The year 2014 is likely to unfold yet another testing time for Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US forces from the country would end a 12-year-long US garrison in Afghanistan.
Also expected is a scenario that is likely to bring drastic changes and posing serious challenges to neighbouring states, especially Pakistan, and regional stakeholders, including India and China. While the US intends to keep a considerable influence on Afghan affairs, China is also a tacit yet definite player in a fast-changing regional power play.
Besides withdrawal of foreign troops, Afghanistan would also bid adieu to Karzai government and would welcome the new administration in 2014. There will be a complete shift in domestic political affairs of the country. The post-US withdrawal Afghanistan would be faced with a number of formidable challenges, including weak political structure, faltering economy, social instability, ineffective national security mechanism and, above all, extra-regional powers which are already engaged in smoothing out their playfield in the country. Afghanistan sans US presence, and with a new government in place, portrays an enthralling picture, particularly to China, India and Pakistan. Although Iran and Russia are also vigorously exploring viable options for their future roles in Afghanistan, India is concerned about its future relations with Afghanistan more than any other state.
Analyzing the possible future scenario in Afghanistan in view of changing dynamics of regional as well as domestic politics, less than expected opportunities will be there for neighbouring and regional players. These changes may have grave repercussions for the country. However, it doesn’t mean that the US presence should be extended rather there should be a transition of power to bring stability in the country.
For Pakistan, the Afghanistan of 2014 holds simultaneous opportunities and challenges. India is striving to maintain a strong equation with Afghanistan and is exploring options to establish working relationship with future Afghan government while the US also intends to keep its thumping influence over Afghanistan. So, Pakistan would have to pursue a robust foreign policy encompassing a concrete strategy to better its ties with the western neighbour in order to be able deal with the new developments about to unfold there.
Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan had always been chequered, particularly since 2001. Afghanistan blames Pakistan of providing safe havens to the Taliban and this mistrust may be telling for future Pak-Afghan ties.
China’s role in Afghanistan is of paramount significance for many reasons. China is most concerned and perplexed about ethnic and separatist forces gaining stronghold in Uyghur region through Afghanistan. China has helped Afghanistan get observer status in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and would continue cooperation and collaboration in future to suppress or tackle any eventuality leading to a dent in China’s internal security and strategic stability. China’s gain of a stronghold in Afghanistan must not be taken as beneficial for Pakistan.
As China seems to be pursuing a slow yet steady policy in Afghanistan, there are two likely scenarios for India and Pakistan. One; China and India would collaborate to bring stability in Afghanistan and benefit from joint economic ventures in the country. Silk Route forms the historical link between China and Afghanistan. However, the most daunting challenge for China would be to pursue its agenda there in a political and economic environment that is sensitive and risk-prone. There would be risks involved with respect to Indian ambitions as well. To make a balanced equation with India and pursue a collective agenda would in itself be a Herculean task. This scenario may invite some serious deliberations from the US. Second; the likely scenario harbingers a bilateral partnership between China and Afghanistan that would be carried on with Pakistan’s help in some crucial areas, for instance, economic and strategic planning.
China comprehends that greater rifts in Afghanistan on ethnic and social lines would have fallout on Pakistan and vice versa. Also, in pursuing its economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot be disregarded altogether. So, China is likely to move forward in collaboration with Pakistan. However, this scenario would place India and the US on the same page and they would work jointly against China’s ambitions in Afghanistan as well as in Central Asia. The second likely scenario may benefit Pakistan comparatively greater than the first one in terms of strategic and economic stability. If China would not like social fragmentation in Afghanistan threatening its own territory, then it would not also like Pakistan falling into the economic or strategic split.
There can be an entirely different situation than the likely or expected scenarios being discussed; however, Pakistan doesn’t have many options. Even if China finds a greater role in Afghanistan, it would make its own interests supreme. Pakistan must opt for a balanced strategy to better its relations with Afghanistan and deal with the misconceptions and shortcomings of foreign policy in a rational manner. Also, the approach should be of collaboration in all important areas, including politics, economic, strategic and social because Pakistan’s security is heavily dependent on a stable Afghanistan. Pakistan would be the most affected in the wake of any socio-political instability in Afghanistan. Other countries are devising concrete diplomatic agenda to deal with a changing situation and also with different unfolding scenarios in post-US withdrawal Afghanistan. In a similar fashion, Pakistan must also devise not only a robust foreign policy but a comprehensive plan to manage its future course of relations with Afghanistan and other players mainly India, China and the US. And that requires Pakistan to reinvent its equation with Afghanistan.
The writer is an Associate Editor, JISR-MSSE, at SZABIST, Karachi.