Much more importantly, however, an answer to the question of what the U.S. endgame in Afghanistan will look like, and when it will happen, appears to have become more elusive than ever as a result of events in and around Afghanistan during the past six months. These developments have added significant new layers of tension and uncertainty to already troubled U.S. policy and operations. In particular, a new and deeper round of difficulties with Islamabad erupted following the allegedly accidental U.S. bombing of a Pakistani military camp inside Pakistan in November. And more recently, two incidents in Afghanistan—the burning of Qurans at Bagram Airbase in February and the murder spree by one or more U.S. soldiers in two villages near Kandahar on 11 March—have seriously undermined the already tattered trust between Kabul and Washington and drastically compromised the Afghan National Army (ANA), both in terms of its loyalty to its U.S.-NATO partners and trainers and its responsibility to protect the Afghan people.
The United States has six military bases in Afghanistan, and reports indicate that some of them are still being expanded while new forward operating bases (FOBs) are being constructed.
Under the circumstances, the planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops by 2014 certainly is not a done deal and, among the handlers of Obama’s re-election bid in particular, there is some concern that even this year’s partial troop withdrawal may not be doable. The United States has six military bases in Afghanistan, and reports indicate that some of them are still being expanded while new forward operating bases (FOBs) are being constructed. Discussions in Washington offer no clue as to a plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future or what the size of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan might be if and when Washington does announce a final exit.
In this article, we first review what is known and not known about Washington’s possible next steps in Afghanistan. Then we look at how the various nations involved directly or indirectly in the strategic south and central Asian region view the prospect of a “final” U.S.-NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What if …
As of this writing, no one can foresee how, or when, the Afghan imbroglio will be resolved and who will be sitting on the thorny throne in Kabul. What is certain, though, is that Washington has no clue. Washington may have in mind a group, or groups, to take over Kabul when it withdraws. But there is no indication that there is any actual connection between what Washington has in mind and the ground realities in Afghanistan. Although talk about talks to resolve the Afghan crisis fills the air, neither Washington’s talkers nor those who have their ears close to the ground listening to these talks know who is actually doing the talking, how real they are or who they really represent.
Washington not only lost a lot of money and people but also, more importantly, lost the trust of people in and around Afghanistan.
What is also certain is that a sea change has taken place in the region as a result of Washington’s insistence on pursing aggressively ignorant and incompetent policies. During the last 11 years of war, did the United States win a single friend in the region? No, it didn’t; but it surely lost a few. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, the vast majority of Afghans, the Pushtun included, supported Washington—almost 95 per cent of the population rejected the brutish Taliban rule backed from outside by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As a result, the invasion and overturning of the Taliban government was a cakewalk.
What followed is a seemingly endless nightmare. Aggressive ignorance mixed with colonial impulses created a heady punch that made the occupation a living hell. Washington not only lost a lot of money and people but also, more importantly, lost the trust of people in and around Afghanistan. It is quite amazing that after almost 11 years in Afghanistan battling the so-called Islamic zealots, U.S. troops could “mistakenly” burn a pile of Qurans and then, following a gap of about three weeks, U.S. soldiers could break into the homes of sleeping villagers, shoot them and their children to death and then try to burn the bodies—a sacrilege in the Islamic faith. During their long stay, American authorities either did not grasp what was needed to earn the trust and respect of the population or were driven by the age-old brutish colonial culture that pays no heed to the sensitivities of the people of the country they have occupied.
How ironic that today, on several days in any given week, Americans in Afghanistan are in lock-down for fear of the Afghans whom they wanted to “protect” from the barbaric Taliban and murderous al-Qaeda. In 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, President George W. Bush’s closest ally, as Washington’s geopoliticians proudly announced at the time, was Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. Today, Musharraf lives in exile, unable to enter the country he ruled for almost eight years, and the United States has become enemy number one to an overwhelmingly large number of Pakistanis.
Most, if not all, Afghans see the colonial and American forces as invaders and occupiers. For this reason, there will always be a question, even after U.S.-NATO troops leave the scene, as to whether or not ANA can muster the will and determination to take on those who have been identified by the foreign troops as terrorists and criminals. The events of February and March will certainly make it that much more difficult for ANA to remain steadfast in its alleged commitment to the U.S.-NATO mission; but what is indeterminable is how many of these “trained” soldiers will break from their ranks and openly oppose U.S.-NATO in the days ahead.
