Decoding Pakistan NSA Moeed Yusuf's refusal to attend India-hosted regional conference on Afghanistan
On 15 August 2021, the day the Taliban seized power militarily in Kabul, the world watched with trepidation the scenes of an ignominious end to the twenty-year-long efforts of the US to prop up a democratic government there
On 15 August 2021, the day the Taliban seized power militarily in Kabul, the world watched with trepidation the scenes of an ignominious end to the twenty-year-long efforts of the US to prop up a democratic government there. However, the mood in Pakistan was somewhat different. In popular Pakistani discourse, it was a defeat more of India than of the US. India, like several other countries, shut down its embassy and four consulates, temporarily ending its diplomatic presence in a country with which it has had historic political and cultural ties.
On Tuesday, at a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan National Security Advisor Mooed Yusuf said he would not go to India for attending a New Delhi-led NSA level conference of regional countries on Afghanistan. “A spoiler can’t be a peacemaker,” Yousuf remarked tartly. His reference, “spoiler”, was to India.
There too lies a stark contradiction. Pakistan’s duplicitous role--as the ally of the US in its mission in Afghanistan and at the same time the primary supporter of the very same enemy, the Taliban, the US had been trying to defeat--is now open for all to see. However, for Islamabad, the "spoiler" was India, a country that had never been directly involved militarily, unlike the US and other NATO countries, in Afghanistan.
Both of the aforementioned contradictions originate from a point of view that only Pakistan holds: New Delhi has no role to play in Afghanistan. Historically, after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India has never enjoyed centrality in Afghanistan. However, that non-centrality doesn’t directly transform into political irrelevance.
New Delhi’s significance in the context of Afghanistan comes from its soft power, and ability to influence the narrative around it. In fact, long before the West started worrying about terrorism and extremism, India has been one of the first countries to warn the world about it.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, India deliberately resisted the temptation to get involved militarily in Afghanistan. And, one of the reasons behind the move was exactly this extreme sensitivity of Pakistan. New Delhi found other ways to play a meaningful role there by taking up infrastructure and development projects and building state capacities through training professionals and others.
However, this too turned out to be “unacceptable” to Pakistan. “Too much Indian presence” had been the common complaint that Afghan leaders repeatedly heard from those sitting in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Both former Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani had undertaken serious discussions to mend ties with Islamabad - the first in 2009 and second in 2015, and most recently in 2021. One of the key demands from Pakistani generals, that featured in every discussion, was to limit Indian presence there - four consulates and the embassy in Kabul which they charged were being used to "spy" on Pakistan.
In a recent oped in The Wall Street Journal, Javed Ahmed, former Afghan ambassador to UAE, revealed, “Gen. Bajwa wanted to place a Pakistani intelligence liaison team inside Afghanistan to monitor Indian activities. Mr. Ghani requested a reciprocal arrangement—an Afghan team inside Pakistan to watch over the Taliban—with the U.K. acting as a third-party verifier. Gen. Bajwa rejected this idea.”
In the last four decades, Pakistan has managed to prove its indispensability- often through its destructive mechanism-- regarding the Afghan context. Currently, Pakistan is present in almost all important formats and initiatives on Afghanistan. However, Islamabad’s quest for centrality doesn’t end there.
The heart of its ambition is also to make sure that India doesn’t find relevance in the Afghan context. India remains excluded from the regional initiatives taken by Iran and China, mainly at the behest of Pakistan. In the recent Moscow Format talks, where India was also included, Pakistan made sure to have a meeting of a separate grouping there--involving Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan--that did not include India.
Behind Moeed Yusuf’s recent refusal to attend an Indian-led initiative on Afghanistan lies its entrenched view - the best role that India can play in Afghanistan is to play no role at all.
(The writer is Research Associate, South Asia Monitor. The views are personal).