Could a new geometry emerge in Afghanistan - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 27 Nov 2014 1 Comment

Prospect of Stability through Regional Cooperation: Since 2012, when the United States and NATO announced their intent to pull the bulk of their troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Afghanistan watchers have been in a quandary as to what the immediate and middle-term future would hold for that country. The end of Hamid Karzais presidency and the emergence of a fractured Afghan leadership under President Ashraf Ghani Amadzai and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, following a long and bitter presidential contest between the two, did little to boost observers confidence.


Concerns were expressed about whether Kabul would be able to put the rocking boat back on an even keel once the foreigners leave the scene. The re-emergence in recent months of violent activities carried out by various anti-Kabul elements, the Taliban or Pakistan-controlled Haqqanis, and others has deepened these concerns. This new spate of violence naturally evoked hidden fears that the organized insurgents within Afghanistan, aided by some outside players, have been re-activated and they may once again drag the country into yet another bitter and violent period of civil war.


Rays of Hope


At the same time, however, the almost parallel occurrence of a series of significant events in the region seems to have opened up new possibilities. Looking further, it seems the changes that those events promise to bring about in the region could very well have a lasting positive impact on Afghanistans future stability and security. Among those events, by far the most notable is the declared commitment of the three most important powers in the Eurasian region - Russia, China and India - to seek ways toward establishing stability in the new Afghanistan.


What is refreshing to note is that this statement of commitment by the Big Three, made last July when the heads of state shared a public forum at the BRICS summit in Brazil, was not just a routine statement issued by their respective foreign ministry spokespersons in response to a media query. The statements were issued by each head of state on behalf of powerful organizations in which all three have a stake. Afghanistans geographical location has clearly evoked significant economic interest on the part of these three countries, and that could very well lead to a hands-on approach by Russia, India and China to stabilize the country as Western forces depart.


The threes approach is entirely different from the Wests 13 years of failed efforts to fight the enemies, without defining who, really, these enemies were. The glass gets foggier when one notices that the Wests allies in this misadventure have included those such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Britain, who were openly, or covertly, involved in perpetuating the instability and fragmentation in Afghanistan.


Since the Heads of State meeting of the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) group of nations in Fortaleza, Brazil, in mid-July, BRICS as a group has emerged as a vibrant power bloc, both economically and militarily, and is seemingly ready to assume responsibility for a landmass that stretches from the Middle East to Far East Asia. Afghanistans location makes it the hub that connects the Middle East and South and Central Asia.


At the Fortaleza summit, the declaration signed on by all five heads of state made stability and security in Afghanistan one of the groups major tasks in the near future. The declaration stated: We also reaffirm our commitment to support Afghanistans emergence as a peaceful, stable and democratic state, free of terrorism and extremism, and underscore the need for more effective regional and international cooperation for the stabilization of Afghanistan, including by combating terrorism. We extend support to the efforts aimed at combating illicit traffic in opiates originating in Afghanistan within the framework of the Paris Pact. We expect a broad-based and inclusive peace process in Afghanistan which is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.




That declaration is relevant because the BRICS group has developed economic muscle and has lately exhibited the dynamism to bring smaller Asian, African and South Asian nations closer to its fold, with a few others getting ready to join the five nation group. BRICS has made it evident to the nonbelievers that a new economic world order is, indeed, emerging. In addition to BRICS, two other Eurasia-based groups have also adjusted their antennae toward Afghanistan: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).


Heads of state of the SCO, which presently has six member nations - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - and is expected to add India, Pakistan and Mongolia to full-member status in 2015, met in September in Tashkent for their 14th annual summit. At the meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged member nations to take it as our own responsibility  to safeguard regional security and stability, enhance our ability to maintain stability, continue to boost cooperation on law enforcement and security, and improve the existing cooperation mechanisms (Chinese president proposes anti-extremism treaty, urges joint efforts to combat internet terrorism, Xinhuanet:, Sept. 12). 


In Moscow, addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Russia-led military-political bloc, CSTO, on Nov. 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin assured the Afghan people that they can count on Russia if things become turbulent following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops. Said Putin, as quoted by TASS: We understand that the withdrawal of the international military contingent will not make the situation easier. But in case of necessity we will be ready to lend our friends in Afghanistan a shoulder to lean on in order to keep the situation in this country stable and with perspectives of development. CSTO consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia, with Afghanistan and Serbia holding observer status in the group. 


In October, according to an Oct. 23 report by Indias Express News Service, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Afghanistan, calling on President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, as well as meeting with his counterpart, Hanif Atmar. Doval was accompanied by Indias deputy national security advisor and senior officials from the Prime Ministers Office and Ministry of External Affairs.


Another neighbour that wields substantial clout within Afghanistan is Iran. And Tehran has also made formal moves to develop direct contact with Afghanistans new administration and address the security issues. In late October, the official site of the President of The Islamic Republic of Iran reported a telephone conversation between the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Ghani. The website noted that President Rouhani made clear to President Ghani that provision of security is, of course, the top priority of the Afghan national unity government, but regional cooperation is the main way for encountering terrorism and tribal and ethnic extremism. Acknowledging Rouhanis concerns, Ghani told the Iranian president that extremism and terrorism are very important threats, and we need to act against them gaining assistance from each other and other countries.


