As the new prime minister in Pakistan extends the federal government’s efforts to areas that did not fully involve the previous administration, it would be appropriate to bring Afghanistan into focus. Afghanistan’s present and its future cannot — in fact, should not — be considered in isolation. The country has already deeply affected its many neighbours, Pakistan and Iran in particular. But it is not only the neighbours that have felt the impact of the happenings in Afghanistan.
India has always been involved in Afghan affairs, in part because of the long-running rivalry with Pakistan. China is taking interest in the country as a part of what analysts such as Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris in their 2016 book have called “geoeconomics.” This is the use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical goals. Beijing has assigned Afghanistan an important place in its One Belt, One Road programme of infrastructure development involving scores of countries in three continents. The Chinese are pouring in massive amounts of capital into Pakistan and Kazakhstan. Two parallel road corridors are being constructed in these two countries that would connect China’s west with central and western Asia. Through these regions, the Chinese would use land to reach Europe and Africa. When the situation in Afghanistan stabilises, there are plans to connect these east-west highways with north-south links — thus creating a well-integrated system of regional highways.
Although the United States is still engaged in determining what are its short- and long-term interests in Afghanistan, it appears those will be secondary. It will give attention to Afghanistan as a part of its policy to deal with the rapid rise of China as a global power. Russia would not like to see Afghanistan fall into the hands of Islamic extremists since that would have influence on the countries in Central Asia that were once included in the cluster of nations that made up the defunct Soviet Union. Such a development would also affect Russia’s already restive Muslim population.
How to deal with this situation was one of the questions some of us asked and tried to answer in a book, Afghanistan: The Next Phase. The book was written by three scholars, including myself, working at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies. It was published in 2015 and I presented President Ashraf Ghani a copy when I spent several hours with him in Kabul in May of that year. We suggested in the book that since the resolution of the Afghan problem would affect a number of states in the geographical space the country occupies, it might be appropriate to let a group of nations get involved in moving forward this troubled nation. The group should ideally include all the countries that border Afghanistan (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Pakistan and Iran) as well as those that have been involved in one way or the other in the country’s affairs. The latter group should include India, Russia, Turkey and the United States. This group of 10 countries, all “friends of Afghanistan”, should be mandated by the United Nations to manage the Afghan state over a specified period of time, say 10 years. After that time, the country’s affairs would be handed over to a constitutionally-created structure of governance.
This approach runs counter to the biases of the members of the current administration in Washington. While it does not favour a nation-building strategy and is inclined to leave the Afghan nation to its own devices, it is not clear how it would like to see the United States to get disengaged. There are many voices in the on-going Afghan debate in America’s capital. The Trump White House is divided between two factions with National Security Adviser H R McMaster seeking to bolster US troops there and give them greater freedom of action, Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief security adviser who has stepped down, opposes greater US involvement in Afghanistan.
Exasperated by the uncertainty this has created and noting the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Senator John McCain put forward his own proposal. “We must face facts: we are losing in Afghanistan and the time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide,” he said announcing his plan of action. “We need an integrated civil-military approach to bolster US counterterrorism efforts, strengthen the capability and capacity of the Afghan government and security forces, and intensify diplomatic efforts to facilitate a negotiated peace process in Afghanistan and cooperation with regional partners.” The McCain proposal would broaden the scope of American involvement in Afghan affairs. By including a negotiated peace process as an element in the strategy, the senator has recognised that the insurgent and surging Taliban cannot be beaten on the battlefield. They should be encouraged to become a component of Afghan society.
It is important to recognise that some of the moves aimed at the Muslim world made by the US administration under President Donald Trump have created a chain reaction that might reach the South Asian sub-continent. Afghanistan would be the conduit though which South Asia might be affected. The world around the sub-continent is churning too rapidly for the countries of the region not to be concerned. The ripples from this churning should be guarded against before they do great and irretrievable damage.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2017.
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