Afghanistan: Regional Security and NATOIPSweb
[NATO’s prolonged presence in Afghanistan, six and half years after the ouster of Taliban, is creating resentment among the regional players. The world’s most powerful politico-military alliance, while expanding its influence eastwards, faces tough challenges in ensuring peace and stability in the war-torn country. Taliban’s resistance is gaining strength while drugs production and trafficking has increased manifold. Differences between the coalition partners and Afghan government, as well as within the NATO over the present and future strategy to deal with the insurgent forces have also surfaced. Although a unified regional position on US and NATO presence in Afghanistan is lacking, the alliance has to realize that its presence and military action is not the answer to Afghan issue and a review of policies is needed. – Editors]
The events of 9/11 have changed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) perception of world security. NATO assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in August 2003 and, through a four-step strategy, completed its expansion across the country by November 2006, practically going to war with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. NATO’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan, prolonged annually by a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution, is its major mission outside Europe. Nevertheless, developments since 9/11 have not brought a real or profound change in the policy of countries in the region towards Afghanistan. The interests of some of these countries are undermined by the active participation of some others in the reconstruction process in the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Six years after NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, it appears that none of its declared goals have been achieved. Moreover, dissatisfaction is developing in the region regarding the indefinite presence of foreign troops here.
This paper is an attempt to study the issues relating to NATO’s presence in Afghanistan in the context of regional security.
Overview: Regional Security Paradigm and Key Issues
Instability and civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s jeopardized the security of the entire region. As rival Afghan factions fought their proxy war, other countries in the region participated in accordance with their own interests. Due to its strategic strains, Islamabad, as usual, endeavored to limit New Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan, while the latter tried to squeeze the former by establishing a strong foothold in the country. As major regional players and parts of the conflict, Iran, Uzbekistan and Russia also supported different warring factions in Afghanistan. Due to Islamabad’s open support to the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion in 1980s, it had relatively extensive influence over the Afghan Jihad and subsequent events in the country.
Conflict over Kashmir and a struggle for regional dominance leading to an arms race has been the prevailing mode of India-Pakistan relations. The influence of Cold War politics added to the tension. The strain in relations continued for most part of 1990s and reached its climax with nuclear tests by both countries in 1998.
South Asia has traditionally welcomed third-party interventions to ease tension and conflict. Thus, Washington has often played the role of a mediator, defusing tensions while keeping a balance between Islamabad and New Delhi. On an individual basis, however, Pakistan expects to benefit more from US intervention in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, while India, from its stronger position in regional politics, has tried to force Pakistan, through the United States, to stop “cross-border terrorism.” India has consistently attempted to compel the United States to acknowledge that Kashmir-related attacks on India — New Delhi’s top security challenge — constitute international terrorism, a claim which the United States seems to have resisted so far.
In the context of the war on terror, the balancing act is harder: it is difficult for the United States and its allies to have Pakistan’s cooperation and, at the same time, keep India on board as a “strategic partner.” The fact that they are doing so at present has created a sense of skepticism about US intentions in the region. However, regional powers continue for the present to count on the United States to keep any future confrontation from turning into a major conflict. At the same time, both India and Pakistan have kept the option of establishing relations with other powers open. At the regional level, India has strategic relations with Israel, Russia, the European Union, Central Asian states, Iran and the Persian Gulf Arab nations, while Pakistan has established good relations with Saudi Arabia and China. Islamabad’s relations have also been growing with Russia.
There was an expansion in relations between India and the US after 9/11, mainly in the areas of counterterrorism and militancy in the region. The two countries also signed a strategic partnership treaty in 2006. However, there are still strategic differences that limit cooperation between New Delhi and Washington in the region. “India’s pride in maintaining an independent foreign policy and ‘strategic autonomy’ also seems likely to set limits on bilateral security cooperation.” India enjoys a huge human capacity, growing economy, strong military and an internationally accepted democratic system of governance, which it desires to utilize in favor of its policies in Kashmir and in its desire to play a prominent role in regional and international politics. At the international level, India supports reforms in the United Nations and also advocates for its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
In Pakistan, the army has been a de facto ruler and the country’s fledgling democracy could never live free of military intervention. The fact is that Pakistan lives in a strategic strain and its leaders have always designed the country’s strategy from a military perspective. “Lack of depth in Pakistan’s land defenses led to the Pakistani generals’ strategic belief about the fusion of the defense of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Pakistan has utilized much of its resources and opportunities for a triumph against India in Kashmir.
