Should Indian inclusion in Afghan peace conference worry Pakistan?
Soon after the United States announced its new peace initiative for Afghanistan, Russia decided to convene a conference to discuss the situation in the war-battered country on March 18. The world powers are clearly enthusiastic to provide solution to the long running conflict for political, economic and strategic reasons. The Russian-sponsored conference, to which the Taliban and Afghan government are invited, is widely viewed as an attempt by Moscow to maintain its influence in Afghanistan to counter the activities of militant outfits such as Daesh. Another reason for such a meeting is to put pressure on President Ashraf Ghani to show greater flexibility on the crucial issue of the formation of an interim government.
The US plan, however, has been chalked out by the new American administration as it reviews last year’s peace deal with the Taliban that envisaged a complete withdrawal of foreign forces by May this year. The new strategy strikes a balance between the two contrasting positions: The Taliban getting mainstreamed in the existing political structures as suggested by Kabul; and the Taliban demand for a complete pull out of foreign forces to create an environment for them to take Kabul and rule the country.
The US plan also entails a proposal for a regional conference in Istanbul which will include the foreign ministers and envoys of Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Turkey to arrive at a collective vision for peace in Afghanistan.
Since a key component of the new scheme is the formation of an interim government and President Ghani is strongly opposed to the idea, the proposed meeting is likely to push for it. Faced with external isolation and insurmountable challenges on the domestic front, President Ghani may have to yield and accept the creation of such a political setup.
In gaining widespread regional support for the scheme with an amended constitution, Washington has also decided to invite India to the conference in Turkey. This has caused some concern in Pakistan since Islamabad believes that India has been using the Afghan territory in the past to create unrest and disruption in Pakistan. While officials in New Delhi and Kabul deny the allegation, one may wonder why the US has decided to invite India in the face of criticism from a key ally in Afghanistan and if Pakistan should actually worry about the development.
All Afghan groups, including the Taliban, want mutually beneficial and enduring relations with India and other regional actors. Any attempt by Islamabad to restrict New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan is bound to receive Afghan disapproval.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
The question of India’s relevance to sustainable peace in Afghanistan has sometimes caused unnecessary concern in Pakistan. India is one of the biggest contributors to the Afghan reconstruction process and has invested more than $3 billion in the last twenty years to support the war-ravaged country. India is also an important regional player that has historic, cultural and political contacts with Afghanistan since ancient times. Other than that, India hopes to import hydrocarbon resources, such as oil and gas, from Central Asian countries and Afghanistan provides access to that region. The argument that India is a spoiler in Afghanistan does not hold water since New Delhi has heavily invested in that country and has huge stakes in its peace and stability.
Another factor, which is frequently ignored in Pakistan, is that Afghan groups, including the Taliban, want mutually beneficial and enduring relations with India and other regional actors. Any attempt by Islamabad to restrict New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan is, therefore, bound to be viewed with great disapproval by Afghans. Such an attitude has not helped Pakistan, though it is definitely Pakistan’s right to demand that any government in Kabul must ensure that Afghan soil is not used against its territory or people.
The India-centric approach to Afghanistan limits Pakistan’s policy options and creates deep suspicions among Afghans regarding Islamabad’s intentions.
The invitation to India for joining any such moot on finding solutions to the Afghan conflict should not be seen with hostility in Islamabad. Pakistan shares a long border with Afghanistan and will remain crucially relevant to that country, no matter who governs it in the coming years.
It is time to seek durable solution to the Afghan conflict to bring an end to it without politicizing peacemaking efforts. People in Pakistan will support any effort to end the war since it has negatively impacted the country’s western border and provinces. The new US plan offers an opportunity for peace that must not be wasted.
– Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.