How Would It Impact South Asia?
A lot of concerns have been raised about the future of the South Asian region after the start of US withdrawal from the war-torn Afghanistan. The apprehensions are being expressed especially because the United States has a track record of creating troubles in many regions of the world and then abandoning those without ensuring a sound system and infrastructure behind. The US abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal which ensued in an unending civil war that led to the rise of Taliban. At present, Afghanistan is a fragile state, and being the centre of interest to many important regional players, the drawdown may have adverse effects on the prospects of peace in this most important region of the world.
The US involvement in South Asia has entered a new phase after it has started withdrawing its military from Afghanistan. At present, there prevails an uncertainty regarding a pragmatic strategy aimed at maintaining stability in post-drawdown Afghanistan as well as South Asia. Pakistan, America’s most important ally in the war on terror, is currently going through a phase of political instability. Moreover, terrorism also is still an existential threat to the civilian life in the country. Tensions with India at the Sialkot Working Boundary and Line of Control have also become a routine now. This further enhances concerns about the nature and character of the regional strategic environment in the coming years.
Finding answers to the following questions would serve as the core objective of drawing up some pragmatic policies for the regeneration of South Asia.
1. How would a complete US drawdown from Afghanistan affect the regional security and economic interests of India, Pakistan and China?
2. What kinds of responses to terror attacks by these three countries could further destabilize the region?
3. What key steps can — and should — the US take to prevent further instability in the region?
On May 01, 2012, Afghanistan and the United States signed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) that is a legally binding executive agreement between the two states. The Agreement aimed to ensure American support to facilitate a peaceful transition in Afghanistan following the complete drawdown of US forces. According to the SPA, state parties to the agreement agreed to the following:
a) Protecting and promoting shared democratic values;
b) Advancing long-term security;
c) Reinforcing regional security and cooperation;
d) Social and economic development; and
e) Strengthening Afghan institutions and governance.
Shortly after the unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah held the reins of the country, it signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States on September 30, 2014 — their first executive decision in the new power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US. The BSA, which entered into force on January 1, 2015, will remain effective till 2024 or unless terminated by either party with a two-year notice period. The agreement allows US to maintain approximately 9,800 military personnel in 2015, further reducing the number by the end of 2016 along with an additional 2,000 non-combat NATO forces. According to the agreement, US and NATO forces will advise, train, and equip Afghan national security forces for counter-terrorism and preventing the resurgence of the Taliban.
Afghanistan and Its Neighbours’ Interests
1. Pakistan’s Security & Economic Interests
Pakistan has been viewing Afghanistan as an important part of its sphere of influence since decades now. However, there has been a “strategic shift” Pakistan’s “strategic depth” policy towards Afghanistan in recent years. This change is driven mainly by three considerations namely: “The rise of domestic political instability and terrorism — eliminating which is now its top priority; its longstanding rivalry with, and suspicion of, its neighbour India; and its desire to avoid a surge in Pashtun nationalism among its own large Pashtun population.” Pakistan’s attitude towards Indian presence in Afghanistan has also changed; although it remains cautious that Afghanistan does not provide India the space to pursue security-driven agendas against Pakistan.
On the economic front, Pakistan has long maintained economic cooperation with Afghanistan and their bilateral trade has been mutually beneficial. Current Afghanistan-Pakistan trade volume stands at $2.4 billion, and it has the potential to double in a few coming years. In 2010, both countries signed Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) that allows Afghan trucks to carry Afghan products to China and India via ports in Karachi and Gwadar. The two countries have also held consultations about various projects to facilitate trade. Some of these projects include:
a) Opening the Kunar River hydroelectric dam;
b) Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) for transmission of electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan;
c) The Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) Pipeline;
d) Extension of Pakistan Motorway from Peshawar to Jalalabad and from Chaman to Spin Boldak, and
e) The 32-country Asian Highway Network project in collaboration with the EU to facilitate trade.
However, it is to be remembered that the precondition to any economic trade between the two countries is security along their common border. This has proven to be their biggest challenge and will probably remain so in the coming years given the nature of the political instability in both countries.
2. India’s Security & Economic Interests
In a speech at the 2014 BRICS Summit, Indian Premier Narendra Modi reiterated his country’s commitment to Afghanistan and said that “India will continue to assist Afghanistan in building its capacity; in governance, security and economic development.” India–Afghanistan relations since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 have been cordial and strategic especially during the Karzai regime which was known for its anti-Pakistan hence pro-India policy.
