Herat Calling: Region is set for the Great Game
The Fourth Herat Security Dialogue (HSD IV) held in Afghanistan on 2-3 October 2015 under aegis of Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS) saw participation by 17 countries including US, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia plus UN, NATO and OIC. Mr Salman Khurshid, former EAM India and Chief Guest at HSD IV spoke of inter regional civilization influences in the region, particularly India-Afghanistan and India-Persia, and explained that Hinduism is a way of life that embraces all and that India has Muslim Hindus, Christian Hindus, Buddhist Hindus, Jain Hindus etc; which is common phenomenon. Later, Dr Ali Akbar Shah, Professor, Delhi University addressing the audience in fluent Pashto said that the Islamic countries should learn from India where mysticism of all religions including of Islam have been amalgamated and absorbed, adding that India has taken in Islam brought by invaders as also by Muslim sages like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. He spoke of Din-e-Ilahi introduced by Mughal Emperor Akbar and Sufiism, and that there was need to revive the true spirit of Islam, emphasizing that while everyone knows what has gone wrong, there was collective need to act to set it right.
An Afghan speaker stated that Pakistan had some 83,000 madrassas producing radicals by the millions and if only 10,000 of these specialized in suicide bombings, there could be 50 suicide bombings every day.
Many would not know that prior to the Mongol invasion in early 13th Century, Herat, capital of Khorasan, sported 4,40,000 houses, 12,000 shops and 6,000 caravanserais and public baths. The theme for the dialogue was ‘Islamic Civilization: Stagnation & Renaissance’. Interestingly turmoil in the Islamic world was also discussed during the First International Conference on Combating Terrorism held in Baghdad, Iraq on 12-13 March 2014 where the Arab League highlighted that while UN could not have one formula to combat terror, Arab League evolved one in 1998 albeit it was not implemented judiciously. Similarly, the Islamic Cooperation Council had brought out they produced a visionary document for combating terror in 2007 but then concrete steps and integrated international cooperation was needed including for addressing poverty depravation, despair in justice etc.
HSD IV discussed progress made in Islamic territories during ancient times in fields of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, language, literature, philosophy, and the respect for universal brotherhood and respect for human rights that was prevalent. The Spiegel website of 2007 was cited highlighting that academic publications in Islamic countries were 13 per one million populations compared to global average of 137 and US average of 666. OIC member countries averaged 500 scholars per one million population, while in countries like Japan and Sweden the average was 5000. The poor state of women education and the need to give them appropriate place and priority in society also was in focus, highlighting that the state of women in rural areas was truly pathetic and needed to be addressed.
During HSD III held in 2014, AISS had introduced the concept of ‘Herat School’ of security concept, which placed particular emphasis upon the ethical and inner aspects of human security. HSD IV highlighted the old Islamic literature that respected all humanity. A suggestion was made to link all Islamic languages to cull out how social security and aspects like Sufiism, Din-e Ilahi etc were being practiced to foster universal brotherhood; study past history of morals, bravery, courage and examine how Islam was being distorted by some, need to change mindsets and focus on good governance. An Afghan speaker stated that Pakistan had some 83,000 madrassas producing radicals by the millions and if only 10,000 of these specialized in suicide bombings, there could be 50 suicide bombings every day. This caused Assad Durrani, former DG ISI of Pakistan jump to his feet saying inviting them (Pakistanis) and insulting them was against norms of hospitality.
Terrorism is on the rise because US withdrawal has been premature, before Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were ready to take on security, and even political transition is far from complete.
Later, integration of madrassas in Islamic countries into the national education system was suggested as an essential step for renaissance by some speakers. Terrorism too came into focus including the term non-state actor being misnomer since no terrorist group can stay active without having geographical and logistical backup. The participant from Tajikistan suggested that material culture of the West and spiritual culture of the East should coalesce to adopt the best of both cultures; if modernity of the west is being accepted, why not democracy and human relations?
With respect to Afghanistan, it was brought out that: national security lay in the worth of social security and human relations; power of love and brotherhood should take precedence over self; Afghanistan’s problems must be resolved through dialogue like the Iran Nuclear Deal; the Islamic world needs to have a roadmap for morals in order to wean away from terrorism and counter the ISIS, Taliban and Al Qaeda; Afghanistan needs to accelerate industrialization, and; there has been progress in areas like health services but transformation is not being made proportional to preparedness. Terrorism is on the rise because US withdrawal has been premature, before Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were ready to take on security, and even political transition is far from complete. Transition has affected social levels and foreign investors are fleeing Afghanistan. Since last year, the ANSF have been battling terrorism with resolve and resilience with whatever they have.
The political hierarchy was criticized for lack of governance, absent coherent economic policy, social justice remaining unaddressed. Concerns were raised over instability along the northern borders of Afghanistan. Barbs were exchanged between the Afghan and Pakistani participants; former alleging Pakistan was supporting the Afghan Taliban and orchestrating terrorism in Afghanistan. Pakistani participants denied they were supporting Afghan Taliban and generating terror in Afghanistan.
The Dialogue no doubt came out with noble ideas but unless these are implemented universally, would make little impact especially in an environment where even powerful countries are employing proxy forces to advance own national interests. Presently, 60 percent of Afghan territory is under Taliban control. Taliban have strongholds in the Badakshan region in the north, have captured Warduj district east of Kunduz and Ghormach district of Faryab province, leading to Russia strengthening troop presence in Tajikistan. The ISIS has gained control of seven districts of Nangarhar province on the Af-Pak border and is already attacking the ANSF.
Post the US-NATO withdrawal, Russia may help ANA like in Syria because Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and spillover of terrorism into Central Asia is detrimental to Russian interests.
Extended stay of US-NATO forces in Afghanistan will likely make little difference as the Afghan National Army (ANA) has major voids in air, artillery, logistics, medical and even transport. The contractual period of the soldier remains at three years, plans to increase it to 10 years cannot be implemented because the funds needed for maintain the ANSF have been promised only up to 2017. When US-NATO withdrawal eventually takes place, the ANSF would be reduced to fortress defence. Taliban will likely continue to gain ground. Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mansoor, successor to Mullah Omar, is religious teacher of Haqqanis based in Pakistan and has already made clear he is not interested in talks.
China has major economic interest in Afghanistan, being the only country drilling commercial oil since 2012 and having bagged the US$4.4 billion tender for copper mining in 2007. The Indian built Salma Dam was recently renamed India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam. India is considered an important friend pan-Afghanistan but Afghans expect India to do more under the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011 especially since Pakistan is practically stabbing Afghanistan in the back. Afghanistan’s economy continues to be based 97 percent on foreign aid, about 50 percent agriculture is narcotics and unemployment stands at 35 percent. Instability is set to rise.
Post the US-NATO withdrawal, Russia may help ANA like in Syria because Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and spillover of terrorism into Central Asia is detrimental to Russian interests. Afghanistan’s First Vice President Dostum visited Russia this October. With Afghanistan’s US$ 3 trillion unexplored oil and minerals plus proximity to Iran and the Persian Gulf, the region is set for the next chapter of the Great Game; geopolitical power play between US, Russia and China.