Canberra, 9 January 2012

Ever since the United States announced its intention to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by end of 2014, President Karzai has been stating that the people of Afghanistan hold the key to their future in their own hands. And so it should be, especially since the country has been in different states of instability for a major part of its existence as an independent entity. In fact, the term ‘sovereign state’ and everything it entails could perhaps be bestowed on Afghanistan for very limited periods in its history, and that too may be stretching the meaning and definition of the term. However, Karzai’s statement is all rhetoric and the more vociferous his arguments become, one is increasingly left with the feeling that he is pursuing a strategy based on the belief that stating a particular ‘thing’ sufficient number of times in repetition will transition that ‘thing’ to becoming the truth. This strategy has never worked in the long-term and will not in this instance also. Sadly and regrettably, an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned initiative to stabilise the nation as being articulated between-the-lines by the President—a concept being supported by well-meaning strategists and analysts, who are also unfortunately well-removed from reality—will not succeed and therefore, cannot be accepted as the corner stone for the building of a post-2014 Afghanistan.
To start with, a stable nation needs at a bare minimum, an effective parliament; a non-partisan and independent judiciary; fundamental state-building institutions like health care, educational institutions, a police force with the ability to enforce law and order, and financial infrastructure; a well-understood separation of power between the executive and judiciary; and an effective military force. Contemporary Afghanistan does not possess any of these features even in an embryonic manner—the parliament is dysfunctional and President Karzai rules as an autocrat through summary orders (which in itself is listened to, at times, only within the capital Kabul, since his writ or the power of the parliament do not run across the entire nation); there is no coherent social or economic infrastructure visible within the nation at this juncture; law enforcement is erratic at best and normally non-existent; and the military force that is being built is ridden with dissention and also infiltrated by the Taliban. Under these circumstances, the elections to be held in 2014 will add to the confusion and be a catalyst for further instability. In other words Afghanistan is going down the proverbial creek with no paddles and not making an independent effort at bringing the canoe closer to a stabilising shore! There is obvious blindness in the government brought on by the primacy of selfish interests in the leadership of the nation.
In stark terms Afghanistan, at least in its current form and shape, will not be able to achieve self-sufficiency in any sphere of nation building in the near future—a situation tailor-made for increasing the existing instability and facilitating the further descend into chaos. Today Afghanistan is completely dependent on foreign aid for its survival as an entity. However, in the prevalent global fiscal stringency, international aid is bound to decline at an appreciably rapid manner making foreign aid-dependency an untenable economic strategy for any nation to follow. (Even Australia, one of the nations less affected by the global financial crisis, has cut its foreign aid allocation and diverted the funds towards domestic requirements.) Despite this looming crisis, in one of his now common ‘King Canutian’ moments, Karzai has asked the United states to let the Afghan Government (read himself) have more control over the US Aid being provided to the nation for development. Add to this the fact that Afghanistan is rife with corruption and cronyism even at the highest levels of government, and that there is a complete absence of good governance, the stage is set for an unstable state to become a failed state. In these circumstances instability might just start to look like a desirable state of affairs!
There are two ways to deal with this disastrous situation. The first is to withdraw the international (NATO) forces from the country on the laid down schedule and let the Afghans look after their own nation, as the leadership is demanding so vehemently. There are pluses and minuses to doing this. Left to govern itself, it is assured that Afghanistan will descend into certified instability. However, this instability will not have any international repercussions and may even not create regional upheavals, provided it does not deteriorate into anarchy. In fact Afghanistan was in such a state of benign instability (if the instability of a nation can be called benign by stretching the imagination) before al-Qaeda hijacked the state and used it to further its own sinister agenda. One fundamental flaw in such an approach is that after the experience with al-Qaeda, the regional powers and international agencies will continue to scrutinise the internal activities of the nation in a much more intrusive manner than was the case during the Taliban rule that led to the current imbroglio. At least covert intervention is almost certain under these circumstances, which in turn will be a recipe for disaster since the regional powers with interest in Afghanistan all have competing agendas to pursue. A joint regional assistance to Afghanistan’s economic recovery therefore, will remain in the realm of wishful thinking—the larger nations of the region have far too many divergent views to even consider that a collective effort to create a peaceful state of affairs for the future as a remote possibility.
