August 14, 15, and 19 mark three key anniversaries of independence in the South Asian region: those of Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, respectively. Over sixty years have passed since the three countries began their long-standing relationship afresh as regional neighbors in their current territorial structures. Yet, solid trilateral cooperation is still not a reality. There does exist a general sense that robust cooperation between the three countries would not only assuage tensions but could also lay the foundation for a less tense region, and that such an environment would be conducive for steady progress towards all-round development in all three countries. Despite this, efforts for genuine trilateral cooperation have had little success. The blame for this is often placed on the long list of divergences, and often, contrary positions over various issues, particularly between India and Pakistan. After wasting six precious decades and a tremendous amount of resources, perhaps it is now time for the three neighbors to adopt an alternative way of approaching their relationship. Afghanistan has recently initiated an attempt to address this proposition.
At a recently-held discussion on his latest book, Afghanistan Pakistan India: A Paradigm Shift, in New Delhi, Dr. Shaida Mohammad Abdali, the incumbent Afghan ambassador to India, addressed the complexities in the Kabul-Islamabad-New Delhi trilateral relationship. Quoting from his book, he said, “…it is not so much the conflict of interests to be blamed for, but more the lack of identifying common interests and sound political and socio-economic paradigm that can bring about a positive change. Against this backdrop, a paradigm shift closely involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India is the need of the hour.” Among other things, he inquired if Afghanistan could be a catalyst for untying the numerous knots that exist between the three countries.
While it is indeed important that the three countries cooperate for mutual benefit, unless the skepticism and lack of trust between New Delhi and Islamabad decrease, it would be unrealistic to expect robust cooperation between the two inside either India or Pakistan as the starting point. Given how both countries have in the past demonstrated that they are indeed capable of keeping differences aside during times of humanitarian crises, would it be possible for India and Pakistan to attempt this cooperation in Afghanistan with the help of the latter? Ambassador Abdali laments in his book that “[t]he greatest challenge lies in achieving cooperation between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan.”
Yet, while the road to India-Pakistan cooperation is neither easy nor brief, it is not impossible either. Therefore, the key to ironing out existing stubborn wrinkles is to start small, and in areas where convergences outweigh divergences, both politically and financially. Afghanistan could play an interesting role here.
Ambassador Abdali suggests that this could be done by identifying “…modest ways in which India and Pakistan can align their efforts, if not collaborate altogether in achieving the common goals.” Essentially, all three countries could each draw up a list of their needs that require the cooperation of the other for fulfillment, and filter the common minimums. Those common minimums that stand the potential to deliver the most optimal results yet require the least amount of fresh investment (financial, political, or human resources) could be explored first. In all likelihood, linking trade and transit corridors—that end at Afghanistan’s and India’s borders with Pakistan—would top the list. In several ways, all three countries have fairly large agrarian or agro/farm related sectors. Establishing trade and other linkages between the agricultural sectors of the three countries, one that is supported by an efficient and encouraging tax system, would be a useful and productive start. When an experiment of this nature begins delivering positive results, however big or small, the confidence to expand the experiment to other sectors might get a relative boost. Whether or not confidence thus increased will lead to something substantial will depend on the reigning political and economic climate, but any confidence so gained will be meaningful in some measure or another.
India and Afghanistan have already expressed interest in economic linkages with each other, and they have begun working towards it too. The Chabahar Port deal between India, Iran, and Afghanistan is a clear example. Obviously, a land route via Pakistan would provide an additional, more convenient option for several trade and transit purposes. But efforts to establish such routes have repeatedly faced a stone wall in Islamabad.
To bypass this, Afghanistan has proposed (and India has expressed interest in) India’s inclusion in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, in return for Pakistan’s access to Central Asia, which by extension could grant India land access to Central Asia. However, Islamabad’s reluctance continues. It is yet to be seen whether New Delhi and Kabul can make a joint offer that Islamabad cannot resist.
The pasts of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan were linked for centuries, much like the present; and in several ways, their futures are too. Therefore, in order to make the most of the linked futures, it is essential that pragmatic and practical approaches grounded in realistic prospects—ones that are result-oriented and as insulated as possible from political tremors or wastage of resources—are required. The choice is not necessarily between disagreeing and cooperating. Both can co-exist simultaneously. Exploring the ‘achievables’ is worth a try.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations to which she is affiliated.
Image 2: Eric Lafforgue-Corbis News, Getty