By Selcuk Colakoglu
Afghanistan entered into a new process following NATO’s military intervention carried against al-Qaeda and its host, the Taliban regime, immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The purpose of NATO in this process was the construction of a stable and viable state mechanism in Afghanistan, which will be integrated to the world and which will cooperate with the international community. In these days, when the extent of the control of the central government in Afghanistan is discussed, the Taliban’s strong and effective presence in the south and west of the country is still a source of concern. Furthermore, the fact that NATO’s military mission will end in 2014 indicates an important turning point for not only NATO members but also such great powers as Russia, China, India and which are closely interested in the stability of Afghanistan. In this respect, it can be said that there is a rare consensus in international community on the construction of a stable state mechanism to prevent terrorism and international criminal organizations in Afghanistan. In this regard, several meetings where the future of Afghanistan is discussed are held under the leadership of various countries and international organizations.
Once again, the conference held in Herat, Afghanistan, by the Delhi Policy Group (DPG) and the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) on 19 to 21 October 2012, was one of them. The conference constituted the second leg of Afghanistan conference held by the DPG on 20-21 July 2012 in Jaipur, India. The purpose of the conference was to contribute to the stability of Afghanistan and prepare the ground for regional cooperation by enhancing mutual contact and interaction between Afghanistan and neighboring countries.
There is a consensus in the international community that Afghanistan should not be the center of terrorist organizations. Therefore, taking necessary economic steps and eradicating political and economic infrastructure of terror have become the common approach.
The second common problem is drug trafficking. This is also thought to be overcome by developing the economic infrastructure of Afghanistan, as is the case with terrorism.
The third common complaint is the radical religious groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Salafis. These radikal groups are considered to be destabilizing both Afghanistan and the region and to be the source of terrorism.
We can say that both regional and global actors have full agreement regarding these three main sources of unrest. However, the real dispute arises on how and by which methods these problems will be eliminated. Some countries accuse others of not giving enough support to solve the problem, even blocking solution. Regional and global actors’ attitudes towards Afghanistan can be summarized briefly as follows.
NATO is going to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2012, leaving some of the advanced tactical weapons. The Afghan army has an extremely poor air transport fleet. All the neighbors have superior military capability and economic strength than does Afghanistan. Therefore, the priority of the Afghan army will be to prevent threats from within. In this respect, Afghanistan has to cooperate with all her neighbors and great powers. The basic strategic balances have not changed in Afghanistan despite the 11-year presence of NATO. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still a major threat. According to the Afghan authorities, Pakistan is conducting a proxy war in Afghanistan via the Taliban. All the human, money and material enter via Pakistan, though the Saudis provide the money. Madrasas in Pakistan are believed to be nurturing the Taliban. The construction of the national economy is of the utmost importance. Afghanistan has to fight corruption effectively and use its economic resources efficiently.
Pakistan is the country which suffers about Afghanistan the most. For Pakistan, Afghanistan is not a commercial or political issue; it is an agenda of existential importance. The destabilization process of Pakistan began in 1980, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Salafi groups coming from Saudi Arabia in support of the Mujahedeen in that time are said to have created instability. Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan are said to break poor family children off their families and subject them to brainwashing with the promise to aid the families and meet all the costs of training. Especially poor families with many children in rural areas of Pakistan relieve themselves financially by giving some of the children to madrassas and they think they save children’s lives as well. Suicide bombers and armed militants come from the children taken off families.
Before September 11, Pakistan was trying to convince the Taliban regime to break the link with al-Qaeda but did not succeed. Pakistanis say Pakistan has no common interest with the Taliban regime. Pakistanis claim that they try to make as much contact as possible with the Afghan officials, but their efforts are not met by the Afghan. They say that Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups target the Pakistani state and society, and even organize attacks on the largest land, air and sea bases. They also say Pashtunistan idea spreads mostly from Afghanistan. Pakistanis believe that civil war in Afghanistan seems inevitable after 2012 if the Taliban is not included in the system. Pakistan, together with Iran, is also a country that carries the burden of the Afghan refugees. More than one million refugees have been living in Pakistan since the 1980s. Exactly how many Afghan refugees live in Pakistan is not known as the country cannot carry out border controls effectively.
Iran, the neighboring country, is also one of the countries having impact on the future of Afghanistan. In Iran, there are over a million Afghan refugees, many of whom entered the country illegally. From the point of Iranians, terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking originating from Afghanistan are a major threat. Another important issue for Iran is ending the occupation in Afghanistan. The Iranians see post-2001 NATO intervention as a foreign occupation, as the 1980 Soviet invasion and demand the immediate ending of the American occupation under the name of NATO. However, the Iranians say they can negotiate and cooperate with the Americans for Afghanistan as they did it for Iraq.
In terms of language and culture, Iran has an advantageous position for influence over Afghanistan. But because of Shia solidarity carried out over Hazaras, Tehran seems to have not used the chance to establish good relations with all groups in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a reaction in particular against Iran and Pakistan. Iran is claimed to have tried to put pressure on Afghanistan and politicize the Shiite Hazaras.
