Afghanistan’s history bears witness to many a proxy war being fought between great powers and regional players on its dusty battlefields over centuries. Not surprisingly, that tradition is still being honoured today. With regional states busy carving out their respective spheres of influence, it is the Afghans who have to ultimately decide on how best to maintain a balance and who to extend and develop relations with nations as the political road map of the country is redrawn once again. A road map, that cannot be confined to a flat, one-dimensional aspect of juggling power between the tribal and ethnic groups that are the fundamental stakeholders, but one that takes into consideration the regional dimension and the wider international one. Each of these dimensions are in themselves host to complex intertwining narratives that are often contradictory and hard to define. Moreover, both the intermeshing and clashes, of economic and political interests, between the regional and international players adds yet another layer of complexity. The ultimate responsibility is on Afghanistan and how it evolves its future policy that has to ultimately absorb, repel and shape all these narratives.
Not an easy task when there is a dearth of leadership and indecision on developing a coherent policy on how to deal with the insurgency, the blame for which is equally shared by the world powers who have taken on the roles of being the custodians of the war-torn country. It may be worthwhile to integrate negotiations in the counter-insurgency strategy more fully as they remain pivotal. These must not be relegated to the back burner if a lasting solution is being genuinely sought.
As for the regional powers, some interesting developments are in the offing. China’s entry into Afghanistan’s security paradigm is indicative of a reshaping of policy in Beijing. Securing the vast economic investments China has made to the tune of $3 billion (Dh11 billion) in the Aynak copper mines — among at least a trillion dollar investments in the pipeline, as estimated by the US — is not the only justification for the recent strategic agreement signed between Kabul and Beijing. This deal, though one among other economic and security cooperation agreements signed during the visit of China’s Home Security Chief, Zhou Yongkang, to Kabul is aimed to help “train, fund and equip Afghan police”. Yongkang’s visit is incidentally also the first high-ranking official visit to the country since 1966.
Beijing may be seeking a long-term security relationship with Afghanistan for a number of reasons.
First, China is quite concerned about the export of ideological militancy, especially as it fears an alleged militant Islamist threat in its restive Xinjiang province. Bolstering a moderate Afghan regime to lessen or prevent cross-border militancy is in the interests of China.
Second, it may also be paving the way to strengthen its relationship with Afghanistan by fulfilling the country’s more urgent needs of security and economic investments to enable any future transcontinental conduits for much-needed energy resources like oil and gas. Minerals and precious earths also constitute a major need for China that is investing heavily in tapping these natural resources in countries as far flung as Africa and Latin America. Afghanistan’s wealth of natural resources make it a potential gold mine and a lucrative investment zone, despite the current conflict environment.
Beijing has already invested heavily in Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar that was purposely built to become the hub for energy trade and investments for South West Asia, the Gulf states, China and Central Asian states. Apprehensions in neighbouring India about China using the Gwadar port to establish a future military presence are likely to be compounded by Beijing’s developing security ties with Kabul, even though India’s relations with Afghanistan remain on an upswing. Further strengthening of security cooperation between Beijing and Kabul may even compel New Delhi to be concerned enough to seek similar or deeper strategic cooperation with Kabul. It is not improbable to assume that Beijing may well have served a deliberate reminder to India that it is not the only regional heavyweight in the country.
Finally, Beijing’s intrusion into a US-West dominated arena could be interpreted as a move to counter growing American assertiveness in support to East Asian nations against China in the ongoing maritime and territorial disputes as witnessed over the past many months.
Question is if Kabul would have forged ties with China without US approval? President Hamid Karzai has shown increasing independence and seems to have taken a more decisive role in his capacity as president to secure key national interests. His critiques of Nato and US military actions in Afghanistan had assumed a more strident tone as civilian casualties in Coalition-led operations mounted, boosting his image at home.
Thus, even as the regional powers flex their muscles while conducting respective reconnaissance as part of a future calculus, the US and western allies have to contend with a deterioration in security. While the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) keep issuing reassurances of improved security and things going according to plan vis-a-vis the transfer of security to the national forces, the facts on ground speak a different story. There is rising insecurity among the coalition forces as the number of “insider” or “green-on-blue” attacks spiral upwards, demoralising combat troops that now have to be ever watchful — to the extent of paranoia — for attackers from within the Afghan National Army. At least 51 such attacks have already taken place this year. As a result, Nato-ANA Joint combat operations have been scaled down.
In an obvious haste to speed the transfer of security to the national forces and police, Nato and US military officials may have overlooked a vital aspect — a more time consuming but critical, rigorous vetting of recruits. Training the national forces remains a top priority, without which the transfer of security by 2014 cannot come about. And considering the current circumstances, that objective is far from being realised anytime soon. No doubt there has been progress in boosting the national forces whether police or military, but much more needs to be done in terms of recruitment profiling, retaining new recruits and training. Despite the security pact signed earlier this year between Washington and Kabul, that spans a 10-year period post withdrawal, there is wide spread apprehension in the country that the Taliban-led insurgency will continue to pose a credible threat.
Moreover, the Nato states and the American public are war weary. Not only is the war in Afghanistan a drain on the exchequer, it has placed tremendous pressure on the coalition members in terms of domestic ire at the loss of every soldier in combat. Even as the last of the 33,000 US surge troops left for home, weeks before the US presidential election, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta’s statement that the surge troops’ return marked a milestone as the objectives which they had been sent for were achieved, echoed hollow across the Afghan landscape. A question whispered in response across this desolate terrain, however, strikes a more poignant note: What is the purpose of this protracted military engagement if many of the objectives of this war have been met?