Saturday, May 12, 2012

Afghanistan: post-2014 strategy and the regional framework

As the 2014 security transition in Afghanistan approaches, it is imperative to adopt multiple strategies to pursue sustainable peace.

A regional solution is often projected as a critical element in achieving this, and neighbouring countries are considered the key to stability in Afghanistan. But this conviction in the importance of regional solutions is based on a series of misconceptions, and has prevented the development of any functional regional platform.

Many analysts and stakeholders assume that Afghanistan’s regional framework is the cause of the 30-year war in Afghanistan. The dominant views hold Afghanistan either as a giant crossroad linking various regional trade and resource nodes, or characterise Afghanistan’s security as a function of competing regional interests, such as the India–Pakistan rivalry. For some, the regional framework even holds the clues to future peace.

But these conceptualisations are reductionist and flawed, even if most regional countries have competing agendas on Afghanistan and have used it as an arena for proxy battles.

The real drivers of conflict in Afghanistan lie within Afghanistan itself. Contrary to widely held views, Afghanistan’s internal security dynamics are creating ripple effects that shape the security landscape in the bordering states. Other countries in the region, including Central Asian states and Iran, are affected by the war in Afghanistan in differing ways. The states bordering with Afghanistan are understandably more vulnerable than other regional states with geopolitical interests in Afghanistan — most notably Russia, Turkey and India. Among the states that do share a border, the vast deserts that straddle Iran and Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan relatively insulate them from the direct fallout from the war. But Pakistan, Tajikistan and to a lesser degree Uzbekistan, remain more vulnerable to the war’s spill over effects due to their trans-border multiethnic communities, difficult terrain and border politics. This variability also explains different approaches adopted by regional countries to the war in Afghanistan.

The model for future regional trade and transport offered by the Northern Distribution Network — which utilises Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as an alternative to Pakistan — is creating growing divergences among regional states. Russia’s response to growing US influence is to push for strengthening the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the rapid deployment force. Uzbekistan is opposed to the idea of the rapid deployment force because it remains wary of Russian influence and worried that such a force could become a tool for foreign intervention in its own internal affairs. Uzbekistan also remains wary of any regional mechanisms that may include states other than Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, as the events of the 2011 Istanbul Regional Conference suggest.

India is also likely to play a complex role in post-2014 Afghanistan. The core elements of US post-2014 Afghanistan Strategy revolve around retaining a credible counter-terrorist force and sustaining and supporting the fledgling Afghan state. The long-term strategic alliance between the US and India supports the projection of Indian economic and political influence in the South and Central Asian regions. The US military intervention in Afghanistan has been an opportunity for India to extend its political and economic influence in Afghanistan without committing any regular military troops. As the US strategy transitions to the next stage, both the US and India would seek a continued consolidation of Indian influence, preferably still without having to commit to any direct Indian military presence in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s position on India’s role in Afghanistan is a complex one. In recent years Pakistani policy makers have come to accept India’s economic role in the region as a whole, particularly in Afghanistan. Pakistan is also not a natural competitor to Indian investment in resource extraction in Afghanistan, and it hopes to become a transit country for major energy pipelines that will fulfil India’s growing energy requirements.

The war in Afghanistan has devastated Pakistan’s macroeconomic stability and threatened its future prosperity and growth. Today there is a near unanimous view within Pakistan that there must be an end to the war in Afghanistan. The sea change in Pakistan’s earlier security-centric approach to Afghanistan is reflected in the belief that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is critical to Pakistan’s own long-term prosperity, security and stability.

Pakistan believes that regional efforts will only meet with partial success until the roots of conflict within Afghanistan are addressed. Dialogue among the regional countries must support broad and sustained dialogue and negotiations among the Afghans themselves.

All parties to the conflict, including the Afghan government, opposition forces, civil society actors, the Taliban and other associated groups must be allowed to join the process of negotiation under a conflict-resolution framework. All parties must pledge to uphold the territorial integrity of Afghanistan, and leave the internal issues for Afghans to debate and decide.

Most of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Pakistan, are deeply troubled by the continuing war in Afghanistan. They are worried that the end game in Afghanistan is now heading toward the scaled-down goal of stability rather than peace. But stability in the absence of peace is likely to strengthen non-state actors and their ability to shape events in the Central and South Asian regions. Unless efforts toward long-term peace through negotiations and conflict resolution are strengthened, both Pakistan and Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to the corrosive economic and political impact of conflict beyond 2014.

Dr. Simbal Khan is Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia research at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

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