Indian-Afghan pact likely to boost tension with Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2011 

ISLAMABAD — U.S. hopes that Pakistan will cut its ties to the Haqqani terrorist network have suffered another blow, and from a source that many Western observers might not have suspected: a pact between India and Afghanistan that calls for India to provide assistance to Afghanistan's security forces.

Signed Tuesday in New Delhi, that agreement plays into what analysts here call Pakistan's worst nightmare: an alliance between its archenemy, India, on Pakistan's eastern border, and Afghanistan, to Pakistan's west.

"Pakistan's ultimate nightmare is that it is faced with a two-front war," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. "Pakistan would be in a nutcracker, having to cover both its flanks."

Support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban are the only way Pakistan can balance that concern, analysts here say.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in New Delhi to sign the accord, tried Wednesday to ease Pakistan's concerns.

"Pakistan is a twin brother. India is a great friend," Karzai said. "The agreement that we signed yesterday with our friend will not affect our brother. The signing of the strategic partnership with India is not directed against any country."

But tensions have been rising between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the timing of the pact, as Afghan officials hold daily news conferences in Kabul to air allegations of Pakistani collusion with terrorists, fuels Pakistani suspicions.

Last week, the Afghan interior minister accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency of involvement in the assassination by a suicide bomber of the head of the country's peace commission. This week, Afghan officials said the bomber was Pakistani and accused Pakistan of not cooperating in the investigation. Pakistan denies those claims.

India has long had a $2 billion foreign aid program in place for Afghanistan, one of India's largest foreign assistance programs. It's used that to build highways, power transmission lines and a building for the Afghan parliament.

But adding assistance for Afghan security forces is guaranteed to rile Pakistan.

India says it has legitimate and peaceful economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan, though that idea is met with derision in Pakistan.

India seeks access to central Asia energy resources and markets through Afghanistan, including a proposed multi-billion-dollar natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan.

India also points out that under the Taliban regime, Afghan territory was used to house training camps for militants who then targeted India, usually in the disputed region of Kashmir, something it doesn't want to see repeated.

Pakistan and India have been at war three times since the two countries gained independence from the British empire in 1947. They've also fought proxy battles in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Islamist "mujahedeen" resistance splintered, roughly into ethnic Pashtuns from the south and non-Pashtuns from the north of the country, who became known as the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan, which has a bigger Pashtun population than Afghanistan does, backed Pashtun groups, eventually settling on a new movement, the Taliban, in the mid-1990s. India supported the Northern Alliance, the group that benefited the most from the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, which toppled the Taliban government. The north-south split remains.

Pakistan is concerned that Afghanistan's army, largely funded by the U.S., is dominated by non-Pashtun northerners. Together with the police, Afghanistan's security forces will number more than 300,000 under current plans.

Commentators in India also see the situation in Afghanistan in terms of the India-Pakistan rivalry.

"To cope with the prospect of American retreat and Pakistani advance in Afghanistan, Kabul needs solid, wide-ranging international support, including from India," C. Raja Mohan, an analyst at Delhi's Center for Policy Research, wrote this week in the daily newspaper Indian Express. "Delhi, in turn, has high stakes in preserving the sovereignty and political autonomy of Kabul and preventing the Afghan state from becoming a vassal of Rawalpindi, which is seeking strategic depth on its western frontiers."

Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad, houses the headquarters of Pakistan's military, which controls security affairs and policy toward India, the United States and Afghanistan.

While most outsiders see the principal threat to Pakistan coming from Islamic militants in its west, the Pakistani army continues largely to regard India to as its biggest military challenge.

Pakistan suspects that India seeks to use Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan, accusing New Delhi of supporting separatists in Baluchistan, a western Pakistani province.

Pakistan has concerns, as well, that hostile Afghan officials are allowing Islamist extremists who target Pakistan to use parts of Afghan territory as havens, especially the northwest provinces of Nuristan and Kunar — a reversal of Afghan and U.S. accusations that Pakistan is allowing Afghan insurgents to take refuge in Pakistan.

The rivalry with India means that Pakistan has an interest in supporting groups, such as the Taliban and the Haqqanis, that it thinks it can control and that would be an anti-Indian force in Afghanistan.

India and the U.S. have blamed the Haqqani network for a series of attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan, including a devastating 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy. The U.S. also blames the Haqqanis for an attack last month on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and the Afghan government blames the group for an attack earlier this year on a major Kabul hotel.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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