A Problem By Proxy

The security situation worsens by the day in Afghanistan, and tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments are escalating. (Witness Hamid Karzai's recent, publicly harsh criticisms of coalition force actions that result in civilian death.) In this context, it is ever more imperative that U.S. policy-makers consider the ways in which American disengagement from events in that country leave room for other states to wage geopolitical conflicts by proxy.

Of the myriad reasons for the deterioration of security in Afghanistan, one of the most underappreciated is the conflict between neighboring India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is a variable that has not been a sufficient focus of American attention -- but few dynamics influence the stability of Afghanistan more. The Bush administration has been oblivious to this reality largely because its National Security Council staff does not implement America's security policy toward South Asia on the basis of sound historical grounding.

In its endless quest for parity with India, Pakistan has long envisioned Afghanistan as an invaluable strategic asset. President Zia ul-Huq's policy in the 1980s of seeking “strategic depth” for Pakistan amounted to a commitment to preventing any Afghan government from becoming friendly toward India. If that were to happen, the Pakistani leadership reasonably concluded, Indian security agents would use their presence in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. In an interview with the American Journalist Selig Harrison, Zia stated this position quite categorically in the early 1980s: “We have earned the right to have a very friendly government in Kabul. We won't permit it to be like it was before, with Indian and Soviet influence there and claims on our territory.”

Pakistan was as clear then as it is now about the centrality of Afghanistan to its national security policy. There is nothing paranoiac about that judgment. India played a crucial role in 1971 in the dismantlement of East Pakistan (which is now called Bangladesh), and ever since, Pakistan has never foregone opportunities to destabilize India. Pakistani agents were involved in the Sikh separatist movement in the Punjab province of India in the 1980s, and Pakistan is allegedly still involved in destabilizing Indian-administered Kashmir. (Though basic information is still emerging about today's horrific attacks in Mumbai, happening on the same day as new grenade attacks in Kashmir, they very well may serve as a reminder of how deadly that particular conflict remains.)

Pakistan was, of course, the chief supporter of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. That was one reason why India, fearful of an onslaught of Islamic fundamentalists both in Kashmir and within India's regular borders, remained an important source of military and economic assistance to the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. And, following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and the ascension of American-backed President Karzai, India was able to resume a significant presence in and engagement with Afghanistan.

Now Pakistani leaders are having their own nightmares about India's alleged “sabotage” along their western borders, particularly through support for rebels groups in Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan. As a top Pakistani expert on Afghanistan, Rahimullah Yusufzai, has noted, Pakistan is anxious about the new Indian consulates in nearby Afghan cities like Jalabd and Kandahar. Pakistani officials have publicly accused India of using those diplomatic missions to provide dissident fighters in western tribal areas along the border with funds, arms, and personnel.

Above all, they accuse India of aiding subversive activities in Balochistan, a southwestern Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan, where an armed autonomous movement has simmered for the past two years. Though it is Pakistan's poorest province, it is rich in gas and minerals. Balochistan produces 45 percent of Pakistan's total natural gas and is reported to have 6 trillion barrels of oil reserves on and off shore. Balochis say that their right of self-determination is denied by Pakistan, which treats their region as its colony. According to Ikram Sehgal, a national security expert who resides in Pakistan, the “involvement of India [in Afghanistan] is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Indian activity in the southern areas in and around Kandahar has no other aim but to destabilize Balochistan.”

To push back against what it perceives to be hostile Indian activity in Afghanistan, Pakistan is using its best weapon at hand: supporting the heightened activities of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, which is also the sworn enemy of India. Taliban fighters recently captured and beheaded an Indian telecommunications engineer, K. Suryanarayana, who was working on an Indian-administered aid project in Afghanistan. They have also publicly demanded that all Indians must leave Afghanistan. (India has contributed $650 million in aid to Afghanistan and is administering several of the most high-profile reconstruction projects, including building the new Afghan parliament.) Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran publicly held “the sponsors of Taliban” responsible for Suryanarayana's beheading -- an unmistakable reference to Pakistan. Islamabad denies any direct support for Taliban activities, though it is widely believed that, at the very least, Pakistan willfully neglects to stem the flow of arms and aid to the group across its border.

Karzai, meanwhile, is as aware of Pakistan's troubles with the Balochi Liberation Front as he is convinced of Pakistan's continued support for the Taliban. His government has welcomed a heightened Indian presence in Afghanistan and turned a blind eye to the activities of Indian agents near the Balochistan border.

In the long run, Pakistan likely enjoys the upper hand in this proxy conflict, given the advantages of common religious affiliation (Pakistanis and Afghans are both predominantly Hanafi Sunni) and geographical proximity. To add to Pakistan's advantages, the Taliban are resurging in southern Afghanistan just as the United States eyes further disengagement and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) begins taking over the bulk of activities. But regardless of who the “victor” might be if these proxy conflicts between India and Pakistan intensify, one thing is obvious: the loser will be Afghanistan.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms Defense Consultancy, based in Alexandria, VA. He specializes in U.S. strategic issues affecting the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southern Asia. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also the U.S.A. Editor of World Security Network Online, and a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate.