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Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani envoy to the US and UK.

Burdened by geography, Pakistan feels encircled

Islamabad has concerns over a military or security role for India in Afghanistan.

The tyranny of geography has imposed heavy burdens on Pakistan. It has influenced its security thinking and calculus, as well as posed enduring security dilemmas. The troubled history and colonial heritage of contested borders on both its eastern and western frontiers has meant that over the years, Pakistan has tried to avoid being confronted by a two-front situation — tensions with India on its eastern border and Afghanistan on its western one. The present fraught situation on the Line of Control and firings across the working boundary at a time when the Pakistan army is engaged on the western front and battling militancy within its borders is only the latest example of this security dilemma.

In the past, Pakistan sought to manage this in different ways. It navigated this challenge by various means in its last long engagement on the western frontier during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

More important are three differences that set the present off from the past. One, for over a decade now, a substantial portion of Pakistan's military forces, 175,000 troops or more than half the army, is deployed on the western frontier, with a significant number engaged in operations to defeat militancy in the tribal areas. This is not just a matter of relocation and reorientation of military forces. It has led over the years to a wearing down of Pakistan's conventional capabilities.

Two, during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, India's support for Russian-backed Communist regimes was, by and large, limited to diplomatic and political backing. But at present, India has decided to engage in the security sector in Afghanistan and sought to position itself as a military ally of Kabul. It has acquired a military assistance role under the Strategic Partnership Agreement that was signed between Kabul and Delhi in 2011. Under this, India has committed to assist in "training, equipping and capacity building programmes" to strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Training of Afghan officers is now well underway.

The third difference lies in Islamabad's belief that India has been using its presence in Afghanistan to encourage and foment anti-Pakistan activities by dissidents in the troubled province of Balochistan.

Given this backdrop, and the internal preoccupation with militancy, Pakistan has legitimate concerns and vital security interests it feels should be respected in relation to Afghanistan. The new government in Kabul may well be more responsive to Islamabad's concerns than the unpredictable Hamid Karzai ever was. Certainly that is the working assumption in Islamabad, reinforced by the positive early signals received from the Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah government.

Pakistan's ongoing operation in North Waziristan has established a good foundation for Kabul and Islamabad to cooperate more closely. Both can now look to implement plans for border security and eliminate safe havens on both sides — common goals that should be advanced through coordinated efforts.

Pakistan's central post-2014 priority is to secure its border. The military campaign in North Waziristan, aimed at eliminating the last bastion of assorted militants in the tribal areas, has already dismantled the militant infrastructure there.

Islamabad views India’s developmental role in Afghanistan as unexceptionable.

Looking ahead to prospects for post-2014 stability and how relations between Pakistan and India may play out over Afghanistan, it is important for them to hold a dialogue on Afghanistan to exchange perspectives and also their red lines and bottom lines. Because each sees the other acting in a way contrary to its interests in Afghanistan, such a conversation could eventually lead to trade offs, but initially at least produce a better understanding of the other's concerns.

Such a dialogue, however, cannot proceed in isolation from the overall state of the relationship. Relations are at present in a no-talks mode following Delhi's cancellation of foreign secretary talks. If Pakistan and India have to engage in a meaningful conversation about a third country, this requires, at the very least, bilateral talks to resume and an improved bilateral atmosphere.

As for Pakistan's present thinking about India's role in Afghanistan, Islamabad views India's development and economic assistance role in Afghanistan as unexceptionable. But Islamabad has concerns over a military or security role for India in Afghanistan.

For reasons spelt out earlier, a military role for India in Afghanistan would reinforce concerns in Islamabad about a potential encirclement of Pakistan. While Pakistan has no issue with how Kabul conducts relations with a third country, aspects of military collaboration with India that have a security impact on Pakistan naturally arouse anxiety. This is no different from any country that objects to a military arrangement among other states, which are consequential for its security.

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