India was the first country with which Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement, in October 2011. India’s core focus has revolved around investments in infrastructure, mining, education and small-scale industries. However, most of its efforts have been directed at hurting Pakistan’s interests. President Karzai also favoured India over Pakistan due to his anti-Pakistan attitude. To sum up, in economic sector, India has spent about $2 billion in investments in Afghanistan, compared to China who has around $3 billion.
In the security sector, New Delhi has provided training in India to Afghan security personnel despite the fact that Pakistan, during Musharraf regime, had offered Afghanistan free training of its security forces. However, the new government has undone the Karzai policy of enhanced defence cooperation with India. President Ghani is more interested in enhancing such cooperation with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan. In fact, the first group, consisting of six cadets of Afghan National Army, is under training at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in Abbottabad.
Even before Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister in May 2014, the then Afghan president Hamid Karzai held a couple of phone conversations with the former, expressing hopes of strong relations between the two countries. Karzai also tried to nurture a greater defence and security cooperation between Kabul and New Delhi. However, India has shied away from it because it knows that any defence-related transactions with Kabul will strain the already fragile relations with its nuclear neighbour, Pakistan. Moreover, New Delhi feared that things could become counterproductive, especially in light of its experience in Sri Lanka, i.e. the IPKF debacle in the 1980s.
3. China’s Security & Economic Interests
China’s interests are tied to its economic investments in Afghanistan, and concerns that instability in Afghanistan will embolden separatists in its western Xinjiang province. As China pursues an enhanced economic presence in Afghanistan, it is concerned about a simultaneous increase in attempts by the terrorists to sabotage Chinese investments. Therefore, China’s economic development strategy is directly linked to stability in Afghanistan. China, however, has been reluctant to play a military role in Afghanistan despite requests by NATO countries.
China has pledged increased economic and development assistance to Afghanistan post-transition and has also agreed to play a role in promoting political reconciliation in Afghanistan. China views Afghanistan as a bridge for increased economic influence in the Central Asian region and has planned to develop the Silk Road Economic Belt linking China to Europe through Central Asia and the Middle East. The New Silk Road initiative could expand China’s economic footprint in Afghanistan beyond its current investments in mining and raw materials. Even though China maintains that it has no desire to fill the US void in Afghanistan, its appointment of a special envoy for Afghan affairs represents its commitment to the development of a strategic cooperative partnership with Afghanistan, and is a sign of long-term, strategic Chinese involvement in the region.
China, however, has been criticized for free-riding on the security environment that has been taken care of by US and ISAF forces over the past fourteen years without Beijing having to contribute directly military forces, equipment, or training of Afghan national forces. As the United States plans its troop withdrawal, China will need to collaborate with neighbouring Pakistan and India in order to ensure strategic stability in the region.
4. Iran’s Security & Economic Interests
Iran and Afghanistan share a 582-mile (936 km) border and have significant cultural and historical ties. Iran has substantial economic, political, cultural and religious interests in Afghanistan. Iran has provided Afghanistan with up to $500 million for economic reconstruction and is one of Afghanistan’s largest trading partners and investors. Its economic activity also has included partnering with other countries, notably India, which Iranian leaders see as a hedge for Iran to be less isolated. Iran also has been working diligently to build “soft power” in Afghanistan; building and supporting pro-Iranian schools, mosques and media centres. Afghan schools have received thousands of Iranian books, many of which espouse the values of the Islamic Republic. Its efforts, however, have not won over all segments of the Afghani population.
Iran believes that the instability in Afghanistan contributes to the insurgency in Iran’s Baluchistan provinces. It is the poorest and most neglected of the provinces and is predominantly inhabited by Baluchis, an ethnic group whose population lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. Despite the declining Western military presence in Afghanistan, Iranian officials continue to encourage the Kabul government and Iran’s local Afghan allies to limit US influence in Afghanistan. Iran has been one of the few Eurasian states whose government has explicitly opposed a continued US troop presence in Afghanistan.
Throughout history, large powers like the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union have burnt their fingers in their attempt to control the stretch of land that is modern-day Afghanistan. The international community’s attempt, led by the United States, to defeat the Taliban and create a stable democracy in Afghanistan has ended in failure. What is needed in Afghanistan is the prevention of its possibly imminent implosion. Given the nature of the current situation, it seems that matters will not improve drastically if Afghanistan is left to itself. There are too many rival power centres within the country and in the region at large. The current nature of this conflict is such that any power vacuum would quickly be filled by an array of non-state actors subscribing to varying degrees of violent Islamist fundamentalism. Hence, it would be in Washington’s interest to initiate systems to engage regional stakeholders namely, India, Pakistan, and China, through mechanisms like counter-terror cooperation, such that a spillover from the conflict in Afghanistan does not destabilize the region any more.