Under the present circumstances, Afghanistan is broken pottery. It was never well-baked pottery to begin with; but it is surely now broken.
What, then, are the strategic implications of the United States picking up and saying “I quit”? The effort to guess what the nature of a resolution to the Afghan crisis might be is something of an academic exercise. Under the present circumstances, Afghanistan is broken pottery. It was never well-baked pottery to begin with; but it is surely now broken. No matter what Washington, London, Riyadh or Islamabad agree upon or what documents they choose to sign, what will actually follow the formalities of ending the U.S.-NATO military engagement is wholly unknown. In all likelihood, the process will be messy, but they have gone through such messy processes on many previous occasions. Most importantly, the Afghans will not allow anyone else to mess with their internal affairs—not wittingly at least.
On the substantive issue is the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, and whether or not such a withdrawal will be total, it is most likely that the United States will withdraw the bulk of its troops, hand over the reins of security to ANA and retreat to its six-plus-eight bases. Then Washington will do its darnedest to see that the powers that be in Kabul allow the United States to keep those bases. It is likely that Washington will have to pour buckets of money into Kabul annually to maintain such a status.
One of the principal reasons the United States would like to maintain a significant number of bases is Afghanistan’s strategic location. Notwithstanding the country’s mineral reserves, Afghanistan is located at the junction of central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Iran. Iran was declared part of the “axis of evil” by the previous U.S. president, and Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan in the east, has become intensely hostile to the United States. While Pakistan is a nonlegal nuclear weapons nation, Iran has been accused repeatedly by the Western countries, their allies in the Arab world and Israel of harbouring a nuclear weapons program. Like the other members of the nuclear weapons club of five, the United States does not want any other nation to go nuclear and would certainly want to remain encamped in Afghanistan to keep a close tab on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and those of Iran—if and when Tehran actually develops its own.
…Moscow is afraid, first and foremost because what the U.S. and the coalition were doing is very much in the interest of Russia, keeping the Taliban as far away as possible from Central Asia and Russia…
But central Asia is a vast region, with Russia north of it and China on its east. Both would like to have a strong presence in the nascent central Asian nations that emerged as independent countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. How do the central Asian countries, including Russia, look at such a U.S. plan? What will be their reaction if the United States chooses to withdraw lock, stock and barrel?
No sighs of relief will be heard from either Russia or the central Asian nations when the U.S.-NATO troops leave Afghanistan. In a 26 October 2011 Atlantic magazine article, “Withdrawal from Afghanistan Could Kill the U.S.-Russia ‘Reset,’” Joshua Kucera pointed out: “Moscow has been publicly critical of U.S. involvement in Central Asia, calling it an encroachment on their sphere of influence, but that rhetoric hid an inconvenient secret: behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, observers here believe, Russians were glad that the U.S. was doing their dirty work. Even after the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow continued to station Russian border guards in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and aided Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. Nevertheless, a low-level but persistent Islamist radical insurgency bedeviled several of the Central Asian states on Russia’s southern border.”
Beyond the “Islamist radical insurgency,” which is real, Russia is also worried about the tons of heroin produced from Afghan opium that is coming into Russia and destroying hundreds and thousands of Russian youths annually. Russia is also aware that heroin coming in from Afghanistan is generating cash for the Islamist radical insurgents and corrupting many security officials and some administrative authorities along the drug-trafficking route through Central Asia to Russia.
Kucera quotes a number of Russian officials expressing Moscow’s concern about a post-U.S.-NATO Afghanistan. Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District, told the Atlantic: “Russia should expect the activation of militant activity on the borders of Central Asia after the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Threats can now come creeping to our southern borders.”
A more direct statement came from Andrei Zagorski, an expert on Russia’s relations with the West, at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, who told Payrav Chorshanbiyev of Asia-Plus in September 2011: “Moscow is afraid, first and foremost because what the U.S. and the coalition were doing is very much in the interest of Russia, keeping the Taliban as far away as possible from Central Asia and Russia.” And now that the U.S. is leaving, he told Chorshanbiyev, “Moscow has no viable strategy for this.”
Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, the then ambassador of Moscow to NATO, went on record in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro (17 September 2011), saying: “NATO set itself the task, and it must implement it. We do not want NATO to go and leave us to face the jackals of war after stirring up the anthill. Immediately after the NATO withdrawal, they will expand towards Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it will become our problem then.”
There are others. For instance, Mikhail Troitsky, a Russian analyst and coauthor of a report on U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s near abroad, believes such a withdrawal would affect U.S.-Russia relations adversely. “It’s going to remove some of the glue that made the reset possible, and then there are all sorts of implications. If there’s no Afghanistan, I think people on both sides will think they can get away with much harsher rhetoric,” Troitsky told the Atlantic.
But in a major country like Russia, where for good reason many consider the United States a real friend, there are some who speak differently. The Atlantic quotes Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and expert on central Asia, saying: “There is a danger, but we also might be exaggerating the danger. What we’re seeing now is PR, preparation for this period [when the U.S. leaves]. This PR is to prepare popular opinion, internal Russian popular opinion, and also Central Asian popular opinion, to accept the inevitability of Russian security measures.” Dubnov does not believe the United States will leave Afghanistan; but neither does he say that such an eventuality would be advantageous for Russia.
In contrast to Russian reactions, the smaller and weaker central Asian nations are less forthcoming in their views about a U.S.-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In a 25 June 2011 Eurasia Net commentary, “Understanding Russia’s Approach on Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Mark N. Katz outlines what the Russians are likely to do vis-à-vis Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the U.S.-NATO troops but also points out that in recent years, Russian thinking has adjusted to the reality that the United States and its allies could not easily contain the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan.
“By 2009, Russian leaders even started to grow concerned that the Obama administration might suddenly withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, thus leaving Russia alone to deal with the threat that a resurgent Taliban would pose to Central Asia and Russia itself,” Katz notes. “Accordingly, Moscow helped the United States put together the Northern Distribution Network, a re-supply route that facilitates the overland transit of non-lethal goods from Europe to Afghanistan.”
In a March 18 interview with TOLO News, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made Moscow’s thinking very clear, insisting that the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan must fulfil the mandate of the United Nations Security Council before being allowed to leave. “We see it from the point of international law. The presence of the international stabilization force in Afghanistan has been mandated by the U.N. Security Council. The mandate is clear. They must fulfill this mandate before they leave, and before they leave, they must report to the Security Council that the mandate has been fulfilled,” Lavrov stated.
“Everyone understands that by the time the international forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Afghan government itself must possess the capabilities to maintain law and order and to be able to address all security problems inside the country,” he added.
In contrast to Russian reactions, the smaller and weaker central Asian nations are less forthcoming in their views about a U.S.-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. In his article in the 17 August 2011 issue of CACI, “U.S. Drawdown in Afghanistan Stirs Reactions,” analyst Stephen Blank notes this: “Central Asian governments, though unwilling to discuss their alarm publicly, clearly fear a Taliban takeover and do not have much confidence in the Karzai regime or the Afghan army to defend Afghanistan. Indeed, many local analysts view a victory or stabilization in Afghanistan as a necessary precondition for the ongoing security of Central Asia. Many of these governments as well as some commentators believe that the indigenous terrorist threats are growing or have been growing since 2008-2009, and view a Taliban victory in Afghanistan as providing the basis for the spiritual and material encouragement of these groups that threaten their own domestic security.”
Like India, China has not been directly affected by what is happening in Afghanistan. China’s problem with terrorists moving into Xinjiang in support of the Uyghur ethnic minority is not considered to be an after-effect of the U.S.-NATO campaign in Afghanistan.
Blank continues: “Fully grasping the neo-imperial motives behind Russian ambitions to create more military bases and postings for its troops there, they are reluctant to give Moscow that access but fear being left with no other choice. This particularly applies to Tajikistan. Moreover, given the importance of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to their economic well-being, they certainly are reluctant to see it fade away. In view of the historic absence of regional integration among these governments, it would also probably be quixotic to expect them to produce a large-scale, coherent military alternative force to replace the U.S.-NATO forces. Thus they fear that they might be abandoned to Moscow, if not Beijing, or left on their own to face what they believe to be a mounting terrorist threat.”
