January 27, 2010 / 9:45 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A - What does Pakistan want in Afghanistan?

REUTERS - An international conference on Afghanistan in London on Thursday is aimed at setting a framework for handing security over to Afghan forces and seeking a common approach among Afghanistan’s neighbours on helping stabilise the country.

NATO powers are also expected to back Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan to reach out to Taliban insurgents.

The neighbour with perhaps the most influence over events in Afghanistan is Pakistan, whose foreign minster will be at the meeting.

Here are some questions and answers on Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan:

WHAT DOES PAKISTAN WANT?

Pakistan wants a peaceful Afghanistan ruled by a friendly government over which it has influence and with old rival India having minimal influence. It hopes that peace in Afghanistan would help it end violence by its home-grown Taliban and bring its lawless ethnic Pashtun lands along the Afghan border under control. For years, Pakistan saw Afghanistan in terms of “strategic depth”, meaning, in the event of war with India and Indian forces rolling over its eastern border, Pakistani forces could withdraw over its western border into a friendly Afghanistan, re-group and fight back from there. Pakistan says that concept is outdated. Nevertheless, Pakistan wants a friendly Kabul government that would at least stay out of any India-Pakistan war.

WHAT DOES PAKISTAN FEAR?

Most Pakistanis see India as the biggest threat to their national security. Afghanistan is seen through that prism so a major Pakistani concern is being squeezed between India and a hostile, pro-Indian Afghanistan. It is deeply suspicious of the close ties India has built with Karzai’s government, which, even though Karzai is Pashtun, Pakistan sees as dominated by traditionally pro-Indian and anti-Pakistani ethnic Tajiks. Pakistan says India is supporting separatist rebels in its gas-rich Baluchistan province from Afghanistan.

While wary of U.S. involvement in the region, Pakistan is also worried about a U.S. withdrawal leaving Afghanistan in chaos, as happened after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. At the same time, it is worried that a surge in fighting in Afghanistan will spill over the border and inflame unrest in its Pashtun northwest.

A long-running Pakistani fear is Afghan irredentism. Afghans have long harboured dreams of uniting all Pashtuns on both sides of the border and Pakistan is wary of Pashtun nationalism at home lending weight to such dreams. Fueling Pakistani worry is the fact that no Afghan government, not even the Taliban, has recognised the international border, drawn by British colonialists in 1893, which divided the Pashtun lands.

WHO ARE PAKISTAN’S ALLIES IN AFGHANISTAN?

Most Afghan factions are hostile towards Pakistan, especially those drawn from its minorities such as the Tajiks. With a big Pashtun minority in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, including the Taliban, have long been Pakistan’s natural Afghan allies. But even relations with the Taliban have suffered since Pakistan signed on to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy in 2001. Nevertheless, the Afghan Taliban still draw much support from Pakistan, although Islamabad denies any official backing, and many Taliban leaders and their families are believed to be in Pakistan. The Taliban are the only Afghan faction with which Pakistan has significant influence.

WHAT CAN PAKISTAN DO TO ACHIEVE ITS GOALS?

Given the involvement of the United Stated and other Western powers, analysts say Pakistan realises the world would not tolerate its support of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. The best way for Pakistan to protect its interests in Afghanistan would probably be for it to use its influence over the Taliban to bring them into talks. Pakistan could then try to push through a peace agreement that would win the gratitude of the United States and preserve its influence in Afghanistan through the Taliban, who would be part of some post-agreement set-up, while it tried to mend ties with other Afghan factions. With a major role in a peace process, Pakistan would also be in a strong position to keep India out. Pakistan could undermine peace efforts if pro-Indian Afghan factions and India kept it out of any process.

Editing by Paul Tait

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