India-Pakistan Rivalry in Afghanistan

by Sonia Luthra
December 19, 2013

This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia-Pacific Watch List.”

By Sonia Luthra

December 19, 2013

After over a decade of war, the significant drawdown of Western forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will have profound consequences for the India-Pakistan rivalry. The planned exit of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) could create an opportunity for the countries to play out their 66-year-old animosity both within and outside Afghanistan. The implications for the rest of South Asia, as well as for the United States, would be significant.

The coming year will undoubtedly be a dynamic one in South Asia. Both Afghanistan and India will have top-level leadership changes, with general elections scheduled this spring to replace Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan president Hamid Karzai. After the elections, the new leaders will likely be focused on consolidating power at home, a process that may drive both countries to be less conciliatory in their foreign relations. For his part, Pakistan’s newly elected president Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to sustain the previous government’s momentum in reconciling with India on key issues like normalizing trade. Combined, these factors signify the likelihood of a more contentious dynamic in India-Pakistan relations.

Since the September 11 attacks, New Delhi has invested heavily in post-Taliban Afghanistan, providing it with roughly $2 billion in reconstruction assistance to date, with more promised. Karzai has welcomed India’s aid and investment. During a trip to New Delhi this month, his thirteenth as president, he described India as a “strategic and natural partner.” However, these initiatives have been viewed with great suspicion by Islamabad, which regards Indian assistance to Afghanistan as a means of encircling Pakistan and reducing its strategic depth—a major consideration for Pakistani strategists concerned about a military conflict with India.

The withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan could create a strategic vacuum that would enable Pakistan and India to project their mutual suspicions and rivalry regionally. Once U.S.- and NATO-led forces significantly diminish their presence in Afghanistan, militants supported by Pakistan will likely return to the country and take up with renewed interest the cause of fighting India over the fate of Kashmir. The likely involvement of influential militant groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant organization responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is extremely worrisome. A large-scale terrorist attack on Indian soil traced to Pakistan would be of tremendous consequence for the stability of South Asia. It would likely reverse any progress in bilateral relations, as well as create further friction in the tense relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and potentially precipitate a broader conflict between two nuclear-armed adversaries.

Given the risk that the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan will intensify India-Pakistan rivalry in South Asia, discouraging unnecessary hostilities and preventing another major terrorist attack from Pakistan against India should be a high priority for the United States. Washington’s goal of improving relations between the countries will require diplomatic, economic, and strategic initiatives, such as continuing to push Pakistan to grant India “most favored nation” status and encouraging bilateral discussions on Kashmir. Unfortunately, even as U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan winds down, it appears that South Asia’s discordant regional dynamics will continue to be a focus of U.S. concern and involvement.

Sonia Luthra is Assistant Director for Outreach at NBR, where she leads NBR’s outreach to Congress, engagement with the corporate community, and media relations.