By Ali Imran
The US withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan will pose an enormous challenge to security calculus in the region. Parallel to the security challenge on Pakistan’s volatile western border will be Afghan political transition in the form of April 5, 2014 presidential poll that would see Hami
d Karzai’s exit. The latest bout of violence and the elusive Taliban reconciliation roadmap add to the complexity of impending twin Afghan transitions.
To Pakistan’s east, India is heading toward election sometime before May next year, where the resurgence of BJP’s leader and perpetrator of 2002 Gujarat massacre Narendra Modi against a lacklustre ruling Congress coalition is triggering diverse predictions. Early next year, Bangladesh, beset with its own internal political conflict with regional relevance, is also expected to go to polls.
In a potentially game-changing development on Pakistan’s southwestern border, overtures by the new president, Hassan Rouhani, have led to a discernible change in Washington’s policy toward Teheran’s nuclear issue. The recent talks in Geneva engaging Iran, US, UN Security Council members, and Germany are indicative of the start of a rapprochement between Teheran and the West, pointing to wide-ranging ramifications in the neighborhood and the broader Middle East.
The emerging regional scenario with multiple transitions, peace prospects as well as pitfalls offer the Nawaz Sharif government much reason for policy deliberation and calibration where needed to advance Pakistan’s national security, energy, economic and political interests. Islamabad will also soon appoint a new army chief.
As regards Teheran’s nuclear issue, some American experts view more than just a nuclear agreement between the West and Iran.
“More is riding on negotiations in Geneva than just the world’s desire to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons,”Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, wrote after release of a new report on regional issues, she produced jointly with Iranian-American expert Fatemeh Aman.
Another round of talks is scheduled for November 20, and an agreement between Iran and the West could “substantially improve the atmosphere for Iranian cooperation on regional issues, especially the upcoming major US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan,”Slavin wrote, citing experts.
The nuclear talks’ success could also have a positive bearing on Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.
“Should the nuclear talks go well, the Obama administration could give Pakistan a green light to construct its section of the pipeline and even provide financial assistance. Such a change in US policy would benefit Iran and improve US relations with Pakistan, recently strained again by a drone attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban,” Slavin remarked, in the commentary posted by VOA.
Further progress in Iran-West relations may also gradually lead to use of Iran’s Chabahar port, most notably by Afghanistan and India, a development that would have far-reaching regional ramifications.
Although, an Iranian-West accord on nuclear issue, when reached, would be a momentous development, Pakistan is likely to remain seized with the unfolding situation in Afghanistan as the overriding issue.
In theory, the Afghan presidential election – to be followed by parliamentary polls in 2015 – is to be a catalyst in the process of central governance, considered the weakest link in the country long torn along ethnic lines with vast swathes ruled by warlords, drug barons and tribal chieftains.
The election process has started off controversially with the rejection of many names and approval of former government figures and the complexions of three election alliances give little hope that the political process would triumph over ethnic divisions.
The election will also be a “major bellwether of success, or failure, in the United States’ longest war,” according to Ronald E. Neumann, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, and Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution.
“A reasonably successful election could help Afghanistan pull together for the difficult years after most US and international troops are withdrawn in 2014. A disputed election, however, could lead to ethnic and tribal fighting; a corrupt election would be a death knell for US and foreign support for Afghanistan,” the two analysts noted.
Some of the main contenders in the race include Karzai’s brother Qayum Karzai, former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former Mujahedeen commander Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf.
Meanwhile, the fate of bilateral security agreement between Kabul and Washington is to be decided by a Loya Jirga being convened later this week. The Jirga outcome will determine the nature of US framework for future engagement with Afghanistan.
President Obama has not officially pledged to leave a residual force behind without the agreement and in the absence of the BSA, officials have indicated that Washington’s so-called zero option also remains open.
The delay in conclusion of the BSA has been compounded by the absence of US direct talks with the Afghan Taliban after the Doha office bid failure. The Pentagon needs to take care of 51,000 American troops still in Afghanistan both during deployment and drawdown.
For Pakistan, faced with its own multiple economic and homegrown extremism challenges, yet another Afghan refugee influx and spread of militant fighting across the Durand Line would be a horrible spectre. In view of persisting TTP insurgency in the tribal areas and the two-way impact of militancy in the border regions, sensitivities on the issue of Pashtun populations and impact of foreign interference in Afghanistan are likely to be among major considerations in Pakistan’s quest for stability on its 2,640 km-long porous border.
Pakistan is also deeply conscious of the benefits of stability in Afghanistan. Situated at the heart of three regions of the world – South Asia, Central Asia and the Gulf with economic giant China as its friendly neighbor, it would reap massive gains through establishment of regional trade corridors.
