Telegraph UK – An unlikely alliance between India and Pakistan could help to secure Afghanistan’s future, says Con Coughlin. — It was only a few years ago that the greatest threat the Indian subcontinent posed to world peace was not the plots hatched by Islamist militants, but the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Eight years ago, the world’s first conflict between two nuclear-armed nations was only narrowly averted by the last-minute intervention of the world’s leading powers. A dispute that began in December 2001, when Islamist extremists based in Pakistan attacked the Indian parliament, escalated to the point that, by the following year, Pakistan’s president was warning India "not to expect a conventional war”.
Similar tensions surfaced in 2008, when another group of Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai’s hotel district, and 174 people lost their lives. As in 2001, the terrorists were associated with Pakistani militants campaigning for Kashmiri independence from Indian rule, which led to yet another diplomatic stand-off between Delhi and Islamabad.
While the crisis failed to provoke another nuclear stand-off, it nevertheless highlighted the deep-seated mistrust and antipathy between the two countries. These were in evidence again yesterday, when officials held their first formal talks since the 2008 atrocity.
Nirupama Rao, India’s Foreign Secretary, who hosted the talks, played down the prospects of a proper rapprochement with Pakistan when she remarked that India had approached the talks with "open minds, fully conscious of the trust deficit between the two countries”.
The bitter history that has defined their relations since Partition makes it highly unlikely that any meaningful accord can ever be reached. But the fact that Delhi and Islamabad have resumed a dialogue not only helps to reduce the threat of nuclear conflict: it also has significant implications for the success of the Nato-led effort in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and establish political stability.
Amid the drama of Nato’s attempts to crush the Taliban, it is often forgotten that it is not only the West that has a stake in Afghanistan’s long-term future. Its location, at the heart of Central Asia’s trading routes, has for centuries made it a much-coveted asset for the world’s leading powers. In the 19th century the "Great Game” was played out between Tsarist Russia, which sought access to warm-water ports, and the British Empire, which was obsessed with protecting India, the jewel in its crown.
In the Great Game of the 21st century, India has itself emerged as a key player in Afghanistan, and Indian goodwill is regarded as essential to ending the bitter insurgency. Indeed, in many respects, India must bear some of the blame for Afghanistan’s collapse during the 1990s. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Delhi’s bitter rivalry with Pakistan led it to establish a strategic partnership with Kabul. Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service responded to this provocation by helping to establish the Taliban, which eventually seized control of the country in the late 1990s.
Until only very recently, many senior officials within Pakistan’s intelligence and military establishment have been deeply reluctant to cut their support for the Taliban, because of their fears that India would once again attempt to
re-establish its influence in Kabul. For its part, India remains determined to maintain a high-profile presence in Afghanistan: lately, it funded the construction of a £55 million highway in south-west Afghanistan, an investment that was undertaken, according to a senior Nato official, "solely to annoy the Pakistanis”.
Nor is Pakistan the only country that is wary of Indian attempts to extend its influence in Afghanistan. China, which has its own fraught relationship with Delhi (the two countries fought a brief border war in 1962), is funding a £2 billion project to mine Afghanistan’s untapped copper reserves, a project that has been received with alarm in Delhi because of China’s close ties with Pakistan. Beijing and Islamabad are also actively exploring ways to build a trans-Himalayan pipeline, from which India would be excluded.
The deep-seated rivalry between India and Pakistan is just one of the many outside influences that will have a bearing on Nato’s chances of achieving success – which is why the West is pressing Islamabad and Delhi to patch up their differences. Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s special envoy to the region, has been particularly forthright in his attempts to persuade Delhi to re-establish a dialogue with Islamabad.
Ironically, it is the growing threat posed by militant Islamist groups that has done much to further this cause. Last year’s attempt by the Pakistani Taliban to seize control of the Swat Valley was a wake-up call for both governments. While Islamabad was forced to accept for the first time that Islamist militants posed a direct threat to the survival of the ruling classes, India was faced with the prospect of a fundamentalist regime on its doorstep, armed with nuclear weapons.
India and Pakistan are never going to be close allies, but the realisation that they face a common enemy means they should set their differences aside and co-operate to improve the region’s security. That process should start in Afghanistan.