Growth of “Islamic extremism” worried the United States both during the Afghan Jihad and in the post-Cold War era in the region. Nuclear tests, the confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kargil, and the subsequent military coup in October 1999 in Pakistan further deteriorated US-Pakistan ties.
India faces security threats from the “home-grown separatist or ideologically-based groups” in the north and northeast of the country and accuses neighboring countries of providing sanctuaries to these groups. For the past few years, Islamabad has also faced the toughest armed resistance in Balochistan, a province that borders Afghanistan. Islamabad accuses Kabul and New Delhi of providing training and money to the Baloch fighters.
Despite its concern about the strong presence of Northern Alliance leaders in the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has withdrawn its public support to the Taliban and is cooperating with the new US-backed Karzai government in Kabul. “Initially, Pakistan had hoped for a role for some Pakistani clients in the new government in Kabul and had floated the idea of ‘modern Taliban’ joining the future Afghan government.” However, it faced disappointment in this respect.
Pakistan has a porous and uncontrolled border with Afghanistan that stretches for nearly 2,400 kilometers. While foreign troops are fighting insurgencies in this area, people are able to cross the border into Afghanistan from the semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan. Several Kashmiri-based resistance organizations that have links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, such as Lashkar e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, have been added to the US State Department list of terrorist groups, and NATO and US officials have increased their pressure on Islamabad to “do more” in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In the past few years, President Musharraf has taken firmer action against extremism as a result of which he faces opposition and criticism from sympathizers of the Taliban at home.
New Delhi’s interests in Afghanistan are almost exactly opposed to Islamabad’s. It seeks to deny Islamabad “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and, to contain Pakistan’s influence, has developed very close relations with all Afghan governments over the past few decades, with the sole exception of the Taliban. “India saw the Taliban’s hosting of Al Qaeda as a major threat to India itself because of Al Qaeda’s association with radical Islamic organizations in Pakistan dedicated to ending Indian control over parts of Jammu and Kashmir.” To counter the Taliban in Afghanistan, New Delhi supported the opposing front, the Afghan Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance; growing Indian ties with Tajikistan are a reflection of this support.
New Delhi now has close and growing ties with the Karzai government and, to date, has committed to spend $760 million in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. India assists Afghanistan in the military fields; previously, it has provided Kabul intelligence assistance as well.
NATO in the Eyes of Countries in the Region
The Taliban regime was perceived by most countries in the region as a security threat. Initially, despite concerns and sensitivity about the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, these countries apparently agreed with a regime change in Kabul. Tehran officially has good relations with the post-Taliban government in Kabul and actively participates in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, although it is concerned about the presence of hostile governments’ forces there. US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have engulfed Iran, while debates over its nuclear enrichment activities have intensified in recent months. At different intervals, US and NATO generals on the ground accuse Iran of promoting instability in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) oppose the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Both China and Russia have their particular concerns in this regard. As Central Asian countries are traditionally in Moscow’s area of influence, they cannot deal with a third country independently in a strategic arena. This is why the United States lost one of its main logistics and operational bases in the war against terror in Uzbekistan following a widespread demonstration against the Karimov regime.
While the physical presence of foreign countries in the aftermath of post 9/11 events (in the form of US and NATO troops) aimed at altering the prevailing equation in the region is considered an opportunity by Kabul and New Delhi, it is viewed with doubt by the rest of the region. Some analysts therefore believe that a new kind of Cold War has emerged between the countries in the region on the issue of NATO presence in Afghanistan and if the foreign troops begin to face strains they cannot stay for long in Afghanistan.