Blank’s observations may suggest that central Asian nations, particularly Tajikistan, have an extreme view about a post-U.S.-NATO Afghanistan. But underlying this view is their concern over how, weak as they are, they will be able to stand up to an unknown adversary who has defied both the United States and NATO, who together deployed 150,000 troops and had an endless supply of arms, weaponry and communication, for 11 years. The thought of facing such an undefeated adversary is surely not a pleasant one for any central Asian nation. What perhaps worries them the most is who they will have to lean on if such an adversary chooses to extend its claws northward.
Worries in Central Asia
Some thinking has begun in central Asia about what to do under those circumstances. On 19 September 2011, Asia-Plus highlighted a report released at a news conference in Dushanbe. Prepared by the Tajik think tank Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), the report pointed out that NATO’s plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan in 2014 may dramatically change the situation in the region.
“Therefore, the countries of the region should have plans of action for the period until and after 2014,” Suhrob Sharipov, the director of CSS, told Asia-Plus. “We must combine our efforts in order to efficiently address the threats,” Sharipov added. Asia-Plus also noted that Sharipov considers that the United States and countries of the European Union (EU) should provide all-round assistance to central Asian countries, providing regional security after withdrawal of the coalition forces from Afghanistan. “They must not do as the Soviet Union did; Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, deteriorated the situation and left the country,” the expert said, noting that Russia, which uses the Okno space surveillance facility in Tajikistan, should also provide assistance.
China is keen to get into Afghanistan in a big way, and that can only happen once the troops leave the scene, handing over power to some Afghan entity.
In this context, it should be noted that Moscow is in the process of beefing up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led political-military bloc consisting of former Soviet states, with the aim of becoming a viable collective security organ. In September 2011, CSTO held military drills with 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Asia-Plus reported that the group’s general secretary, Nikolai Bordyuzha, says the drills were aimed at preparing for the 2014 withdrawal. “We are not on the verge of solving the problems in Afghanistan, but on the worsening of them, and quite a qualitatively different situation in the Central Asian region, especially after 2014,” Bordyuzha was quoted. “The prognosis is clear: Afghanistan will remain a base for organizing terrorist and extremist activities, we feel.”
In conclusion, Asia-Plus added: “But it’s not clear how Moscow intends the group to work. While the recent CSTO exercises focused on conventional military threats, Moscow has shown little stomach for military action outside its own borders. Last year, as unrest in CSTO member-state Kyrgyzstan devolved into horrific ethnic pogroms, the CSTO declined to step in. Some top officials have suggested that they should try to combat popular movements like the Arab Spring, even considering such options as shutting down Twitter to forestall popular uprisings in Central Asia. But military intervention, it seems, is not on the table. Other officials say the CSTO should act as a security assistance tool, building up the hapless, often corrupt security forces of Central Asia to be able to manage threats from Afghanistan on their own.”
Late last year, in her article “Uzbekistan Considers the Strategic Implications of NATO’s Drawdown in Afghanistan” (Eurasia Daily Monitor 8, no. 210, 2011), Umida Hashimova said: “The future of the country and its neighbors following the withdrawal by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is unclear, even though the U.S. government pledges its continued support. Anxiety about militancy in the country dominates wider concerns in the region. In the absence of large numbers of U.S. and allied forces, the potential for militant activity to spread beyond Afghanistan affects all neighboring countries. Even if the Afghan security forces are able to control the country, a deterioration of security conditions can be expected to accompany any anticipated withdrawal of US troops.”
To deal with this situation, as Umida Hashimova explains, Uzbekistan is toying around with at least two options. Not part of the CSTO, Uzbekistan has no interest in Moscow’s CSTO-based security plan. In an address to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in December 2010, the then Uzbek foreign minister Vladimir Norov, spelled this out: “Uzbekistan does not consider it possible for itself to participate in the implementation of the programs and projects adopted on a collective or bloc basis.” Alternately, Uzbekistan has promoted the “6+3” initiative, a collective approach to the Afghan problem that the United States and European Union do not favour because it excludes the Afghanistan government itself. Uzbekistan will confine its relations with Afghanistan to the bilateral level, as Norov also stated in the OSCE speech. “Uzbekistan builds and shall build its relations with its close neighbour—Afghanistan—only on a bilateral basis, proceeding from mutual national interests,” Hashimova reported.
