Beyond "Af-Pak"

In the world viewed through America's lens, "Af-Pak," the catch-phrase of the moment in Washington foreign policy circles, makes a good deal of sense. With 17,000 more American troops en route to Afghanistan, and with the Taliban operating largely beyond their reach in the Pakistani tribal lands, the need to deal with both problems in tandem has become conventional wisdom.

Yet focusing solely on what goes in Afghanistan and the largely ungoverned lands south of its border misses a larger, even more difficult reality. After seven years of virtual stalemate in Afghanistan, and with Pakistan looking shaky at best, other, larger powers in the region are placing their bets — and not necessarily on America and its NATO allies. Russia, Iran, China, and India all have vital interests at stake, and all have moved in different ways to hedge their bets.

Nowhere is this more true than in the long-running territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. According to new revelations from Steve Coll, an American journalist and author, concerns about the direction of the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry over Kashmir so unnerved both sides that these sworn enemies launched a secret peace process that very nearly took the issue off the table in 2007.

Coll, president of the New America Foundation, revealed in the New Yorker magazine last week that the two sides came so close to agreement that, in the words of one senior Indian official involved, "we'd come to semicolons." Without American mediation — indeed, one former American official told me the U.S. was aware of, but not involved in, the negotiations — these sworn enemies very nearly solved on the the world’s major conflicts.

The effect such a peace would have on the region would be profound. Pakistan's unwillingness to accept India's hold on a large part of that northern region led successive governments to use Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to train Islamic militants to infiltrate the Indian-rule portion of Kashmir. The ISI already had ties with the Afghan Taliban and other groups there dating to the anti-Soviet resistance. Tolerance of terrorism — as an end to a means winning back Kashmir and maintaining influence in Afghanistan — has poisoned the ISI's reputation and nearly led to war with India in the Kargil region in 1999. On most expert lists of top 5 potential causes of nuclear war, Kashmir is 1, 2, or 3.

Sadly, however, the secret peace talks failed. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the controversial American ally who backed the talks, put them on hold as his domestic standing crumbled. In December 2007, Coll reports, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the effort stalled. The terrorist attack on Mumbai last November, which India blames in no small measure on ISI, appears to have ended any hope of reviving them.

The Kashmir situation has important effects in Afghanistan. As Coll notes, Gen. David Petraeus, who now runs U.S. Central Command, has ordered a policy overview which, among other things, stresses the importance of getting India and Pakistan to stop viewing each other as enemies.

The damage the rivalry does in Afghanistan, however, is more than psychological. India's own foreign intelligence agency, the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) is accused by Pakistanis of trying to fill the void in Afghanistan left by the ISI's withdrawal after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks. Indian money, too — more than a billion dollars of it — has poured into Afghanistan.

This rivalry in Afghanistan should not be underestimated. A July 2008 suicide bombing at India's embassy in Kabul killed 58 people, and India's national security advisor, M K Narayanan, publicly fingered ISI.

Even without Coll's timely reminder of the big picture, it has been a busy two weeks on the Af-Pak diplomatic beat.

Neighboring states are making their interests felt. Russian pressure (and financial aid) last month led the impoverished Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan to order U.S. and other NATO forces out of its Manas air base, a vital lifeline in the supply chain for the Afghan war. The Kyrgyz move, made official last week by its parliament, hammered home Moscow's determination not to be ignored in its back yard.

On Friday, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta took time out from three-way talks with Pakistan in Washington to tell reporters he hoped future rounds might include Iran, calling Tehran "an important regional player." Iran has spent some $300 million on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan in recent years, too, mostly centered in the Farsi speaking region of Herat.

The scene shifted to Beijing on Saturday, where Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense David Sedney asked about the possibility of China providing alternative access — which could mean anything from rail lines to an airbase — to help in the fight against the Taliban.

Increasingly, then, India, China, Russia and Iran want their say on the future of Afghanistan. And after a seven-year stalemate, each of these players has particular reasons to doubt that the United States can pull a rabbit out of Herat.

Read more on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Opinion: Taliban posed to "take" Pakistan 

Afghanistan troop surge costly

Obama/Nixon: History holds lessons for the new president

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation, not the Center for American Progress.