Afghanistan is a land of extreme diversity. Fractured along various fault lines – geographic, ethnic, tribal, linguistic, and sectarian – it would not have emerged as a single unified state but for a “grand bargain” struck between its major communities. And that would not have happened without compelling reasons.
Arnold J. Toynbee, the famous British historian, described the territory that roughly covers today’s Afghanistan as the “eastern crossroads of history.” Indeed, the country lies at a junction of three distinct large regions: Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East (sometimes called ‘West Asia’). Any venture into this vast area worth its while – invasion of the subcontinent, trade with China, attempts to gain access to the Indian Ocean or to the region’s natural resources – would unmistakably involve Afghanistan. Whole civilizations have passed through it and armies have trampled over its territory. So the “grand bargain” came as the only way to ensure the territory’s collective security. It was brokered in 1747 by Ahmed Shah Durrani, who has since been rightly called the “father of the nation.”
Once unified, Afghanistan could no longer be controlled or dominated by foreign forces: they were unable to secure the grand consensus that formed the country, while that could be the only reason for making the Afghans agree to the occupation. Even before Afghanistan emerged as a state, three powerful Asian empires – the Uzbek Khanate, the Safavid Iran and the Mughal India – struggled vainly for influence in Afghanistan. After its creation, when two European powers – Britain and Russia – got engaged in the so-called “Great Game” for as long as the entire 19th century, the political astuteness of the Afghan emirs saved it as a buffer state. After NATO’s withdrawal, this model may well appear to be most helpful for the Afghans seeking stability.
Afghanistan’s stability as a function of a broad consensus is not just a wishful ideal. Its topography and demographic structure make it possible for the major factions – ethnic or tribal – to reign supreme in their chosen areas. Any of them not on board can make enough mischief to cause instability. That was exactly the reason for Pakistan’s pleading for the formation of an interim government to be represented by all Afghan major factions in 1989 when the Soviet troops were to withdraw from Afghanistan. (The failure to do so eventually led to the civil war.) Now the same rationale stands behind the need to establish an intra-Afghan dialogue to work out modalities of the transfer of power before NATO forces leave the country.
Bringing all the major Afghan factions to the negotiating table is indeed a daunting task. The baggage of the past – especially of the period when the Taliban ruled the country – is one reason. More importantly, the Taliban, who in 2002 offered to cooperate with the Kabul regime but were denied any role as it believed that they no longer counted, are now a formidable force. Besides expanding their areas of influence and conducting some spectacular operations against heavily guarded targets, the Taliban presently receive money from NATO for safe passage of its convoys (which last year amounted to $150 million). But the most serious obstacle to starting a reconciliation process is Washington’s plan to maintain a large combat presence in the country after 2014.
The Afghans (generally) and the Taliban (most certainly) would rail against this presence. Their neighbors, too, would prefer Afghanistan to be vacated at the earliest possible time. Pakistan is obviously a country most affected by the events in Afghanistan. Since many Afghans would resist the retention of foreign military bases, the frontier areas of Pakistan would remain in the war zone and a target of U.S. retaliation. Iran has its own valid reasons to be worried about the continued retention of American military assets in the region. Russia and China, too, are wary of this powerful extra-regional existence which could adversely affect the power game in this geo-strategic pivot. Due to the worsening relations with Pakistan, NATO is shifting its focus to the Northern Distribution Network to supply its troops in Afghanistan and to their eventual drawdown. Some of these concerns have become especially acute.
The Central Asian states, which are still in a state of flux after the breakup of the Soviet Union, will face an even more uncertain future after the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Their borders, drawn back in Stalin’s time during their establishment as Soviet republics, severed traditional trading zones and settled areas. Stalin’s idea was to split the region’s Muslim ethnic groups and make them less of a threat to Moscow. Seeds of this ethnic divide began to sprout when these republics got independence while remaining within the unnatural borders. This situation made Zbigniew Brzezinski describe the region as a “hotbed of conflict” and the “Eurasian Balkans.” While in the past the Central Asian countries were swept into the vortex of the Great Game between the British and the Russian empires, today they are being wooed by major powers seeking to gain influence and set up military bases there.
Tajikistan seems most vulnerable to any major change in the status quo. Facing a strong Islamic opposition, it seeks external help. As NATO is reducing its presence in the area, the fragile balance is likely to give way to fresh violence. Its Gorno-Badakhshan region, having only three percent of the country’s population but spreading over forty-five percent of its territory, has cultural, religious and ethnic ties with the Afghan province of Badakhshan. It is virtually inaccessible and has traditionally served as a sanctuary for militants. Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan, once patrolled by Russian troops, is too porous to be sealed. The main foreign countries vying for influence in Tajikistan are: Iran (which has strong cultural links with it), India (which is upgrading a former Soviet air base there), and China (which is trying to use economic incentives to reduce trans-border links between militant groups).
