Wednesday, 10 April 2002

THE AFGHAN AND CENTRAL ASIAN FACTOR IN INDIAN-PAKISTANI RIVALRY

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By Hooman Peimani (4/10/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Over the last two decades, war and instability in Afghanistan have given an additional dimension to Indian-Pakistani relations. The two enemies have sought influence in Afghanistan both for its own merits and also for its significance for their regional interests. The fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent states in Central Asia have increased Afghanistan’s significance for them, as it shares borders with three Central Asian countries (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).

BACKGROUND: Over the last two decades, war and instability in Afghanistan have given an additional dimension to Indian-Pakistani relations. The two enemies have sought influence in Afghanistan both for its own merits and also for its significance for their regional interests. The fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent states in Central Asia have increased Afghanistan’s significance for them, as it shares borders with three Central Asian countries (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Afghanistan is a gateway to Central Asia for the Indians and the Pakistanis who seek economic and political interests in that region. Apart from the value of those interests for the two nations, a strong presence in the region could help them expand their influence in West and South Asia. For those reasons, limiting each other’s influence in Central Asia has become one of the major objectives of India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan have also manipulated Afghan politics through their Afghan proxies as a means for keeping each other in check. Thus prior to the fall of the Taliban, India and Pakistan backed the two rival Afghan groups, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, respectively. The fall of the Taliban and the creation of the interim government have changed the form of the rivalry, but has not affected their long-term objectives. The two countries still pursue their conflicting national interests, which will guarantee their continued hostility and rivalry in West and South Asia. Their rivalry inclines them to take sides with those regional and non-regional states whose short- or long-term interests make them "natural" allies. India has remained in its de-facto alliance with its strategic friends, Iran and Russia, while Pakistan has taken sides with the USA, its short-term ally. Common interests in certain regional issues, security imperatives and international considerations have pushed Iran, India and Russia into an implicit alliance. Of these, the most significant long-term commonalities are their opposition to the growth and consolidation of the influence of Pakistan and the United States in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Indian Ocean, as well as their opposition to an American-led unipolar international system. Within this context, the proposed gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan has been a source concern for the three “allies”. The project surfaced as an American plan in the early 1990s to export Turkmen gas to the international markets, while bypassing Iran and Russia. Despite the backing of the American government, Unocal, the American oil company with the largest stake in the project, had to abandon it in 1998 as the continuation of the Afghan civil war and the inability of the Taliban to control the entire country made it unfeasible. The American ban on dealing with the Taliban for its harbouring of Osama Bin Laden and the American missile attack on his camp that year led to the complete shelving of the project. The fall of the Taliban has helped its revival, although Afghanistan lacks, and is likely to continue to lack, the stability required for such costly undertaking.

IMPLICATIONS: Undoubtedly, Iran and Russia resent one of the pipeline’s intended objectives, their marginalization in Caspian Sea energy transportation. However, Russia and India are particularly concerned about its impact on Pakistan. If constructed, revenues from the pipeline will be a significant boast to the impoverished Pakistani economy, which could be used to strengthen the Pakistani military, and to expand its political influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. As an emerging power with regional ambitions, a stronger Pakistan will be a threat to the three “allies”, in general, and to India in particular. Pakistan would likely become more assertive in pursuing its regional goals, in particular towards India and the Kashmir issue. The rapid developments since September 11 have had a major impact on Pakistan. The American need for Pakistan’s cooperation in its war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have led to a sudden improvement of American-Pakistani relations damaged significantly during the last two decades over a variety of issues. Among other factors, this state of relations has resulted in close cooperation and extensive ties between China and Pakistan, which have shared a common sense of dissatisfaction with the United States. This development has increased India’s sense of insecurity, an outcome of its troublesome ties with its neighbouring China and Pakistan. An alliance with the United States a favourable short-term option for Pakistan, while many factors are set to keep the Chinese and the Pakistanis close allies, despite the current expansion of ties between Pakistan and the United States. Among its various economic and political benefits, the pipeline project has been a major sweetening element of the alliance for the Pakistanis. By turning Pakistan into a major energy export route, its construction and full operation would lift Pakistan’s international status and help it address its domestic economic and social problems. As an export route, Pakistan’s importance for international energy markets would make many countries interested in its stability and defence. These are two major considerations for the Pakistanis who face the Indians, a much stronger state enjoying a degree of international support and sympathy in its dealing with Pakistan.

CONCLUSIONS: Recent developments in Afghanistan have had an unintended impact on Indian-Pakistani relations. As an economic reward to Pakistan for its role in the American-led coalition and as a means to bypass Iran and Russia, the proposed gas Turkmenistan-Pakistan gas pipeline has the potential to uplift Pakistan’s regional and international importance and to boast its economy. As this increases Pakistan’s ability to build its military and pursue regional objectives, this is a major concern for India, as well as Iran and Russia. A fierce regional rivalry between these states, on the one side, and Pakistan and the United States, on the other, is a predictable scenario. Their foreseeable tense competition will have a significant impact on the shaping of the political situation in Afghanistan and in neighboring Central Asia. Within this context, the intensification of rivalry and hostility between India and Pakistan will not only have major implications for the region, but will worsen uneasy and hostile ties of the two nuclear neighbors.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, and does research in International Relations. His writing has centered on the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Persian Gulf.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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