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Pakistan's proxy war

Pakistan's proxy war

Author: Ashok Mehta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: July 9, 2008

For the country, and the Congress-led Government especially, it was a Black Monday: Its Government in Jammu & Kashmir fell; the Left withdrew its support; it lost a few legislators in Karnataka to the BJP; and horror of horrors, Pakistan formalised its proxy war against India in Afghanistan through a suicide attack targetting the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The car bomb suicide attack, the deadliest in Kabul since 9/11, marks the culmination of the decade-long India-Pakistan covert pincer war in Afghanistan. The Pakistan ISI-sponsored strike is the clearest signal that the gloves are off: Islamabad is reasserting the concept of strategic depth in Afghanistan and challenging interloper Delhi's foray into its legitimate sphere of influence.

After the dismantling of the Taliban regime in Kabul, Pakistan has constantlyfeared encirclement by India especially after the Indian Air Force's new air base at Farkhor in Tajikistan and through its soft power: Economic and humanitarian aid which has made a profound impression on Afghans. If the theory of strategic encirclement is a viable one, India deserves credit for it given it does not have contiguous borders with Afghanistan. India's strategic objectives in Afghanistan are best met with a pro-India Government in Kabul keeping an eye on Pakistan and access to resource-rich Central Asia.

Islamabad's notion of strategic depth in Afghanistan is a keenly debated subject in Pakistan. Some experts, including former Army Chief Gen Jehangir Karamat, say it is an outdated concept, a relic of the Cold War. Others, including the new Government, disagree. It has, therefore, reinvented a more aggressive version of countering India's growing influence in Afghanistan which it believes has been encouraged by the Karzai Government to balance Pakistan.

The Indian presence in Afghanistan, through its old and new Consulates at Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar, has stoked Pakistan's fears that India's R&AW had set up these outposts, especially the last two, bordering Pakistan for running covert operations against Islamabad. It has alleged that R&AW is assisting the Baluchistan Liberation Army with arms and funds to foment the ongoing insurgency.

The logic and framework of the India-Pakistan confrontation in Afghanistan is contained in a recent report published by the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, titled India and Pakistan in Afghanistan: Hostile Sports. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have never been worse than now with Kabul accusing Islamabad of cross-border terrorism in the same tune as Delhi has been doing for decades. That makes both India and Afghanistan victims of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

It is not just in Afghanistan where Pakistan is seeking strategic depth but also in Jammu & Kashmir, though the strategic focus has shifted from east to west with nearly 100,000 troops deployed on the Pakistan-Afghan border. Bulk of these forces were moved under US persuasion after 9/11 and included key strategic reserves earmarked against India. One of the reasons the Pakistan Army is reluctant to fight the terror war in the west is to regain the operational balance against Indian forces in the east.

Another reason is to take the heat of the suicide attacks off Pakistan and transfer it to Afghanistan. That is the rationale of the peace deals with the old and new Taliban. That the stage for the new proxy war between India and Pakistan is to be Afghanistan is confirmed by the Rand Corporation's new report by Seth Jones, Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He makes the assertive claim that ISI and Frontier Corps are aiding the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan with the primary aim of balancing India.

The suicide attack, taking out the defence attaché, the political counsellor and ITBP guards comes after three successful strikes against Border Roads Organisation personnel this year in north-west Afghanistan. The direct assault on the Indian Embassy was expected any time now. It represents a big blow to Western efforts to cobble together modest means of cooperation between India and Pakistan rather than outright confrontation in Afghanistan.

The India-Pakistan Joint Anti Terror Mechanism, which has made no breakthrough in providing clues to any of the recent terror attacks, could now break down. As the convener of the India-Pakistan Track II, I have been trying for the last two years without any modicum of success to keep the JATM afloat while urging retired Pakistani Generals and scholars on the seminar circuit to look beyond the fatigued notion of strategic depth. We had agreed to include cooperation in Afghanistan as the ninth item on the India-Pakistan composite dialogue and were also exploring other options for cooperation under the SAARC charter.

As all three countries were victims of terrorism, besides the bilateral JATMs, a trilateral framework could be examined, it was agreed. Despite Afghan requests through the Jirgah, Pakistan has stubbornly refused to provide India with a trade transit corridor. Islamabad fears that better and cheaper Indian goods would outclass its products. Pakistan feels that India, through its $ 800 million bilateral aid programme - the fifth largest - has reduced Islamabad to a fringe player in Afghanistan.

About 4,000 Indians are working in Afghanistan on projects which also involve 25 private companies. The thrust areas are infrastructure development, humanitarian assistance and institutional and human resource development. The reconstruction projects are chosen by the Afghan Government. Nearly 600 ITBP and CISF personnel are deployed for the security of these projects. In view of the latest suicide attack, both the security structures and surveillance will have to be strengthened.

June was the bloodiest month in Afghanistan since the war on terror began in 2001. Even Iraq was tame by comparison. Most worrying is the path of the suicide bomber which is moving from Baghdad to Kabul to Islamabad with deadly lethality. The first suicide attack in Afghanistan was in 2004 and altogether four that year. Next year, the number increased to 17. In 2006 and 2007, the figure catapulted to 123 and 117. This year, already the tally is 66, not to mention the nearly 100 attacks in Pakistan last year.

The suicide scenario is chilling as there is no antidote to those willing to die. India has so far not fallen on the jihadi suicide path, but the suicide bomber has reached our doorstep. The diplomatic mask is likely to fall in the run up to the Assembly election in Jammu & Kashmir later this year. Our intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies have to brace up for the new war which must be fought in Afghanistan - and if necessary in Pakistan. If the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan is not met collectively by the three SAARC countries, it will have to be fought on India's terms.


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