NATO’s Mandate in Afghanistan
After the dissolution of the Warsaw Military Pact, “NATO began a continuing review of strategic concepts that led to an expansion of its membership and creation of new means for establishing partnerships, cooperation and dialogue.” This process added a political dimension to its role, which had previously been solely military, and made the alliance the most powerful politico-military organization in the world. However, 9/11 and subsequent developments considerably changed NATO members’ perception of contemporary security challenges. “Instability, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the flow of vital resources became the new rationale for the alliance, replacing the defunct Soviet threat.” The new threat was “Islamic radicalism”: the phenomenon of terrorist attacks on Western interests across the world. NATO was forced to re-evaluate its strategy. As an organization, it has assumed lead role in the war on terror and peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
In fact, the Bonn Agreement proposed an international peacekeeping force that was subsequently approved by the UNSC Resolution 1386 under Chapter VII. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was primarily aimed at assisting the interim government and international community in maintaining security in Kabul. However, since ISAF was a combined force of 37 countries, European as well as non-European, NATO allies lacked a permanent command base. UNSC therefore authorized NATO, through Resolution 1510 of August 2003, to root out terrorism in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. The council also called upon ISAF to continue to work in close consultation with the Afghanistan government, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, and with the Operation Enduring Freedom coalition. In late 2006, as NATO gradually assumed the ISAF mission across the country, except a handful number of troops, around 8,000 US soldiers almost all foreign forces came under direct NATO command.
Under the UNSC resolution, NATO is to work both in military as well civilian fields in the country. “Parallel to the reconstruction efforts, NATO will continue to support Afghan government towards a state based on principles of law and order and values to develop a functioning democracy.” Therefore, Afghanistan will be a long mission for this organization away from the area of its traditional influence. In this regard, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, while on a visit to Afghanistan in late 2006, said, “The battle will be long. It has taken a generation for the enemy to grow. It will in all probability take a generation to defeat.”
Issues and Challenges
Six years after the US invasion of Afghanistan; there are debates under way about the legality of foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan. One argument for their withdrawal is that the troops entered the country six years ago when it lacked all its legitimate state institutions: now, after the presidential election has been held, the National Assembly has been established, and the powers of the state are consolidated, the role of foreign troops, and their very presence in Afghanistan, need to be reconsidered and decided upon on the basis of a fresh agreement between the Afghan government and the international community. Article 90 of the Afghan Constitution also states that all agreements signed in the absence of the National Assembly of Afghanistan should be approved by it. But the Afghan government argues that “for legitimating presence of the foreign troops in Afghanistan, it is enough to have the Bonn Agreement and the UNSC resolutions in this regard.” The Government of Afghanistan has, however, signed agreements of strategic partnership with the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.
Currently, NATO is represented throughout the country via “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs). PRTs principally patrol the highways and are the development and reconstruction wing of the NATO mission for assistance in building schools, health facilities and providing other public services. Although NATO leaders at the Riga Summit in November 2006 recognized Afghanistan as their top priority, conflicts of interest among Western countries and skepticism in their relations affected the level of cooperation in Afghanistan. The fact is that most of the ISAF contributing members are not interested in engaging the challenging aspects of security in the country: the complexity of the challenges in the region, especially the relations between Pakistan and India, and the situation in Iran, deters countries that are not a direct target by militant resistance in Afghanistan.
NATO’s declared and visible activities in Afghanistan fall in three categories: battling insurgencies, curtailing the opium trade, and strengthening Afghan security institutions. These are discussed in detail below.
a) Fighting Insurgencies: Backed by heavy air operations from logistics and military bases and air fields in Afghanistan and in the region, Coalition Forces have fought and pursued al-Qaeda and Taliban in their strongholds in southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. However, the US invasion of oil-rich Iraq in early 2003 has directly affected security and the nation-building process in Afghanistan by introducing a political and military gap for anti-government elements in the country.
At the same time, Afghan resistance has gained inspiration from the insurgencies in Iraq and has received trainings and logistic means in areas across the borders. In a move to lessen the burden of its two front wars, the Bush administration ‘outsourced’ the Afghanistan mission to NATO. Tackling the insurgencies in the southern and eastern parts of the country is therefore considered the most challenging task for NATO. Although there are different active anti-government resistance groups, the Taliban pose the biggest threat. Dispersed Taliban elements have now reorganized. They have intensified their activities and spilled over their traditional stronghold into the southern provinces of Afghanistan, where the central government has less control.
Now, almost one year after NATO’s complete expansion across the country, Washington seems unsatisfied with NATO’s performance in Afghanistan. Thus, US Defense Minister Robert Gates told the Congress, “We are unhappy with NATO over the promises. I had clearly stated that I am disappointed with regards to the accomplishment of the promises.”
NATO has faced the toughest Taliban resistance since it assumed command of the war on terror in the restive southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. The UK and Canada, two Commonwealth states, deployed their troops in the Taliban heartland, Kandahar and Hilmand provinces, respectively. But lack of cooperation between the NATO countries and reluctance to deploy required forces in Afghanistan helped the insurgency to grow. “Each country in NATO in Afghanistan has a list what to do and what not.” Major ISAF contributing countries, such as France and Germany, are still reluctant to send their troops to the volatile southern provinces. Most of the EU contributing states only want to host a peacekeeping mission in Kabul or PRTs in the relatively calm provinces. The leading countries in the war on terror in Afghanistan are criticized frequently for imposing restrictions on the units sent by their respective governments through “national caveats.”
The NATO Riga Summit in November 2006 mainly focused on the Afghanistan mission. The United States exerted influence on EU countries to boost troops, but met with reluctance. Besides security concerns and other issues, the cost of the troops — close to $4,000 to keep one soldier in Afghanistan — may be another factor that makes countries reluctant to deploy more troops.
Notwithstanding the general disinclination, some of the member states supported the mission with new equipments. For instance, Germany sent combat tanks and six jet fighters to Afghanistan. Greece announced that it would help Afghanistan with 50 tanks and Spain is committed to send 12 helicopters. But summary air strikes and civilian casualties have annoyed people. Foreign forces have committed mistakes during their operations. Even while condemning the civilian casualties, President Karzai has had to urge foreign troops to carry on their operations in alliance with the Afghan forces.
On the other hand, the resistance seems more integrated and stronger, with the Taliban practically in possession of districts in the Hilmand and Kandahar provinces, and “support coming to them by foreign fighters coming from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.” Now, the Taliban are equipped with new war techniques and operational means.
Islamabad has been under pressure by US and NATO officials to take action in the face of any expected Taliban attack in Afghanistan. However, Islamabad claims it has already deployed 80,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan and has lost more than 700 soldiers in the war on terror.
Indeed, the Pakistan factor has been very crucial in this war. The United States desires to keep it on the coalition. Moreover, it wants to put more pressure on Iran and counts on Pakistan’s cooperation in this regional equation owing to its strategic location.
A tripartite committee of Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO meets regularly to coordinate operations against militants, boost military cooperation, and share intelligence information on terrorism in the region. The committee has recently established its headquarters in Kabul. But as there is mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has been relatively less effective in the war on terror and on the issue of security in Afghanistan.
Thanks to their religious background, the Taliban who fight in Afghanistan have sympathizers in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world. Foreign support to the Taliban has helped them to gain strength on the ground as well as among the people. Many analysts therefore believe that there must be a solution besides war to end the insurgencies in Afghanistan. In February 2007, the Governor of Balochistan, Ovais Ghani, said that the Taliban insurgency is changing into a “people’s war” and “There has to be, eventually, some sort of a political accommodation or solution or something, whatever.”
Earlier, in October 2006, after fierce fighting, British forces brokered a deal with the Taliban in Musa Qala of southern Hilmand province, where more than 7,000 British strong forces are stationed. This deal has encouraged the Taliban to take firm action and capture more districts. It also highlighted the strategic discrepancies that are being felt between the two leading members of NATO — the United States and the UK. The United States insists on “strategy of operations” and the British is accused of making a deal with the Taliban.
In view of this situation, NATO seems to prefer that Afghan forces be trained to lead the war against the Taliban. It plans to train 70,000 Afghan soldiers by 2010. For the present, however, Afghan National Army lacks both personnel and equipment. In mid-March 2007, the Afghan Defense Minister said during a listening session of the Security Commission of the Mashrano Jirga (Upper House) that Afghan forces would soon be able to assume command of the war against anti-government elements. On another occasion, the Afghan Ministry of Defense has claimed that the country would boast 200 aircrafts within the next two years. However, the training of Afghanistan’s national army and police has in fact been very slow, and Afghan indigenous forces may not be able to assume security responsibility of the country and to fully fight against the insurgencies in the foreseeable future.
As anticipated, 2007 has been a challenging year for NATO’s war against insurgencies. Anti-government elements have started penetrating the north. Refusing third-party mediation, the Taliban appeared as a negotiation party over the Korean hostage crisis in July 2007. Now, considering the support they have, it may not be possible to exclude the Taliban anymore. The Government of Afghanistan and the international community have expressed readiness to hold talks with them. “The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, suggested that NATO’s key members and Afghanistan neighboring countries ought to hold talks for ensuring peace in the country.” However, peace talks with the opposition groups shall not be successful unless direct talks are held with the insurgent supporters.
b) Fighting the Opium: Afghanistan produces 92 percent of world opium, the value of which amounts to $3.1 billion. Huge sums of this black money goes to the drug mafia within and outside Afghanistan, while the farmers benefit very little. Most of the drugs consumed in Europe are trafficked from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey, or through Russia to Eastern Europe.
War, insecurity, absence of rule of law, and dearth of job opportunities have led to an increase in poppy production across Afghanistan. Opium cultivation and trafficking has mostly grown in the areas where the central government has little representation and the rule of law is missing. The mafia supports the insurgencies in the southern provinces to destabilize the situation and provide farmers an opportunity to cultivate opium. There are reports of cooperation between political insurgents and profit-driven criminal groups.
During the Taliban regime, poppy cultivation was at its lowest level, but now, in the presence of thousands of foreign troops, it is thought to be one of the main financial sources of the Taliban. “Law enforcement officers and UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] officials interviewed in April 2007 believe that the Taliban are completely dependent on the narco-economy for their financing. Wherever the Taliban are able to enforce it — mostly in the south and some eastern districts — they are said to levy a 40% tax on opium cultivation and trafficking. A low estimate of the amount that the Taliban earn from the opium economy is $10 million, but considering the tradition of imposing tithes on cultivation and activities further up the value chain, the total is likely to be at least $20 million.”
Officially, the Government of Afghanistan is committed to eradicating opium cultivation, but corruption in the system and lack of rule of law are major obstacles in countering narcotics movement. The nature of this business and the huge profits it makes enables a strong drug mafia to operate both within and outside the government. High-ranking government officials are accused of being involved in the business, and as it is claimed many times, there is a “black list” of Afghan officials involved in the drug trafficking. Therefore, opium has become a strong basis for challenging the legitimacy of the Karzai government, both at home and abroad.
While drug monitoring is not clearly a responsibility of the ISAF, it does have a relevance to its operation since opium production and trafficking are a source of revenue for the Taliban. In the past six years, foreign troops have never confronted the farmers or the drug mafia in Afghanistan. Western countries have preferred instead to assist the government in controlling the problem through alternative livelihood projects for farmers.
c) Strengthening Afghan Security Institutions: Afghanistan lacks a regular army proportionate to its security needs. Militias affiliated with different Afghan warring factions within or outside the framework of the Afghan Ministry of Defense have been disintegrated through the processes of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), followed by Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) programs supported by Japan.
NATO provides Afghan forces both training and weapons. As per the Bonn Agreement, the international community is committed to creating a national army and police as part of nation-building in Afghanistan. The United States and EU lead the training and equipping process of the army and police, respectively, and aim to train 70,000 army and 82,000 police personnel. According to the Afghanistan Compact, the country will have a 70,000-strong professional National Army by March 2011. As such, while the United States has announced that $8 billion from its total 10.6 billion aid to Afghanistan would go to the security forces of the country, Afghan security forces’ budget has increased by 100 percent for fiscal year 2007-2008. The United States will also supply the Afghan air force with aircrafts, and train Afghan pilots and engineers. These will be provided by 2012 and will not include jet fighters. Moreover, main Afghan airbases like Bagram will remain with the US forces in the country.
NATO wants the Afghan forces to assume the war on terror in the territory while it provides air power support. In October 2006, Afghan security forces for the first time assumed command of an operation, named Oqaab (Eagle), to fight anti-government elements with artillery and NATO air support. This was followed by other joint operations with the international forces in the country. By the end of March 2007, the strength of Afghan National Army (ANA) forces reached 41,000.
Afghan laws provide for an impartial army in Afghanistan. However, thanks to the flow of the Western support, weapons and military equipment that are substituting the Russian military system in the country, in future, the Afghan army may be dependent on the NATO military system. Former governments’ military cadres complain that, in the new setup, they cannot easily join the army and it is mostly the young who are trained in the new system. It is anticipated that the Afghan army will depend on the NATO system and, like the Pakistan and Turkish armies, it may not remain genuinely impartial vis-à-vis the future political developments and foreign relations of the country.
Nevertheless, in view of the existing threats to the security of Afghanistan, which demand a large number of troops that is not affordable with a poor economy, and given the concerns of countries in the region about the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, training and strengthening the Afghan army and police is a practical option for replacing foreign troops and providing security and support to the central government. Therefore, for its security needs, Afghanistan will remain dependent, directly or indirectly, on long-term NATO assistance.
NATO in Afghanistan and the Regional Neighborhood
The task of ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan could not have been achieved without regional cooperation and sustained military means. Countries in the region either provided Western troops both logistics and intelligence support or, at least, refrained from clear protests against a war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, the arrival of foreign troops has changed the strategic equation in the region. Foreign troops are now stationed in Afghanistan, and NATO, as a new actor in the region, is mandated to counter the insurgency and to provide security to the country.
In fact, Afghanistan had been “the battleground of the regional powers” before international forces arrived in the country. With Western troops directly involved now, previous main actors in the Afghan arena have been sidelined and are not comfortable with this situation. Although, in the regional context, all six neighbors of Afghanistan signed a non-interference agreement, the “Kabul Declaration,” on December 23, 2002, all of these previous actors in Afghan affairs still try to manipulate the situation to their own benefit.
As mentioned earlier, taking advantage of the new environment, New Delhi has provided intelligence information to the United States to convince it that terrorism in Kashmir is linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. India has developed close diplomatic relations in the post-Taliban era with the new West-backed Afghan government. New Delhi is sensitive about Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan. It is working to find ground in Afghanistan for its strategic and trade expansion to Central Asia.
However, as it lacks a common border with Afghanistan, India’s efforts were not effective in the war on terror. Moreover, as it is an emerging power, for its long-term economic strategies and security guarantees, India needs to strengthen independent ties with Afghanistan. These may be undermined in the presence of foreign troops in the country.
Nevertheless, India is currently one of the major beneficiaries of the situation in Afghanistan and therefore investing heavily in Afghanistan. Along with the Asian Development Bank, it is co-financing several power projects in northern Afghanistan.” It has partly financed an expensive electricity project from the Central Asian States to Afghanistan, and was involved in a road building project to link Afghanistan from the west to the Iranian Shabahar Port, and several other projects in the capital and provinces.
This overactive Indian presence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Islamabad, which “…accuses India of using its consulates in Afghanistan to spread Indian influence.” While Pakistan repeatedly claims that it shares NATO’s objectives in Afghanistan and that “it is committed to a strong and stable Afghanistan” and that “the one country that will benefit the most, after Afghanistan itself, will be Pakistan,” Islamabad is not as satisfied with the role allotted to it in the new environment as it was with its role during the pre-9/11 periods when it served as the crucial bridge between Afghanistan and the West. There are factors that deter its cooperation, particularly its historical links with Afghanistan, security requirements and a domestic environment in which it cannot afford the presence of any strange forces or Indian dominance in its neighboring state.
Tehran had strongly opposed the Taliban’s fundamentalist Sunni Islamic regime in Afghanistan. But now, in the changed situation where it finds US and NATO troops at its doorstep, it has adopted new policies, including a policy “to play all available cards in its hand to defeat U.S. efforts there.” In recent months, Afghan authorities in the provinces bordering Iran have claimed that they have arrested Iranians without legal documents. Military and diplomatic sources said they had received numerous reports of Iranians meeting tribal elders in Taliban-influence areas, bringing offers of military or, more often, financial support for the fight against foreign forces.
Relations between Tehran and the West have been deteriorating over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, and UNSC sanctions backed by Western countries are pressing Tehran one after the other. Tehran worries if through its eastern and western neighbors, where the allies and the US are based, it will not be sandwiched between the pro-western countries. From the Iranian perspective, it is the foreign troops that are here to destabilize the whole region: “in most of the cases occupiers themselves stimulate instability in Afghanistan.”
Moscow and Beijing oppose the strategies of the United States and its Western allies concerning the Greater Middle East and expansion to Central Asia. Russia is also gravely concerned over the installation of US missile defense and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively. In the broader context, these two regional powers are certainly concerned about the continuation of Western troops’ presence in Afghanistan.
Russia is rising and expanding towards its traditional area of influence. The Central Asian Republics have been included in SCO in the face of the new security challenges posed by terrorism and extremism in the region. SCO’s stand towards the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is that, as the Taliban regime is ousted and a central government has been established in Kabul, foreign troops should fix a timeline for their exit from Afghanistan. SCO, in its decelerations, has asked the US-led coalition forces to set a date for leaving Central Asia. Since the wording in the SCO statement includes, but is not limited to, “anti-terrorist coalition forces,” the NATO mission that took over from the United States in November 2006 will likely face the same response from SCO.
Afghan and American officials have claimed that “Foreign fighters are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries and perhaps also Turkey and western China. And their growing numbers point to the worsening problem of lawlessness in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which they use as a base to train alongside militants from Al-Qaeda who have carried out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe.”
However, NATO and the United States have scored no remarkable achievements against these elements in the war on terror. This has created a sense of skepticism in the neighbouring states regarding the West’s intentions and the opinion that foreign troops are buying time in Afghanistan. Following suppression of the May 2005 bloody protests of Andijan and subsequent critiques of the Western countries, relations have cooled between Tashkent and Western countries. Moreover, there is also the thinking, voiced by Kabul-based Afghan analyst Dr. Mahuddin Mahdi that, foreign troops in Afghanistan have interfered in the affairs of other countries, and in the future they will do it too. Concerns about the West’s intentions in the region have also been heightened by the conclusion of long-term strategic partnerships between Afghanistan and the United States and NATO. Apparently, NATO has tried to have cooperation of the regional countries and has not taken a tough position against any regional country to provoke them for showing a reaction. But now they do not have the same privileges and cooperation as they had in the aftermath of 9/11.
Nonetheless, a unified position towards the presence of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan is lacking at the regional level. Due to differences on regional security issues between the two major regional powers in South Asia, India and Pakistan, the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been unable to address this regional security issue. On the other hand, although SCO took a relatively strong position in 2006 by asking foreign troops to fix a timeline for their exit, the fact that US forces are practically based in Kyrgyzstan and there is close cooperation between Tajikistan and the United States implies that the decision of this regional security organization was not taken seriously. In fact, NATO has recently proposed that Tajikistan provide support for border security.
Kabul is trying to win support from neighboring and regional countries in peace-building and reconstruction, but this is not easy for it with the United States and Western countries leading the process. On the other hand, although the rival factions that fought the Taliban are now integrated in the new system, they are concerned as the Taliban are growing strong once again and NATO forces do not take decisive action against them. Former mujahidin and some other groups in the Afghan government may not be happy with the policy of bringing their erstwhile enemies, the Taliban, into the government without their own involvement and approval. And this may create a convergence of interests between them and the dissidents.
Now, as NATO has expanded its mission across the country and is engaged in fighting the Taliban, it is apparently determined to win the war in Afghanistan. “Focus should therefore shift from the question whether NATO should have gone to Afghanistan to what it would mean for both NATO and the international community to fail this mission.”
However, there is a lack of determined cooperation between the regional countries and NATO forces in the war on terror, and it seems that, due to divergence of regional security perceptions, full cooperation may not be possible for Afghanistan’s security. Evidence indicates that insurgency and anti-government activities are well-organized, and their proponents have access to smart weapons like the Chinese-made SAM 7 anti-aircraft missiles. The Taliban practically have districts in the southern Hilmand and Uruzgan provinces under their control. The geography of the land, growing opium trade and other assistances are good raison d’être that help the Taliban’s resistance strengthen against the foreign troops in Afghanistan, and they are particularly active along the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, six years since the war began, it does not seem the insurgency in Afghanistan can be suppressed easily; if there is a solution to the problem, it seems it would take years to find.
