The situation in Afghanistan is full of uncertainties and the prospects of India’s neighbourhood becoming even more difficult for us are real. We have little control over the situation in Afghanistan, however popular we may be with its government and people. We have invested considerable political and financial capital in Afghanistan for protecting our longer term interests in the region, but adequate returns are not guaranteed.
Afghanistan has been a conflict zone for over three decades now. To our misfortune it became a cold war battleground between the Soviet Union and the US, with the result that both an extremist version of Islam and Pakistan became powerful actors in shaping developments there under the US lead. Until then, Pakistan was not a dominant factor in Afghanistan internally and externally. Later, as US attention moved towards Iraq, Pakistan saw an opportunity to control Afghanistan strategically by using Islamic fanaticism embodied by the Taliban as a tool.
Hare & Hounds
The deliberate Islamisation of Pakistan by Zia-ul-Haq prepared a favourable ground for the creation of the Taliban under Benazir Bhutto’s civilian government. The nurturing of extremist religious groups by the Pakistan military for terrorist attacks against India was another facet of the growing Islamization of Pakistan’s society and the practical use of these forces for political ends, as in Afghanistan’s case.
Religious fanatics in our region gained further force with Al Qaida’s entry on the back of the Taliban. These forces overplayed their hand in attacking the US on September 11, inviting an American military riposte that ousted the Taliban from power. That Osama Laden got refuge in Pakistan for many years in different places points to the existence of an effective network of Islamist cells in Pakistan, which raises concerns for the future.
When, with Taliban’s ouster, US attention turned towards Iraq for the second time, Pakistan once again saw an opportunity to regain its lost ground in Afghanistan through the Taliban groups it continued sheltering on its territory. With Taliban groups targeting NATO forces from safe-havens in Pakistan, US pressure on Pakistan to control these groups was inevitable. This exposed the inherent contradiction in Pakistan’s posture on religious extremism and terrorism, with the Pakistan state and society, at one level, nurturing these forces, while, at another level, acting against them under external constraint.
This policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound has exposed Pakistan to accusations of duplicity and double-faced policies by its western supporters, a discovery India made years earlier. But this awakening has not brought about any drastic change in the West’s handling either of Pakistan per se or its destabilizing ambitions in Afghanistan.