Tougher times for Afghanistan


IN the chang­ing geopo­lit­i­cal sce­nario, Pres­i­dent Trump's Afghanistan pol­icy sig­ni­fies tougher times for an al­ready fallen regime. The US ur­gency for an exit from this decades' old Afghan war is be­ing felt by the pol­icy thinkers and on­look­ers though there is no work­ing time line given by the Pres­i­dent Trump. Deter­min­ing the cost and pro­duc­tive­ness of the troops in Afghanistan, the busi­ness­man turned Pres­i­dent of the United States is now in­ter­ested in with­draw­ing those troops from this costly war. The un­cer­tainty pro­duced in the re­gion thus has trans­lated into a sit­u­a­tion where the other re­gional ac­tors are re­spond­ing to the reser­va­tions by align­ing their own in­ter­ests. For these coun­tries there is no un­cer­tainty about the bot­tom line. The White House is look­ing for an exit with the short­est con­sid­er­able time line. This has also been con­firmed by the de­par­ture of ex-trump ad­vi­sor on Afghanistan, H.R. McMaster, and the ap­point­ment of Iran and North Korea fo­cused, John Bolton as his suc­ces­sor. The US mil­i­tary com­man­ders are seen mov­ing quickly to fin­ish the job. The sit­u­a­tion has be­come so ob­scure that the other pow­ers in the re­gion — the two in­flu­en­tials, China, Rus­sia and the neigh­bor­ing Iran, In­dia, and Pak­istan — have started rec­og­niz­ing their se­cu­rity op­tions, threats and op­por­tu­ni­ties once the United States fully with­draws, while minutely weigh­ing in the lim­i­ta­tions of the Kabul gov­ern­ment. The US is build­ing up the strength of Afghan units with a reen­er­gized air cam­paign and new ad­vi­sory units em­placed with Afghan army bat­tal­ions while the ad­min­is­tra­tion pushes for talks with the Tal­iban in order to bring a ne­go­ti­ated end to the con­flict. China has made it clear that it will sup­port Afghan gov­ern­men­tled ef­forts to ne­go­ti­ate an end to the con­flict with the Tal­iban – an ap­proach which is sup­ported by the United States. It has also signed a de­fense agree­ment with Afghanistan to build a base in north­ern Afghanistan and set up a tri­lat­eral con­tact group with Afghanistan and Pak­istan to com­bat ter­ror­ism. Moscow, on the other hand, has height­ened co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Rus­sia and Pak­istan that is em­pir­i­cally vis­i­ble. In Fe­bru­ary of this year, Moscow ap­pointed an hon­orary con­sul in the city of Pe­shawar, Pak­istan. More­over, the ad­di­tion of Rus­sian lan­guage sig­nage in the tribal belt and even around Is­lam­abad also re­flects upon the ca­ma­raderie both the coun­tries are en­joy­ing. Iran's con­cern about ISIS spillover be­yond her bound­aries can be seen as a rea­son be­hind its move to ce­ment re­la­tion with Pak­istan. In the past Iran and In­dia have tra­di­tion­ally worked to­gether at many vis­i­ble times, how­ever, as In­dia has now moved closer to the United States and Is­rael, Iran has be­gun to take on a more ad­ver­sar­ial tone vis-à-vis In­dia. This be­came quite vis­i­ble in 2017 when Iran re­jected Trump's call for greater In­dian en­gage­ment in Afghanistan and crit­i­cized In­dian mil­i­tary ac­tions in Kash­mir. Other small non-aligned coun­tries like Kaza­khstan, Uzbek­istan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, and Ta­jik­istan have joined Rus­sia and China in the Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion (SCO) thus putting their weight be­hind these big re­gional pow­ers. Ap­par­ently, In­dia seems to be the only odd man out in the align­ing of in­ter­ests in the re­gion. It has a long and most of the time trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with both China and Pak­istan hav­ing a his­tory of hos­tile con­flicts with both. Her re­la­tions with Iran have be­come more dif­fi­cult in re­cent years as New Delhi deep­ened her re­la­tions with the United States. This new friend­ship with the US has ac­tu­ally dis­missed the chances of al­ly­ing with her long-gone love of the past, Rus­sia also. Rus­sia is the dom­i­nant mil­i­tary part­ner for Cen­tral Asia while China takes the lead in eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties. Ow­ing to the chang­ing US poli­cies in Afghanistan, both the coun­tries, for var­ied rea­sons, are con­cerned about the abil­ity of the Afghan gov­ern­ment to keep con­trol of its ter­ri­tory and its ca­pa­bil­ity to fully con­tain the rad­i­cal el­e­ments with­out the sup­port of US army. Be­sides, they also rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of the role Pak­istan is play­ing in reign­ing in the mil­i­tants. And this recog­ni­tion has made them adopt a two track pol­icy: pro­vid­ing sup­port for the Afghan gov­ern­ment while try­ing to get Pak­istan on board vis-a vis the Tal­iban. This is com­ing at a time when the United States has rel­e­gated Pak­istan's role in the Afghan con­flict cul­mi­na­tion strat­egy and blocked the mil­i­tary as­sis­tance funds to Is­lam­abad on the pre­text of not do­ing more. The in­abil­ity of the Afghan gov­ern­ment to ad­dress the pre­vail­ing se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion is hav­ing a neg­a­tive im­pact on her eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment con­se­quently lead­ing the ma­jor re­gional pow­ers to look for other op­tions to sta­bi­lize the re­gion. More­over, In­dia will never put her boots on the ground be­cause she is still been haunted by her failed ex­pe­ri­ence with in­ter­ven­tion in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Also, given the un­easy re­la­tion­ship with Pak­istan and Iran, the geog­ra­phy of the re­gion pre­cludes an easy way to do this and In­dian army is nei­ther trained to nor have the courage to go for a war in this ter­rain sin­gle-hand­edly. Stake hold­ers in Afghanistan need to un­der­stand new ground re­al­i­ties. Any vi­able re­gional mech­a­nism for tak­ing on the Afghan caul­dron can­not be seem pos­si­ble with­out hav­ing Pak­istan on board. Es­pe­cially at a time when both Pak­istan and Afghanistan are on the course of re­defin­ing mu­tual re­la­tions. For a peace­ful and eco­nomic exit plan, the US also can­not deny that Pak­istan pro­vides un­match­able lo­gis­tic routes for the for­eign forces en­gaged in Afghan war. Routes through Pak­istan are the short­est and cheap­est and presently are the safest ow­ing to the Pak­istan army's re­solve to as­cer­tain peace in the coun­try. Another exit op­tion could be through align­ing the SCO with US exit pol­icy, since all the ma­jor re­gional pow­ers are avail­able un­der this one um­brella. In­ter­est­ingly, and quite con­trary to the US be­liefs, the mem­bers of the SCO also trust Pak­istan of be­ing the lone brave lion to han­dle this men­ace im­pec­ca­bly. Bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of re­gional sen­si­tiv­i­ties will help the US to bet­ter grasp the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan if she re­ally wants to end this decades old deadly con­flict.

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