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Book Review: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India: A Paradigm Shift

Book-Shaida Mohammad Abdali

Shaida Mohammad Abdali serves Afghanistan as its ambassador to India, as well as serving as a non-resident ambassador to Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. He previously held the position of Deputy National Security Advisor as well as Special Assistant to the former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

His latest book, ‘Afghanistan, Pakistan and India: A Paradigm Shift’, is one of the most significant narratives ever written by an Afghan diplomat. He is a highly respected political figure and has served his country well on the security, economic and cultural fronts, having helped to establish increasingly friendly relations between all three nations, which are, in a very real sense, inextricably joined ‘at the hip’.

Ambassador Abdali was close to President Hamid Karzai’s government, and played an essential role in policy making on critical national security issues. He was responsible for arranging National Security Council (NSC) meetings while also chairing Deputies Committee Meetings of the NSC and thus, played a significant role in facilitating strategic coordination and communication among various Afghan and international stakeholders as they worked to address the country’s security, economic, and political needs. Ambassador Abdali was also one of the key negotiators of the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, while also playing a critical role in bringing India and Afghanistan closer together regarding the fundamental issues of closer regional economic and political connectivity.

‘Afghanistan, Pakistan and India: A Paradigm Shift’, is a book that focuses on the manifestations of what the author characterizes as ‘a profound psychological disorder’ in respect to the historical Pakistani paranoia concerning Indian designs on their national integrity—and the efforts Pakistan has made to subvert promising economic initiatives between Afghanistan and its increasingly powerful South Asian neighbor.

Discussing relations between the three nations, the author refers to the view of most scholars that the successful development of relations between Afghanistan and its all-weather friend, India, has had an effect on Pakistan similar to ‘aggravating a psychiatric patient’s inferiority complex’. His doctoral research led him to the conclusion that the only path to achieving durable peace for Afghanistan, and through that for the region, consists in promoting ties that stress common interests and cultural values between these three nations.

As may be inferred from the title of his book, the author takes an optimistic approach towards the region’s future, seeing it in bright colors as does President Ashraf Ghani. And while H.E. Abdali is keen on the prospects for developing regional integration and enhancing economic ties, his research has led him to opine that it is the Pakistani establishment which has been responsible for inflicting ills on Afghanistan, and for creating hurdles in the way of expanding economic relations between friendly nations, in particular those between Afghanistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian Republics (CAR).

In his introduction to the book, H.E. Abdali states that, “being a point of contact between Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Afghanistan is currently the missing link for ensuring a smooth transit of people, trade, energy and goods with the massive regions.” Furthermore, he observes, “the strategic, geographical location of Afghanistan plays an important role in its relationship with the neighboring countries”, noting that Afghanistan has always been an important hub of trade transactions from ancient times through the classical age to the modern period.

In a chapter entitled “History of Afghanistan-Pakistan”, Ambassador Abdali emphasizes that the current state of relations has been a predictable outcome of the initial unhealthy start between Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the birth of the latter in 1947. The primary bone of contention, however, dates back to 1893, when the Durand Line border between the two nations was imposed by the British for reasons of imperial control and the burning question of the cohesiveness of the Pashtun nation was made to be born as its unfortunate result.

The modern, nationalistic thinking of Sardar Daoud Khan is elicited, who, in 1955, “was emboldened enough to confront the radical elements. On august 31, 1955, he allowed women to appear in public without the veil, and women of the royal family were publicly seen without the purdah (veil) for the second time in the country’s social history”. The Daoud’s governmental reforms were carried out in the spirit of Amir Amanullah Khan’s thinking, who struggled for an enlightened and modern free society where human rights and civil liberties could be ensured for all the people of Afghanistan.

Conceived as a nation with an orthodox Islamic identity, such thoughts and developments, which were both secular and liberal in their nature, were unwelcome in Pakistan. Such an identity has been the root cause of the growth of religious fanaticism in Pakistan, and has given rise to the notion that ‘Hindus and Muslims are intractable enemies of one another with no possibility of living together in harmony’.

The author apparently takes the view that the situation changed somewhat when Afghanistan became engaged with the USSR, receiving military support, as well as assistance for construction projects and social reforms both during and after the time of the Daoud regime. On the other hand, the author deems the invasion of Afghanistan by the army of the USSR to have been a blunder that initiated an era of death and destruction; of sorrow and instability. Mr. Abdali proceeds to explain the story of civil war, enumerating the seven hard-line religious groups that trained Jihadis in Pakistan with funding from the US and Saudi Arabia. Foreign actors played their parts in the destruction that had befallen Afghanistan, for example, “the People’s Republic of China and Saudi Arabia also supported the Mujahedeen. Being familiar with and having knowledge of the mountainous terrain, the Mujahedeen fought against Russia”.

