Some changes, some speculations and the year that is to dawn

Time is ticking fast. And 2015 is about to leap in.  Just one and a half month from now, 2014 with all its politics will be relegated to the pages of history.  Three years back Washington had announced that from July 2011 NATO and U S troops will start withdrawing from Afghanistan and by December 2014 the withdrawal would be complete. From the security point, the decision being significant the wait for the lost contingent of US troops departing from Kabul started in South Asia in general and India and Pakistan in particular started from 2014.  

The announcement had generated lots of debates across the world. Many experts looked at withdrawal announcement with a ‘deep sense of pessimism’ and expressed their anxiety at the decision- the worry was more perceptible in the neighbouring countries particularly India, Pakistan and Iran. The decision had generated a host of questions. Once the transition is complete will the Taliban make a comeback?  And what will be impact of the changeover on the domestic and international politics. In the changed situation ‘how will important regional players place themselves’? India and Pakistan in their bid to gain a strategic foothold in Afghanistan and influence policies of Kabul have been for past couple of years engaged in a game of outmanoeuvring each other. This game   with India enjoying ascendancy during the rule of Hamid Karzai had to a good extent worked as a spoiler in the relations between the two countries- and  also negatively impacted composite dialogue.  

In 2008, a debate had been generated by a prestigious US journal Foreign Affairs after it had published an article   “From Great Game to Grand Bargain – Ending chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan’ by Barnett R Rubin and Ahmed Rashid. The duo had asserted that peace to Afghanistan passed through the gateway of Kashmir. This statement had something to do with their belief in Obama’s statements during 2008 election campaign about Kashmir and his vision for South Asia.   And once in office as one can make out from Ahmed Rashid’s book, ‘Pakistan on the Brink – the future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West’, he ‘in fact lost sight of important strategic issues in South Asia. And after the death of Richard Holbrook, Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kashmir was totally out of the America-Pakistan and Afghanistan policy.

Building on threat of Osama in Kashmir and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld buying the story, New Delhi succeeded in carrying out diplomatic coup against Islamabad’, to quote an American Professor Akbar Ahmed, ‘In spite of UN resolutions passed over half a century ago promising a free and fair plebiscite that would allow Kashmir to choose its future with India or Pakistan, Kashmir remains divided between the two. By linking Kashmir to the war on terror, India was able to translate the move into several important economic, military, political and nuclear agreements with the United States. As a consequences Kashmir was effectively put in deep freeze, India’s traditional foe Pakistan was sidelined, and India was recognized as a major player on the world stage.’ (The Thistle and The Drone page 259). It is a different debate, how and why fragmented Kashmir leadership embroiled in their own contradiction and Pakistan caught up in the whirlpool of Pervez Musharraf’s ‘individualistic’ Kashmir policy failed to articulate a forceful counter narrative. However, the question remains will Kashmir problem be back on the centre stage, after the total withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. 

Seeing the ‘region to be moving inexorably towards greater conflict and contradiction rather than peaceful resolution and reconciliation’ Ahmed Rashid observes, ‘by both action and inaction the United States has contributed significantly to the regions dangerous instability. The Obama administration has failed to detail its aims in the region beyond 2014, thereby giving rise to speculations and conspiracy theories.’    

The United States after departing from Afghanistan obviously will not lose its total interest in the region but undoubtedly it is leaving behind an ‘unstable region’ with three countries India, Pakistan and Iran staking claim for having a role in Afghanistan. More than Tehran, it has been New Delhi and Islamabad that have been contesting for having a greater say in the affairs of the beleaguered country, with impending threat of Taliban still looming large. During the entire rule of Hamid Karzai the war of attrition between the two countries was high- and each day added to their acrimony. Pakistan’s main concern was India training Afghan soldiers and military presence in Afghanistan. It has been expressing concern about India’s involvement in Waziristan more particularly it ‘having seven consulates just across the border for a population of five thousand when it has only two consulates in UK for several hundred thousand Indians.’  

There has been a whiff of change in Afghanistan-Pakistan relation after end of Hamid Karzai’s rule. Pakistan sees an opportunity in the installation of the new government ‘to coordinate closely with its neighbour and remove any misgivings between the two. Islamabad lost no time in signaling ‘all possible help – economic, security and political and supportive role in political reconciliation between Kabul and Taliban’. This trigged spurt in diplomatic activities between the two capitals, culminating in a two-day visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Islamabad immediately, after the visit of Pakistan Army chief to Kabul. 

The visit unlike the visits of Hamid Karzai started at a ‘positive note’. Political commentators see the visit of Ghani to “the GHQ in Rawalpindi soon after landing in Islamabad – an unprecedented move since it is rare that a visiting head of state stops over at the military headquarters.”

The improved relations between Kabul and Islamabad will be beginning of a new chapter in the region. As the Guardian rightly pointed it out, “if the two feuding neighbours were to bury the hatchet, the chances of increased stability in the region would increase dramatically.”

The improved Afghanistan-Pakistan relations are expected to play a catalytic role in bringing New Delhi and Islamabad out of the belligerent mode and paving way for restarting composite dialogue for resolving all dispute between two countries- including the core one