Hashimova points out that with little support from the Afghan people, a weak and unpopular central government and little or no foreign ground troops in the country after 2014, a new period of instability will almost certainly become the norm. That is when the U.S. and NATO will need to start increasingly to rely on Afghanistan’s neighbours to contain the threat and Uzbekistan can expect to begin to play a greater role.
China is keen to strengthen its western provinces and secure its western borders. Beijing has long realised that in order to attain these objectives, it must have a strong, proactive role in Central Asia.
“Therefore, the U.S. may start paying greater attention to sustaining stability and good relations with Uzbekistan, and Tashkent is aware of its growing strategic importance. Uzbekistan does not mind having strong relations with the U.S., as long as Washington desists from trying to impose its own view of Uzbekistan’s internal political dynamics. Uzbekistan will benefit from this partnership in particular, because the U.S. is a strong ally, but it is distant enough not to pose a threat to Uzbekistan’s sovereignty,” Hashimova concluded.
Like India, China has not been directly affected by what is happening in Afghanistan. China’s problem with terrorists moving into Xinjiang in support of the Uyghur ethnic minority is not considered to be an after-effect of the U.S.-NATO campaign in Afghanistan. Beijing is fully aware that those terrorists are based in Pakistan and that Pakistani security officials do not necessarily have control over them. As a result, Beijing is not particularly concerned about deterioration in China’s security following the withdrawal of the U.S.-NATO troops from Afghanistan and, for this reason, Chinese think tanks have no qualms about calling for American troops’ withdrawal. China would like to see deployment of an international peacekeeping mission after the U.S. withdrawal, they say. Their argument is that with the aid of international peacekeepers, Afghanistan’s government and its security forces will be able to exercise effective control over domestic unrest and maintain peace and security. China can potentially provide “boots” for a peacekeeping mission (Ibrahim Sajid Malick, “What Is China Doing in Pakistan?” Perspicacity, 27 October 2009).
Not only does Beijing have no qualms about a U.S-NATO withdrawal, China would positively like to see them depart for many reasons. China is keen to get into Afghanistan in a big way, and that can only happen once the troops leave the scene, handing over power to some Afghan entity. China’s developmental requirements make Afghanistan a focus. China’s growing demand for energy and mineral resources, plus its growing dependence on imported petroleum, has made Beijing increasingly concerned about ensuring supplies of reserves and an uninterrupted flow of oil at reasonable prices. The resource-rich central Asian nations, having estimated oil and gas reserves of 23 billion tons and 3,000 billion cubic meters, respectively, have a great deal of geoeconomic significance for China. While Afghanistan has no proven fuel deposits, it provides a convenient transportation route for the exploitation of the energy resources of the central Asian nations.
The geoeconomic significance of Afghanistan for China should not be understated in light of the latter’s serious interest in the Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources and the growing Sino-Afghan trade, which reached $317 million in 2005–2006. China has also evinced an interest in a pipeline to the Arabian Sea, with a view to importing gas and oil by supertanker from Gwadar Port; but it should be noted that the port project is still severely debilitated by the absence of links to access the hinterland from the port. As another option, China is considering transporting its energy shipments from central Asia and the Middle East via tankers to Gwadar Port and then by pipe or truck to western China via Karakoram Highway (Tariq Mahmud Ashraf, “Afghanistan in Chinese Strategy Toward South and Central Asia,” China Brief 8, no. 10, 2008).
