Amid Afghan gloom, a glimmer of hope on regional front

March 3, 2012

One of the comments you hear quite often about the long U.S. war in Afghanistan is that the Americans should leave it to the region to sort out its own problems. It is sometimes said in fear that the United States will abandon Afghanistan to civil war; sometimes in exasperation over its often confusing policies; and sometimes in anger. With the U.S. approach to Afghanistan in disarray after protests over the burning of copies of the Koran, regional powers are, however, attempting to do just that.  Progress, whether in the first meeting of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral, or in improved trade relations between Pakistan and India, or in regional diplomacy led by Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation among others, is extremely tentative.  And regional powers, especially India and Pakistan, may yet end up backing opposing sides in any civil war which follows the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops at the end of 2014. But the fact that regional diplomacy is happening at all suggests there is at least some hope of salvaging the situation in Afghanistan.

China, whose help has long been sought by the administration of President Barack Obama to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan, hosted a meeting in Beijing at the end of last month in which the three countries pledged to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and to work together to accommodate each others’ concerns, a foreign ministry statement quoted by the China Daily said. “Analysts spoke highly of the significance of the dialogue,” the China Daily added, “which marked the beginning of new process for countries in the region to tackle problems by themselves.”

Given Pakistan’s own near-reverence for China, Beijing is in a strong position to encourage Islamabad/Rawalpindi to play a positive role. It has significant economic stakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it has shown impatience in the past if its own interests are threatened by militants, but does not have the same ideological opposition to Islamists  abroad, maintained, at least until recently, by the United States, prioritising stability above all. That makes it a potentially strong and pragmatic partner in helping to shepherd a political settlement

All that said, China remains wary of becoming over-involved, while its role is complicated by its rivalry with India. According to Andrew Small, an expert on China at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, speaking at the end of last year, “China wants to see a broadly stable, capable Afghanistan with a government that’s sympathetic to Chinese interests, or at least neutral. It wants to ensure that hostile powers and strategic competitors have a restricted role in the country. And it wants an environment that’s secure enough for its economic projects to move ahead.

“It is also concerned that it doesn’t get sucked into the problems there and that its involvement in the country doesn’t turn China into a target for militant groups. In practice, that has resulted in them putting a toe in the water with certain investments but otherwise sitting on their hands – neither actively cooperating with the West nor actively undermining it, and maintaining positive but not particularly deep relations with the current Afghan government.”


Meanwhile India and Pakistan embarked last year on what has been perhaps their most organised if slow attempt at peacemaking in their history, eschewing breakthrough summits and landmark agreements in favour of building ties incrementally, and in particular by focusing on increasing trade rather than on the issues of Kashmir and security that have crippled them in the past. That effort is beginning to bear fruit – albeit painfully slowly – with Pakistan effectively agreeing to grant India Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) status by the end of the year.

The move – Pakistan had previously refused to expand trade ties without progress on the Kashmir dispute – has been particularly welcomed in India which sees greater economic integration as a way of preventing the frequent and usually violent ruptures which have pockmarked relations in the past. In one of the most optimistic editorials, C. Raja Mohan at the Centre for Policy Research in India wrote that, “as Delhi and Islamabad stare at the tantalising possibility for a rare virtuous circle in their bilateral relations, it is time for (Indian Prime Minister Manmohan) Dr Singh to schedule his long overdue visit to Pakistan.” Vikram Sood, a former head of India’s Research and Intelligence Wing (R&AW), wrote that “we should temper our hopes with some realism”, while Singapore-based blogger and think-tanker Nitin Pai noted that “if the trade deal moves ahead and creates vested interests in its continuation, it might become difficult to roll back.”

In Pakistan, the welcome given to improving trade ties – encouraged by some of Pakistan’s biggest businesses – has been tempered by worries about how some sectors of its economy will stand up to competition from its much bigger neighbour, and by the criticism of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an alliance of  anti-American and anti-India Islamist and militant groups which has been holding public rallies across the country since late last year.


