of insurgency in Kashmir were a direct product of Pakistan’s ability to set up training camps, raise funds through opium sales and recruit a steady flow of jihadis from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It would be impossible not to conclude that what is happening in Kabul is not directly feeding into events in Kashmir. It is a scenario that New Delhi needs to be more actively concerned about as evidence accumulates that it is fast becoming a reality.