There is no question that stability in Afghanistan is imperative for Pakistan and that such stability may emerge only after the foreign troops leave
China is also concerned about Pakistan, a long-time, all-weather ally. Beijing has noted the deterioration of Pakistan’s security situation during the U.S.-NATO occupation since 2001. Enhanced hostility between Pakistan and U.S.-NATO troops has the potential to further undermine Pakistan’s internal security. Under such circumstances, Beijing fears that the Islamist forces linked to the Uyghur separatists based in Pakistan would garner further strength. Such a development would create serious problems in Sino-Pakistani relations and in China’s efforts to set up the transportation corridor it needs, running through Pakistan to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Arabian Sea. In short, in looking ahead, China finds the stabilisation of Pakistan is important for its own developmental requirements.
Moreover, China is keen to strengthen its western provinces and secure its western borders. Beijing has long realised that in order to attain these objectives, it must have a strong, proactive role in Central Asia. China is now a huge economic power. It has the ability to help the central Asian nations and help itself in the process. It can invest heavily in the mining, energy and transportation sectors. It has the money and the technology to do all that. For instance, China’s investment in developing a technologically advanced, high-speed rail system over the years was aimed at setting up transportation corridors throughout the region.
Chinese leaders have also formed a much closer relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and it is expected that there will be much less rivalry between Russia and China in central Asia in the coming years than during the Cold War. China’s strong presence in Afghanistan is only natural. Since Russia is no longer an impediment to China’s presence in the region, China does not want the United States to play in her backyard for too long. Beijing believes that the withdrawal of U.S.-NATO troops will pave the way for it to go ahead with its future plans for central Asia.
For Iran and Pakistan: A Welcome Note
There is little doubt that no other country would like an instant withdrawal of U.S.-NATO forces more than Iran. But with the rapid deterioration of relations between the United States and Pakistan, Islamabad has also shifted to open opposition to the U.S.-NATO presence in Afghanistan. The ingredients of the two countries’ opposition are not the same, but there are areas of similarities.
In recent days, particularly since the growth of Islamic militancy in Pakistan, Washington has begun to exert pressure on Pakistan to give up its nuclear arsenal because, Washington says, it could fall into the hands of the Islamic zealots…
For instance, Iran believes that the United States, on behalf of Israel and its European allies, will attack Iran if it can convince the American population that Tehran is in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons. But Tehran also knows that the nuclear weapons issue is a mere pretext. The real reason Washington wishes to attack Iran is to undo the Shiite clerical revolution and establish the supremacy of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf nations in the Middle East.
Pakistan, on the other hand, who is an ally of Saudi Arabia, has different worries about the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. To begin with, Washington has become increasingly disapproving of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. During the Cold War, Washington claimed that India and Pakistan would launch a nuclear attack against each other in case of a conflict; such claims were intended to incite the world community to pressure both Pakistan and India to denuclearise.
In recent days, particularly since the growth of Islamic militancy in Pakistan, Washington has begun to exert pressure on Pakistan to give up its nuclear arsenal because, Washington says, it could fall into the hands of the Islamic zealots who are anti-West and, practically, anti-everything. Despite repeated assertions by Islamabad that the country’s nuclear weapons are safe, Washington continues to claim such a catastrophe is a distinct possibility. There are, as well, reports that the United States has trained special forces to grab the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.
Be that as it may, Islamabad has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons and, increasingly, eyes Washington with a great deal of suspicion. For Islamabad, then, withdrawal of U.S.-NATO troops from Afghanistan could provide Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal a definite reprieve.
Talk in Washington about the “unacceptable” conditions of the Baluchis in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan and the prospect of its becoming an independent nation has hardened Pakistan’s stance. In Islamabad, a growing worry is that the separation of Baluchistan, beside weakening Pakistan, is an American ploy to secure a strong presence next to its avowed enemy, Iran, and at the same time prevent either China or Russia from gaining transport access to the Arabian Sea. The province is adjoined to southeastern Iran, and its southern end touches the Arabian Sea.
Last December, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran welcomes the pull-out of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the takeover of the country’s security by Afghan forces. He said the foreign military presence over the past decade has failed to uproot terrorism. He also said cooperation among the Persian-speaking countries of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan would serve the interests of the three nations and the entire region.
Pakistan will watch developments in Afghanistan very carefully in the coming days. Since the situation remains so fluid, it is impossible to predict today what the ground conditions will be at the time that U.S.-NATO troops end their stay.
