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Afghanistan: A Cockpit of Different Powers

30 January, 2011

By Asifa Jahangir


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Due to its unique geo-strategic position, Afghanistan has historically been a battle ground amongst the power jockeying for influence on the world stage since nineteenth century. Different players used/are using Afghan land for their strategic interests. Its pivotal triangular location in this world at the confluence of South Asia, Central Asia and South-west Asia compounds her security problems internally as well as externally. The external threats to Afghan security have their genesis in the conflicting interests of interested external powers, and geo-political and geo-strategic compulsion of Afghanistan mostly after 9/11 and war on terror on this piece of land. The ongoing war on terror in Afghanistan has raised significance of this region once again in world politics. This area’s importance is a clear indication of revival of John Mackinder’s theory of Heartland since after 1905.

The USA along her allies is fighting a war to eliminate terrorists particularly Al-Qaeda and its supporters Taliban since 2001 but their defeat is obvious. The USA doesn’t want to add another terrible defeat like Vietnam in her history that is why she is searching a peaceful way-out from Afghanistan. Therefore, Obama administration and her allies are searching out a political solution for Afghanistan but military option is still functional. Holistically, no one either within Afghan government and society or regional and trans-regional players have thought a viable, reliable and durable solution of this land. The current Afghan crisis must have analysed at three levels – within Afghanistan, regional and international – by studying all stakeholders’ concerns and interests.

Internally Afghan’s society is gradually dismembering due to having some common evils of corruption, psychological traumas of life insecurity, economic destabilization, rapid acceleration of opium production, kidnapping, heavy collateral damage caused by America and ISAF  rule of handful people and centralization and confinement of Karzai government within Kabul.

Politically, installation of Humid Karzai as a president of pro-Western government is causing to promote radicalization and extremism within Afghanistan and northern belt of Pakistan. Karzai government since Bonn agreement is in power but it has not done as much as was being expected. The reason of it is that it has preserved its own interests and not focused in improving Afghanistan situation. As an international Crisis Group report pointed out that ‘President Karzai’s government still lacks the political will to tackle a culture of impunity and to end political interference in the appointment and operation for police’, however, Obama administration can’t do anything in fact they have no alternative option despite his growing unpopularity at home and abroad. The USA and NATO forces have control just in northern areas of Afghanistan and rest of the southern portion of country is in Taliban’s hold where extremism erupts and terrorism thrives due to dispersion of poverty, feelings of revenge among Afghans against occupants and so on. 

Externally, Afghanistan terrible situation is somehow headache to all concerned players; because of its geo-cum-eco-strategic location in heartland of Asia in upcoming decades. Its future might be determined Asian-oriented New World Order which orbit is mostly in Afghanistan and Central Asian States. The same thing has described by a socialist Malalai Joya in Toronto in her research on 19 November, 2009, ‘Foreign Powers’ only interest in Afghanistan...“is a geographical one”. They want easy access to the gas and oil of the Central Asian Republics.’ Pakistan is one of the major players in Afghanistan whose role can’t be neglected at any case. She has a bundle of reservations since American and its allies’ forces presence there.

Afghanistan has ever-been a strategic depth for Pakistan but ongoing hard circumstances and emerging factors have obliged Pakistan to re-think of strategic depth and formulate policy complying with them. The new-cum-close Indo-USA strategic partnership in Afghanistan is creating most serious concerns for Pakistan’s security in the region. Being closest ally of USA in war on terror, she should consult any plan action with Pakistan at every nick of time despite demanding “do more” against Al-Qaeda and militants within the territory of Pakistan. Pakistan has lost more over than its capacity in war on terror as compared to gain. On the contrary, there are some myths within different circles of the USA as well as western community about Pakistan, as “epicenter for violence,” and nuclear terrorist state. In the recent visit of Obama in India in November 2010, she tried to denounce Pakistan as a terrorist state by USA.

Afghanistan is not an immediate neighbour of today’s India but after Soviet invasion, India is taking more interests in Afghanistan politics because Pakistan cashes its geopolitical location a lot on every occasion. It is stated by analysts that Indira Doctrine clearly shows Indian hegemonic designs. She had adopted such kind of policies through which its hegemonic influence does expand in different areas of Asian region. That is why she is actively investing its capital in rehabilitation, rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan. She is also strengthening its image there via its soft power.

Moreover, she has initiated infiltrating in the Afghan Nation Army through giving its military training to its officials either within India or Afghanistan. Its Pakistan-centred policy in Afghanistan has benefited India a lot. It would be successful in finding economic benefits by gaining access to the shortest and most viable routes for oil and gas export from Central Asia are through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, more or less along the historic Silk Routes and their connections. India has maintained historically strong business and culture links to Afghanistan by increasing a sizeable Indian resident community over there. She has been successful in winning confidence of post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan’s inclination has accelerated towards India more rather Pakistan. Indian element has deepened the breaches between Pak-Afghan relations and concurrently widened the pre-existed trust deficit inbetween Islamabad and Kabul.

Iran’s initiation of nuclear programme has given lots of benefits to it such as its regional competitors in CARs like Turkey and trans-regional actors like Israel, the EU and the USA are frightened of its Islamic radicalization and nuclear terrorism. Iran’s main interests are US/coalition forces leave as early as possible and strong congruence interests between India and Iran. It offers the best option for India to seek access to Central Asia for its trade opportunities and is also an assured outlet for CARs oil and natural gas. It is very much in India’s geo-strategic interests for alternative oil routing options to emerge via Iran so that Pakistan cannot choke supplies to India in critical situation. The current disturbed conditions in Afghanistan, in fact, make Iran the currently most reliable route for trade and outflows from the Central Asian region. Iran wants to adopt non-confrontation policy with neighbouring states for regional stability. It longs to make an effective economic Islamic block in the form of ECO so that Muslim states could participate in today’s economic race depending own selves despite begging to others. On the other hand, Russo-Indo-Iran nexus has established which can destabilize Afghanistan unintentionally. The relentless support to anti-Taliban alliance by Russia, Iran and India is designed to achieve their objectives.

