With Afghanistan preparing for the US drawdown, G. Parthasarathy looks ahead to how ensuing power tensions could impact on the country and wider region
Countries in virtually every part of the world are looking at the years ahead as an era of strategic uncertainties, as President Donald Trump heralds a new era of ‘America First’ policies. Long-term European allies now find they are on a different page from Washington on an entire range of issues, from climate change to relations with Iran and the Palestinian issue. American allies in Asia such as South Korea and Japan,uncertain about the US fulfilling its security commitments, are seeking new security and economic structures amidst concerns about a rising and assertive China.
As for India, it can look back with some satisfaction at how its policies of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ have enabled it to deal with the Trump era with relative ease and confidence.Even as New Delhi has kept a reasonable balance in its relations with other major world powers, Prime Minister Modi has also managed to establish a good working relationship with President Trump.
A few years ago, India would have been unsettled by the planned American withdrawal from Afghanistan. There were deep concerns about the return of the Taliban to power in the country, as a number of anti-Indian terrorist groups had operated from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Moreover, the organisation had colluded in Kandahar with hijackers of an Indian Airlines aircraft. But with things appearing to have changed,New Delhi now seems confident that vital national interests can be protected, even if the Afghan Taliban assumes a new and more mainstream role in the country. The Taliban is today showing greater understanding of global power realities and a recognition that its past actions have alienated large sections of the international community. While still dependent on Pakistan, the militant group now appears keen to secure global and regional legitimacy and acceptance by reaching out to and reassuring others about its intentions.
While Pakistan may give the impression that it is pleased at the prospect of US withdrawal, in expectation of a Taliban takeover thereafter, there are now several imponderables in how present developments will play out. The Iranians and Russians seem set to move matters in a somewhat different direction from what the Americans may want. The Iranians appear to have persuaded the Taliban leadership that Tehran can play a crucial role in promoting peace and reconciliation between the Taliban on the one hand and, on the other, Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Shia-Hazara groups, bothin Afghanistan and across the Iran-Afghanistan border. When it was last in power,the Taliban was at war with these groups,which were known as the Northern Alliance and backed by Russia, Iran and India.
Moreover, prominent Afghan leaders – including former President Hamid Karzai, Hanif Atmar, who is set to contest the next Afghan presidential elections, and Tajik strongman Atta Mohammed Noor – attended the recent Conference on Afghan Peace in Moscow, together with members of the Taliban leadership. With Mullah Baradar, who was jailed for years by the Pakistan government, now playing a leading role in the Taliban, it is hoped that the group will no longer adopt past policies and practices that deprived it of international respect, legitimacy and recognition.
Given President Trump’s determination to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Russian and Iranian moves to help the Taliban live in peace with the country’s ethnic and sectarian minorities could wellbe the key to providing the Americans with a face-saving exit. There is, paradoxically, also a measure of complementarity in the aims of the US and Russia when it comes to presently disregarding or marginalising the role of the ruling Ashraf Ghani government, and fashioning a new architecture for governing Afghanistan.However, excluding representatives of the Ghani administration from talks with the Taliban, as both the Americans and Russians have done,might carry risks of continuing internal conflict. There is also interest in what the role of the largely Pakistan-based Haqqani network will be in any widely representative government in Kabul.
A new and significant development affecting regional equations is the growing Iranian suspicions about Pakistan’s role in fostering violence in its Sunni-majority Sistan-Baluchistan Province, bordering Pakistan. The Iranians have for sometime nowbeen suspicious of a Saudi-Pakistani role in fomenting violence in thisborderprovince by extremist Sunni groups. There have been periodic border clashes in the past between Pakistani and Iranian paramilitary forces, arising from attempts at cross-border infiltration. Iran announced on February 12 that 28 of its border troops had been killed in a bomb blast near the Iran-Pakistan border, and there was an almost immediate Iranian retaliation. Barely 48 hours later, Pakistan summoned Iran’s ambassador in Islamabad and handed over a ‘strong protest’ to Iran over the killing of six Pakistani soldiers and the serious wounding of 14 others along the Pakistan-Iran border. These incidents took place on the very eve of the visit to Pakistan by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan.
Tehran evidently believes that Pakistan executed the attack on its border troops just a few days before the Crown Prince’s scheduled visit to Islamabad because Islamabad is beholden to Riyadh for its huge economic aid programme.
President Trump’s ‘end game’ in Afghanistan, could well lead to new regional power equations and tensions from across the disputed Durand Line,separating Pakistan and Afghanistan, to China’s restive, Muslim-dominated Xinjiang Province. The fallout of such developments could even extend to the oil -ich Persian Gulf and Central Asia.