Stabilising Afghanistan: Role of Key Regional Players

In 2011, President Barack Obama had approved plans to draw down 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan during that year and another 23,000 in 2012. The withdrawal of the remaining combat troops is to be completed by 2014. Approximately 10,000 to 20,000 troops are likely to be left behind at Kabul, Bagram and Kandahar to provide training and logistics support and to continue the drone war against hardcore terrorists inimical to US interests. 
Although partial, the drawdown will leave a security deficit in Afghanistan. There is no evidence at present that Washington and its allies are planning to help the Afghan government to maintain security by supplementing Afghan efforts through the deployment of a viable regional or international peacekeeping force under a UN flag after the NATO-ISAF military withdrawal is completed in 2014. The willingness of regional actors to play a leading role in stabilising Afghanistan, rather than pursuing divergent national interests and disparate agendas, is also uncertain. Unless the Central Asian states, China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia jointly contribute towards ensuring stability, Afghanistan is likely to fall to the Taliban again or even break up. 
The present situation in Afghanistan is a stalemate at both the strategic and tactical levels. The ISAF strategy to “clear-hold-transfer-exit” is many years away from achieving its political and military goals. The fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), which are expected over time to take over the responsibility for security from ISAF, are not yet equal to the task: their numbers are small; they lack experience and are inadequately trained; and, they are not capable of undertaking counterinsurgency operations autonomously. Hence, the planned withdrawal of ISAF will leave a security deficit. 
While the ISAF forces control most of the large towns, the Taliban—together with the al-Qaeda—controls large swathes of the countryside. Governance is virtually non-existent outside Kabul. Though significant funds are being spent on socio-economic development by the Afghan government as well as by donors like India (the US alone has pumped in 56 billion dollars), the results have consistently fallen short of the country’s requirement. This is partly due to inadequate supervision and rampant corruption. 
The security deficit can be filled only if Afghanistan’s neighbours agree to accept the responsibility for providing security, including contributing troops to a UN-mandated peacekeeping force. However, Central Asian Republics (CARs), China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia have their own challenges and agendas that are at variance with the requirement.
The Central Asian states, particularly Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, will be directly affected by instability in Afghanistan. Due to a persistent inadequacy of state capacity and military capability, these states can at best ensure that their territory is not used as safe haven by the Taliban. They could also continue to help with limited logistics support.
Afghanistan has emerged as a treasure trove of mineral deposits (estimates vary between 1 and 3 trillion dollars), but it is China that has benefited the most so far. For example, China signed a $2.9 million agreement with Kabul in December 2007 to extract copper from the Aynak deposit, which is estimated to contain 240 million tonnes of ore. Beijing maintains close strategic ties with Pakistan and may support Islamabad’s continuing efforts to ensure the Taliban return to power. China is unlikely to join a UN peacekeeping force to stabilise Afghanistan as such a force will almost certainly be led by a US commander. However, China will not block the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) from seeking an amicable solution to the Afghan conflict.
India has historically had friendly ties with Afghanistan and wishes to see a stable government installed in Kabul that is neutral to both India and Pakistan. It has funded some Afghan reconstruction and development plans, spending $1.2 billion so far, and recently committed another $500 million. The funds have been spent on building the 218 km-long Zaranj-Delaram road linking the Iranian border with the Garland Highway, electric power lines including one from the CARs to Kabul, hydroelectric power projects, school buildings, primary health centres and the new building for the Afghan Parliament. India is also training Afghan administrators, teachers and officer cadets, but only within India. While at present there is no support in India for sending troops to Afghanistan, there is realisation that the fight against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda has long term security implications for India. With some effort, New Delhi could be persuaded to deploy up to one division (15,000 troops) to join a UN peacekeeping force provided Pakistan’s sensibilities about Indian military presence in Afghanistan can be taken care of.
Iran has followed a wait-and-watch policy since the US-led invasion in 2001. In 1998-99, it had massed 200,000 troops and Revolutionary Guards on its border with Afghanistan to prevent drug trafficking and protect its territorial integrity. Even now its troops are in stand-by mode close to Afghanistan’s western border to prevent cross-border Taliban influence. Tehran is unlikely to join a UN peacekeeping force, and Washington will not want Iranian troops in such a force. However, the former may allow the use of the road from Chabahar port to Zaranj to open up a new route for logistics supplies, thereby reducing dependence on the two routes that pass through Pakistan’s Quetta and Peshawar.
Pakistan stands accused of having an equivocal stance on the international counter-insurgency campaign and providing a safe haven to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in FATA and Balochistan. Moreover, the military and security agencies, particularly the ISI, continue to seek ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, with a view to limiting India’s influence in Kabul and ensuring Pakistan has significant leverage in any future peace talks in Afghanistan. The ISI in particular fears talks being held on terms too favourable to Washington and Kabul, and is therefore unlikely to alter its stance. 
Russia has not forgotten its humiliation in Afghanistan during its intervention of 1979-89 and will, therefore, not allow its troops to join a UN peacekeeping force. However, it would be inclined to play a positive role overall. Approximately 40 per cent of logistics supplies for the ISAF now transit via the Northern Distribution Network through Russia and Central Asia. At present Moscow does not allow the use of this route for lethal equipment. However, it may relent on this requirement and may also allow the use of its air bases in Central Asia, provide refuelling facilities and help in search and rescue. 
A hasty withdrawal without viable alternative security arrangements will lead to the return of the Taliban and contribute further to regional instability. Instability in Afghanistan will fuel Islamist fundamentalist terrorism and assist the return of the al Qaeda. Western and regional players will need to accommodate Pakistan’s core interests in seeking a lasting solution to the Afghan conflict.