Jonathan Power: To Help Afghan War, Talk to India

By Jonathan Power

Today Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the world. But it is India, not Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, that now bears much of the responsibility for this and arguably is the country that holds the key to the beginnings of a solution.

More the pity that President Barack Obama backed straight down when India protested at the mandate he wanted for his sharpshooting diplomat, Richard Holbrooke­—including India, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. So Holbrooke is reduced to dealing with only two sides of the triangle of madness.

Of course, it is an over simplification to finger India first. It ignores history, not least the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which left behind a raging civil war in Afghanistan, enabling the rise of the dogmatic Taliban, who in turn gave a home to Osama bin Laden.

In 1986 I visited Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province in northern Pakistan, at the eastern end of the Khyber pass. The town, even then, was full of armed encampments in its outer suburbs settled by Pashtun chiefs who had escaped from the Afghanistan war with their people, building huge, well-defended compounds to house the refugees from their kin group. It was clear then that the hospitality Pakistan felt it had to extend to the displaced Pashtuns would cause trouble up ahead. Two million such refugees bred violence and extremism.

The Americans and the Saudis were engaged at that time in bolstering these Pashtuns with money and weapons to fight the Red Army. All of it was funded through Pakistan’s notorious secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Most of it came through Peshawar.

But once the Soviets were defeated, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Israel, who had worked together on this venture, just walked away. The United States, which had known about Pakistan’s efforts to develop a nuclear bomb over the preceding decade but kept mum, suddenly imposed sanctions on Pakistan, complaining that Pakistan had been developing nuclear weapons in secret.

Pakistan was triply furious at the sanctions, at Washington’s convenient hypocrisy and the fact it was left to cope with the aftermath of the war, including the radicalizing and rise of the Taliban among Pashtuns living in Afghan refugee camps, and in its own border lands.

Ambiguously it supported these Taliban, not least because it wanted friends on that border so it could concentrate on defending its border with India. So year by year, Pakistan got drawn into the netherworld of the “triangle of madness,” convinced that India was attempting to use Afghanistan as a way of encircling Pakistan—that it was all part of India’s obsession with retaining its grip on its Muslim province of Kashmir. The ISI matched the Indians by encouraging its Pashtuns extremists to aid the Muslim militants in Kashmir.

All of this was before the arrival in Afghanistan in 1996 of Osama bin Laden, with his anti-American mission. Once he was there and safely ensconced among the Taliban, the next acts in the drama had something of an inevitability about them—terrorist attacks on America, reprisal in the form of bombing that hurts civilians more than the militias, attempted U.S. and NATO occupation of Afghanistan, and ongoing war.

But the Western effort, having failed in its main goals of defeating the Taliban and finding bin Laden, has backfired, not just in Afghanistan but increasingly in Pakistan’s border areas. It has turned hundreds of thousands of people, who in free elections didn’t vote for the fundamentalist parties, into raving radicals.

Moreover, for people in Pakistan’s border regions,  the cause of a free Kashmir is now inextricably linked with the cause of supporting the Taliban’s fight against the Americans and NATO. The Indians, it is widely believed, are working with the Americans, hence the tolerance for those militants who carried out the  November attacks in Mumbai that unleashed 24 hours of terror. Even if the U.S. and NATO pulled out tomorrow India would still be a red rag for Pakistan.

India missed its great opportunity for peace with Pakistan and an end to the Kashmir dispute when it failed to move fast enough to grab the unclenched fist that the now-deposed military president, Pervez Musharraf, offered them. The Bush administration failed to use its post-nuclear deal prestige with India to help drive the negotiations to closure. Holbrooke needs to get busy with the power centers of India, (army, foreign ministry, intelligence services, academics, press) while the pro-peace prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is still in power.

If the Kashmir could be resolved it would go a long way to quiet the fundamentalist militancy in Pakistan that supports the Taliban extremists and feeds into the war against the Americans and NATO in Afghanistan.

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Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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