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India, Pakistan, and the US: Can anyone bring peace to Afghanistan?

Afghanistan wanted to secure peace on its own. But after major setbacks, other nations, like Pakistan, India, and the US are set to play big roles in Afghanistan for years.

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (r.) and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, sign agreements during a meeting in New Delhi, India, Tuesday.

Gurinder Osan/AP

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Afghans had hoped that they could find a peace that would limit outside actors, including the US, in their future. But peace talks look dead and regional interference is growing, prompting concerns about Afghanistan slipping back into civil war when the US leaves.

President Hamid Karzai inked a strategic partnership this week in New Delhi, formally opening the door for Indian military assistance to Afghanistan. And because of the recent assassination of a key peace negotiator, Mr. Karzai says he is finished talking to the Taliban and wants direct talks with Pakistan instead.

But while the growing involvement of two regional adversaries, India and Pakistan, will likely bring sharper tensions between Afghan factions, it doesn’t necessarily mean another civil war, say analysts.

“That’s what everybody worries about. It depends what the picture looks like after 2014, how much of a commitment remains on the part of the US and others, and also whether there’s been any more measurable progress with the counterinsurgency,” says Marvin Weinbaum, an Afghanistan expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

In the short term, civil war looks less likely, says Dr. Weinbaum, because Karzai is unlikely to strike a deal with the Taliban that his northern backers cannot abide. But in the long run, the deepening of Indian ties to Afghanistan’s military could seriously rattle Pakistan, a country that has influence over the Afghan insurgent groups.

Interest in India puts on the pressure

Karzai’s pivot toward India comes as the United States is cutting aid to Pakistan and accusing it of having ties to the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, bringing significant pressure on the generals in Rawalpindi.

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“You are starting to see Pakistan come under pressure from all sides, and I think Pakistan is going to have to reassess what it has been doing with the Haqqanis and the Taliban and reassess its policies,” says Lisa Curtis, a South Asia researcher at The Heritage Foundation.

This pressure follows years of unsuccessful Afghan and American efforts to work with Pakistan. What’s not clear is whether a get-tough approach will change Pakistani behavior either – or align it more with the insurgency.

“I don’t really know how much worse things can get in Pakistan,” says Ms. Curtis. “I don’t think anyone knows at this point what would influence the Pakistani military’s calculations in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan calculations

Indian military involvement in Afghanistan factors heavily in Pakistan’s calculations. Since the start of the Afghan war, this was the very outcome Pakistan has sought to avoid, ironically through the use of the proxy militant groups.

Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, says that the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan could suffer a huge loss from Karzai’s friendship with India if Karzai is not eventually pulled back to a more Pakistan-centric position.

“Pakistan’s biggest loss is the dent in the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship. If Karzai’s efforts to reach out to Pakistan goes south, then you have a serious problem. Then there’s no way stability will be possible,” he says.

While Weinbaum and Curtis see Karzai’s recent moves as a significant turn away from Pakistan, others, such as Mr. Yusuf, argue this may be temporary.

“He is hedging, seeing what is on offer. He’ll self-correct and come back in the middle,” says Yusuf. “But if these things continue – remember he’s not an independent actor – if Kabul and Islamabad can’t come together then, yes, India’s sphere increases. The US might opt for a suboptimal solution without Pakistan. Pakistan may struggle to reassert itself and the region could head into chaos.”

The uncertainty over what Karzai’s intentions are for Pakistan, even as he signs a strategic pact with India, comes from his conciliatory remarks in recent days. In New Delhi, Karzai said “Pakistan is a twin brother, India is a great friend.”

While he confirmed that he had ended peace talks with the Taliban, he said he was sincere in his offer to talk directly with Pakistan. The mixed signals may account for Pakistan’s muted response so far.

Privately, a senior military official downplayed the partnership, telling the Monitor that the Pakistani military would need to wait and see the exact terms of the agreement.

On Thursday, Pakistan's government warned Karzai to be careful. "At this defining stage when challenges have multiplied, as have the opportunities, it is our expectation that everyone, especially those in position of authority in Afghanistan, will demonstrate requisite maturity and responsibility," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua told reporters.

Nothing is ever final, not even the US timeline

For now, however, the rhetoric from India, Pakistan, and the US about supporting an Afghan-led peace process and noninterference by regional players has fallen to the side.

“The conclusion at the moment, also among Afghans, is that the Afghans can’t sort it out amongst themselves. But nothing is ever final, so things can turn around again. Even so, most Afghans didn’t believe in this Afghan-led process to start with. They believed that, at the least, you needed an outside mediator,” says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.

Afghanistan’s outward turn for help could draw the US into a longer deployment there, a possibility being explored with a long-term pact Washington is seeking with Kabul.

“I think the Pakistanis think the US will completely disengage from Afghanistan, but I think they may be miscalculating,” says Curtis. “The major difference from the 1990s [civil war] is the US involvement.”


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