The future of Afghanistan – towards a regional solution

Here is a video podcast I did for the Pak-China institute. The transcript follows the video.

The situation in Afghanistan, especially as its unfolding before the NATO pull-out in 2014, obviously has already started to manifest some of the key critical issues there. First of all is the problem of stability and security for the people, because it is widely expected now that if there are no basic agreements, and durable regional agreements which include Pakistan, China and India, the country may once again fall into anarchy, and with different militias and power wielders vying for space in the country. So that is a major challenge that, not just the Afghan people or Pakistan but the world is concerned about…The unfortunate part of the story is that for 30 years, Afghanistan has been in the throes of instability.

Now coming to the regional agreements, the first critical equation, or let’s say variable, is the India-Pakistan relationship. The India-Pakistan relationship, which has been turbulent and cyclical, has guided Pakistan’s view of Afghanistan at least for the last 30 years. And Pakistan’s real fear has been that its Eastern and Western borders must not have governments which are not friendly to Pakistan… This is an area where some track II work is going on, where both the countries are being urged to speak to each other and improve this situation and talk about it as to how do they perceive state relations after 2014.

The other great dimension here is the China factor. China and Pakistan enjoy a very, very old and historic friendship, and there is no question about that. Similarly, India and China have territorial disputes, they’ve even been to war in the early 60s, but over the last decade or so we’ve also seen a great thaw, particularly in the area of economic relationship and trade. India-China trade has now crossed the $60 billion mark, which means that both states are being pragmatic about their relationship, and surely when it comes to Afghanistan, China may even be willing to work, or be part of a larger regional dialogue which includes India, because it suits both the rising economies.

But how will Pakistan, India and China’s exact relationship play out in the coming months, in Afghanistan, is difficult to assess. There are two critical areas here – first is the Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which has now been viewed by some of the Indian strategists as kind of a threat, or a problem. To counter that, Indians are building a parallel port in Iran – Chabahar – and they’re investing heavily into that. Because they fear that they must have an alternative port which can access various energy needs that India also is competing for alongwith China.

The second important factor here is that China does not have any favourites in Afghanistan. China’s interests and foreign policy has always been very clear and pertains to its economic growth, its trade surplus which it enjoys with the world. China intends to build and focus more on its domestic economy and domestic population, and that’s perhaps a lesson both Pakistan and India need to learn from the big neighbour and the big economy. China does not have this or that favourite.

Pakistan, fortunately or unfortunately, has that clearly defined favourite, in the form of Taliban or other Pashtun allied groups. And now it’s been talking to Northern Alliance. India historically has been rather close and comfortable with the Northern Alliance, or the non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan, which is about 40-45% of the country, and some say even more. This policy of pitching favourites against favourites, and supporting them, needs to end. This is old world, cold war politics that must change now. Both India and Pakistan must also involve China on the table, on the negotiating table and ensure that the Afghans come up with the solution for the future of their country with these powers backing the Afghan people. That is a relationship that we need – the peoples of India, Pakistan and China must now come in support of the peoples of Afghanistan who have suffered tragically for the last thirty years.

Finally, one more important word of caution: extremist groups that operate in a couple of China’s provinces, particularly the one that borders Pakistan – Xinjiang. And it has in the past complained to Pakistan as well, officially, that there may be some rebels hiding or taking refuge in FATA, the ungoverned area of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. That is an additional dimension where a chance for further cooperation and dialogue between the regional powers is needed. Because India fears the same infiltration or spillover of the jihad industry that Pakistan once created with the US in the 1980s, China also has similar fears. And Pakistan itself, being the biggest victim of terrorism in the past decade, has a common interest. So when you have three common interests, i.e. energy and resources, economic growth and stability, and countering and combating extremism for these three countries, it is not difficult for them to come on the same table. And these are concerns which are shared by Afghan people as well. They also want stability, they also want the economy to pick up, and above all they also want extremist militias to either have a constitutional role, or not be powerful enough to destabilize the future Afghan arrangements.

This convergence of strategic and economic interests is a possibility that can shape a good regional dialogue and if you add Iran to this equation, then you have the perfect regional configuration – sitting down with their Afghan neighbour and sorting out the future. It’s time that the obsession of the West and the Western powers must give way to regional and indigenous solutions, which are emanating from within the region. I hope Pakistan will play the role of a facilitator and not revert to its old 1980s or 1990s policy of so-called strategic depth because that is obviously a notion which has failed, and has reportedly been abandoned by the Pakistani establishment.


The podcast can be viewed in its original form here.

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