The US-led coalition forces are packing-up to leave Afghanistan in or before 2014. Afghans view this withdrawal deadline with anxiety because it is reminiscent of the Soviet withdrawal during the late 80s resulting in a horrific Afghan civil war.
Afghans do not want another war starting in 2014 – instead, they want to build on their country’s many unprecedented achievements, and live in lasting peace. To be able to do so, Afghanistan needs to have fruitful relations with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan.
Modern Afghanistan finds itself cramped between the conflicting geo-political interests of India and Pakistan. The two nuclear armed states have fought direct wars, in 1948, 65, 71 and 98, to protect their interests in the region; they might do so again if required.
This hostile relation makes breathing space thinner for Afghanistan. Siding with one of them, alienates it from the other; and invites their furious resentment. History is a proof that Afghanistan cannot afford to do so especially when it wants to have a lasting stability post 2014.
Thus, it compels one to ask how Afghanistan’s relation should look like with the regional countries, mainly its eastern neighbor post 2014? The question is difficult to answer, yet an insight analysis and conclusion of the situation could be framed to predict the future.
India in Afghanistan
Considering its underdevelopment, Afghanistan must accept aid from any international partner; including India. India is happy to provide billions in aid. It has already contributed $2 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction efforts since 2001.
This relation makes Pakistan uneasy and raises security concerns in Islamabad.
Kabul’s answer of being respected for its sovereignty in accepting aid is not sufficient enough to Islamabad for their interests and worries. Abandoning India is not in the economic interests of Afghanistan simply due to its dismal economic circumstances and its historic good relations with that country.
Many Afghans speak emotionally about modern Pak-Afghan relations; and a blame game scenario comes on when those relations are discussed. Afghans would blame the “wrong intentions” of its neighbor for Kabul’s issues. Many in Pakistan would point the finger back to Afghanistan for Pakistan’s contemporary problems. The blame game goes on uncovering a fundamental mistrust between the two Muslim nations that share 2,640 kilo-meters (nearly 1500 miles) long border.
A Possible Way Forward
It is in the interest of better Af-Pak ties that both countries to put a stop to the increasing mistrust. Instead, each should see each other’s development as an opportunity for their own prosperity. This is a difficult ideal situation; however, there needs to be a start somewhere to eventually reach that goal. Rather than picking sides, Afghans need to lead on how they can develop a national regional policy that uses on positive support from both the regional countries, and it does not allow for Afghanistan to be a political chessboard.
The policy should include such diplomatic approaches that turn a seemingly incompatible competition from both countries to a positive one in Afghanistan’s development. It does not allow for any of the countries to see Afghanistan as a threat, and eventually wins their respect for being an intermediary ally where the two countries can sit together discussing solutions to bilateral and regional issues. Yes, this sounds way too ideal, but not impossible.
The national policy should also point out how Pakistan, which already has $2.5 billion of annual trade with Afghanistan, can build on its economic gains if it invests in a stable Afghan economy. Emphasis should also be directed toward Afghanistan providing the necessary linkages for connecting Pakistan to the unexplored central Asian markets and energy resources.
India should also be mindful of its gains from investing in Afghanistan’s economic sectors and a positive competition with Pakistan in Afghanistan’s development. Both Pakistani and Indian firms should be invited to compete and invest in Afghanistan’s education, particularly higher education; in investing in Afghanistan’s health sector; and in the booming construction and infrastructure development sectors.
In addition, Kabul can benefit from building positive bilateral relations with both the regional powers by increasing more cultural exchanges, sports activities, and formalized transportation services such as the Pak-Afghan bus services to build on creating genuine trust. Furthermore, recognition should be given to the free visa both Pakistan and India provide to Afghanistan. The process could be simplified and made a lot easier for both Afghans and people from the two countries coming and investing in Afghanistan. Tourism could be facilitated, and people encouraged to build on the shared culture and deep-rooted religious ties in the region.
Such positive relations can then evolve into enabling people in the two countries to discuss and resolve the contentious issue of the Pak-Afghan border (Durand Line) in a legitimate, reasonable and mutually acceptable manner.
Doing all the above sounds too idealist; however, the thinking can be a start point for developing a realistic approach to have harmonized relations among Afghanistan and the two competing nuclear nations. To help this ideal approach, international support especially from the United Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Istanbul Process could be mobilized. In addition, specific power-brokers, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, should encourage to make things work better. If done correctly, Afghanistan can avoid becoming a chessboard once again.
People in Afghanistan, as well as the people of these two nuclear states want lasting peace and development in the region. Their policy makers should respect what the masses want, and cooperate towards making it a reality which is not a rigid difficulty.
Moheb Arsalan J. is an Afghan analyst and commentator on political, conflict, and socio-economic affairs in the Af-Pak region. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles by Moheb.