The other side of this dismal picture is that there can be no lasting solution to the challenge of Afghanistan (the numerous issues that face the nation is now combined to be thought of as the overwhelming challenge of Afghanistan, that faces the international community) without the involvement of regional powers; the future of the Afghan people now rests on decisions made by other nations, a regrettable situation. The three nations that matter most for the future of Afghanistan, whether for good or bad, are Iran, Pakistan and India. The Central Asian nations also have an indirect stake in the stability of Afghanistan but are not yet sufficiently matured in diplomatic overtures and power projection to influence developments being generated within the country. Iran, and its interest in, and influence on, Afghanistan has been largely ignored in the on-going process to stabilise it because of the isolation Iran faces within the international community. For the same reason, Iran’s influence on the internal developments in Afghanistan is also on the wane. Iran’s interest in the future of Afghanistan is two-fold. One, from a religious perspective Shiite Iran is concerned about the treatment of the minority Hazaras who are also Shiites in a predominantly Sunni state. The Hazaras do not have any appreciable political cloutand were persecuted by the Taliban during their brief rule of the nation. Two, from a political perspective Iran does not want a US-friendly government to take root in Afghanistan. This will be an untenable situation in terms of Iran’s security interests. A pro-US government in Afghanistan will complete the geographic encirclement of Iran, which will be unacceptable to the Persian state. If such a possibility, seemingly remote at this juncture, does not come to pass Iran bound to initiate actions to neutralise such a situation even through pre-emptive intervention.
Pakistan views Afghanistan as its ‘strategic depth’ and will assiduously work towards having a weak and pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. Weak, so that it can be manipulated to fit the greater scheme of Islamabad in thwarting Indian ambitions. Pakistan does not want to give any space for India to manoeuvre in Afghanistan as part of the stabilisation process, now or in the future because it fears that India will strategically encircle Pakistan. India currently provides economic and infrastructure developmental assistance that has created a positive influence in Afghanistan, especially with the government in Kabul, which has led to international approach to New Delhi to do more in the same field. This will automatically lead to more Indian influence in Afghanistan and its aid-dependent economy and the cycle will continue. Pakistan cannot afford to have this situations develop any further than it already has, but does not know how to break this chain and diminish the Indian influence. They also fear that India will use Afghanistan as a staging post to create destabilising insurgent challenges in its tribal area, which is already a hotbed of anti-Islamabad sentiment.
India’s interest in Afghanistan stems precisely from the reasons that Pakistan fears and that is not a surprise. India is unlikely to provide overt military assistance to Afghanistan, but training their officers in India is a distinct possibility and also has historic precedence to recommend it. India has invested heavily in infrastructure development in Afghanistan and is very directly targeting the Pashtuns to increase their influence in the nation. The road building projects within Afghanistan and the north-south corridor are prestigious Indian projects and are being increasingly appreciated by the Afghans. India also fears that a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul would permit the use of Afghanistan to further the insurgency in Kashmir through the invocation of a jihad, especially during the anticipated instability post-2014. Considering the history of the Kashmir Conflict this is not a far-fetched scenario.
The only way forward, if further destabilisation of Afghanistan is to be avoided, is for Iran, Pakistan and India to work together with the interest of Afghanistan as the primary goal. This concerted effort would require these nations to lay aside the self-serving interests that have so far guided their actions and been fundamentally focused on achieving individual objectives. Is this a feasible scenario? A realistic answer would be a resounding NO. The three nations concerned have so far not found any common ground and two of them—Pakistan and India—have vested interests that are completely contrary. Working for a common purpose at the cost of perceived and/or actual national security interests is beyond the grasp of real-politic in all circumstances. When two nations with long-term rivalry are the participants the situation becomes even more complex. In a convoluted manner (and incorrect from a humanitarian point of view) leaving Afghanistan completely to itself may be in the interest of regional stability. No doubt there will be internecine warfare between the multiple groups and ethnicities; there is also no doubt that no clear winner will emerge in such a complex conflict situation; however, the instability will be contained within the nation and is highly unlikely to spill out. The example is of the Taliban taking over the nation and the rest of the region gradually accepting the situation. The issue here is the proclivity for neighbours to interfere and manipulate the Afghan government to achieve the interfering nation’s own peculiar interests and national objectives. It cannot be forgotten that even the Taliban came to power with the direct assistance of the Pakistani military apparatus. Therefore, even leaving the nation in an isolated manner is not a solution for the current situation in Afghanistan.
The foreign troops will leave by the end of 2014, a timeframe unlikely to be revised even through a last minute postponement of a few months. This is a fact. The Karzai Government wants this to happen, again a fact as shown by the statements of the President in various forums and occasions. Instability will follow, again a fact indicated by the analysis of all conceivable scenarios that can possibly unfold. The international community will be forced to once again witness its own failure to assist a nation and its people who have perhaps suffered the worst cases of foreign intervention followed immediately by international apathy to its state, with another intervention ensuing subsequently for some other reason and at the choice of yet another ‘great’ power. The Afghan people are stoic, an understatement of their resilience. The question looms; are there no other ways than to repeat the same cycle of intervention followed by apathy to let Afghanistan get off its knees and for the Afghan people to aspire for a ‘decent’ living—a God-given right of all human beings? A question with no obvious answers!                 

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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