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A grand chessboard: Afghanistan and the regional powers

November 04, 2011 16:44 IST

Regional rivalries will only intensify if the perception gains ground that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. India will have to ensure that it does not lose out as in the past as new realities emerge in the region, says Harsh V Pant.

As the NATO-led western military forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, all major regional players and global powers are struggling to come to terms with the aftermath. Istanbul was the latest venue where 12 regional states and the Afghan government came together earlier this week to make another effort at trying to bring some semblance of security and stability to Afghanistan and its surrounding region. A broader international gathering on Afghanistan will be held in Bonn next month, followed by a NATO summit in May in Chicago to assess the ground realities and political progress in Afghanistan.

Regional cooperation was declared at the Istanbul conference as the only viable alternative to the festering regional tensions that have plagued Afghanistan for decades. Various South and Central Asian governments present in Istanbul suggested that they recognised that Afghanistan's problems of terrorism, narcotics trafficking and corruption affected them all and had to be addressed through cooperative efforts.

They adopted the Istanbul Protocol that commits countries as diverse as China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Russia to cooperate in countering terrorism, drug trafficking and insurgency in Afghanistan and in the neighbouring areas. In this context, Afghanistan's traditionally divisive neighbours have pledged to support its efforts to reconcile with insurgent groups and to work together on joint security and economic initiatives to build long-term Afghan stability.

The Istanbul effort has been touted as a regional endeavour to solve a major regional issue and the very fact that some many regional states came together to at least articulate a policy response is indeed a step in the right direction. But as the vision has been laid out in Istanbul, the practical difficulties in implementing the goals outlined remain as stark as ever. The differences among the participating states are strong enough to derail the rhetoric that emerged out the conference.

The role of the US looms particularly large over the future of Afghanistan. Though the US was not mentioned in the declaration, it did attend the conference, as a supporter not as a primary participant. The presence of the US was necessary. After all, this is the country spends more than $10 billion a month in Afghanistan and has nearly 100,000 troops there. Given its reluctance to maintain its military presence ion Afghanistan beyond 2014, the Barack Obama administration has already heavily promoted the meeting as part of a process that it anticipates will set conditions allowing all U.S. and NATO combat troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The US has reached out to regional powers in order to bring them into Afghanistan more substantively. Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, was recently in India and China, and held talks with governments in Beijing and New Delhi to assess the role these countries can play in
bringing long-term peace to the country.

Meanwhile, regional power struggle continues. Turkey made a public effort to try to mediate differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a result of this, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari agreed to a joint inquiry into the assassination last month of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was in charge of negotiations with the Taliban as head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Rabbani's slaying was part of a series of high-profile attacks in recent months that Afghanistan and the United States charge have been carried out by Pakistan-based Afghan insurgents. It remains to be seen if this would lead to normalisation of ties between Islamabad and Kabul.

India's participation this year was significant as it was kept out at the behest of Pakistan from the Istanbul conference last year. India has  growing stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan and the recent India-Afghan strategic partnership agreement underlines India's commitment to the ensure that a positive momentum in Delhi-Kabul ties is maintained. Reports that the Obama administration is relying on ISI to help organise and kick-start reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan despite accusing the disgraced spy agency of secretly supporting the Haqqani terrorist network, which has mounted sustained attacks on western and Indian targets should be worrying.

The ISI has little interest in bringing the Haqqanis to the negotiating table as they continue to view the insurgents as their best bet for maintaining influence in Afghanistan as the United States reduces its presence there.

Other regional players have their own interests in the future of Afghanistan. Iran opposes any long-term American presence in Afghanistan under a security agreement being negotiated between Washington and Kabul that would follow the 2014 combat withdrawal. Russia wants to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't become the source of Islamist instability that can be transported to its territories via other Central Asian states.

China wants to preserve its growing economic profile in Afghanistan but is not interested in making significant political investment at the moment. It can also rely on its 'all weather' friend in Pakistan to meet its interests in Af-Pak.

Conflicting interests over Afghanistan have tended to play a pivotal role in the formation of foreign policies of regional powers vis-à-vis each other and that continues to be the case even today. Afghanistan's predicament is a difficult one. It would like to enhance its links with its neighbouring states so as to gain the economic advantages and tackle common threats to regional security. Yet, such interactions also leave it open to becoming a theatre for the neighbouring states where they can play out their regional rivalries.

Peace and stability will continue to elude Afghanistan so long as its neighbours continue to view it through the lens of their regional rivalries and as a chessboard for enhancing their regional power and influence.

And these regional rivalries will only intensify if the perception gains ground that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. India will have to ensure that it does not lose out as in the past as new realities emerge in the region.

Harsh V Pant