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What other players want

July 04, 2012

WHILE it is easy to identify the US and its Nato allies and Pakistan as the principal external actors in the Afghan imbroglio, history shows that it has often been other external players who have prevented what Afghanistan most needs — reconciliation as the necessary prerequisite to peace and stability.

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, more particularly after the resignation of Najibullah, Pakistan did make an effort to work out a reconciliation formula under which power would be shared by the various Mujahideen parties in proportion to the representation they could provide for various ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

Pakistan had this role thrust upon it because it was playing host to the seven main Mujahideen parties and because at that time the rest of the world seemed to have lost interest in Afghanistan. Certainly there was no more than a passing interest shown by the US or its western allies. In fact, this was the period in which the US had imposed the Pressler Amendment sanctions on Pakistan.

It was the time when the principal preoccupation was with the effects in Europe of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the consequent renunciation of the controls that it had exercised over the East European states.

Afghanistan so far as the US was concerned had served its purpose. It had inflicted on the Soviet Union the same sort of humiliation that the Americans had suffered in Vietnam and had offered the additional bonus of contributing to the downfall of the Soviet empires in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Many in the US may have felt that a further attenuation of the Soviet or now Russian connection with landlocked Central Asia could be brought about by bringing stability to Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states access to the sea via Afghanistan and Pakistani ports.

The Americans, however, chose to avoid the mess they saw in Afghanistan and put their eggs in the Turkish basket. The Turkish Exim Bank lent vast sums of money to Turkish contractors who spread out among the Central Asian states to undertake various projects. But this did not reduce the dependence of the Central Asian states on the Russian route as the only viable one for the export of their fossil fuels and the import of what they needed.

Had they then sought to put forward the idea of the Silk Route that is now so much in the news and helped Pakistan’s efforts to bring peace and a viable administration to Afghanistan there would now have been a very different story to tell for the entire region.

The Peshawar accord of 1992 and the Islamabad accord of 1993 were accepted by all the Mujahideen parties — Hekmatyar refused to sign on to the Peshawar accord — but the accords were violated before the ink on them had dried because various factions could draw upon outside support. In the ensuing civil war, there was more destruction than during the 10-year Soviet occupation.

Today, it is clear that various factions in the Afghan polity are being supported financially and otherwise by at least three neighbours and ‘near’ neighbours — Iran, India and Russia — in addition, of course, to Pakistan. All three have made clear their reservations and misgivings about a possible Taliban return to power. Would they, however, accept some form of power-sharing between the current administration, the loyal opposition and the Taliban?

Iran theoretically should welcome stability in Afghanistan because it is the largest victim of the opium grown in Afghanistan. Only stability would allow some form of government control on this scourge which has led to Iran having more than four million opium and heroin addicts. Yet Iran, currently under severe sanctions, probably feels that its interests are best served by an unstable Afghanistan that keeps the US and Nato forces off balance. Its reservations about the anti-Shia policies of the Taliban are also a factor.

Russia too has repeatedly emphasised the heavy damage that opium and heroin smuggled out of Afghanistan is doing in Russia and in the Central Asian republics through which it transits. Russia, however, appears opposed to any Taliban presence in the Afghan power structure presumably because it fears that the Taliban would seek to spread their brand of extremist Islam to the Central Asian Republics that the Russians regard as their near abroad and to the large Muslim population in Russia itself.

They have opposed the Nato withdrawal stating that these forces should not leave until they have fulfilled the UN mandate of eliminating the Taliban. They, however, are also opposed to the maintenance of an American military presence after the Nato withdrawal. This again would suggest that their attitude towards reconciliation would be ambiguous. India has in recent statements seemed to suggest that it has tempered its vehement opposition to Taliban participation in the Afghan power structure. It is amusing in this context that the Taliban have welcomed India’s so-called rebuff to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s call for further involvement in Afghanistan.

India justifies its involvement in Afghanistan on three grounds. First, it wants to maintain its traditional ties with Afghanistan. Second, it wants to prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists intent on attacking India. Third, it wants to use the Afghan transit route for trade with Central Asia. This conveniently overlooks the fact that terrorists can attack India only through Pakistan and economic transit for trade with Central Asia is also possible only thorough Pakistan.

It also seems to ignore the concerns that the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan creates in Pakistan’s security establishment and the deleterious effects this has on the current efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations. Whatever our view India is now a player in Afghanistan.

In the past, regional efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan focused on the six countries that share land borders with landlocked Afghanistan — Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Russia and America were also included. Now if Pakistan were to take the initiative to bring all interested parties together to promote a genuine non-interference policy in Afghanistan that would force the Afghans to sort out their power-sharing issues between themselves the net will have to be cast wider.

Apart from the countries identified above Turkey and Saudi Arabia will have to be included. This is what was attempted in Istanbul but such an effort can have a chance of success only if Pakistan, the country whose intentions are globally regarded as most suspect, takes the lead and convinces the others that it will faithfully adhere to the non-interference clause in the pact on good neighbourliness signed in Kabul in 2002.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.