by Omar Samad
While the United States and Afghan Governments’ public posturing over a lingering bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would allow for a residual American military presence in Afghanistan post 2014 is expected to culminate in a final decision within weeks, the drawn-out discussions have allowed Afghanistan’s neighbors to each take a stance that can be described as either pro, con, or vague.
Whereas much attention has been devoted to Iran and Pakistan’s positions, Asia’s three larger powers, China, Russia, and India, also consider themselves as stakeholders in the end-game or outcome of peace or war in Afghanistan.
As immediate neighbors, Pakistan and Iran are seen as singularly concerned about whether the United States and NATO will or will not have a military presence in the region post 2014. But Russia, China, and India, who base their strategic assumptions on a mix of security and economic interests, are increasingly preoccupied by regional stability as Western forces draw down.
While Iranian leaders have gone as far as publicly voicing their displeasure during President Hamid Karzai’s recent visit to Tehran and increased the tempo through the media in recent days, prescribing an end to the foreign military presence, Pakistani policy makers have been less vocal on this subject, leaving an impression that a divergence of views exists within the civilian and all-powerful military machineries.
Islamabad’s hardliners, who view the Taliban as a strategic asset and dominant force in any future political setup, favor full Western disengagement from Afghanistan, whereas moderates, who fear the threat of radicalism and Talibanism spreading in their own backyard, prefer a more accommodating approach that does not necessarily preclude a limited Western presence in the neighborhood.
The zero-sum games played by meddling neighbors have frustrated Afghanistan’s political elite who are in general eager to see the BSA be agreed upon. Afghan politicians fear that without Western leverage and continued assistance to build up Afghan military and civilian institutions, the country may face fragmentation.
It is in this context that Afghan leaders have turned to regional giants India, China, and Russia, whose de facto endorsement of the BSA is viewed as valuable leverage against those who want to undermine stability. Not only can the three countries promote win-win scenarios, but they also can enable private sector investment, engage in training, and provide counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism assistance.
More than any other country, Russia is openly critical of the unfinished mission in Afghanistan. Supportive of thirteen UN Security Council resolutions giving a mandate to NATO-led forces to combat terrorism and help stabilize Afghanistan (and fight narcotics), Moscow feels that the United States has an obligation to play a leading role in a joint international effort to combat transnational threats and avoid a repeat of the Soviet experience of abandonment which, in their eyes, resulted in Afghanistan becoming a failed state and a hub for international terrorists and drug mafias in the 1990s.
In the case of China, very little has officially been said about the BSA, but Karzai, who has prodded Chinese leaders over the past year to gauge their reaction, expressed satisfaction with the Chinese stance when he assured the Loya Jirga attendees in November that China did not consider the BSA as a direct menace and would support an Afghan consensus on the subject.
Many Afghans think that growing Chinese business and investment interests, coupled with the threat of separatism fueled by Islamist extremism in Western China’s restive regions, will persuade the Chinese that a stable and secure Afghanistan free from radicalism is in their interest in the long run.
India has been the natural proponent of the BSA. Fearing the growth of Islamic militancy in Kashmir and Afghanistan, India has become a major donor to help rebuild Afghanistan. While Afghans look at India as a historic friend, they are also sensitive to legitimate Pakistani concerns about undue Indian influence in the Afghan security spheres. But Afghans do not want to have their extensive dealings with India be dictated by excessive Pakistani demands either.
For its part, India has shown restraint by holding off on heavy weapons requested by Karzai’s government. India, now viewed as an economic powerhouse, is more inclined to open regional trade, energy and investment corridors with and through Afghanistan, than to engage in the country as a provocateur. The U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan is seen in New Delhi as deterrence to violence and a necessity for emphasizing regional economic growth and prosperity.
It is within this complex regional context that Afghans see their interests first and foremost assured by a clear international commitment to help preserve the tangible gains of the past twelve years. Working with regional powers will be critical to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan, and turn a once-failed state into a functioning and self-reliant state.
As the BSA debate ripens, more strategic engagement with Asia’s three powers on Afghanistan’s future is not without merit.
About the Author
Omar Samad is the Senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004). He is a graduate of The Fletcher School’s GMAP (2006).