President Ghani has also attracted the attention of Afghanistans dicey neighbour, Pakistan, who continues to meddle in Afghan affairs. Pakistani officials, including national security and foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif and the new head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, have visited Afghanistan. According to Fox News, Pakistani defense analyst Talat Masood said the message from Pakistan is very clear: Pakistans political leadership and military establishment are on the same page; they want a stable Afghanistan. Subsequently, President Ghani visited Pakistan and met with both the Army Chief and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.


Afghanistan: Internal Changes


Apart from those developments of significance, there are other factors that add to optimism about Afghanistans future. With the help of the United States and NATO, the Karzai administration has organized the 200,000-plus Afghan National Army (ANA), which has been trained to take on the insurgents. How effective the ANA is in fighting the insurgents over the long haul, if the situation necessitates, will be found out in the future, but it has fared reasonably well so far, most analysts claim. In addition, while the bulk of US and NATO troops will be moving out by the end of this year, almost 22,000 foreign troops will remain in Afghanistan. How long they will stay is not known. Washington says its 9,800 troops will be there till the end of 2016. In other words, it is fair to assume that Afghanistan will have a reasonable first line of defense to take out one adventurer or the other after the majority of foreign troops withdraw.


Additionally, on Nov 21, US President has authorized air support to the Afghan troops in 2015 and its mission during its post-2014 stay will not remain confined to advise and assist the Afghan troops, as was stated earlier. This is a big shift, which has been welcomed by the ANA, and it could lead to the American troops getting directly engaged once more in battles against various insurgents.


It is evident also that the NATO will continue to have a significance presence in Afghanistan. BBC News reported on Nov 22, 2014 that under a separate agreement, a number of NATO members - including Germany, Turkey, Italy - will contribute to a 12,000-strong force that will train and assist Afghanistans security forces.


What is evident from these recent developments is that the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014 will take place in an environment that is entirely different from the situation that prevailed in 1989. In 1989, the United States had virtually abandoned Afghanistan after having helped to assemble and organize inside Afghanistan a large number of fractious and genocidal mujahideen, many of whom were outright terrorists. All of that was done under the pretext of protecting the free and democratic world and pushing the Godless, totalitarian Bolshevik military back to Russia. Having accomplished that task, those terrorist groups, clamoring to seek power in Kabul, were handed over to Pakistan, ruled by a military dictator who saw the US abandonment of Afghanistan as mannah from heaven for Islamabad to extend its geopolitical influence over Kabul by unleashing yet another brutal proxy war. The mess that followed, and engulfed both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is history.


For nearly 40 years, from 1979 to 2014, Afghanistan has been a stage where the Western powers first engaged in a proxy war against Russia using their handmaiden mujahideen and, later, with thousands and thousands of boots on the ground, ensconced themselves in the country itself, with the stated intent to eradicate the terrorists that they had created and nurtured in the first place. A few in the Western geopolitical community noted that the involvement in Afghanistan seemed to go beyond the aim of eradicating the al-Qaeda terrorists to further undermine Irans interest and thus secure a firm foothold in Central Asia, which, at that point, was considered an area that Russia would like to dominate. But, broadly speaking, the two specific objectives of the West over its 35 years of meddling and bloodshed in Afghanistan were: Get the Red Army out; and, later, eliminate the al-Qaeda terrorists who had threatened the West with their brand of terrorism.


Fortunately, in 2014 the picture has changed significantly. The West has withered economically and its credibility is in tatters as a result of involvement in a series of failed wars and the presence of mediocre leaders at the helm. By contrast, during the period the United States and NATO were engaged in Afghanistan, achieving little at great cost, the three most populous countries in the region, China, India and Russia, have grown economically and militarily. These three have also found a common interest in stabilizing Afghanistan, and they are now apparently willing to put that to test. This explains why the Chinese, Russians, Indians and Iranians are eager to participate with the Ghani-Abdullah administration in the post–troop withdrawal phase.


Their common interest in Afghanistan centers on the countrys security. Without making Afghanistan secure, it cannot be made stable is the view of all three countries. Each nation also has economic interests in stabilizing Afghanistan, but these different interests all focus on establishing a stable Afghanistan.


Russia, China, India


First, take the case of Russia. It is evident that Russia is not quite sure of what Afghans reaction might be should it choose to be physically present in the country. Because of its role during the 1980s, Russia may not be able to participate directly in helping develop Afghanistans infrastructure or build up its industrial capabilities. But what Russia would like to accomplish immediately is to eliminate Afghanistans huge opium industry. The explosion of opium/heroin under the watchful eyes of hundreds of thousands of Western troops not only posed a major security threat to Afghanistan itself; it also endangered the region as a whole. Whether the opium explosion was, indeed, a part of Western strategy to undermine the regions security is questioned by many; but what is certain is that it has adversely affected Russia most severely. Afghan opium/heroin has flooded parts of Russia contiguous to Central Asia, turning more than 1.5 million youths into addicts. Afghan drugs have also become a major source of income for various secessionist terrorists, such as the Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingushetians, et al., operating within and trying to secede from Russia to become part of the mythical Islamic Caliphate.


