Things changed forever for Afghanistan in 1979 when the first Soviet troops entered through the then Tajik SSR (now Tajikistan). For the next decade, Afghanistan became the battleground for a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the end, the Soviets experienced their “Vietnam”, but not before the Cold War rivalry ravaged millions of lives.
But for the men and women of Afghanistan, the misery didn't end. With a weak central government, anarchy ruled the mid-90s until the Taliban took power in 1996. It took another invasion, this time by the US-led NATO forces, in the aftermath of the 9/11, to overthrow them. But, fast forward to 2018: Suicide attacks and car bombings haunt the country.
Afghanistan was a major topic of discussion at the recently-concluded Raisina Dialogue 2018 in New Delhi. And rightfully so. Strategically located at the crossroads of South and Central Asia, Afghanistan’s stability is of paramount importance for all players involved in the region: US, India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.
The problem of terrorism
Kabul has recently been rocked by multiple attacks. The recent uptick in such incidents, especially in urban centres, is alarming. Speaking with Firstpost on the condition of anonymity, a member of the Afghan administration said: “The Taliban is still prominent. The attacks are only rising as they have realised that the NATO troops will increase, and that the coalition may not leave Afghanistan.”
In August 2017, US president Donald Trump announced a troop increase in Afghanistan. That process was completed in November. While Taliban remains the obvious threat, the rise of the Islamic State is a worrying trend. For a country already facing religious extremism, this added another dimension to the ongoing War on Terror.
The official added, “We are not studying the Islamic State. We are not focusing on how we can get rid of them. We have been relying on US military to eliminate them.”
US vital to Afghanistan’s stability
While the unnamed official was supportive of the United States' presence in Afghanistan, former president Hamid Karzai, a panelist for one of the Raisina sessions, criticised the US for failing to stop the rise of the Islamic State.
But Karzai’s rather “mild rap” betrayed the fact that any debate on Afghanistan’s present or future was incomplete without accounting for the United States. Speaking at the dialogue, Karzai urged the Americans to continue helping to rebuild Afghanistan.
However, the relationship between Kabul and Washington is at best complex, thanks to the US’ historic ties with Pakistan (an adversary of Afghanistan). Karzai narrated an interesting story to describe the Afghan-Pakistan-US quandary,
“As the president, I once met several US senators and informed them about the terror sanctuaries in Pakistan. Then suddenly, one of them told me that Pakistan is 50 times more important to the US than Afghanistan.”
However, speaking to Firstpost, veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as US envoy to Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005, said the US will continue to thwart Pakistan's designs on Afghanistan.
“Since 9/11, we have been fighting against Pakistan’s plans for the Afghans. Apart from a military strategy, we have also used positive incentives to discourage Pakistan from targeting Afghanistan. We also brought Karzai and (Pervez) Musharraf to the table,” he said.
The “Pakistani plans” that Khalilzad alluded to may be Islamabad’s policy of “strategic depth”, which sought to make Afghanistan a “client state”.
Pakistan has also been successful in playing a double game by supporting the Taliban through the Haqqani Network.
But does Trump’s New Year’s Day tweet, which condemned Pakistan for providing sanctuary to terrorists and warned of cutting aid, offer new hope to 34 million Afghans?
The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
While Trump's tweet might have given some hope to Afghan watchers, past precedent of Pakistani involvement in terrorism (Read sheltering Osama bin Laden) has not deterred Washington from continuing its partnership with Islamabad.
“We have been deceived by Pakistan in the past. This must change. We need to convince them to change. If that does not happen, there are a number of steps we can take including freezing of security assistance,” said Khalilzad.
While Karzai complained about nuances of American policy, he was vocal in backing the US-led West to stay in Afghanistan.
“I am a pro-American person. We invited the US-led NATO because we believed in their ideology of freedom and democracy. We definitely need the US to stay in Afghanistan as our 'strategic partner.'”
'India is like a friend to Afghanistan'
India has pumped in more than $3.1 billion since the fall of the Taliban regime. Several Indian companies have showed interest in the untapped sectors of the Afghan economy, while the two air corridors connecting Kabul to Delhi and Mumbai as well as the opening of the Chabahar Port will boost bilateral trade.
India’s involvement with Afghanistan strengthened in September 2017, when it agreed to jointly work on 116 new "high impact" development projects in 31 provinces of Afghanistan.
In terms of optics, India has ticked all the right boxes. The inauguration of the Salma Dam and the Afghan Parliament, both built with Indian funds, as well as several showcases of soft power have created goodwill for India.
“India is like a friend to Afghanistan,” said the unnamed Afghan official when asked if Afghans perceived New Delhi acting like “big brother”. “A brother will dictate you… don’t do this and that, which is not the case with India.”
China, India’s geo-political rival, is another notable player. China’s humanitarian contribution may well be below that of India. But Beijing, betting on Kabul’s strategic location and untapped market and emerged as the biggest foreign investor after 2014. “One cannot deny the fact that China is a huge reality in Afghanistan and it is here to stay,” Karzai said.
The biggest player in Afghanistan is undoubtedly the United States, which along with its NATO and non-NATO allies, contributes the largest chunk to the global humanitarian aid, and therefore holds considerable influence. With reports of over $3 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources lying under the Afghan land — a discovery attributed to the United States — Washington isn't going anywhere, at least in the near future.
The economic opening up of Afghanistan may turn out to be the much-needed boost to fight terrorism and instability. Better economic integration may help Afghanistan shed the unwanted tag of being the biggest producer of opium and contribute positively to the global economy.
As External Affairs Minister VK Singh noted, “Afghanistan will be in trouble till the time there is no free flow of goods and services. This will improve the economy and integrate it to the rest of the world.”
Will history repeat itself?
History bears witness to Afghanistan’s strategic advantage being exploited by global powers even as it repeatedly falls prey to geo-political machinations.
In the 21st Century, the story of Afghanistan may lie somewhere between the larger tale of US decline and China’s ascendance as a dominant power in international affairs.
China, for its part, is outlining its global agenda through the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While Afghanistan is still not officially involved in the two projects, media reports claim that the Afghan government is willing to participate.
Afghanistan’s unexplored resources may quench China’s growing energy needs and its location can help it transform into a transport hub connecting South and Central Asia. However, that's easier said than done.
China’s rise clashes with Trump’s new policy for Afghanistan, which envisions a greater role for India. Which could result in two scenarios: China, the US, India and to an extent Russia, cooperating in the interest of Afghanistan’s long-term stability. Or another superpower rivalry in our backyard, not necessarily involving guns, but yet again undermining Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
Updated Date: Jan 29, 2018 17:48:04 IST