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Season of agreements

June 16, 2012

SUBSTANTIAL changes on the international strategic landscape are not only set to change the role of various players in Afghanistan but will also have a long-term impact on the strategic outlook of the region. The United States has crafted an exit strategy as China has shown interest in a broader role in Afghanistan.

This is not simply an issue of changing priorities in Afghanistan; it is part of global strategic shifts. The Euro-Atlantic region and Asia overall are trying to adjust to the new change. The US security policy shift from Central Asia and Europe to Asia-Pacific, particularly the southern part of the region, and the Middle East has triggered the scuffle.

The Nato countries are adjusting their positions and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is trying to come up with a response. China, India and even Afghanistan have responded rather well but Pakistan’s position is not clear yet.

Although the mercury had been rising on the international strategic stage since 2011 May and June this year have proved the hottest months so far. The Chicago summit in May and the SCO moot in early June have come up with clear indications of security and defence strategic shifts.

The fundamental goal underpinning the US shift lies in the military sphere and economic interest under a broader geographical vision of the Asia-Pacific region. A new regional design in the form of economic and political arrangements in East Asia is developing that has significant implications for American interests and policy. As per the official version, the US has a similar approach in the Middle East both in the economic and strategic spheres.

Does that mean that the US will leave behind a vacuum in the region when its troops leave Afghanistan? That is an important question, particularly in the context of Afghanistan’s strategic engagements with the US and India. However, it is obvious that China and Russia not only have a better image in Central and South Asia but also have influence both at the state and society level. For the US it is not an easy task to encircle China or Iran, which is a major irritant for the US.

The strategic objectives of the US in this region were mainly related to internal security, particularly guarding the US against any terrorist attempt from jihadis. The growing Chinese interest in Afghanistan has similar objectives aimed at working as a counterbalance to Indian and US influence and to secure Beijing’s own geo-economic interests. China had already entered into a strategic partnership with Afghanistan to boost cooperation on the political, economic, cultural and security fronts.

For Afghanistan, this partnership is an attempt to create some strategic balance with Pakistan and to pressurise the latter into taking action against terrorists on its territory. China does not seem satisfied with Pakistan’s efforts against the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (Etim) militants in its tribal region, and the Sino-Afghan partnership can help increase pressure on Etim elements on Afghan soil. Ultimately, it will bring more pressure to bear on Pakistan in both strategic and political terms.

The US approach in Afghanistan seems to be that it can counter internal security threats even with a limited military presence in Afghanistan, while using drone strikes as a key instrument of its strategy. As far as countering Iran’s nuclear ambition is concerned, Washington’s reliance will increase on Ankara, as Turkey is already playing the facilitator’s role.To further strengthen their policy objectives, the US and India have signed an agreement for holding regular trilateral talks with Afghanistan to help Kabul strengthen its grip on power.

Although media reports state that the new arrangement would allow a three-way consultation process, like the trilateral arrangement the US has with Pakistan and Afghanistan, the agreement indicates that Pakistan’s role is severely undermined as an effective partner, and that can be a destabilising factor in the region.

This reduced role in the regional strategic equation would obviously be a headache for Islamabad. The dynamics of international engagement with Pakistan are changing, as the international community’s concerns grow about Pakistan’s internal security and the presence of transnational terrorist networks on its soil.

The various approaches of engagement with Pakistan may vary for different states but terrorism remains the central theme.

Terrorism is not only weakening Pakistan’s bilateral relations with China but also with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan still has a few windows open in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It can strengthen its strategic position by joining the SCO as a full member. Although China and Russia have differences of opinion on the issue, no SCO state wants to see the forum become a stage for proxy wars between the two South Asian nuclear adversaries India and Pakistan.

The new challenges are emerging at a very fast pace, and Pakistan has to respond swiftly. The response can come through a clear vision and the leadership has to bring innovation to the policy discourse.

Pakistan can learn from the Euro-Atlantic nations that are evolving a new strategic framework based on five principles; first, a move from residual hostility and strategic rivalry to strategic cooperation; second, a historic Euro-Atlantic reconciliation; third, a new narrative recognising the stakes in security and prosperity for all and the risk in the weakness and tribulations of any member; fourth, energy security based on independence rather than competition; and finally, the institutions on which the Euro-Atlantic states rely for security must be strengthened and welded into a division of labour enabling them all to meet the 21st century’s new security challenges Although the dip in tensions between India and Pakistan is a positive sign it needs to be put into a proper framework, and Afghanistan can also be engaged.

The Euro-Atlantic framework, with a few amendments, can provide the future course for this troubled region. Pakistan should take the lead in initiating this process, not least because it needs to restore the balance of things in its favour.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.