Central Asian Countries
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have almost identical policies on Afghanistan. Central Asian countries want Afghanistan to restore its political stability as soon as possible and be a center of attraction by trade routes and pipelines. Afghanistan-based drug trafficking and radical organizations deeply affect the stability of the Central Asian countries. Salafi groups open to Central Asia through Afghanistan. Even Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which do not have a direct border with Afghanistan are uncomfortable with radical religious movements.
Russia is one of the biggest victims of the narcotic produced in Afghanistan. The country immediately wants to put an end to the drug traffic directly affecting the Russian youth. Moscow is also concerned about the Salafi groups supported by the Taliban gaining influence among Muslim peoples of the Russian Federation. The Russians state that they want to come to terms with all the actors on Afghanistan, but that they will not accept the impositions of especially Western countries. Therefore, it can be assumed that Russia will support all kinds of roles the international community play in Afghanistan, subject to take her prior consent.
India is both a regional and global actor seeking influence on Afghanistan. India wants to provide support especially for the development of Afghanistan economy. New Delhi proposes Kabul to be a trade bridge between Central Asia and South Asia, thus revitalization of historical Silk Road. She also wishes the Caspian energy resources to reach South Asia through Afghanistan. New Delhi also intends to support the process of national understanding in Afghanistan. The Indians think their own multiculturalism and democracy can be a model for the future of Afghanistan.
The biggest handicap of India, which has not a direct border with Afghanistan, is that she has to agree with Pakistan in this regard. The fate of New Delhi’s economic and trade relations to be developed with Kabul depends on the logistical support to be provided by Islamabad. In this respect, Pakistan is India’s only door opening to Central Asia. Being aware of this situation, India is trying to take into account sensitivities of Pakistan while improving relations with Afghanistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, claims that India tries to encircle herself through Afghanistan and that India has a large number of activities of politics and intelligence in nature in Afghanistan.
Americans say U.S. forces will completely withdraw from Afghanistan together with NATO forces in 2014 and that they do not think of leaving a permanent military base in the country. In fact, not only the Afghans but also many global and regional actors are concerned about the fact that the American troops providing security in Afghanistan since 2001 will withdraw from the country. Whether the Afghan army is capable of maintaining its integrity to fight the Taliban is a matter of discussion. In addition, there are other important considerations relating to the extent of national consolidation in Afghanistan and how to avoid the breakout of a civil war between the groups in the country. Americans are hopeful about the future of Afghanistan in general, and think that the Afghan government and the army have the capacity to protect the integrity and stability of the country.
Turkey, along with Japan and Germany, is among the countries which are most favored to assume mission in Afghanistan. It is understandable that these three countries, which do not have direct border with Afghanistan and which are geographically too far from the region, are met with sympathy by the Afghans. The fact that Turkey is a Muslim country even puts it slightly forward than Japan and Germany. The Turkish modernization led by Ataturk is considered by the Afghans as a success story. Turkey with its developed and democratic structure is presented by the West as a model in the region to Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. Turkey’s taking an active role within the ISAF has always been encouraged by the Afghans and NATO members. Afghan officials state that Hikmet Cetin conducted the task of NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative very successfully in 2004-2006 in Afghanistan. In addition, Afghan initiatives within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have been started under the leadership of Turkey.
Furthermore, active involvement of the Turkish companies in construction, mining and manufacturing sectors in Afghanistan is reacted positively by many actors as well as Afghans. The Afghan-Turkish schools operating in different cities of Afghanistan are considered by the Afghans the most successful schools in the country. Afghan authorities consider the fact that these schools are open to all ethnic and religious groups as an opportunity for the development of multiculturalism in the country.
However, compared to Germany and Japan, Turkey has some handicaps in Afghanistan. Turkey’s traditionally good relation with Pakistan is approached with suspicion in Afghanistan. Afghans state that Turkey, from time to time, adopts a stance favoring Pakistan’s position regarding Afghanistan. Turkish sympathy with both Afghanistan and Pakistan is not enough to fix the Af-Pak relations directly. In this respect, Ankara needs to develop an independent relationship without any preference between Islamabad and Kabul. Otherwise, Ankara may lose one or both when trying to fix relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan in good faith.
Another concern by the Afghans regarding Turkey is that Ankara suggests talks with the Taliban to ensure national consolidation in Afghanistan. Afghan officials still consider the Taliban as a terrorist organization and think that the Taliban has control over the Afghan people by force of arms. Thus they claim that the fact that countries such as Turkey address the Taliban increases the legitimacy of the Taliban on the Afghan people and undermine the strength of the central government in Kabul.
Certainly, China is one of the most important countries on Afghanistan. I cannot convey China’s approach as there was no Chinese participants in the conference.
Is Permanent Stability Possible?
The questions of how to set up a stable government mechanism in Afghanistan and how it could contribute to regional co-operation were discussed throughout the conference. All regional and global actors agreed in the conference on the continuation of the existence of Afghanistan as a stable and integrated country. However, there seems confusion over the issue of how to accomplish the job. All actors have a road map of their own. Reaching a common roadmap does not seem possible for the time being.
USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies