Afghanistan’s strategic backyard

By Laura Schuurmansafghanistan_rel_2003

The US and NATO have indicated that they will completely withdraw their forces in 2014 if they do not sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the former and a status of forces agreement with the latter. The final presidential candidates of Afghanistan have pledged that they would sign a BSA and SOFA necessary for providing legal cover to the U.S. and NATO for their future military presence on Afghan soil. However, we have a serious problem if Afghanistan is left to its own designs and at the mercy of Taliban, al Qaeda, their affiliates and their other criminals who use their brand names. While more than a decade ago western forces thought they could impose a sophisticated style of democracy on a country with a population that is known for its ancient old tribal traditions, the Afghan tribal society has now been divided more than ever.

Firstly, alienation and marginalization of the Pashtuns will have grave consequences. Although the Pashtuns form the largest ethnic group at 55% of the population, they have been gradually sidelined through a well-orchestrated design that includes fudging of census data to make other ethnic minorities like Tajiks appear as their equals. Pashtuns should have due representation in the political future of Afghanistan. They have ruled Afghanistan for centuries and their dissatisfaction would not bring the much-sought peace to the country and the region. A recent report by The International Crisis Group states that the Uzbek and Tajiks, who are in control of provincial governments, have not reached out to the impoverished Pashtuns who lack basic infrastructure, potable water, and electricity. Ethnic rivalry among the ethnic tribes has created obstacles to the peace process, and different factions within the Taliban are fighting against each other. Lastly, rampant corruption, opium growth and a lack of overall development have remained of serious concern.

Peace in Afghanistan does go through the Valleys of Kashmir. This is one important factor that has been overlooked like other threats to the war torn country. In recent years the U.S. has enjoyed increasing trade, security, and nuclear cooperation with India. The U.S. has been mending its relations with Pakistan after long pointing a finger at Pakistan for not doing enough and having to do more in the “war on terror”. After Osama Bin Laden and his allies crossed Tora Bora into Waziristan, tens of thousands of troops have since been stationed on Pakistan’s western border to contain the terrorist threat and fight against the Afghan insurgency in order to bring back stability to the world’s most volatile region. In their brave struggle against the growing instability threat, hundreds of Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives in America’s war.

Thousands of innocent Pakistani civilians, including the young, beautiful, and charismatic Malala Yousafzai from Swat region, have become targeted victims of the conflict. While Malala survived and has been rewarded with international recognition for her deeds, the fate of many others has been bad, and many young women have been buried in silence. The international community has often blamed Pakistan for supporting the Taliban, militant groups, and other affiliated organizations. However, a vast majority in Pakistan upholds and adheres to the values of secularism, as outlined by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The core problem of some militant organizations has been rooted in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir to which, after more than six decades of conflict, no sign of a resolution has been in sight. Afghanistan is being used as their strategic backyard. After the U.S. withdrawal, the competition between India and Pakistan over influence in Afghanistan would exacerbate. India appears to be interested in using Afghanistan as another front against Pakistan. However, Islamabad is interested in having a peaceful Afghanistan that does not increase the challenges of fighting militancy and extremism. This can be achieved through economic cooperation, capacity building of their military, and development aid to lift the Afghan people from poverty. Peace cannot be achieved in Afghanistan unless all warring factions do not seek it. After all, the questions remains – and that nobody is talking about – as to why India had to open twelve Consulates along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. No other country has such a presence close to the border. Pakistan will never allow itself to be encircled by India from Afghanistan. Pakistan, in fact, has claimed that those Indian Consulates have been used as a hub to destabilize Pakistan, of which the repercussions are yet to be seen after U.S. withdrawal in 2014.

While any sort of development assistance could theoretically contribute to regional peace and security, ongoing competition of Indian and Pakistani forces in Afghanistan will be counterproductive in the on-going peace efforts. The international think tanks like the International Crisis Group churn out numerous papers regarding the problems in Afghanistan but have no recommendation or reference regarding the Kashmir conflict, which is the mother of all problems in the region. After fighting for more than a decade in Afghanistan, international coalition forces, politicians, and strategic planners appear to have been oblivious of the underlying issue of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region that has been the root cause of the antagonistic relations between India and Pakistan.

Peace in Afghanistan, however, does go through the Valleys of Kashmir, and as long as the world remains oblivious of this fact, Afghanistan will remain a serious threat to regional peace and security. The U.S. may wish to continue to court India for its vested business interests, and India may be of geopolitical and geostrategic importance as the U.S. has diverted its focuses to the Asia-Pacific region, one step forward towards a Kashmiri resolution will be one major step ahead in the regional peace process from which the entire globe will benefit.

The writer, a Jakarta-based research analyst.

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