In the changing geopolitical scenario, President Trump’s Afghanistan policy signifies tougher times for an already fallen regime.
The US urgency for an exit from this decades’ old Afghan war is being felt by the policy thinkers and onlookers though there is no working time line given by the President Trump. Determining the cost and productiveness of the troops in Afghanistan, the businessman turned President of the United States is now interested in withdrawing those troops from this costly war. The uncertainty produced in the region thus has translated into a situation where the other regional actors are responding to the reservations by aligning their own interests.
For these countries there is no uncertainty about the bottom line. The White House is looking for an exit with the shortest considerable time line. This has also been confirmed by the departure of ex-trump advisor on Afghanistan, H.R. McMaster, and the appointment of Iran and North Korea focused, John Bolton as his successor.
The US military commanders are seen moving quickly to finish the job. The situation has become so obscure that the other powers in the region — the two influentials, China, Russia and the neighboring Iran, India, and Pakistan — have started recognizing their security options, threats and opportunities once the United States fully withdraws, while minutely weighing in the limitations of the Kabul government.
The US is building up the strength of Afghan units with a re-energized air campaign and new advisory units emplaced with Afghan army battalions while the administration pushes for talks with the Taliban in order to bring a negotiated end to the conflict.
China has made it clear that it will support Afghan government-led efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Taliban – an approach which is supported by the United States. It has also signed a defense agreement with Afghanistan to build a base in northern Afghanistan and set up a trilateral contact group with Afghanistan and Pakistan to combat terrorism.
Moscow, on the other hand, has heightened cooperation between Russia and Pakistan that is empirically visible. In February of this year, Moscow appointed an honorary consul in the city of Peshawar, Pakistan. Moreover, the addition of Russian language signage in the tribal belt and even around Islamabad also reflect upon the camaraderie both the countries are enjoying. Iran’s concern about ISIS spillover beyond her boundaries can be seen as a reason behind its move to cement relation with Pakistan. In the past Iran and India have traditionally worked together at many visible times, however, as India has now moved closer to the United States and Israel, Iran has begun to take on a more adversarial tone vis-à-vis India. This became quite visible in 2017 when Iran rejected Trump’s call for greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan and criticized Indian military actions in Kashmir.
Other small non-aligned countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have joined Russia and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) thus putting their weight behind these big regional powers. Apparently, India seems to be the only odd man out in the aligning of interests in the region. It has a long and most of the time troubled relationship with both China and Pakistan having a history of hostile conflicts with both. Her relations with Iran have become more difficult in recent years as New Delhi deepened her relations with the United States. This new friendship with the US has actually dismissed the chances of allying with her long-gone love of the past, Russia also.
Russia is the dominant military partner for Central Asia while China takes the lead in economic activities. Owing to the changing US policies in Afghanistan, both the countries, for varied reasons, are concerned about the ability of the Afghan government to keep control of its territory and its capability to fully contain the radical elements without the support of US army. Besides, they also recognize the importance of the role Pakistan is playing in reigning in the militants. And this recognition has made them adopt a two track policy: providing support for the Afghan government while trying to get Pakistan on board vis-a vis the Taliban.
This is coming at a time when the United States has relegated Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict culmination strategy and blocked the military assistance funds to Islamabad on the pretext of not doing more. The inability of the Afghan government to address the prevailing security situation is having a negative impact on her economic development consequently leading the major regional powers to look for other options to stabilize the region. Moreover, India will never put her boots on the ground because she is still been haunted by her failed experience with intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Also, given the uneasy relationship with Pakistan and Iran, the geography of the region precludes an easy way to do this and Indian army is neither trained to nor have the courage to go for a war in this terrain single-handedly.
Stake holders in Afghanistan need to understand new ground realities. Any viable regional mechanism for taking on the Afghan cauldron cannot be seem possible without having Pakistan on board. Especially at a time when both Pakistan and Afghanistan are on the course of redefining mutual relations. For a peaceful and economic exit plan, the US also cannot deny that Pakistan provides unmatchable logistic routes for the foreign forces engaged in Afghan war. Routes through Pakistan are the shortest and cheapest and presently are the safest owing to the Pakistan army’s resolve to ascertain peace in the country.
Another exit option could be through aligning the SCO with US exit policy, since all the major regional powers are available under this one umbrella. Interestingly, and quite contrary to the US beliefs, the members of the SCO also trust Pakistan of being the lone brave lion to handle this menace impeccably. Better understanding of regional sensitivities will help the US to better grasp the situation in Afghanistan if she really wants to end this decades old deadly conflict.
*Ishaal Zehra is a journalist who contributes to the Pakistan News Service.