Earlier, Iran had opposed President Obama’s increased troop deployment. At the time, Iranian interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar told an 8 March 2011 press conference in Kabul that “[Iran] is definitely against the deployment, presence of foreign forces and establishment of U.S. permanent bases in Afghanistan, and [believes that] permanent bases would further complicate the conditions in the region and in Afghanistan.”
As its southern neighbour, Iran has a long historical relationship with Afghanistan. It also has leverage inside that country that was built up over the years, particularly since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Tehran has consistently backed Shiite Hazara parties and the influential Tajik commander Ismail Khan in Afghanistan’s Herat province. The arrival of the Taliban on Pakistan’s shoulders was a setback for Iran, but Iran continued to stay in close contact with the Hazara and Tajik commanders during the years that followed. Tehran gave thousands of Hazara leaders refuge, training and financial support to fight against the Taliban.
Following the U.S. invasion, although Iran supported the Karzai government, it also provided support to any group within Afghanistan that was willing to fight the U.S.-NATO troops and that sought Tehran’s support. It is expected that Iran will continue to interact with the network it has built over the decades. The departure of U.S. troops will reduce the direct threat to Iran but is not expected to create many new opportunities for Tehran in the short run.
Pakistan’s interest in the U.S.-NATO troop withdrawal is not abstract. Unlike other countries in the region discussed in this article, Pakistan will play a role in the decision-making that will determine who will be in power in Kabul. There is no question that stability in Afghanistan is imperative for Pakistan and that such stability may emerge only after the foreign troops leave. On the other hand, stability, a complex condition in the Afghan context, may take years to emerge.
Pakistan will watch developments in Afghanistan very carefully in the coming days. Since the situation remains so fluid, it is impossible to predict today what the ground conditions will be at the time that U.S.-NATO troops end their stay. One could draw a myriad of scenarios, and each one would have a different implication for Pakistan. According to a Pakistani analyst, Agha Amin, the implications of a U.S. withdrawal could be:
- Collapse within a matter of months of the moderate Afghan regime created with the help of billions of dollars of U.S. and European/G8 aid
- Creation of an unemployed and uncommitted reserve of Islamic extremists, well trained in military arts, that could represent a greater threat to the Pakistani state and to all neighbours of Afghanistan
- A renewed civil war in Afghanistan in which the Taliban will be backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
Nonetheless, for Pakistan, peace in Afghanistan could usher in some immediate benefits. For instance, there are about three million Afghans living in Pakistan as refugees, many of whom would be repatriated. Many of these refugees are reportedly involved in weapons and narcotics trafficking into Pakistan. With the repatriation of a majority of these Pashtuns, Pakistan’s security could improve noticeably.
…although India is part of the broader region, and surely has a lot of influence within Afghanistan, New Delhi’s ability to influence the outcome is limited.
It is also not altogether unlikely that foreign troop withdrawal may reduce the growth of extremism within Pakistan. There is no question that the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, their insensitive and brutal actions against the inhabitants of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the tacit, and even military, support lent by Islamabad to these foreign troops over the years have led to the death of many innocents and have given a boost to extremism within Pakistan. At the same time, it must be pointed out that while the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan certainly enhanced extremist activities, their departure may not weaken these extremists.
Finally, the specific regional implications of U.S. troop withdrawal will depend on how the actual physical withdrawal takes place; who, or which group, comes to power in Kabul; how long the new incumbent stays in power in Kabul; and who opposes the incumbent and how violent such opposition turns out to be. These are all unknown at this time and might remain virtually unknown even when the foreign troops leave.
The implications will become clearer as answers to these questions emerge: How many bases will the U.S. maintain in Afghanistan and where? How will the worsening relationship between Iran and the Arab world, backed by the West and Israel, affect Afghanistan and the region as a whole?
One may notice that the implications for India have not been discussed. The reason is that although India is part of the broader region, and surely has a lot of influence within Afghanistan, New Delhi’s ability to influence the outcome is limited. One may argue that the same is the case for Russia, for instance. But whereas Russia’s security could be seriously jeopardised if a strong Taliban-like Islamic extremist group takes control following the withdrawal of U.S.-NATO troops from Afghanistan, India faces no such direct security threats.