In addition, heroin trafficking through the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan has deeply affected these countries, as well. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these newly-independent republics, governed by strongmen who were once part of the Soviet apparatus, have gone through political and social turmoil. In the early 1990s, Tajikistan even endured a civil war. In the subsequent years, the pro-democracy crowd from the West, led by pro-drug legalization baron George Soros, has made these countries highly vulnerable, trying to oust the political leaders, accusing them of totalitarianism a la the Soviet Union.


With the help of drug money, some of the Central Asians have coalesced to oppose the ruling authorities. The process has been exploited by the pro-Islamist Takfiri groups, who have joined these democracy-seeking opponents. Besides the Afghan drug-generated money, these terrorist groups have been funded by Saudi Arabia and were armed and trained by the Pakistani military. Many Western analysts label these anti-Russia Takfirs as freedom fighters seeking liberation from oppressive rulers.  


Over the years, this development has unnerved Russia. Besides the drugs, the funneling of terrorists into Central Asia after they were trained along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, and their linking-up with the Islamists in Chechen, Dagestan, Ingushetia, et al., seeking secession from Russia, has long been one of Moscows  major concerns. In addition, Central Asia is an energy-rich area, and it is situated contiguous to Russia. Russia would like the area to be trouble-free in order to create the right conditions for developing these energy sources and distributing oil and gas within and beyond the region.


While Russia has long been expressing its concerns about Afghanistans instability, China -  currently the most dynamic nation in the world with $3.9 trillion in reserves - has begun to show  interest in post–troop withdrawal Afghanistan. In late October, President Ghani went to China on a four-day (Oct. 28-31) visit, his first official visit abroad since he was declared president. What is to be noted is that during the 13 years (2002-2014) of foreign troops stay in Afghanistan, China chose to remain a minor player. During this period China contributed about $250 million, about 10 percent of what India has contributed to the counterterrorist project in Afghanistan.


During President Ghanis visit, China committed a moderate sum of $327 million to Afghanistan through to 2017 and promised to help train 3,000 Afghan professionals over the next five years. Of major significance, however, is the Chinese agreement to open the Wakhan corridor that links Afghanistan to China through a thin and rugged terrain connecting Badakhshan province of Afghanistan to Chinas Xinjiang province. Over the years, Afghanistan had repeatedly requested China to open this corridor; but the Chinese, ostensibly concerned about drug smugglers and terrorists using the corridor to rev up the Uighur secessionists in Xinjiang province, had turned down those requests.


Following President Ghanis visit to China, however, Afghanistans Tolo News reported on Nov. 4 that Afghan officials have announced the impending visit by a delegation of Chinese officials to begin the planning process for construction of a trade and transit route connecting Afghanistan to China through the northeastern Wakhan corridor. The Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) has pointed to Chinas interest in investing in mining, agriculture, infrastructure, banking, energy and trade in Afghanistan, the news report said.


Chinas new silk road project, enjoying a boost following President Xi Jinpings rise to power in 2013, has clearly put Afghanistan in its focus. China had paid $3 billion to open the Aynak copper mine some 180 km west of Kabul, but had to abandon work on the project due to the lack of infrastructure and security. China is now ready to revive that project. Moreover, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has a contract to extract oil in the Amu Darya oilfield along Afghanistans border with Turkmenistan. Disputes between Afghan authorities and Chinese contractors over costs have held up this project, as well. It is likely China will give both of these projects a push once the bulk of the US and NATO troops withdraw and Kabul gets full control of the governance of the country. 


India, the other member in the Big Three, invested heavily in Afghanistan from 2002, following the ouster of the Taliban, to 2014. New Delhi has disbursed upwards of $2 billion worth of effective assistance to Afghanistan. India has built a number of major infrastructure projects to help connect Afghanistan internally and with the region, facilitating cross-border transit, trade and investment. It has also made investments in rural community projects in the interior of Afghanistan.


Currently, a consortium of Indian companies led by the Steel Authority of India Ltd. (SAIL) is in the process of renegotiating the terms of an iron ore deal in Afghanistan worth up to $10.8 billion, media reports indicate. The Hajigak iron ore mine is located in mountainous Bamiyan. In August, announcing the agencys second-quarter results, SAIL Chairman CS Verma went on record saying the consortium had not yet signed a final deal. Conditions are quite difficult, he added, referring to security problems and a lack of infrastructure in the area.


Indias keenness to participate in Afghanistans development stems partly from wanting to make it a secure nation. In October 2011, the governments of Afghanistan and India strengthened their ties by signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement. It is of great significance because it was the first time that Afghanistan had signed such an agreement with any regional power. According to observers, following the withdrawal of bulk of US and NATO troops, India will establish stronger security and defense cooperation, as the recent visit of its national security advisor suggests. Such cooperation will focus on addressing Afghanistans dire need for long-term military training and equipment.     

(To be continued…)

(To be continued…)

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