If the political process flounders, Afghanistan risks sliding back to civil war. Bordering countries and India – which has developed close economic and security ties with Kabul – would jockey for power with a new round of hedging games and use of proxies. Over the years, Tehran has advanced its interests by reinforcing traditional ties in Afghanistan. In the north of Afghanistan, Central Asian states, fearing spillover of the civil strife, armed conflict and drug-trafficking, are also edgy, and some have already reinforced their border security in anticipation of US withdrawal.
The regional capitals may broaden their outreach to the Afghan groups, where the Pashtuns, according to some estimates, constitute more than 65 percent of the local population. India, which backed the Northern Alliance in the 1990s, is establishing contacts with the Afghan Taliban. Indian finance minister Chidambaram reportedly met with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef in Goa this month. China, which eyes investment in Afghanistan, Russia and possibly some Islamic states, could be useful peace supporter in a broader move, but much will depend on how the Afghan Jirga deals with the question of bilateral security agreement.
However, the fact remains that the two countries that can be the biggest peace sponsors in Afghanistan’s fragmented landscape are Pakistan and the US.
Both Islamabad and Washington have high stakes in working together to stave off the cataclysmic scenario, in which Afghanistan becomes a haven for militants and international terrorists like al Qaeda, and then falls into an abyss with the Pashtuns dominating the South and East of the country and Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks in the North replaying their old rivalries.
In this context, experts say the most crucial factor for Afghanistan’s future would be the state of Pak-US relations. Pakistan, which has suffered grievously at the hands of terrorists since 9/11, wants its sensitivities vis-à-vis Afghanistan addressed.
In a recent Center for American Progress commentary, Caroline Wadhams and John Podesta, a senior fellow and chair at the Centre perceptively observed: “Frequent dialogue with the Pakistanis and others who are fearful of the transition should be intensified, with acknowledgement that legitimate Pakistani security interests should be protected in Afghanistan.”
“Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership have expressed support for a stable Afghanistan and fear that greater instability in Afghanistan will threaten Pakistani security,” they added.
The regional outlook has been helped by the resumption of Pak-US strategic dialogue post Oct 23 meeting between President Obama and PM Nawaz Sharif, signaling a step in the right direction. But the TTP’s choice of Mullah Fazalullah, operating out of Afghanistan, as its new chief after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike, has given rise to new regional complications. Many experts say by allowing Fazalullah to engage in anti-Pakistani activities from the Afghan soil, Kabul is using a tit-for-tat approach in reaction to the Afghan Taliban’s hideouts in Pakistan.
When the US-Pakistan relations are entering a crucial phase with respect to pushing the Afghan stability effort, a resolution to the drone dispute would help their ties greatly.
In fact, the Afghan opportunity presents many prospects for advancing Pakistan-US trust-building efforts. The situation calls for Washington’s greater sensitivity in addressing Pakistani concerns regarding Indian role on its western border, especially in the wake of recent skirmishes across the Kashmir LoC. On the other hand, it demands that Islamabad step up its help for Afghan security and a peaceful US exit via its overland routes.
Dr Marvin Weinbaum, a known scholar associated with the Middle East Institute, proposes in a Foreign Policy article that Pakistan “should fully embrace efforts that improve prospects for the emergence of a moderate, economically improving, and accountably-governed Afghanistan.” He also notes that “without reciprocating Afghan policies, friendly overtures by Pakistan cannot be sustained.”
There have been some hopeful indicators amid regional complexities. The recent recognition by US special envoy James Dobbins that Islamabad’s concerns over Indian role in Afghanistan are not groundless, and the US foiling Afghan intelligence bid to use TTP leader Latif Mehsud as a bargaining chip with Pakistan, sound helpful. On the Pakistani side, a relatively restrained reaction over Fazalullah’s sanctuaries in Kunar and Nooristan, release of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar to bring to life the stalled Afghan reconciliation, and help with exit routes have been supportive steps.
Similarly, the US pledge to help Pakistan in meeting the country’s exponential needs at the Energy Group meeting last week, and resumption of security assistance will boost a cooperative environment.
In the backdrop of ambiguities and controversies surrounding many aspects of the relationship, particularly the fog of drone war over the past years, the most viable way forward for Pakistan and the US seems to be one in which both countries take complementary steps in tandem, build trust and improve public perceptions for a bilaterally and regionally useful relationship beyond 2014. –
This piece also appeared on Op-Ed page of Pakistan Today newspaper on November 20, 2013