By Ali Imran
Afghanistan is yet again on the edge of uncertainty and its future fragile as ever.
President Barack Obama has ordered contingency planning for pullout of all American forces by the end of the year after months of frustrations over delay in conclusion of bilateral security agreement. In Central and South Asia, nervous neighbours have stepped up diplomatic efforts – though disparately – to deal with the post-2014 Afghan situation amidst an echoing sense of déjà vu.
Voicing Beijing’s concerns over possible Afghanistan collapse, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kabul last week and prescribed a broad-based political reconciliation as the way forward. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar visited Kabul over the weekend and committed $ 500 million for development of the strife-stricken country.
India and Iran have also been engaging Kabul. New Delhi has indicated shifting gear from its soft power aid for Afghanistan to hard power involvement with military supplies. Tehran has pledged its support for Kabul but also warned the Afghans against signing the BSA with Washington.
Nearly 13 years after the 9/11-sparked war, the stakes for Central and South Asia with regard to regional integration through Afghanistan are far higher. A troubled Afghanistan will blunt the potential for multi-billion dollars trade, energy and economic interconnectedness through projects like TAPI gas line and CASA-1000 electricity transmission projects. Pakistan’s exports to Afghanistan, which have grown to 2.3 billion annually, could also be at stake.
More vexingly, the Afghan instability will send terrorism jitters across the regions, provoking external interference. The return of Afghan civil war will test a whole lot of bilateral relations in the region and might draw the edgy countries into a proxy-led or even direct broader conflict.
The killing of two-dozen Pakistani FC soldiers on the Afghan territory harbouring Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan operatives points to the ruthless implications the ungoverned Afghanistan poses to the region.
Meanwhile, the Afghan poppy cultivation, which expanded by 50 percent last year, is soaring still higher this year – a windfall for the Taliban insurgency, UN and U.S. reports say. The economic growth has slumped steeply from double digit to 3.1 per cent in the current year, according to the World Bank.
In Washington, Capitol Hill has halved annual U.S. assistance for the country that has in the past decade helped Afghans take some important basic steps towards socio-economic uplift like education, health and media development. And the UN says civilian casualties in the landlocked country have risen by 17 per cent, and the number of women and children killed has reached in 2013 is the biggest in last five years.
Of the multiple transitions, Afghanistan was expected to have ahead of endgame the Afghan-led political reconciliation between the Taliban and Kabul remains out of sight, giving rise to fears of endless infighting.
The murky skies over Afghanistan have raised a string of uneasy questions that overshadow some hopeful signs like improving U.S.-Pakistan ties, recent conclusion of agreements on US-backed CASA-1000 electricity project and a simmering down in Pakistan-India tensions.
So what is in store for Pakistan, the country that has suffered so much loss of life and economy from extension of the Afghan conflict?
National Security and Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz, during Pakistan-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington last month, cautioned against another abandonment of Afghanistan as was done after the end of Soviet occupation in 1990s. He pointed out fallout for Pakistan when the world, after jointly financing and training the Afghan Mujahideen, walked away, leaving Pakistan to face an unprecedented influx of drugs, weapons and refugees.
Pakistan would also not want New Delhi to have a clout-wielding presence on its western border, as it believes India has been stoking unrest in Balochistan, where Gwadar Port promises to provide China much shorter 2000 km access to the Gulf oil than the long 12000 km sea detour the supplies currently navigate from the Middle East to Chinese ports.
Islamabad is attempting to curb the TTP insurgency and militant bombings through both dialogue and targeted military actions. Any escalation in fighting between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul or northern communities in Afghanistan would only exacerbate the situation along Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Pakistan will also have to tread a fine diplomatic line in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran vis-à-vis Afghanistan in light of the past differences.
Regionally, Turkey has also ramped up its efforts with Pakistan and Afghanistan on finding a peaceful way out of the imbroglio.
In Washington, the Obama Administration faces perplexing prospects over BSA impasse with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has to step down constitutionally and hand over power to the new Afghan government emerging from the April 5 election.
While directing contingency planning for full withdrawal, President Obama made it clear to Karzai in a telephonic call that the longer the BSA is not signed the smaller the U.S. mission will likely be after 2014.
At the same time, the White House has hinted that a “limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan,” provided the BSA is signed and the U.S. has a “willing and committed partner in the Afghan government.”
Internationally, after years of gross simplification of analysis on the Afghan situation, things are becoming clearer that dynamics and reasons for the ultimate result of the conflict vary as diversely as interests of the nations involved, and the ground realities of the Afghan battlefield.
These include geo-strategic calculations of regional countries including Iran, India and Central Asian states, and imperatives of policy decisions and indecisions in Washington and other European capitals.
Even the upcoming April 5 poll – though a hopeful proposition in some respects – is also raising questions: Will the election process proceed relatively fairly and peacefully? Will it throw up an ethnically representative government? Will the future setup deliver in the face of long-running divisions between the Pashtuns on one hand and Uzbeks, Tajiks and the Hazara communities on the other?
The developing situation has elicited a range of moves, some provocative, from the regional countries.
Iran and India, that along with Russia backed the group of northern communities called Northern Alliance in the fight against Pakistan-recognized Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, are expanding their bilateral relations. Eager to gain access to Central Asia through Teheran’s deep sea Chabahar port bypassing Pakistan, New Delhi has pledged to invest $ 100 million in the project.
South Asian nuclear powers Pakistan and India have made some progress on advancing bilateral trade but have made no headway on longstanding disputes including Kashmir. The future Afghan situation would also be a key factor in squaring Pakistan-India equation.
China and Russia, in the meantime, have held trilateral talks with both Islamabad and New Delhi on post-2014 Afghan situation. But will these two consultation processes be followed up with good-faith actions and help stabilize Afghanistan, would be a big test of their mutual confidence, if the U.S. and NATO allies leave Afghanistan.
After Washington’s introduction of the concept of New Silk Road, Beijing has intensified its own efforts to materialize a Silk trade region through Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Yet, there are some unambiguous signs that might stir up troubles. For instance, Russia and India are reportedly working on an understanding that would enable India to fulfill Kabul’s military wish list, making Afghanistan more reliant on Moscow and New Delhi. How will the U.S and China react to such developments is unclear at the moment, as is the question if the regional countries would coordinate their efforts to avert Afghanistan’s fall and resurgence of old enmities.
Meanwhile, the accumulating fog of ambiguities and post-2014 uncertainty threatens to prolong privation of the Afghan people and instability of the region.
This writing first appeared in Pakistan Today newspaper on March 2, 2014.