Speaking in Kolkata last month, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit reportedly said: “We are glad that things are changing between Pakistan and Afghanistan in a constructive way. But we are not against India-Afghanistan relations.” He added that Afghanistan is not bypassing India to talk to Pakistan. Basit emphasised the need for strong India-Afghanistan relations to complement Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan.
Does India need Pakistan to be reassured about its relations with Afghanistan? India seems to need reassurance, though perhaps not from Pakistan.
Ever since President Ashraf Ghani assumed office six months ago, India’s “strategic” community has felt disturbed at the number of steps he has taken to improve relations with Pakistan — such as visiting Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) before coming to Delhi, sending Afghan military officers for training to Pakistan etc. Recently, a visiting Afghan dignitary expressed surprise at this unease. He reiterated that Afghanistan would continue to take such steps since its problems could not be resolved without Pakistan’s cooperation, a fact that everyone has long recognised. The visitor then proceeded to “reassure” India that it would always have a special place in the hearts of Afghans.
It is routine and ironic that countries always rush to reassure third-party nations when they improve relations with others. Indians are familiar with “reassurances”. Throughout the Cold War era, the Americans poured military aid into Pakistan and invariably assured us that their military supplies were not aimed at India. Similarly, when John F. Kennedy made efforts to strengthen our defence capability after 1962, he hastened to assure Pakistan that such assistance would not prejudice its military balance with India. It is ironic because the country giving the assurances knows full well that they would not carry any conviction.
Coming back to Afghanistan, there is another side to the question of assurances and that is flattery. We get flattered very easily. We also tend to take offence easily. When Hillary Clinton says that India has a great role to play in Southeast Asia, we are pleased, forgetting that what she means is that we must go along with the Americans in their approaches in the region. The US wants India to remain engaged in Afghanistan after it withdraws its combat troops. In other words, it wants India to continue to pour millions, even billions, into Afghanistan. That is also what the Afghans wanted from us. We forget that it was the US that prevented us from establishing a military relationship with Afghanistan so as not to upset Pakistan. Former President Hamid Karzai was disappointed with us on this score. Now, Ghani is reported to have said that he does not need India’s military aid because we have been tardy in supplying whatever little we had promised.
Ghani’s Pakistan policy is absolutely justified. Even we have been saying, certainly at the track II level, that Pakistan ought to become a part of the solution, instead of a big part of the problem. Now that Ghani has embarked on this path — for example, by persuading it, along with China, to establish a dialogue with the Taliban — we should welcome it. Afghanistan cannot become stable unless Pakistan wants it to. We do not have much, if anything, to contribute in restoring stability to Afghanistan, except in economic terms.
It is de rigueur to say diplomatic relations should not be a zero-sum game. If India has good relations with Kabul, that does not mean that Pakistan cannot also have good relations with it. But, in fact, diplomacy is a zero-sum game. Country A’s good relations with country B are always at the expense of country C’s relations with B, if A and C have hostile relations. So, when Pakistan and Afghanistan are taking steps to forge a “constructive” relationship, we ought not to be concerned since we say it is not a zero-sum game, but we seem to be. How can it adversely affect us? If Afghanistan becomes really stable and arrives at a genuine modus vivendi with the insurgents, there is a possibility that they will move their theatre of operations to our part of Kashmir. There are two facets to this. If Afghanistan achieves stability with Pakistan’s help, it is safe to assume that Kabul will keep its part of the bargain and stop the Pakistani Taliban from operating out of its territory, eventually helping Islamabad to defeat groups that seek to harm it. The other is that, ultimately, if we are strong, not just militarily but also in societal terms, and are able to maintain genuine harmony, we would be able to deal with any threat. Getting worked up about improving Pak-Afghan relations is not going to do us any good and will only expose our weakness and lack of confidence.
Ghani will be visiting India in the coming weeks. He will surely try to “reassure” us. If he does, we may thank him. But it would be far better and statesmanlike to tell him that we appreciate his efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, including his approach to Pakistan, since we have maintained that Pakistan ought to be a part of the solution. We should offer to make whatever contribution we can to this process. This would reflect maturity and confidence on our part.
The writer, India’s former permanent representative at the UN, is adjunct senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group.