CARs and Afghanistan are considered as the focal point of future politics in New Great Game. Afghanistan’s geostrategic location is being seen as a ‘corridor and crossroad’ by the regional and international players to fulfil energy demands and transit trade route. Some of Central Asian states are having border linkage with Afghanistan. A peaceful Afghanistan enables Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to pass oil and gas pipelines to the ports of Arabian Sea. Tajikistan wants to save itself from massive cross border movement and rapid spread of religious fundamentalism by having stability and peace in Afghanistan. The routes of some of the sates will be used for provision of logistic support to the NATO. Numbers of individuals are carrying out illegal border crossing and are involved in spreading terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are concurrently providing bases to the USA for fighting war on terror in Afghanistan, having check on Iran’s nuclear program and on China’s economic emergence.

Afghanistan has minor adjacent border with China at the northern side via chicken neck Hindu Kash. Both relations have strengthened by including Afghanistan in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  Its interests in Afghanistan can be divided into two categories: Legitimate and General Interests. The first ones are long-term interests and they are meet future energy requirements, economic opportunities and containment of religious extremist. The latter are The religious fundamentalism emanating from Afghanistan and its effects in the Muslim dominated Xinjiang province is perceived as a threat to China’s integrity and stability and Withdrawal of the USA and coalition forces because they are a permanent threat to China’s security as well as regional stability. She has fully supported Afghanistan in its reconstruction process. For taking into account main threats to region, China formed SCO in 1996, but now its membership has extended to Afghanistan in 2004. This growing interest was particularly manifested with Beijing’s giant $3.5 billion investment in Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field in year of 2007, the far largest foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s history.

After Russian invasion, Afghanistan and Russian relations are not so good. As Central Asian states’ significance is enhancing, geostrategic location of Afghanistan and the USA presence on its soil matters a lot for Russia. Its legitimate interests are to continue occupation over hydro-carbon flow, prevention of Islamic extremism/terrorism and friendly Afghan government. Its general interests in the region are to provoke the day-by-day growing CARs affinity with Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen populace of Afghanistan that is why Russia wants a non-Pushtun dominated government in Kabul to have its little bit influence till Afghanistan across to CARs; to prevent emergence of an Islamic government and radicalization in Kabul, this can lead to similar extremism and ethnic movements in CARs even and to ensure a pro-Moscow regime in Kabul, this along with Iran will help to Russia in checkmating US leverage extending to Central Asia.

The today’s Russia is gradually on the recovery to revert its authority in the regional global affairs. Though she was disintegrated as result of US-Pakistan collation but was able to retain his nuclear assets intact. She is starting showing her interest in resolving regional issues particularly Afghanistan’s turmoil and wants to repost its control over CARs. Russia is interested to strengthen her ties with China and Pakistan too because it would help Russia to weaken the USA in Afghanistan. India was a close ally of Russia prior to her disintegration but later New Delhi extended her relations with Washington. Now Pakistan has opportunity to cash the situation and make good relations with Russia. However, in spite of capitalizing this golden chance, Pakistan is still cooperating with Washington and not taking into account its long term interests.

For the USA, Afghanistan was not as important in past as today. She has economic, strategic and political interests in Afghanistan in general. Its legitimate interests are to keep hold over energy resources within Afghanistan and CARs; Encircle and manage with China; check Russian and Iranian influence; and halt Islamic religious extremism. Her general are that the potential oil resources of the Caspian Basin region may be of strategic interests to America. 9/11 has provided as astute reason for US troops presence in CARs, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to strive for the revival of secular forces, establishment of secular and anti-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

President Obama put forward Af-Pak policy in December, 2009. His policy comprises these points as: Increasing strength of troop up to 30,000, Joint military action with Pakistan within Afghanistan, Political settlement with moderate Taliban, and Gradual withdrawal of troops. After this policy, the International Community met at London January, 2010 and emphasized on escalation of cooperation among six immediate neighbors to solve complex problem of Afghanistan and rejected the idea of ‘greater Indian role’ in Afghanistan.

The USA focused on equivalent role of all regional and non-regional roles to settle Afghanistan prolonged conflict because Iran denied participating in this conference. Afghanistan peace process would dismantle in the absence of one player and it will take long time to normalize regional and Afghanistan politics. As Obama has mentioned “The American people and the international community must understand that the situation of Afghanistan is perilous. And progress will take time”.  Either Lisbon Summit of November 2010 on Afghanistan issue has put forward withdrawal of NATO and the USA forces till 2014 in front of international community, however, realistically speaking it would not be possible that the USA do loss her control over there when Asian politics overshadowing the rest of world affairs.

Afghanistan has become a challenging case to handle for Obama administration and easiness is clear by the US’s actions and policies regarding Afghanistan. Joseph Nye Junior has aptly commented in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “The problem of America in the twenty-first century, then is not one of decline but what to do in light of the realization that even the largest country cannot achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others.  An increasing number of challenges will require the United States to exercise power with others as much as power over others.

In nutshell, the western stakeholders in Afghanistan are facing ‘to be or not to be situation’ in Afghanistan. The orbit of future global politics is in Asia and Afghanistan situation will determine whether range of ongoing economic development in the region would have continuing or would be speeded up with its full velocity. Time would be a better decision-maker of Afghanistan’s future and the USA’s doom.

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