Forthcoming transition in Afghanistan: what lies beyond?
Aggravated conflict in Afghanistan would tie down the regional powers in the affairs of the troubled nation, which won’t be good for anyone, for such engagement is certain to provoke regional competition for influence in Afghanistan and result in proxy war. That is a perfect recipe for further bloodletting and sufferings of the poor Afghan population, writes Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury
AFGHANISTAN will enter a new era in its journey as a state with the withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led International Security Assistance Force. After more than a decade of ‘assistance’ from the US-led coalition and development partners, it is to be seen whether the country can move forward mostly on its own, although there would still be a smaller NATO force left behind in the country to train and assist the Afghan National Security Force and perhaps to have some military check and balance. But the developmental funds are certain to flow in Afghanistan as long as the existing system works.
It has been observed in the past couple of decades that Islamist extremism and terrorism don’t remain confined within any geographical boundary because of the very fact that, by default, the Islamist radicals have a self-constructed yet established worldview of their own in which they dream of recreating a perceived puritan domain of theocracy. Therefore, they encourage similar developments like their own elsewhere and train and indoctrinate the willing, where necessary. Again many of their co-believers in a different region get encouraged and emboldened seeing radicalisation elsewhere and attempt to emulate the same in their own domains. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance functioned exactly the same way, externally in places where they didn’t have their own direct cells. In many countries, they had their own cells, of course.
But actions of the ISAF, Afghan development partners, Karzai establishment and its ANSF for the past one decade at marginalising the Taliban and annihilation of al-Qaeda have turned the tide to some extent and created a scenario of uncertainty, of hopes and danger. Good or bad is now contingent to turn of events in Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the ISAF hands over all the responsibilities to the Afghan government and the ANSF. It is very likely that a degree of fluidity would prevail for a period of time after the departure of the ISAF before things shape up. The Taliban won’t have any easy run either. The Karzai establishment has many advantages over what the Nazibullah regime had in the 1990s when the Russian retreated.
Karzai and the Americans had been trying to bring the Taliban to the political fold with the implicit understanding that they won’t harbour terrorism anymore. Despite signs like opening political office in Qatar, the Taliban hasn’t yet committed to anything concrete. They are probably weighting their options considering the political benefits they would get and political cost of compromise of angering inside hardliners and of public perception of their weaknesses. But nothing looks off the table as of now and the Taliban strategy is yet to be crystallised. The relatively independent nature of the Taliban indicates that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s actual influence on them may not be as strong as perceived.
Some degree of Taliban metamorphosis towards peace and their incorporation in the political fold could bring about peace in near future. Much would depend on some lasting rationalisation of their volatile political dispensation. Their sustained transformation towards progression would mean long term peace in Afghanistan. In such event, the other potential of that barren country could be cultivated and enhanced regional and trans-regional prospects explored.
In a peace situation, Afghans can utilise the advantage of their geographical centrality among the regions of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. The country can become a trans-regional communication hub connecting countries of all these regions including western China. Central Asian states can also access sea and use ports like Karachi, Gwadar, through Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan can also connect energy starving south Asia to central Asian oil and gas pipeline. This may well expand as far as Siberia, the energy depository of one of world’s leading energy extractor Russia. A peaceful Afghanistan could also be a tourist destination with all its historical places, its ethnic and Pashtun culture.
A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is vital for Pakistan’s stability. Cross-border mobility between these two countries is an old practice and therefore Afghan troubles easily seep into Pakistan. There is the presence of Pashtun tribes in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or the erstwhile North Western Frontier Province and also a large number of ethnic Pashtun elsewhere in Karachi and to a lesser number in other parts. Apart from that, there are, all over Pakistan, Taliban-al-Qaeda sympathizers and those who get inspiration from Taliban-Al Qaida, mostly Sunni fanatics are linked to them materially. Despite their absence or poor performance in the mainstream politics, these groups appear to hold Pakistani state captive with extreme tools like terrorist bombings, targeted shooting, suicide bombings, etc. Although the Afghan Taliban were created through ISI patronage and there are still inside sympathisers in Pakistani security and intelligence agencies, their relation with Pakistani establishments soured a lot with Pakistan tacitly siding with the US led alliance in this Afghan war. The Taliban-al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan would simply invigorate these elements who are already in a kind of conflict with Pakistani state. In a worst case scenario, if Afghanistan falls into Taliban hands again, then it might well turn into a state sponsored terrorist hub for the second time. A radical Sunni theocracy would surely send jubilant signals to all their comrades in all directions.
Central Asian republics have had armed Islamist attempts in recent past which they successfully stamped down. Taliban recovery as a potent force or their rise to power has all the potential to initiate instability in the north as well. There are persistent indications that Islamist Kashmiri insurgents and other extremist Islamist elements of India are also loosely connected to the Taliban element including obtaining of material support. India is the home of second largest Muslim population in the world. Moderation among all the religious, ethnic and caste groups in India is vital for their subtle harmony to work and to safeguard minority. Radical activities only stir up trouble and conflict.
Bangladesh also has some Afghan war veteran and groups, though not very large in size or number that commiserates with the Taliban and draw inspiration from them. There is speculation of material links of these groups to their patrons in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a densely-populated and poverty-
stricken Muslim country, which could be a prospective breeding ground of Islamist extremism, Bangladesh is following the
Afghan development worryingly. Bangladesh has also been a minor development partner of Afghanistan in the sense that some Bangladesh-based international NGOs like BRAC have their operation in Afghanistan. A BRAC official was recently killed by the Afghan radicals while working there. A chaotic Afghanistan would certainly limit their efforts in that land.
Some sporadic activities of Islamist Uighur elements in Xinxiang (Chinese Turkistan/Uyghuristan) have worried China. China would be taking interest in the developments in Afghanistan, which is geographically very close to the autonomous region of western China. Same is the case with Russia as they have similar issues in their Caucasus provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya. Shi’ite theocracy Iran is a natural enemy in the Sunni
Taliban vision and these two came close to a warlike situation once when Taliban was in the helm of Afghanistan. Iran worries for the safety of the Shi’ite minority and Hazaras in the central Afghanistan who are often persecuted.
The perilous world view of the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance that advocates spread of radical Islam all over the world is worrisome for wider stakeholders.
On the whole, the adjacent regions of Afghanistan and South Asia, in particular and the West would be following the events in that country. Aggravated conflict in Afghanistan would tie down the regional powers in the affairs of the troubled nation, which won’t be good for anyone, for such engagement is certain to provoke regional competition for influence in Afghanistan and result in proxy war. That is a perfect recipe for further bloodletting and sufferings of the poor Afghan population. A regional competition for sway in the Hindu Kush between already belligerent neighbours like India and Pakistan could be alarming. No sensible South Asian wants to think of a situation of widespread conflict in the region.
Afghan conundrum is mired with uncertainty. Only good understanding among the sensible stakeholders and the combined endeavours can salvage that nation in distress from further regression.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an associate research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.
comments powered by Disqus
AFGHANISTAN will enter a new era in its journey as a state with the withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led International Security Assistance Force. After more than a decade of ‘assistance’ from the US-led coalition and development partners, it is to be seen whether the country can move forward mostly... Full story