The protracted conflict in Afghanistan has caused not only misery and suffering for Afghans across the country but has gravely impacted the socio-economic landscape of the whole region.
The menace of drugs and arms trafficking; evolution and growth of a cluster of militant outfits; non-state actors at work everywhere; and the rise of Daesh are some of the consequences of a destabilised Afghanistan.
The emergence of Daesh in particular has caused widespread alarm in neighbouring countries. That was the reason Russia and China began to develop an understanding with the Taliban. Both countries were convinced that without an inclusive government, of which Taliban would be a major component, it would not be possible to check the penetration of Daesh into their territories with large Muslim population.
Both Moscow and Beijing are now of this firm conviction that the American experiment in Afghanistan has failed. Undoubtedly, there would be detailed analysis of the causes of failure and whether the US invasion or occupation was really warranted and whether the intervention delivered any of the goals that were set by the policymakers in Washington.
At the same time, they would expect the Taliban to convert their movement into a political organisation clearly stating goals and policies and inculcate a culture of collective decision-making that is the hallmark of pluralism and democracy.
But China has other concerns too. The movement for Islamisation in the Uyghur community is worrying the rulers in Beijing. However, in the context of Uyghur movement for autonomy, the Taliban are not regarded as posing any threat or challenge because they have very little to do with the Pan-Islamic movements, beyond the confines of Afghanistan. There is a strong belief that the Taliban would not provide any covert help to any Islamic movement in regional countries and would focus on rehabilitation and reconstruction of their war-torn country.
An important factor in the Chinese approach to Afghanistan’s peace endeavours is its deep concern for the success of the Belt and Road initiative. With an Afghanistan in total disarray and lawlessness spreading to the bordering countries, the Belt and Road Project would not deliver the desired results, and CPEC, which is Pakistan’s segment of the project, would not transform the area. Chinese investment in Afghanistan has long-term goals. And Beijing has heavy involvement in minerals, particularly copper mining in Logar province. Up north, it is investing in gas and petroleum. All this investment would only deliver the economic benefits if normalcy were to return to Afghanistan.
An important neighbour is Iran. Afghanistan and Iran have long history of close contacts spanning over centuries. Iran has deep concerns about militancy creeping into its territory. The problem of drugs being exported through clandestine channels to Iran has resulted in a significant rise in the number of heroin addicts. Iran would support any effort that could end the cycle of violence and fighting in Afghanistan. Only a government in Kabul which has the support of the people and which is strong enough to deal with warlords and drug barons could restore stability to Iran’s eastern border. In addition, Iran would be comfortable only with an Afghan government that is seen as independent in formulating its internal and external policies without any outside influence. In other words, Iran would not acquiesce in a situation where either the US or any other regional country has a role in shaping policies in Afghanistan.
The three Central Asian countries which share common border with Afghanistan, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have similar concerns: Islamic movements receiving political and moral support from Afghanistan. If Afghanistan’s insurgency does not abate soon, the threat of non-state actors crossing borders would pose an imminent threat. Since there are ethnic and religious bonds connecting the people on both sides of the border, the danger of nexus between like minded extremists would assume dangerous proportions.
At the same time, these Central Asian Republics would not be happy with a government in Kabul that is dominated by hardcore fundamentalists. But the important thing is that the Central Asian countries would continue to maintain cordial relations with Kabul regardless of the nature of the regime because Afghanistan is a road-bridge to South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan have been, for most part, a rollercoaster ride. But while Pakistan needs Afghanistan for access into the resource-rich Central Asia, the latter needs the former for access to the sea. Because Pakistan has had very extensive contacts with all Afghan groups, factions, and parties during and after the war against Soviet Union’s occupation, inevitably misperceptions about Islamabad’s goals have taken roots in the minds of many Afghans.
Pakistan’s support for the Taliban government though based on erroneous assumptions in 1996-2001 was another factor causing doubts about Islamabad’s intentions. Since the US intervention in late 2001, Pakistan has been providing help to the US-Nato mission in a range of sectors. But after 17 years of fighting, the quest for an elusive peace continues as the country faces a Taliban offensive that does not seem to have lost any vigour or vitality despite having suffered unquantifiable losses all these years. Unfortunately, some in Pakistan are under the illusion that with improved ties between Kabul and Islamabad, and more exchange of visits, the situation would begin to improve. That shows how awfully some people in authority are overlooking the ground realities. The 17-year-long war should make it clear to the policymakers that the principal reason for the conflict in Afghanistan is the presence of foreign forces. Unless this issue is resolved and conditions created for all foreign forces to leave, insurgency will continue. This reality must be acknowledged by Pakistan’s policymakers too.
Unsurprisingly, Islamabad has been more focused on restricting India’s role rather than seeking to promote reconciliation in Afghanistan. This India-centric approach has caused problems. It has come in the way of Islamabad pursuing any workable agenda for ending the conflict.
Pakistan’s unwillingness to allow two-way trade between Afghanistan and India through its territory has created anger and bitterness in Afghanistan. Both Kabul and Delhi were forced to explore other options. The result was Chabahar — the Iranian port that would be a conduit for trade between India and Afghanistan.
Transit trade through Pakistan would not only have generated revenue but would also have made both India and Afghanistan more dependent on Pakistan. The latter’s leverage would have increased enormously.
Afghanistan should not be a battleground for proxy warfare. Both India and Pakistan must begin to explore avenues for cooperation in Afghanistan. Regional countries must create an environment for the US to pull out all its troops within a time frame. The insurgency will abate only when foreign forces have left the country.
Reconciliation would mean steps that could lead to the formation of a multi-ethnic, broad-based government that includes the Taliban.
Defeating Daesh should be a priority. A long-and short-term plan for Afghanistan’s reconstruction needs to be formulated. Special attention should be paid to exploring the country’s huge mineral potential.
Regional countries must commit not to extend covert help to any group, faction or party.
With this framework, there would be hope for resolving the long conflict and putting Afghanistan on sustainable trajectory to peace, progress and prosperity.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2019.
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