Postwar South Asia: Democracy Rising

by Ahmad Raza While the Middle East may get most of the media attention when it comes to foreign affairs, South Asia is the region that has the focus of various policy makers.

With the US war in Afghanistan, along with the two nuclear-armed rivals in India and Pakistan, there is a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to the future of this region.

Given the nature of politics, especially in a region as unpredictable as this one, there are no obvious conclusions regarding the three nations.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for cautious optimism that a better future could exist for these three complex and complicated states.

As the 2014 deadline for ending combat operations in Afghanistan approaches, there are many questions regarding its future.

One concern is that if the U.S. pulls out completely, and does not provide further assistance to the current government, it will collapse.

This concern mirrors what happened following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the USSR pulled its troops out of Afghanistan in 1989, it still supported the Afghan regime financially until 1991.

However, when the Soviet Union itself collapsed, the funds to the Afghan government stopped leading to the regime’s demise in 1992 and sparking a a civil war and creating an environment for  groups such as the Taliban to step in and take power.

Despite these concerns, it is still too early to tell what the U.S. presence will be in Afghanistan.

While the White House did mention for the first time that there was the possibility of a “zero option” with no US troops staying after 2014, this is not a very likely scenario.

This statement occurred during President Hamid Karzai’s last visit to Washington, D.C. in January and may well have been a negotiating tactic by the U.S. to allow for more flexibility in where and how many troops they deploy, as well as having greater leverage with Karzai when discussing the final details in the transition period following the withdrawal and beyond.

The concern that there is a lack of political will on the part of the United States to stay involved in Afghanistan has been a concern for the India and Pakistan.

There is an indicator that this perception may be changing, especially among the major players in the region.

Pakistan’s recent decision to release various Taliban prisoners and encourage them to go to the negotiating table may serve as an indication that they believe that the United States’ long term commitments to the region are real.

After years of tip-toeing a fine line of both supporting the US while not completely cutting itself from the Taliban, it seems that Pakistan has had a change of heart regarding its role in Afghanistan’s future.

This change of policy on Pakistan’s part has not gone unnoticed. Afghanistan has recently reciprocated Pakistan’s gesture by indicating that it would finally consider Pakistan’s longstanding offer to train the Afghan army.

Afghanistan also has become more open to Pakistani involvement in future peace talks with the Taliban.

A recent peace agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United Kingdom seems to indicate a change of course. Additionally, Pakistan has been included in the process, which it has endorsed, of opening a political office for the Taliban in Qatar.

Unlike a previous attempt to do something similar, which ended without much success due to a lack of Pakistani support, Afghanistan has become more inclusive of its southerly neighbor in the peace process.

While problems still exist between these two neighbors, and relations can sour at any given moment, this level of cooperation should serve as an indicator that peace in the region is something all parties are capable of committing to.

Pakistan’s Afghan policy has long been driven by a suspicion and fear of Indian dominance on both sides of the border.

The Pakistani-backed Taliban government’s main rival, the Northern Alliance, had ties to India. During the rise of the Taliban, India supplied the Northern Alliance with military equipment through a massive embassy it established in neighboring Tajikistan.

Pakistan has long pursued a strategy it calls “strategic depth,” in Afghanistan, which requires a government in Afghanistan that is friendly to Pakistan.

This proxy-war between India and Pakistan was a major point of contention between the two countries. There are, however, other, far greater conflicts between them that exist today.

The historical point of contention has been that of Kashmir. A province claimed by both states, it has been divided since the Indo-Pak war of 1947. It is one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world.

The recent Indian-Pakistani peace talks have mainly focused on other issues, as this one seems to be the most complex and entrenched.

Recent acts on both sides of the border, which included a supposed infiltration from the Pakistani side as well as deaths on both sides caused by clashes, led to increased tensions between the two countries.

However, there was also an effort on both sides, despite the heavy rhetoric, to ease the tensions and to return to the kind of stalemate which is considered to be normal.

The other main points of contention between the two sides are Pakistan’s involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 and the lack of actions against the people India suspects were behind it. India claims that terrorists planned logistics and received training from the Pakistani-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

It had demanded Pakistan hand over the perpetrators (The U.S. had also put a $10 million bounty on Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed, claiming he is the leader of the group), although Pakistan for its part claims that there is a lack of evidence on India’s part, in addition to the two nations not having an extradition treaty.

India’s supposed involvement in a Baloch-separatist insurgency in the conflict-ridden Pakistani province of Balochistan is also a reason for the overall lack of trust between the two sides.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and most sparsely populated province. It suffers from sectarian violence, terrorist attacks from the Taliban and a separatist insurgency from Baloch nationalists who claim that they are not given a fair share of Balochistan’s vast resources. Pakistan accuses India of supporting this insurgency.

While there are confidence-building measures taken by both sides, such as releasing prisoners or having cricket matches between the two, there is still clearly a trust deficit between the two which is a result of having fought three wars, as well as history of strong rhetoric and covert action against one another.

All three countries have experience with democracy, with Afghanistan being the latest addition to this list. India has generally been considered a stable democracy, despite some hiccups along the way.

Recent protests against the sexual violence in the country show that the civil society is still present and continuing the fight for a transparent governance.

While corruption is a problem in India’s government, as it is for the other two nations, democracy seems to be ingrained in India’s form of government, although there is always an effort to improve the democratic process.

Pakistan has had a history of military coups and dictatorships, with the most recent one ending in 2008 with the exile of General Musharraf. The current government was elected in 2008 and its term is set to expire this year.

While it has had a turbulent tenure, especially in its relationship to a proactive judiciary, as well as with the powerful military establishment, it is about to complete a feat no other democratically elected government has been able to do in Pakistan’s history – finish its term and handover power in a peaceful manner.

A freer media, as well as more active civil society, are also to credit for this accomplishment. The military itself has admitted that it no longer has the capability to overthrow the government (although it surely can exert its influence) due to the support democracy now generally has among Pakistanis.

This is a sign of hope of things to come for Pakistan, as it looks to move forward from one of its darker periods in its short history.

Afghanistan is the newcomer in the list of democratic countries in the region. While corruption is one of the biggest problems its government faces, which in turn leads to distrust of the government among the Afghan population, there are hopes the democracy can succeed there as well.

Despite the various conflicts and problems that exists both within and between the countries, the chances for a lasting peace in the region is dependent to how committed these countries are to democracy, as well as working to build trust and better relations between the countries, especially the two nuclear armed states.