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The new India-Pak battleground

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May 23, 2006 17:18 IST
It is said a new 'Great Game' has started in Afghanistan, and the principal players this time are India and Pakistan.

This may not be wholly true given the presence of major powers such as the US, Britain and Russia in the game. But there is no doubt that India and Pakistan are increasingly fighting a proxy war in the war-ravaged Central Asian country.

Strategically located Afghanistan has always attracted the attention of both India and Pakistan.

Why Afghanistan is important to India

Before Pakistan's creation in 1947, it was a neighbour of undivided India and, as such, had a history of close ties with the Indian people. That relationship dated back to the period when the Buddhist-rooted Gandhara civilisation and later the Hindu Shahi kingdoms flourished in the border regions of ancient Afghanistan and India of yore. The British at the peak of its rule made Afghanistan a buffer between its Indian empire and Czarist-ruled Russia.

After independence, India and Pakistan transplanted their feud beyond their borders to other places, including Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, they often backed rival political forces in the country. The Afghan government of King Zahir Shah became a natural ally of India in 1947 when it became the only country in the world to oppose Pakistan's membership of the United Nations.

Since then relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have never been cordial in the real sense of the word.

'Afghanistan couldn't be captured'

There were periods when the two countries overcame their inherent hostility to each other but their ties have lacked sincerity and friendliness.

It is true that King Zahir Shah assured Pakistan not to worry about its border with Afghanistan during the former's war with India in 1965 and Kabul and Islamabad forged close relations when first the Afghan mujahideen and then the Taliban came to power from 1992-2001.

'Leaving the snake half wounded will be more dangerous'

However, successive Afghan governments continued to promote the cause of Pakhtunistan as a separate homeland for the ethnic Pakhtuns inhabiting the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan in Pakistan and at the same time refused to endorse the 2,500 kilometres long and porous Durand Line as the international Pak-Afghan border.

'India's role in Afghanistan should be recorded in history'

Another major irritant in their uneasy relations were differences over the Afghan Transit Trade owing to Pakistan's complaint that goods imported by Afghanistan's traders via the overland Pakistani route were mostly smuggled back into Pakistan.

In a tit-for-tat, Kabul hosted, armed and equipped dissident Pakistani tribesmen and nationalist politicians and Islamabad adopted the same policy with regard to Afghan dissidents.

'May God not put any country in the fire that we were in'

India, on the other hand, managed to maintain friendly relations with all Afghan governments until April 1992 when the Pakistan and US-backed mujahideen came into power following the resignation of Afghanistan's last Communist president Dr Najibullah under a UN-sponsored peace plan.

Deciphering Taliban's message to India

India had welcomed the Communist Saur Revolution in Kabul in April 1978 and supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. It was firmly in Moscow's camp at that time and was, therefore, opposed to the Afghan mujahideen, who were headquartered in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and received political, monetary and military assistance from the West, Arab countries, China, Iran and Pakistan.

India lost its influence in Afghanistan when the mujahideen were in power from 1992 to 1996 and later until December 2001 during Taliban rule. It continued to support the Northern Alliance, which mostly comprised non-Pashtuns unlike the Pashtun-led Taliban Islamic movement. It also gave refuge to Dr Najibullah's widow and daughters along with other anti-Taliban figures who fled Afghanistan when the Taliban captured power.

The fall of the Taliban regime following the US invasion of Afghanistan and the return of the Northern Alliance to power as a dominant partner in President Hamid Karzai-led coalition government presented India with an opportunity to regain its influence in the country.

India to help Afghanistan deal with terror

It was now India's turn to be gratefully welcomed by Afghanistan's new rulers and offered an important role in rebuilding the war-devastated country. In contrast, Pakistan lost its dominant role in Afghanistan and was reduced to a marginal player. Gone were the days when governments for Afghanistan were made in Pakistan. Those were times when Afghan mujahideen's government-in-exile formed in Pakistan were derisively called 'made in Rawalpindi' and 'made in Peshawar' regimes.

President Karzai was referring to that period when he critically remarked recently that Pakistan should stop dreaming of ruling Afghanistan again as it did in the recent past and instead accept the ground realities. It seemed he was reacting to President Musharraf's outburst earlier on the CNN in which he argued that Karzai didn't know that people in his government were undermining Pakistan by fuelling the insurgency in Balochistan at the behest of India.

India and Pakistan are now actively involved in promoting their image and winning influence in Afghanistan. But it is mostly one country gaining at the expense of the other. India has given $650 million for Afghanistan's reconstruction compared to Pakistan's $250 million. New Delhi has also picked up better and more visible projects, including construction of Afghanistan's new parliament building, roads and telecommunication facilities.

After having wasted its money in the past on ungrateful warlords, Pakistan has finally decided to undertake projects directly beneficial to the common people. These include building of roads, schools and hospitals and arranging training of professionals in different sectors.

However, progress on these projects has been slow.

Afghanistan for close ties with India, Pakistan

There are quite a few fresh irritants that have contributed to the rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been very critical of the opening of Indian consulates in Afghan cities such as Jalalabad and Kandahar near its border. Top government functionaries have publicly accused India of fomenting trouble in Pakistan's Balochistan province and in Waziristan by using its diplomatic missions in Afghanistan to fund and arm dissident Pakistanis, including the Baloch fighters, and send Afghans across the border to foment trouble in the tribal areas.

The fact that a number of Indian companies have won large road construction and other contracts in southern and southwestern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan has also alarmed Islamabad. The dominance, though somewhat diminished, of the pro-India Northern Alliance in the Afghan government was also a matter of concern for Pakistan.

Aware of the animosity of the Afghan government and media toward Pakistan on account of the latter's pro-Taliban policy in the recent past, India has done everything to win the goodwill of the Afghan people through generous assistance for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. New Delhi in partnership with Kabul is also pushing for opening of the Pakistani land route for transit trade between India and Afghanistan.

Islamabad has already allowed Afghanistan to send goods to India via Pakistan. It is felt US pressure on Islamabad could force the latter to allow India to do transit trade and commerce with Afghanistan overland via Pakistan.

All this has contributed to the belief that Pakistan would not mind using the Taliban to hamper the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. This no doubt would contribute toward economic integration of South Asia with Central Asia and benefit Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, but Islamabad would want something substantial in return before extending the favour to New Delhi.

Pak links Afghan transit to Kashmir

The biggest challenge to any meaningful economic partnership between the three countries, which in turn could lead to political cooperation in the region, is the Taliban resurgence.

'The Taliban have returned'

The increase in Taliban attacks and the insecurity that it has fuelled has already poisoned relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite Pakistani denials, the Afghan government has continued to accuse the Pakistan army of aiding and abetting Taliban to launch attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

The recent abduction and beheading of Indian telecommunication engineer Suryanarayana by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan added a new dimension to the conflict. Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's reference to 'the sponsors of the Taliban' being responsible for Suryanarayana's death was taken as a veiled reference to Pakistan.

ISI hand suspected in engineer's killing: Pranab

Terming the Taliban demand that all Indians leave Afghanistan within 24 hours in the aftermath of Suryanarayana's abduction as outrageous, he argued that it testified to the real motivation behind the act of terror. It was obvious that India saw Pakistan's hand in the incident in view of Islamabad's reservations over growing Indian presence in Afghanistan, particularly in provinces on the border with Pakistan.

With neither side willing to concede ground, there is every possibility that India and Pakistan would continue to fund a new proxy war in Afghanistan. One could call it a new 'Great Game' with smaller players -- India and Pakistan -- taking the place of Great Britain and Russia.

More reports from Afghanistan

Rahimullah Yusufzai