The Afghan Muddle

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By Jaswant Singh DELHI – Despite some last-minute brinkmanship by Afghan President Hamid Karzai,
the United States and Afghanistan seem to have worked out a bilateral security
agreement to govern the 8,000-10,000 (mostly American) troops that will remain in
Afghanistan from next year. But Afghanistan remains a source of significant
uncertainty – and high anxiety – in an already unstable region.

Although the Afghan army has performed surprisingly well this year as it has
prepared to assume full responsibility for the country’s security, governments in
the region remain deeply skeptical of its ability to resist a resurgent Taliban
without the strong support that the US has provided. But the Americans are intent on
withdrawal, and no other country is willing to assume the responsibilities that they
are relinquishing.

In this context, the fear that Afghanistan will unravel once again risks becoming a
self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, a closer look at various key governments’
approaches to Afghanistan reveals that only the US is maintaining a coherent

Pakistani policy is practically at war with itself. Since the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan has viewed the country as a source of “strategic
depth” in its decades-old enmity with India. As a result, it has been playing both
sides of the US-Taliban conflict, permitting US drone strikes against Afghan Taliban
leaders hiding in its western provinces but making little effort to confront the
Taliban on the ground. This way, the logic went, Pakistan could retain enough
influence with the Taliban to secure leverage over Afghanistan’s government.

But it is the Taliban that ultimately gained strategic depth in its Pakistan-based
guerrilla war with Afghanistan – a war that has become a serious threat to
Pakistan’s security. The Pakistani Taliban has killed hundreds of Pakistani soldiers
this year. And Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new strategy – to seek a
non-interference agreement with the Pakistani Taliban – will probably lead to even
more domestic insecurity.

Meanwhile, India has been attempting to counter-balance Pakistan’s influence with
the Taliban by providing investment, military training, aid, and other support to
the Afghan government. But this amounts to betting all of its chips on one hand, the
Afghan government – an especially risky strategy in such a volatile environment.

China’s Afghan policy also has its pitfalls. The People’s Republic has invested
billions of dollars in Afghanistan, including a $3 billion payment for rights to
mine copper at Mes Aynak. Although the Chinese have offered rhetorical support for
international forces’ anti-terror efforts in Afghanistan, they have refused even the
smallest military role. And they have provided only about $250 million in aid over
the last decade – a paltry sum, given the potential consequences of Afghan
instability for China’s $6 trillion economy.

To be sure, China claims to be upholding its doctrine of non-interference in other
countries’ domestic affairs. But, with the Afghan government asking the entire
international community for assistance, Chinese aid would not violate this
principle. Moreover, China’s hands-off policy could end up jeopardizing its
investments in Afghanistan – not to mention the security threat that would arise
were a re-empowered Taliban to provide aid or sanctuary to the increasingly Islamist
Uighur separatists in China’s Xinjiang region.

Iran’s Afghan policy has been reflexively anti-American for much of the last decade.
But back in 2001, Iran’s government, led by reformist President Mohammad Khatami,
essentially consented to the US invasion of Afghanistan, even providing discreet
assistance. Iran was scrupulous in closing its border to the Taliban – and about
detaining Taliban and Al Qaeda figures who sought refuge. Indeed, it was Iran that
first suggested that Karzai lead the newly formed Afghan government, and Khatami’s
government pledged $560 million in assistance over five years at the first donor
conference for Afghanistan in early 2002.

But US President George W. Bush’s notorious “axis of evil” speech – delivered just
days later, and citing Iran as one of America’s three most dangerous enemies –
spurred a reversal of Iranian policy. Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
repeatedly condemned the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and even
worked to obstruct their efforts.

One hopes that the recent agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear program portends a
return to a more flexible Iranian policy toward Afghanistan – essential if there is
to be a regional solution to Afghanistan’s problems. Given America’s looming
departure, such a solution is becoming increasingly urgent.

But reaching a regional consensus will not be easy, given the disparate nature and
interests of the regimes involved. Iran, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are all
dictatorships – one religious, one market-communist, and two personal. India is a
democracy, and Pakistan a wayward democracy. Nearby Russia is increasingly a
one-man-show under President Vladimir Putin, who seems intent on refighting the Cold
War with the US, rather than constructing viable strategic relationships that
reflect Russia’s diminished reality.

Nonetheless, all of these countries (perhaps with the admittedly large exception of
Pakistan) can agree on certain core objectives. First, Afghanistan must not become a
safe haven for terrorists. Mullah Mohammed Omar – the Taliban’s leader, who is
reportedly in hiding in Pakistan – must understand that if the Taliban uses any
formal political influence it gains in Afghanistan to support terrorist activities,
it will face united regional opposition.

Second, given their limited leverage, Afghanistan’s neighbors must lean hard on
countries that can influence any future Afghan government. The Gulf states, for
example, have the means to invest in building an Afghanistan that provides real
opportunities to all citizens – particularly the young men whose lack of options so
often drives them into the arms of terrorist recruiters. Realistically, however, the
potential for achieving such an outcome is limited.

Most important, Afghanistan’s neighbors must not play power politics within the
country, in the hope of gaining some slight advantage over one another. That path,
as we have seen, leads only to chaos, from which no country benefits.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense
minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence and India At
Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions And Misadventures Of Security Policy.

Project Syndicate, 2013.

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