On the other side, thanks to their summary targeting, indiscriminate air strikes and disrespect for the local culture and traditions during operations, foreign troops have failed to win the “hearts and minds” of the local people. If this trend continues, it may further undermine the reputation of the NATO-led ISAF forces among the ordinary people, who have developed a strong xenophobia. This will further strengthen the insurgents, who could easily fan public sentiment against foreign troops and the central government in Kabul, both at home, particularly in the southern and eastern provinces, as well as in refugee camps abroad.
Over the past few years, voices in favor of political maneuvers and negotiation with the Taliban as an open option have been increasing. The UN General-Secretary’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, in an interview published on April 13, 2007 told the German daily Berliner Zeitung that “If there is to be a chance for peace, we must talk to everyone, including alleged war criminals. The aim is to stabilize Afghanistan.” He said he believed that the insurgencies have political foundations and should be tackled politically.
President Karzai himself made a direct offer of talks to the Taliban and Hizb–e-Islami Hekmatyar and their leaders, on his return from the sixty-second annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. He said that he had the support of the international community in this regard. Supporting this initiative, the NATO spokesman in Kabul admitted that war alone could not solve the problems. He said, “We have military successes and superiority against the Taliban this year, but for having a sustainable peace and progress we can not only depend on the military forces.”
The deputy head of the European and Eurasian Affairs Office at the US State Department, Kurt Volker, said during a visit to Berlin, “I think for the government of Afghanistan and President Karzai to want to reach out and work with people who renounce violence, who want to support the central government, who will support human rights, who will build peace and security and development in the country— that’s reconciliation, that’s an important thing for the Afghan government to do and we support that.”
Talks are certainly an important option, but there will be many obstacles to cross in this process. In the recent statements they have issued, it seems that the Taliban are not ready for talks with the central government. Some groups of the Taliban, especially those directly involved in fighting the international and Afghan forces on the ground, ask for withdrawal of the foreign forces as a precondition for any talks, which seems impracticable.
As such, if there is no progress towards a negotiated settlement, or NATO forces exit from Afghanistan without completing their job, discontented factions and insurgents will fill the vacuum, and this too will have a wide range of repercussions for regional security. The Taliban will pose a crisis and threat to regional security with their radical agenda. The secular regimes of Central Asia are very vulnerable in this regard. A confrontation between the Taliban and the Iranian regime may also emerge.
The dilemma for NATO is that, on the one hand, countries in the region are apprehensive about its long-term presence in Afghanistan and therefore have reservations in cooperating with foreign troops; on the other hand, it cannot leave the mission incomplete. Unless interested regional powers are engaged in the process, it seems that the insurgencies will continue to expand across the country. Besides opening channels of dialogue with the resistance movement, building the capacity of Afghan forces, and providing political, economic and military support to the process of nation-building, NATO needs to create a network for security cooperation with other countries in the region by giving a clear and explicit indication to them that it will not itself stay in the region for long.
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Despite Moscow’s disagreement, NATO expanded and granted membership to 10 former Communist East European states by 2004. Japan, South Korea and Australia are strategic allies of the organization that were given observer status in the Riga Summit in October 2006.
In mid-February 2007, the Taliban claimed that they hit a US Chinook helicopter in Zabul. Compared to 2005, suicide attacks have increased in number and have expanded to major cities. The first seven months of 2007 recorded more than 70 suicide attacks.
Peninsula Qatar Daily(English),“Talk to Taliban, Balochistan governor tells Western allies,” February 25, 2007, http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/Display_ news.asp?section=World_News&subsection=Pakistan+%26+Sub-Continent&month= February2007&file=World _News2007022521245.xml.
At a NATO conference, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri tried to convince the Western leaders that, unless the role and significance of his country is reconsidered, they might not succeed in their Afghan mission. Meanwhile, the leader of opposition in the National Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, “reacting to reports of the deployment of more troops in Afghanistan demanded the US and the NATO to immediately announce withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan otherwise a growing resistance in the war-torn country would turn peace into a pipe dream.”
Nevertheless, as far as South Asia is concerned, Afghanistan’s accession to SAARC in April 2007 will provide and develop new opportunities, as the country serves as a land-link between South Asian and Central Asian states.