Kyrgyzstan is a country where both the U.S. and Russia have military presence. Washington uses the base at Manas to supply its troops in Afghanistan and has most of its tanker fleet stationed there. It pays the Kyrgyz government $60 million a year for this favor. Russia has a base near Bishkek that also maintains its 6,000 strong contingent in Tajikistan.
As for China, it has an agreement with Ashgabat under which Turkmenistan will supply Beijing with up to 40 billion cubic meters of gas in four years. Beijing shares Central Asia’s fears of Islamist movements. To control its restless Muslim majority province of Xinjiang, it seeks help from the Central Asian neighbors. China also believes it has a vision for the future – the “New Silk Road” project which involves the construction of pipelines, highways from the region to its East Coast, and railway links from Beijing to Tashkent and on to Europe.
Furthermore, a declaration of intent for the construction of a giant pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India has been signed (although the plan will remain a pipedream until the security situation in the region becomes favorable).
And, of course, one should not forget that narco-trafficking routes controlled by the Islamists pass through Central Asia.
The regional response to all the above challenges has been enhanced over the last decade.
The first to respond was probably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Established with the goal of fighting terrorism, it essentially aims to promote regional cooperation to counter the external ingress in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. It is evolving at a deliberate pace. In the meantime, some of the regional powers, such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, are trying to coordinate their policies to cope with the fallout of the war in and around Afghanistan. This may eventually reinforce the SCO’s objectives, but as of now these efforts seem to be taking their own course. Indo-Pakistani rapprochement, for example, is a strictly bilateral affair.
Relations between India and Pakistan have had their feel-good moments in the past, but never before did the two countries match their expressions of goodwill with such firm action. In early 2011, a major Indian military exercise close to the Pakistani border hardly made anyone in Pakistan raise an eyebrow. On a similar occasion in 1987, Islamabad mobilized for war. After dragging its feet for over a decade, rationale apart, Pakistan has eventually granted India the MFN status that is obligatory under the WTO. This move was followed up by a liberal trade and visa agreement.
Soon after the murder of the former Afghan President, Burhan-ud-Din Rabbani, which produced plenty of ill-will against Pakistan in Kabul, Karzai visited Delhi and signed a “strategic agreement” providing for increased economic cooperation and India’s assistance in training the Afghan military. In earlier times, it would have created uproar in Pakistan. Significantly, Pakistan has dropped its objections to India’s participation in the second round of the Istanbul Process, indicating that it is now prepared to engage the “archrival” on Afghanistan in a regional setting.
India, on its part, no longer blames Pakistan for unrest in Kashmir or for that matter anywhere else in the country. Both countries have supported each other’s candidature for the UNSC. They may still be reluctant to meaningfully cooperate on Afghanistan (even though a significant opinion in India is in favor of granting Pakistan the lead role), but the relationship has clearly turned a corner.
India’s interests in the region are indeed not merely linked to its equation with Pakistan. It wants to compete with China to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources and is planning to revive airstrips and military hospitals in Central Asia. Pakistan believes that India could legitimately pursue these projects.
The two South Asian countries have also improved their bilateral ties with Iran. In a joint operation, Pakistan and Iran decimated Jandullah, an anti-Iran militant group that used to operate from Pakistani Balochistan with America’s help. After a five-year hiatus, India has revived cooperation with Iran, with Tehran reciprocating positively, despite Delhi’s past support for the U.S.-led sanctions against the Mullah regime. Since India’s improved relationship with Pakistan is still in a nascent phase, it seeks access to Afghanistan through Iran, but at the same time remains mindful of U.S. sensitivities.
There has been a remarkable turnaround in Russia’s relations with Pakistan. Moscow firmly endorses the latter’s full membership of the SCO, and has offered to help modernize the Karachi Steel Mills which uses Soviet technology of the 1970s. It has also pledged to support a project that would bring electricity from Tajikistan to Pakistan. Since the transmission lines are to run through the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, the people there would have a stake in this relationship. It will be an important gesture to Tajikistan, as well.
