As US troops in Afghanistan begin their pullout drill, countries in the region are lining up to fill the impending vacuum. Notwithstanding oft-repeated concerns for stability and security, a power struggle is gaining momentum. As in any foreign policy decision making, national interest will be the most crucial factor impacting the Afghanistan agenda of regional powers. Since falling-out with the US, President Hamid Karzai too has been fanatically looking out to make new friends. It is a growing realisation in Kabul that long-term benefits for Afghanistan can only be accrued through a regional mechanism. Apart from ensuring that he retains power amid widespread allegations of corruption and nepotism, President Karzai has worked on a three-fold agenda: protect Afghanistan’s territorial integrity, pursue peace with the Taliban, and leverage the country’s natural resources to achieve economic development.
However, by a strange coincidence of history, Afghanistan’s destiny is in a complex bind, severely impacted by regional power dynamics. If security and stability are a prerequisite for peace and economic development, ensuring it in the Af-Pak region is a key national interest for all regional actors. Ironically, much of the region’s contradictions arise from this commonality in objective. A key challenge that Afghanistan faces is to find a regional mechanism that will enable it to stave off over-dependence on the west. President Karzai travels from capital to capital, meeting heads of states soliciting a common ground to delineate the future of Afghanistan. An effort to achieve this objective among mutually contradictory regional actors is as elusive as a desert mirage.
Debating the possibility of forging an Iran-China-India-Pakistan alliance to stabilise and secure the Af-Pak region is bound to draw disdain. At best, it can only be brushed aside as wishful thinking. Imaginative, as it may sound, it is not completely without reason. If national interest is what drives nations into bed with enemies, all the four countries have strategic interests in the region.
Notwithstanding its culpability, Pakistan has suffered the brunt of decades of instability in Afghanistan. Sharing a 582 mile border on its east, Iran has a major stake in bringing stability back to Afghanistan. Its relations with the west reaching the lowest ebb, Iran would be more than happy to create a mechanism, which will ensure that western powers stay out of the region. Beyond immediate neighbors, India and China have a two-fold strategic interest in Afghanistan. Security is a key concern as both India and China continue to be harassed by the tentacles of global terrorism operating from safe havens in the Af-Pak region.
The second more strategic concern is economic. Driven by a mounting appetite for natural resources, both India and China have laid claim to a major role in the stabilisation of Afghanistan, post US withdrawal. India like China has poured aid into Afghanistan and has invested in its mineral and infrastructure sector, committing billions of dollars to develop iron ore deposits, as well as build a steel plant and other infrastructure.
Interestingly, strategic national interests of regional actors do not necessarily conflict with each other but are mutually complementary. For instance, India’s Afghanistan policy is to a great extent influenced by China’s motives rather than Pakistan’s actions. Thus, the crucial dimension of regional insecurity arises not from the legitimate perusal of national interest but due to the obscurantist agenda of regional actors. India’s effort is to achieve politico-economic dominance in the region as leverage against China which on the other hand seeks to sustain and secure natural resources to fuel its economic growth further. Pakistan’s objective is to attain strategic depth in Afghanistan as a means to keep India isolated from the wider neighborhood. Iran also wary of extremism looks to eliminate the western threat from its eastern flank.
However, the most significant struggle that threatens peace and stability in the region is between India and Pakistan. This sibling discord has the potential to provoke a nuclear conflagration. It has also been a major factor aiding and abetting the build-up of a regional terror network. However, notwithstanding their politico-territorial conflicts, India and Pakistan share a common socio-cultural tradition; a past that is closely intertwined with the history of Afghanistan. Iran and China are part of a larger whole.
This foursome alliance comprising Iran-China-India-Pakistan is thus the most feasible regional framework that can foster peace and stability in the Af-Pak region. The strength of this alliance arises from the awareness of their deep entrenched contradictions and the impending commonality of their national interests. Decades of conflict has left the war-ravaged population of Afghanistan in poverty and illiteracy. Extremism, a major security concern in the region, thus finds its roots in the lack of economic opportunity.
Arguing from a standpoint of a regional mechanism to secure Afghanistan’s future, there is a pleasant convergence of views among regional actors. China, India, Iran, the northern neighbourhood of Central Asian Republics and Russia share interests and threat perceptions about Afghanistan. The urgent need to ensure mutually complementary economic growth, combat religious extremism and disable the drug trade are areas that have been identified as key concerns shared by regional powers. Achieving these objective calls for the need to ensure political stability and security in Afghanistan and the wider Af-Pak region. Pakistan on the other seems lost in a quagmire of its internal dynamics ridden by state and non-state actors, which at times has been close to dismantling legitimate political authority. Stability and security in Afghanistan will consequently also help Pakistan stabilize its own politico-economic
It is of course, unwise to sidestep the geo-political sore points that mar inter-state relations in the larger Indian sub-continent. Agreeably the challenges are multifarious and complex. Fostering a regional mechanism to secure the future of Afghanistan and ensure peace and stability in the Af-Pak region is easier said than achieved. Although western scholars and analysts have derided the idea of regional cooperation in the region as “lofty” declarations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) could provide an ideal platform offering substantial meeting ground in national interests to spur regional powers into action.
This article was first published in South Asia Magazine in August 2012.