Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…South Asia: thaw in India-Pakistan relations?

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Avinash Paliwal

The year 2015 ended with a surprise diplomatic breakthrough between India and Pakistan after their national security advisors met in Bangkok (shortly after their prime ministers spoke in Paris). The meeting paved way for what is being termed a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. And Afghanistan is central to this recent thaw in India-Pakistan ties—both as a bane and a boon. It is a bane because of the powerful trope that Afghanistan is a proxy battlefield. Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in the 1990s, and India’s counter-balancing strategy of arming the anti-Taliban United Islamic Front, was perhaps the peak of such shadow boxing. However, it is a boon because resolving differences on Afghanistan requires relatively little political capital from both sides, and can pave way for better communication on ostensibly intractable issues such as Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.

But why talk about Afghanistan now? Arguably, Pakistan’s unflinching support to the Afghan Taliban has made it indispensable to ensure stability, if not peace, in Afghanistan, and that too on terms that it deems favourable. (Whether it can deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table both timely and effectively is a separate, but not unrelated, matter). India on the other hand, despite its heavy economic and political involvement, remains marginal in influencing Afghan politics, making it seemingly unimportant a player.  Yet, Pakistan is caught in a dangerous vortex of fire-fighting that it may not be able to either contain or sustain. Islamabad cannot curb the various militant proxies that it has nurtured over the years even if it wants to, given the expected blowback at home. It also cannot just continue to nurture them given the proactive regional pushback. The recent failures of the Afghan Taliban to credibly capture Kunduz, and that of the Lashkar-e-Taiba to substantially infiltrate into Kashmir, then, only increase Pakistan’s operational costs of cultivating these so-called strategic assets.

In such a scenario, where the cost of supporting proxies is higher than the benefits, talking to India on traditional bilateral disputes, but also on Afghanistan, is an attractive option. For treating Afghanistan as taboo only toughens India’s resolve to maintain its presence in Kabul and contain Pakistan’s influence. The timing suits India too. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s strong mandate and the Pakistani military’s consolidation of power make it viable for such talks to succeed. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s steadfast engagement with Pakistan also helps India’s quest for resolving differences with Islamabad, by creating a conciliatory environment across the region, instead of being stuck in a dangerous cold-peace/hot-war dynamic. This is not to say that talking about Afghanistan is a sufficient condition for sustaining the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, for India-Pakistan talks are highly accident-prone. But it surely is a necessary condition that imparts credibility to these talks.

Image: Pakistani forces atBaine Baba Ziarat, the highest point in Swat valley, in 2009, via wikimedia commons.

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