Implications Of The India-Afghan Strategic Deal And US-IranTension On AfPak Region

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Context

On October 4, 2011, India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement that outlined the future cooperation of the two neighbors in numerous levels, from political to military, economic and cultural. Naturally this raised more than just eyebrows in Pakistan, but it will also have ramifications for how the region, and the US adjusts its Afghan strategy. The timing of the treaty is particularly interesting in view of the upcoming Istanbul and Bonn conferences.

This article looks at the future of AfPak region as a result of India-Afghan agreement and escalating Saudi-Iran and Turkey-Iran tensions in the Middle East.

Analysis

The strategic partnership deal between India and Afghanistan sets out a roadmap for cooperation and interaction between the two countries based on four areas of interest. Namely, political and security issues, whereby India has pledged to help train Afghan security forces and also increased its pledged $2 billion dollar development fund to Afghanistan. Trade and economic cooperation was also central, as well as helping capacity building in Afghanistan via support for vocational training and education and lastly social and cultural exchanges to foster mutual friendship and trust between the nations.

The separate issues outlined in the agreement will be operationalised in working groups, and through a partnership council, which will be established.

Above all, this agreement is testament to India’s resolve to remain involved in Afghanistan, despite the obvious question of how this places Pakistan, as well as the possibility of further attacks on Indian installations in Afghanistan, as has happened in the past.

Pakistan’s official reaction has been stern, but measured, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua telling journalists:

“this is no time for point scoring, playing politics or grandstanding. At this defining stage when challenges have multiplied, as have the opportunities, it is our expectation that everyone, specially those in position of authority in Afghanistan, will demonstrate requisite maturity and responsibility.”

Afghanistan has tried to minimize the fallout with Pakistan by stating that the deal was not to be taken as an aggressive move, with President Hamid Karzai stating that Pakistan was Afghanistan’s “twin brother” while India is a “great friend.” However Pakistan is not likely to feel comfortably about the deal even if it is a “twin brother” as there are mounting fears in Pakistan that India is progressing apace with an encirclement of Pakistan by increasing its presence in Afghanistan.

Istanbul and Bonn Conferences

Turkey is to host the first of two conferences planned for November and December this year that aim to lay the foundation of a stable and peaceful transition of forces as the US and NATO troops are drawn down in the lead up to the 2014 full withdrawal.

The Istanbul conference is designed for regional leaders to nut-out issues relating to the security transition, the reconciliation process in Afghanistan as well as a special focus on regional trade and economic ties.

The Bonn Conference is much larger in scale, with over 1000 delegates travelling to Germany from over 90 countries. According to the conference brief issued by the United States Institute of Peace, the Bonn Conference will focus on three main themes:

“Transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan government by 2014, inter¬national commitment to Afghanistan following this handover, and the political process vis-à-vis national reconciliation and the reintegration of former Taliban fighters.”

Last year, purportedly at Pakistan’s behest, India was not invited to the Istanbul conference for regional leaders. While they are invited this year, they have in fact preempted many of the issues under discussion at the conference by signing the deal with Afghanistan.

The offer of increased security personnel training from India will be a hot issue. For the US and other non-regional nations, it will be viewed with some relief as it takes the strain off of US and NATO forces having to focus on training. For regional nations, especially Pakistan it is a great threat, because officers trained in India Will have a natural affinity towards India.

The conferences will now have to factor in India much more in the Afghan question. This will not sideline Pakistan, but it greatly diminishes the perception of Pakistan as Afghanistan’s key partner in the region and thus diminishes Pakistan’s leverage. To a certain extent this was already underway, with the souring of Afghan-Pak relations since the Mike Mullen comments about Pakistan’s involvement with the Haqqani network and other pro-Taliban elements that are using Pakistani territory as a base.

India And Pakistan Relations

In the midst of the love-hate triangle that is Af-Pak-Indo relations, Pakistan and India have been making headway in diplomatic and economic cooperation. While the Pakistani military is trained and conditioned to see India as enemy number one first and foremost, the civilian government is endeavoring to breach the gulf between the two countries by increasing interaction on various levels.

Pakistan recently granted India ‘Most Favored Nation’ status, which essentially liberalizes trade between the neighbors, and India reciprocated by preparing to remove its veto in Pakistani goods heading to the EU.

The deal with Afghanistan will not likely affect the economic bond-building between India and Pakistan, but it will broaden the gap between the rhetoric of the Pakistani government and military. There will also be increased pressure on Pakistan to deal, once and for all, with the militant elements that it is accused of harboring and supporting to act as proxies in Afghanistan.

However, the irony is that if Pakistan feels too threatened by increased closeness between Afghanistan and India, it may well act to strengthen its proxies in Afghanistan to try and counter Indian influence there.

The Middle East Impact

The Arab Spring has so far has little affect on the Af-Pak region, however as the situation in the Middle East deteriorates, worsening Arab relations with Iran may prove to be the Achilles Heel for stability going forward.

Saudi and Iranian relations have been particularly soured since the Wikileaks revelation uncovering a supposed Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US. While there is widespread debate on the legitimacy of the plot, the underlying tension between the two nations is real, and escalating.

Any trouble with Iran could severely hamper peace and stability in the Af-Pak region, especially given the popularity of border-hopping by militants in the region. Trouble on its Iranian border would also be detrimental to Pakistan, especially if it coincided with increase unrest and nationalistic sentiments from the areas local Baloch people.

Additionally, with tensions running high between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Turkey and Iran on Syria, the role of Turkey is likely to dominate. However, Pakistan has lately devoted considerable efforts towards improving its relations with Iran. There can be no lasting settlement of the Afghan conflict without consideration for the interests of its two important neighbours, Iran and Pakistan.