The most significant step that the two countries have taken together is their clear stand on the U.S.-sponsored project nicknamed the “New Silk Road.” Ostensibly, it is aimed at developing the region’s economy with Afghanistan as the hub. However, the regional countries regard it as a ploy to perpetuate American influence, justify the retention of its military bases in the region, and diminish the role of Iran, China, and Russia. Except for the Kabul regime, no regional country supported the proposal when it was presented in Istanbul on November 7, 2011. China and India kept a low profile: the former firmly believing that the others would effectively scuttle it, and the latter fearing it could harm its relations with the U.S. India’s “hedging” was no surprise to Russia, still a power with significant political clout. With Europe in the throes of a financial crisis, Russia, possessing some surplus cash, has a good chance to regain influence in the former Soviet states of Central Asia.
China’s location and economic prowess provide it with probably the best cards in the game, and it seems to be playing them well. Its pipeline projects with Russia and investments in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and minerals are on track. The sixty-billion-dollar trade with India effectively deters the latter from undertaking any “containment” role on behalf of the U.S. And it happily transports oil from Iran through the straits of Hormuz unmindful of the American armada or embargo. But indeed it is worried about the prospects of an open-ended American military presence in the region, which will continue to adversely affect China’s strategic interests in Pakistan – developing and securing communications lines to the Indian Ocean and investments in the resource-rich province of Balochistan – and in due course threatens China’s freedom of action in the region. (But of course, China keeps investing in the U.S. treasury bonds.)
The SCO, comprising Russia, China, and four of the five Central Asian states, is likely to grant India and Pakistan full membership, and has added Afghanistan as an observer and Turkey as a dialogue partner. It is indeed uniquely placed to provide a regional canopy under which India and Pakistan could work together on issues of regional security such as Afghanistan. The problem is that both India and Pakistan remain mindful of their relations with the U.S. and therefore tend to drag their feet on issues that might draw flak from Washington (a pipeline from Iran, for example). Moreover, along with Australia, Japan and South Korea, India is tempted to cooperate with NATO on the latter’s ABM project. Of course, if India does that, it will adversely affect its standing in the region.
THE ENDGAME: PLAYING TOGETHER
Essentially, the policies and measures that the regional state and non-state actors have taken so far makes one believe that they will cope with any situation that might emerge. Since the outcome of Afghanistan’s “endgame” is not clear, the Central Asian states, faced with many unresolved internal and external problems, are trying to clinch the best bargains available under the circumstances.
Yet to get the optimum benefits in the long term, the region can do better than that.
A few years after the Cold War ended, Strobe Talbott, an American academic, diplomat and an expert on Soviet affairs, wrote that a “new Great Game” could either be played together or by no one at all. Like Afghanistan, the broader region, too, cannot function without an overarching consensus. When there are too many actors who can throw a spanner in the works, nothing works till all or most of them are on board. Insurgents or saboteurs can only blow up pipelines; cross-alignments among competing centers of power may keep the region in turmoil for decades to come.
India and Pakistan may have changed camps after the Cold War – from East to West in case of the former and the other way around in case of the latter. The environment in the new great game is so complex that they still need help from each other. India has many advantages due to its size, economic clout and historical linkages with the region, but it cannot fully realize its potential unless Pakistan, which comes in the way, cooperates. Pakistan claims more leverage in Afghanistan, mainly because of its geography and role in helping the Afghan resistance during the last decades. Today it is facing the consequences of this policy both inside the country and on its western borders, and it needs India’s help to keep the eastern front quiet. It seems both countries have just begun to extend the minimum essential relief.
Of course, there are many multilateral arrangements under which the countries of the region can cooperate and contribute towards a bigger objective. Besides their essentially useful bilateral relationship, India and Pakistan may be inching towards a quadrilateral framework to include Iran and Afghanistan. A Chinese strategist has proposed to form a Pamir Group comprising China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), established to bring some of the former Soviet states together, may serve a similar, and perhaps even more useful, purpose. The SCO umbrella has an obvious advantage: it already has all the big regional players – Russia, China and even India – principally on board.
One goal towards which all of them can start working right away is the formation of a consensus government in Afghanistan. Besides ensuring security within the country (something no military force could, and the Afghan National Army can ever achieve), it would enable the country to make independent decisions in its relations with other nations. Afghanistan’s policies during its “buffer” years provide a good example of delicate balancing without posing threats to any of its neighbors.
Playing together, as advised by Talbott, will definitely work for the region, but may place his home country at a disadvantage. The U.S. does not belong in the region, it no longer has money to invest, and in fair play its main rivals in the region – even in Europe – stand to gain more. However, it has enough hard power and global reach to act as a spoiler. Long time back, another American, Eisenhower, had warned that the U.S. military-industrial complex could keep the country in a state of perpetual war. A collective approach from within the region can thus be the panacea for many of its security woes.