Referring to the work of Peter Tomsen in his The Wars of Afghanistan (2011), the Ambassador notes that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has made recent attempts to forge a peace settlement with Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG), was the beneficiary of Pakistani attempts in 1990 to raise him to a commanding position of power, despite opposition from all other Mujahedeen commanders and factions. As the author states, “in October 1990, the ISI (Pakistan intelligence agency) devised a plan to undertake a mass bombardment of the Afghan capital Kabul – still under communist rule – by Hekmatyar”. He again quotes from Tomsen, “The brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad Zia Massoud, and the late Abdul Haq were reportedly angry about the unilateral ISI-Hekmatyar Plan”, and adds that “the plan had to be called off when the United States finally put pressure on Pakistan in 1992”.

Although it is a matter of historical record that the growth of fundamentalism and fanaticism as well as the birth of the Taliban in Afghanistan had been facilitated by military and technical assistance from Pakistan in the name of religion, as well as its channeling international funds designated for these purposes, nevertheless Pakistan must now take cognizance of the fact that Afghanistan’s international standing has changed.

It has gained the steadfast commitment of strategic military and economic ties with the NATO countries and the United States as well as with India. Ambassador Abdali, through his book, urges Pakistan to establish good relations with India, pointing to “the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan as a great example of cooperation”. He furthermore observes that, “from the perspective of Afghanistan, the engagement of India and Pakistan in its reconstruction process is merited differently with India having a strategic partnership with Afghanistan in place, and therefore, an equally supportive commitment from Pakistan is a prerequisite for a stable Afghanistan”.

Instability in Afghanistan, both historically and currently, has been imposed from the outside: “external forces have always tried to play a dominant role in Afghan affairs, which became a major cause of instability in the history of Afghanistan.” The author draws a quotation from Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll (2001), “all the while neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, India, and Saudi Arabia, delivered pallets of guns and money to their preferred Afghan proxies”.

Ambassador Abdali calls on Afghan President Ghani’s statement for help in understanding Afghanistan’s contemporary challenges, quoting David Isby in Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires (2010), “the stakeholders in instability are better organized than stakeholders of stability’’. He refers to MJ Greene’s statement in her book about corruption, A Conflict of Interest (2013), to warn that, “corruption and human rights violations are also responsible for the instability in Afghanistan”. The beginning of the current morass can in part be attributed to a seminal event that had happened 37 years ago, when, as Ahmed Rashid points out in his Taliban: Militant Islam (2nd ed. 2010), “elements of instability crept into Afghanistan on December 27, 1979 when the Soviet ‘Spetsnatz’ or Special Forces entered the royal Presidential Palace in Kabul, killed Hafizullah Amin, captured the capital of Kabul and appointed Babrak Karmal as the President of Afghanistan”.

Ambassador Abdali quotes Husain Haqqani from his 2013 Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding to lay the blame for instability in Afghanistan squarely at the feet of its neighbor. He quotes, “the responsible focal point for instability in Afghanistan was the appointment of Pakistan Army Chief Mirza Aslam Bag’s vision of Pakistan as a major power and his paranoia about the American influence”. According to Haqqani, “he [Gen. Bag] had grand designs for projecting Pakistan’s power into Afghanistan and onwards into Central Asia as well as for breaking up India after liberating Kashmir”.

To emphasize the point, the author draws upon a statement by the distinguished security analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): “a valid Afghan strategy cannot be separated from what happens in Pakistan . . . At the same time, it is clear that Afghanistan’s future will play a critical role in defining Pakistan’s security”. Abdali proceeds to argue that Pakistan’s motives for destabilizing Afghanistan have much to do with foiling Indian attempts at accessing the Central Asian states for the import and export trade. He maintains that Pakistan explicitly created Taliban and other disruptive fundamentalist factions to further the strategy of denial, adding that Mahmoud Saikal and Haroon Amin are of the same opinion, viz., that “neither the Taliban nor other militant groups are products of Afghanistan. All those who are involved in terrorism and hostilities are being patronized and assisted from abroad”. And yet paradoxically, the Pakistanis’ strategy is fundamentally illogical, in that while they are promoting terrorism and nurturing terrorists, they expect only peaceful responses from their neighbors in return.

Turning his attention in another direction, the Ambassador takes note of Iranian involvement in Afghan affairs: “there is confirmed evidence of a direct supply of weapons and a number of wounded Taliban who are being treated in Iran,” adding, “Some Iranian weapons were found in Panjwai district of Kandahar and elsewhere”.

