Across Pakistan’s western and eastern frontiers, in Afghanistan and India, two crucial election processes have entered a crucial phase. If outcome of the first round of elections in Afghanistan and the current voting patter in India suggest anything, it is that hard-liner Dr Abdullah Abdullah will be Afghanistan’s next president, and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi will assume the charge in India.
The leadership transition in each case carries peculiar implications for Pakistan. How we deal with the new Indo-Afghan leaders, and what approach they adopt towards Pakistan, will determine the future of regional peace and our internal security ahead of Western drawdown from Afghanistan.
On April 26th, the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission announced the initial results of the presidential elections held on April 5. According to these results, none of the eight candidates for Afghan presidency met 50 per cent plus one number of votes. Dr Abdullah Abdullah secured 44.9 per cent of the votes and Ashraf Ghani stood behind him with 31.5 per cent of the votes. This means a second round of elections will be held in the country, as per its constitution.
Dr Abdullah, who is half Pashtun but is identified with the Tajik ethnic group and was a hardline leader of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, is partnered with Mohammad Mohaqeq, a leader of the Hazara ethnic group. On the other hand, Uzbek-Afghan leader Rashid Dostum, notorious for committing grave human rights violations, is the vice presidential candidate of Ashraf Ghani, who is ethnically Pashtun was President Karzai’s favorite.
The election run-off, scheduled for June 7, may sharpen ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, because of the ethnic differences between the two presidential hopefuls. The Pashtun and Tajik candidates competing against each other potentially threatens the already fractured Afghan national unity.
In particular, Dr Abdullah’s victory in the elections will mean that the long-standing issue of Pashtun marginalization in post-Taliban Afghanistan will continue to haunt the Afghan reconciliation process. With Pashtun population straddling across the Durand Line, and Taliban insurgency in FATA showing no respite, this development may carry serious implications for Pakistan.
Since early 2012, the former and current civilian governments in Pakistan have indeed attempted to appease Dr Abdullah and other former Northern Alliance leaders, known for their anti-Pakistan views due to Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban in the 90s and beyond. It is, however, Dr Abdullah’s attitude towards Pakistan after actually assuming power that will determine the direction of relations between the two countries.
If Dr Abdullah continues to maintain past hostility towards Pakistan, then the level of tension between Islamabad and Kabul will significantly increase. This will not only complicate the on-going Afghan security and political transition ahead of the December 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan but also worsen the security situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas during this period and beyond.
However, the worst-case probability from Pakistan’s perspective would be the nexus between the Afghan hardliner leader and the Hindu nationalist leader in India.
As Indian election enters its sixth week, Modi is well on its way to assume the seat of power in New Delhi. With voting completed in over 300 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, the incumbent Congress party is reportedly facing a crushing defeat. In a couple of weeks, when the election process comes to an end, the Bharatya Janata Party will be ready to lead India’s next coalition government.
Like with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s approach towards India, especially since the coming to power of the Nawaz Sharif regime, is one of consolidating the gains made previously in the Indo-Pak peace process. There has, indeed, been a bit of reversal in this case, as Pakistan has failed to award the previously pledged Most Favored Nation status to India. The two countries were expected to make relatively fast progress in trade and energy ties in the past year—and this has also not happened.
Of course, just as it happened when the last time Nawaz Sharif was in power during 1997-99, it is very much possible that India under Modi may be as conciliatory towards Pakistan as former BJP leader and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was.
However, the bitter reality is that Modi has a bloody past, for sponsoring the massacre of Muslims in Gujrat back in 2002. Indian Muslims and other minorities may, therefore, have legitimate reason to feel insecure in India under his leadership. Renewing hostility with Pakistan may particularly help him to consolidate his principal powerbase among Hindu majority in India. And, like in Pakistan, there is no shortage of proponents of conflict with Pakistan in India.
Given that, we must not rule out the possibility that, in coming months, Pakistan’s relations with both Afghanistan and India may become more conflict-prone. This will especially be the case if the sort of influence that India has gained in post-Taliban Afghanistan translates itself into a solid Pakistan-centric bond, with both countries led by hardline, staunchly anti-Pakistan leaders.
Of course, in such an eventuality, Pakistan will be left with no option but to come up with its corresponding responses. However, given our currently unstable and weak security and economic conditions, even in such an unpromising scenario, we must never abandon the option of peace and cooperation with either Afghanistan or India.
The regional pivot that Pakistan has opted for in recent years is the most rational choice available for us under the prevailing circumstances, where the threat from domestic terrorism from Taliban is far from power and the country is getting ready for another long summer spell of power shutdowns.
Whatever the nature of regional threat in the days to come, we must do what we can—with the most urgent task of doing away with the policy of ambivalence in combating terrorism, and decimating local Taliban groups as well as those who use our soil to defame us globally.
We must also continue to champion, as we have for some years, diplomacy over conflict in our two most important regional relationships, with Afghanistan and India—even if the response from their hardline leaders in future is mostly hostile.
By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, WEEKLY PULSE MAGAZINE, May 05, 2014