While looking into the future is fraught with peril, the general consensus seems to be that Afghanistan is likely to remain unstable. There are reasonable grounds to support this conclusion.
Before this year’s presidential election, I expressed the view that the two front-runners, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, were likely to find a power-sharing formula. My view was based on the fact that both were aware that a conflict between them would create political space for the Taliban, which neither candidate nor most Afghan people wanted.
They found the formula, but nobody knows exactly how it will work. I say this on the assumption that the formula is, at least slightly, extra-constitutional – and therefore both the president, Mr Ghani, and the chief executive, Mr Abdullah, are weakened by it.
The probability of friction between them is heightened by the fact that they are both likely to be contestants at the next elections.
Since the election, a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) has been signed between Afghanistan and the US. Consequently, even as it draws down its military presence, the US plans to leave behind about 10,000 soldiers at designated bases.
But that is not all: another 30,000 or so American contractors, and their security personnel, will also be in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. The prolonged presence of foreign troops is, in itself, a catalyst to possible insecurity, the Afghan Taliban have announced their intention to continue their “war” so long as there is even a single American soldier in Afghanistan.
While neighbouring countries are worried about the insecurity that might be exported from Afghanistan, few of those neighbours are sufficiently secure internally. As a result, Afghanistan is equally concerned about insecurity that might be exported by its neighbours.
Meanwhile, Pakistani analysts continue to fret over increasing Indian interference in Afghanistan and its impact on the Afghan leadership which, under the former president Hamid Karzai, was not very friendly to Pakistan.
The Afghanistan leadership is not unaware of geostrategic realities. The first major foreign policy decision of the new administration was an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan to set electricity transit fees from Central Asia to South Asia.
Meanwhile, Pashtun in Afghanistan have an inherent distrust of India. This distrust has little logical basis, but it exists. Whoever heads the Afghan government is conscious that Afghanistan is landlocked and with very limited agricultural resources. Its economy is dependent on its mineral resources and commerce.
Delhi might be disturbed by Kabul’s first foreign policy initiative, and Washington and Islamabad might be viewing it as a success. I look at it as merely the victory of Afghan pragmatism – this is the beginning of the inevitable shift in the Afghan regional view.
Kabul was, and will remain, more than willing to encourage Indian investment but, when it comes to improving relations, it will accord priority to Afghan interests, as it should.
Pakistan will always be Kabul’s prefered partner for commercial transactions – unless, of course, Islamabad chooses to deny Kabul this option, which would be the height of stupidity. That Pakistan is cleaning up its Augean Stables in North Waziristan should serve to reassure Kabul.
On the other hand, while some friction between Afghanistan’s two leaders is inevitable, I am fairly certain that both will try to make things work out between them. For both of them, the Taliban resolve to continue their war against the state is an extremely powerful motivation.
From my perspective, the security situation in the region is likely to improve. However, there seem to be two jokers in this deck: India, which seems intent on creating further instability in Pakistan, and the US. So long as America’s troops stay benign and mindful of Afghan interests, and refrain from interference unless invited, things will improve.
But, if the US acts like the local bully, things could change overnight. In the latter eventuality, I would not be surprised if Kabul revoked the BSA.
About a year ago, the US was willing to offer a role to the Chinese in Afghanistan. At that time, Beijing was not prepared to accept. Perhaps the two could not accommodate each other’s requirements. Today, Beijing is willing, but the question is whether Washington still is. Or is the US administration viewing its bases in Afghanistan as part of its China-containment policy?
If it is the latter, then we might find another ISIL emerging in Afghanistan, led by the Afghan Taliban. If that unwelcome scenario happens, Pakistan, even more than Afghanistan, will be in the eye of the storm.
Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer