India’s Strategic Challenge in Pakistan’s Afghan Hinterland

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 30

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (AFP)

A defining characteristic of U.S. and Western foreign policy during the Cold War and its aftermath before 9/11 was its failure to integrate counter-terrorism into strategic perceptions, policies, and goals. Terrorism was hived into a compartment of its own where it was not seen as a necessary part of a nation’s grand strategy and was attacked with a half-hearted combination of law enforcement, war-like actions, and turning a blind eye. Some argue this has changed since the pre-9/11, Cold War era, but there is room for doubt. Good evidence that Western leaders and bureaucracies are still locked in this Cold War approach lies in Afghanistan, where the operating assumption of the United States and NATO seems to be that all countries share the same strategic interest in ensuring Afghanistan becomes a secular, democratic and pro-Western state. This assumption – based on the error that two nations can have identical interests – has led the West to allow any and all nations to play a role in Afghanistan of their own choosing, a policy that will ultimately help undo Western interests there. The best example of the destructiveness of the “we’re all in this together” policy is the role India is being allowed to play in Afghanistan; indeed, when Islamists again rule in Kabul, they should send New Delhi a hearty thank you note.

When a suicide car-bomb was detonated near India’s Kabul embassy on July 7 – killing four Indian officials and more than 40 other people – the world was aghast (CNN-IBN, July 20). International sentiment was horrified further when “U.S. intelligence sources” said that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) supported the attack (Times of India, August 4). This reaction was predictable, but the more reasonable reaction would have been to ask: “Why did such an attack take so long to happen?” To ask that question would have been to recognize that the United States and NATO have allowed their Kabul surrogate, President Hamid Karzai, and the Indian government to use the supposedly selfless project of Afghan reconstruction as a tool with which to destroy one of the historic tenets of Pakistan’s national security policy.

How so? Well, since it inception more than 60 years ago, Pakistan’s government and military have, with reason, regarded India as a moral threat to the country’s survival. India defeated Pakistan in several wars – seizing East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh, in 1971 – and acquired nuclear weapons long before Pakistan. Islamabad’s national security strategy, therefore, has been and is India-centric. It focuses on three core requirements: 1) an ability to place most of its military on the Indo-Pakistani border; 2) the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent (accomplished in 1998); and 3) the maintenance of a quiet western border with Afghanistan to give Pakistan a kind of strategic depth so it would not face a two-front war. These requirements were met until September 11, 2001; the next day, only the nuclear deterrent remained.

Immediately after 9/11, President Musharraf allied Pakistan with the United States and helped it and NATO remove the Taliban regime from power, thereby wrecking one-third of Pakistan’s national security strategy by dethroning a pro-Pakistan, Islamist, and Pashtun-dominated Afghan government and unsettling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Musharraf then sent military forces into the country’s tribal regions, where they were defeated by the Taliban and Pakistani Pashtuns. Finally, the Pakistani military’s prolonged operations in the tribal regions have so angered the never very pro-Islamabad Pashtun tribes that warfare between them and the army continues, a situation that has given birth to a Pakistani Taliban. This unrest has revived the Pashtuns’ long-dormant interest in seceding from Pakistan and creating a nation – called Pashtunistan – comprised of tribal lands straddling the border. Such an event would leave Pakistan as a narrow strip of territory that could not be defended against India.

Needless to say, none of these developments pleased Musharraf’s fellow general officers, but at least there has been a payback for Pakistan – $10 billion dollars in U.S. aid and the chance for Islamabad to buy a new generation of F-16s. Until recently it seemed certain that the United States and NATO would not stay in Afghanistan forever and that Pakistan’s western border could be quieted after they left.

The Indian government, however, recognized a key strategic, anti-Pakistan opportunity when it saw one and is trying – with President Karzai eagerly assisting – to permanently deprive Pakistan of a quiet western border. Since the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, India has been in the forefront of the Afghan reconstruction effort. India has now pledged about $1.2 billion in aid and is the fifth biggest donor after the United States, the UK, Japan, and Germany (, August 3). New Delhi also has deployed between 3,000 and 4,000 Indian nationals to Afghanistan to assist in road-building and other infrastructure projects (Indian Express [Mumbai], July 29).

In addition, Kabul has given New Delhi permission to establish an historically unprecedented Indian diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, with an embassy in Kabul, and consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Herat (Power and Interest News, March 23, 2007). Finally, New Delhi has created programs to inculcate pro-Indian views among Afghans, such as the provision of full scholarships for Afghan bureaucrats to train in India’s technical institutions and for Afghan students to attend Indian universities (Times of India, August 4).