Of the other regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan, Russia has been working on building up the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)  — which also includes China and Central Asia states. While supporting full membership for Pakistan of the SCO, Russia also has also been able to draw in India, with which it has ties which long predate their more recent association as BRIC economies. It was during an SCO meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2009that the leaders of India and Pakistan held their first talks since the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.

And Iran, which has the potential to act as a spoiler to U.S. plans in Afghanistan if there is any spillover of its nuclear dispute,  held its own trilateral meeting with Afghanistan and Pakistan in Islamabad last month.

Foreign ministers from countries involved in Afghanistan, including those with troops there and regional powers, will also meet in Kabul in June to follow up on the so-called Istanbul Process – a commitment to regional cooperation launched at an international conference in Turkey last year.

In short, the faultlines which led to Russia, Iran and India backing the then Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in a proxy war with Pakistan in the 1990s, are far more fluid today than they were then. And while the often tedious business of international diplomacy rarely makes headlines, it has some hope for success if nothing else but because all countries involved have an interest in Afghan stability.


Now for the downside. Tempting as it might be for some to wish away U.S. involvement, its economic and political clout along with its big troop presence in Afghanistan, mean that whatever it does, any mis-step has the effect of a bull in china shop.  Fears of a rush for the exit only increase the risk of a civil war as different stakeholders prepare for the inevitable – India in particular is anxious that Afghanistan not be used as a base for anti-India militants; Pakistan is wary of finding itself encircled by Indian-backed forces on its western border and Indian troops on its eastern border.

And as U.S. writer and analyst Steve Coll said in this interview with Roland Paris at the Centre for International Policy Studies in Canada, any civil war could be even nastier than that of the 1990s, not least because the United States and its allies have also been building up a strong and well-armed Afghan National Army. “You have a potential proxy contest, fundamentally between India and Pakistan, but with other players, that also looks like it has kind of growth hormones in comparison with the 1990s,” Coll said. “The national resources that India would bring to bear are much greater than before; its motivation may be more ardent than in the 1990s.”

Yet equally fears the United States might go for a quick-fix deal with the Taliban that ignored the complexities of an Afghan settlement in order to achieve a dignified exit are just as likely to encourage preparations for a civil war if the Taliban’s opponents believed they were to be given too many concessions.

In one scenario described by Indian journalist Praveen Swami at The Hindu, quoting western and Indian diplomatic sources, the Taliban could look for an agreement which allowed its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to return as an Iran-style supreme religious leader, or “amir ul-mu’imineen”.  That idea has been around for a couple of years,  but would almost certainly be rejected by the Taliban’s opponents, particularly by the non-Pashtun elements of the former Northern Alliance. Praveen Swami  also wrote that a devolution of power could leave the Taliban in control of nine southern provinces in a fudged settlement.  

Add to that increasingly frequent references in the U.S. media to a soft partition of Afghanistan, allowing the United States to continue to run a counter-terrorism operation after 2014, and most stakeholders would be inclined to build up their weapons supplies and alliances in preparation for civil war. 

If it is to stop  speculation about a civil war from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, the United States and its allies need to convince regional players that they will stick to their plans of gradually handing over control of security to Afghan forces but remaining committed to helping the country after 2014.  There would have to be a more visible political process to show that all Afghans, and not just the Taliban, will be included in any political settlement.

Washington would also need to stem the many fights within the Obama administration over Afghan policy which usually surface as leaks to the media, yet only confuse those outside the United States about its  intentions – a confusion amplified by the political debate in a presidential election year. And it would need to reassure suspicious regional powers,  particularly Russia and China, that it is on its way out rather than trying to build up a long-term military presence, while juggling its many other foreign policy challenges from the Middle East to Iran.

If it can do that, or some of it, the tentative progress on the regional front may offer a glimmer of hope.

(Reuters photo – Foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan at Istanbul conference on Afghanistan in November, 2011)


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