The South Asia Channel

Bridging the India-Pakistan divide on Afghanistan

The visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Afghanistan in May of this year, and his emphatic statement before the Afghan parliament that he supports a national reconciliation process in the country, mark a qualitative change in the country's policy toward the region. The support from India, one of the key regional players, for a dialogue with the Taliban's leadership is significant and unprecedented, as it accepts the analysis of many specialists that a vital distinction between a section of Taliban and al-Qaeda should be drawn before formulating any policy with respect to that country.

India has in the past been staunchly opposed to any dialogue with the Taliban. The policy stemmed from past experience, when some India-centric militant outfits took support from the Taliban leadership in 1990's in advancing their aims and objectives. For instance, an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked by Pakistan-based militants and landed in Taliban-controlled Kandahar in 1999, forcing India to eventually free five militants (including reporter Daniel Pearl's future killer Omar Sheikh) in exchange for the passengers.

More broadly, Afghanistan has been a playground for the rivalry between India and Pakistan for the last three decades, and the games both countries play in the country will directly impact its political stability in the coming years. Pakistan claims India is using Afghan territory and Indian consulates in the country to foment trouble in Pakistan, especially in the restive province of Baluchistan. India disputes this allegation and insists that its assistance to Afghanistan is purely developmental in nature. There have been attacks against Indian assets in Afghanistan, which according to the Indian government were the handiwork of Pakistani-supported militant groups. While promoting reconciliation and a role for the Taliban in governing Afghanistan (a policy Pakistan heavily favors) is a step towards bridging the gap between India and Pakistan, it is unlikely that the two countries will be able to overcome their much greater differences on Afghanistan and in the region any time soon, let alone before the scheduled American withdrawal in 2014.

Yet despite the feuding between both countries over Afghanistan, Prime Minister Singh has often expressed a desire that India and Pakistan do away with zero sum game in the country. Kabul features heavily in the vision Singh has for regional economic integration, one that he sees benefiting Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India alike. In 2007, Singh spelled out his vision statement for the region when he said: "I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live."

Singh's statement supporting the reconciliation process with the Taliban also guarantees a role for Pakistan in determining Afghanistan's political future. But in return, Singh will undoubtedly expect assurances on the security front, as well as an acceptance of India's ties with Afghanistan, ties based on linkages of culture and history, and grounded in India's desire to grow as an Asian political and economic power by expanding its economic and political influence across the region.

Notwithstanding the complex and complicated list of differences and disagreements between India and Pakistan, the two can take some short-term and long-term steps to make realistic progress on Afghanistan. A joint working group of the three countries, for instance, could be a good start to looking into possibilities of cooperation in areas such as trade and development work to be carried out jointly in Afghanistan.

Both countries can also take steps to secure Pashtun support on both sides of the Durand line, a vital task in bringing security to Afghanistan. India, which was an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets took support from many non-Pashtuns in dislodging the Pashtun leadership from Kabul. India, with this single act of support for Soviets, lost the goodwill it traditionally enjoyed among Pashtuns, as its policy became centered on non-Pashtun communities and leaders, some of whom would later participate in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

An exception to this drop in support is India's friendly relationship with the Pakistani Pashtun-nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). The Pakistani establishment has consistently sidelined the ANP within the country's Pashtun belt, though it presently runs Khyber-Puktunkhwa province. The establishment has distrusted the ANP for years for promoting Pashtun nationalism, which was perceived as a threat to the unity of the country. Now that the ANP has categorically and unequivocally accepted that it believes in the integrity of Pakistan, and indeed shown that it will govern within the state, it is time that Pakistan's leaders make the party an important political instrument in the war against extremism, given its strong anti-militant position. But the ANP could also be a potent facilitator in improving India-Pakistan ties on the Afghan issue, as its members possess cultural and family links to the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

India and Pakistan must both reflect on their own past actions in Afghanistan, as well as their own limitations and strengths, in framing their future Afghan policy. It is unlikely that the two nuclear powers can resolve their complex and complicated series of differences fully in the near future. However, they can certainly take steps towards decreasing the accumulated mistrust which continually plays itself out in Afghanistan, often to the detriment of ordinary Afghans. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is paramount in order to extinguish the flames of extremism in Pakistan, but it can also be a venue for reconciliation and regional integration in South Asia.

Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and security issues. His book Across the Line of Control, based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir will be co-published by C. HURST & CO. (PUBLISHERS) LTD in July, 2011 and Columbia University Press in the fall of 2011.

AHMAD MASOOD/AFP/Getty Images