South Asia was globally important during the Cold War era and remains relevant to world’s peace and security in today’s troubled environment. The policy of containment, in its final phase, was enacted on the soil and rugged mountains of this region with Pakistan and Afghanistan playing a decisive role in dismantling what the free world once called the ‘evil empire” of the former Soviet Union. The same two countries now constitute the pivotal frontline and battlefield of the ongoing global war on terror.

The genesis of the Afghan crisis is rooted in the chaos and conflict that engulfed this unfortunate country in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war. The tragedy of September 11 becomes relevant to the Afghan crisis only as an epilogue to this sad chapter, which till now remains unclosed from the previous century. And the fact remains that opportunities were missed in managing the Afghan imbroglio for good reasons as well as bad, and the unpalatable consequences could have been avoided if a country as chaotic and as primitive as Afghanistan, after Soviet withdrawal, had been treated with greater care and compassion, and assisted in its gradual transition to global standards of conduct and behaviour.

On our part, in the aftermath of Soviet pullout, we did make every effort to encourage and facilitate the Afghans to develop a broad-based and multi-ethnic political dispensation. In 1991, we brokered the Islamabad Accord among all the Afghan parties, which remains a testimony of our commitment to promoting a genuine home-grown peace process at that crucial time in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Afghan warlords failed to honour their commitments under that accord. Even when the Taliban were in power, we struggled hard to bring about a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict.

Peace in Afghanistan is now long overdue. The US may have its own political agenda, but both Pakistan and Afghanistan have already suffered for too long and cannot afford another cataclysm. The role that they are required to play to make the world safer and more peaceful is inevitably conditioned by the prevailing political, socio-economic and security environment of their region. The effectiveness of their role and capability in any peace process will suffer, if other conflicts and disputes continue to engage and divert their attention and resources.

Indeed, the Afghans are not the only victims of the Afghan tragedy. Pakistan has suffered more in multiple ways in terms of refugee influx, socio-economic burden, rampant terrorism and protracted conflict in its border areas with Afghanistan. This is a reality that even Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged two years ago in a Congressional testimony. She accepted the US had a share in creating the problem that now plagues Pakistan. The Afghan crisis, both during and post-Soviet occupation era, has had a direct impact on Pakistan’s social, cultural, political, economic and strategic interests.

For decades, Pakistan has remained burdened with millions of Afghan refugees and afflicted by a culture of drugs and guns, commonly known as the “Kalashnikov” culture, which has constantly been tearing apart its social and political fabric. As a battleground of the ongoing US-led Afghan war, Pakistan could not escape the fallout of the crisis as a result of protracted violence, massive displacement, trade and production slowdown, export stagnation, investor hesitation, and concomitant law and order situation.

In recent years, the US has also been targeting Pakistan with military incursions and drone attacks in our tribal areas. This has had an alarmingly adverse impact on Pakistan’s psyche, which already is perturbed by America’s continued indifference to its legitimate security concerns and sensitivities. Our problems are further aggravated by the complex regional configuration with a growing Indo-US nexus, India’s strategic ascendancy in the region and its unprecedented influence in Afghanistan with serious nuisance potential to use the Afghan soil for undermining Pakistan’s security interests.

If the turbulent political history of this region has any lessons, Washington’s engagement in this region should have been aimed at promoting strategic balance, rather than disturbing it. It should have eschewed discriminatory policies in dealings with India-Pakistan nuclear equation, the only one in the world that grew up in history totally unrelated to the Cold War. But this never happened. Apparently, Washington had its own priorities for this region as part of its China-driven larger Asian agenda and its ongoing post-9/11 Central Asia-focused ‘great game’ in pursuit of its worldwide political and economic power.

In 2005, it signed a long-term multi-billion dollar military pact with India just to keep its own military industry running. It also entered into a country-specific discriminatory nuclear deal with India introducing an ominous dimension to the already volatile security environment of the region. This “strategic partnership” with all its ramifications is not without serious implications for Pakistan’s legitimate security interests and for the overall strategic balance in the region. Ironically, India, once a founder of the non-aligned movement, is today one of the most aligned countries of the world. It has allowed itself to become a wheel in America’s larger Asian power play.

Any objective assessment of this region’s volatile environment will reveal that South Asia’s issues of peace and security, in their essence, emanate from India-Pakistan hostility and conflict. At the heart of all their current problems is the Kashmir issue, which has kept relations between the two countries bedevilled, perpetuating mutual tensions and animosity. Today, India-Pakistan peace is critical to the prospect of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan where the implications of US failure are grave. President Obama in the early days of his presidency understood this linkage.

In his first-term election campaign, he publicly committed to encouraging India to solve the Kashmir dispute so that Islamabad could better cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan. But in actual execution of his AfPak policy, Obama was soon detracted from his stated goals. The Mumbai November 2008 terrorist attacks triggered the exclusion of Kashmir from his larger policy canvas in this region. Apparently, the US is now looking for a strategic Afghan ‘stalemate’ in which it can withdraw, but not entirely. It will keep a sizeable military presence as a counter-terrorism mission.

But again if history is any lesson, peace in Afghanistan will remain unsustainable in case of any nature or scale of foreign military presence on its soil no matter under what arrangement or nomenclature. Peace in this volatile region would also remain incomplete without addressing the India-Pakistan issues, which are not without direct impact on the overall situation in the Afghan theatre. Yes, the real Afghan issue now starts and ends with Pakistan. Washington knows this reality.

It is time Washington also realised that if the region’s stability was predicated on stability in Pakistan, special attention is warranted on preventing ‘reactionary’ radicalism in Pakistan and redressing the imbalances in India-Pakistan equation. Instead of using Pakistan as an easy “scapegoat” for their own failures in this war, the US and its allies must accept the reality that for Pakistan, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic importance. The risk of a Pakistan-India proxy war in Afghanistan is fraught with perilous implications for regional and global peace, and must be averted at all cost.

On its part, Pakistan has direct stakes in Afghan peace, and despite the glitches in the recent past, it has an indispensable role to play in any Afghan-led reconciliation and negotiating processes. It is in its vital interest to have peace and stability in an independent Afghanistan that is friendly towards Pakistan and is also free of foreign influences taking advantage of the transition process. Afghans alone must be the arbiters of their destiny through Afghan-led reconciliation among all factions with no selectivity or exclusivity.

The writer is a former foreign secretary