Indian leaders and Karzai – who was schooled in India – have taken the high road, using rhetoric about India’s “no-strings-attached” activities in Afghanistan, identifying them as efforts to “fight terrorism” and bring a “pluralistic and democratic society” to Afghanistan (Indian Express, August 5). Indian commentators, however, have felt no need to disguise India’s strategic gambit as altruistic. Most gloat over India’s Afghan successes and some argue that because Pakistan supports the Taliban and al-Qaeda, India must field a far greater military presence in Afghanistan:

"Several hundred miles from New Delhi and Islamabad, India-Pakistan hostility is spilling over into another country – Afghanistan. Here the two countries are engaged in an unacknowledged bid for supremacy [in] their bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. For the moment, India seems to be winning this new version of the great game effortlessly" (The Hindu, November 9, 2003).

"Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is a global curse. The massive and callous July 7 blast outside the Indian embassy in Kabul … has exposed Pakistan’s hollowness and duplicity for orchestrating the nefarious act. … The Government of India was well aware about ISI’s deceitful maneuverings some months ago. No less a person than Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai had cautioned India about what was going to befall and mar Indian interests in Afghanistan. His assessment has proved correct. Pakistan has exhibited its classic example of hate-India relationship with gusto, and this time in a foreign country" (Asian Tribune, July 26).

Given the word “paranoid” seems to have been created for how New Delhi and Islamabad perceive each other’s intentions, the response of President Musharraf and the Pakistan government toward India’s actions in Afghanistan is not surprising – they view them as a mortal threat to Pakistan’s national security. “India’s motivation in Afghanistan is very clear,” Musharraf has said, “[it is] nothing further than upsetting Pakistan. Why should they [India] have consulates in Jalalabad and Khandahar? What is their interest? There is no interest other than disturbing Pakistan, doing something about Pakistan” (Asian Tribune, July 26). Musharraf also has claimed that Islamabad is “1,000 percent certain” that India’s diplomatic posts in Afghanistan are really bases for Indian intelligence to collect data about Pakistan and to provide paramilitary support for dissidents in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. He also has said that the United States, India, and Afghanistan are trying to weaken Pakistan and its armed forces by conspiring to destroy ISI (Daily Times [Lahore], August 5; The News, August 4).

Adding substance to the fears of Musharraf and Pakistan’s general officer corps is the reality of Washington’s growing military and nuclear cooperation with India and its support for New Delhi’s regional assertiveness. The U.S. government has urged India “to assume greater responsibility as [a] stakeholder in the international system, commensurate with its growing economic, military, and soft power” (Asia Times, August 9). India has built a military airbase at Ayni in northwestern Tajikistan, a site within striking distance of Pakistan (, September 13, 2006).

Much of Pakistan’s media has agreed with Musharraf – paranoia about India often unites Pakistan’s very politically partisan newspapers – describing a “trilateral consensus between Kabul, Delhi, and Washington on Islamabad alone being the primary and near-exclusive troublemaker in Afghanistan” (The News, August 6). The Indian presence in Afghanistan, according to the anti-Musharraf Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, has resulted in “[Kabul] replacing Kashmir as the main area of antagonism [and] as the main area of [Indo-Pak] antagonism” (Asia Times, August 9). At the same time, a stridently Islamist newspaper has railed against “India’s malicious intentions against Pakistan … [and] its efforts [that] aim to sabotage Pakistan-Afghanistan relations” (Ausaf [Islamabad], July 31).

If Pakistan’s ISI was involved in the 7 July bombing in Kabul, it probably will not be its last participation in anti-Indian attacks in Afghanistan. The West often forgets that intelligence services – without exception – are responsible only to their own governments and for protecting their country’s national interests. Clearly, Islamabad’s military and civilian leadership have decided that India’s expanding and U.S.-sanctioned presence in Afghanistan is a serious threat to Pakistan’s survival. “The Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies,” wrote a commentator summarizing the Pakistani view, “are engaged in undermining Pakistan’s security from two fronts. They are busy using the Baluch card and the [Pashtun] militant card,” both of which feed what is for Pakistan an intolerable secessionist fervor in the country’s western border provinces. That commentator also claimed – probably correctly — that Pakistan now believes it has no choice but to “play as clean as the world around it” (The News, August 6).

India’s strengthening presence in Afghanistan puts the Pakistani government and military – at least in a de facto manner – on the same side as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s Islamist Pashtun organizations. The latter well remember India’s long history of supporting Soviet barbarism in Afghanistan; the Afghan communist regime of Muhammad Najibullah; and the Northern Alliance’s war with the Pashtun Taliban. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban already has said that “India is an eternal enemy of the Ummah [Islamic community] and would be confronted after defeating the allied forces stationed in Afghanistan” (The News, August 5). While a decision to increase aid to Arab and Pashtun mujahideen will anger Washington and NATO, Islamabad will do so because it believes a pro-Indian government in Kabul, and the likelihood it would permit a permanent Indian presence in Afghanistan, poses an existential threat to Pakistan’s survival. Thus, the West’s lingering Cold War confidence that all nations can have the same interests in promoting peace and prosperity has crumpled in Afghanistan. It has, moreover, created a new venue for a possible confrontation between South Asia’s two paranoid nuclear powers.