India too is praised for its contributions to the Afghan people in all walks of life, including the building of infrastructure, security measures, humanitarian assistance, roadway construction, and capacity building for Afghan employees in the interior and defense ministries. He notes that the two nations share a history of close relations from ancient times to the modern era, and draws a quotation from Dutta (2014): “Afghanistan was the first country to provide shelter to leading Indian freedom fighters such as Subhash Chandra Bose, Barkatullah, and many others in Kabul in 1915. It was thus quite common to find people from Afghanistan being popularly referred to as the ‘Kabuliwallahs’ who frequented India to sell their goods and dry fruits”. The significant role that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (often referred to as the ‘Pride of Afghanistan’ and ‘The Frontier Gandhi’) played in the fight for Indian independence is also highlighted.

The author proceeds to enumerate the characteristics of a failed state, and then provides a long list of internal problems and challenges that Afghanistan must confront, including structural failure in governance and bureaucratic state functions, the lack of skilled human resources, low salaries, the lack of merit-based appointments and inadequate mechanisms for managing employees and evaluating performance, imbalance in the delegation of authority among governmental departments, corruption, poppy cultivation and drug production and the challenges their impact on the economy gives rise to.

By contrast, the ambassador applauds the role India has played in modern day Afghanistan, listing India’s contributions in several sectors, such as infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, small community-based development projects and promoting educational development and capacity. Abdali is optimistic about future relations between the brotherly nations, and points to the statement of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai as evidence to substantiate his sanguinity: “The Western countries and the United States of America came to Afghanistan for their personal goals. There are also countries that, without having personal agendas, are here for honest cooperation with Afghanistan’s government. One example is India.”

In a chapter detailing the role Afghanistan plays in the India-Pakistan relationship, the author stresses that peaceful economic ties between the regional nations will boost regional prosperity and economic stability. He explains the economic agendas of both India and Pakistan and the role that trade pacts play, such as the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan Transit Trade agreement, the prospects for moderating the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), and the India-Pakistan Joint Economic Investment in Afghanistan agreement. He notes that the project for supplying energy to both Pakistan and India through Afghanistan constitutes an important mutual interest, but can only be truly advantageous to all when Pakistan desists from nurturing disruptive Afghan fundamentalist forces in Pakistan.

A chapter is devoted to the feasibility of grand projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, the Central Asia South Asia (CASA-1000) project, and the plans for coordinating the “New Silk Road” development with China. The writer contributes insightful thoughts on the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) project as well as the Chabahar Port Agreement between India, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Discussing sinister elements threatening regional security, in particular that of Afghanistan and India, Mr. Abdali points out that such international famous terrorist organizations as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani network are living peacefully and thriving in Pakistan as they implement their nefarious designs against Afghanistan and the Indian held portion of Kashmir. The writer is of the view that all these terrorist organizations should be isolated, then Pakistan should be forced to dismantle them while removing all obstacles it’s thrown in the way of regional trade and cooperation. Besides that, the writer also suggests that Afghanistan should not be abandoned by the major powers as it was once left in isolation decades ago by the USSR and the United States. Furthermore, he writes, “With regard to the overall trade, there should be a more concerted and energetic international effort to enable Afghanistan to take fuller advantage of its geographical position as a crossroads of Central, South and West Asia.”

In his concluding chapter, Ambassador Abdali writes, “the 2010 testimonies of the former Taliban commanders show that Pakistan through its Inter-Services Intelligence was, however, ‘actively encouraging a Taliban revival from 2004-2006”. Such views are lent credence by the fact of that the killing of Taliban supreme commander Mullah Mansour occurred in Pakistani Balochistan, indicative, therefore, of his close association with the ISI.

Wrapping his argument up, Mr. Abdali states that, “a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in India’s interest, and in the interest of the region and the whole of the world.” He lends words of encouragement to Afghan nationals, noting, “The trauma and the destruction Afghanistan faced in the 1990s require a comprehensive effort to get over.”

He suggests to the regional powers that, “economic development has recently become the most important goal for Pakistan and India,” adding that, ‘Afghanistan has the greatest potential to connect and put India’s and Pakistan’s economic agendas on track, thereby helping in improvement, and ultimately, normalization of the India-Pakistan ties.’

Ambassador Abdali argues that Pakistan’s nurture of intolerant and violent religious fundamentalists not only effectuates the destruction of Afghanistan but inevitably blows back at Pakistan itself, equally harming, killing and swallowing up its own citizens’ lives. His perspective reflects President Ghani’s as well–that the region is haunted by a poverty feeding discontent, which is why regional actors must concentrate on ridding the area of unemployment, poverty and low standards of life. Mr. Abdali offers pragmatic suggestions for their resolution and spotlighting the importance of corridor and trade politics as an alternative to the barbarically destructive and turbulent policies which have historically characterized the region.

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