The efforts to rebuild Afghanistan have often been cast as a noble effort by the international community – be it ‘the West’ or regional powers – to restore stability and prosperity to a country in conflict since the late 1970s. This however overshadows the geopolitical implications the future of the Afghan state will have on the economies of its neighbouring states. Of course, strategic manoeuvring has been a constant theme in foreign state relations with the Karzai government however, with the draw down of ISAF capabilities beginning, the competition between international stakeholders in the Afghan future is growing.
As a crossroads between the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Afghanistan is key to the growth of trade in the region. For India and Pakistan, the Afghan transport network – and its potential for development – is a vital gateway to the relatively untapped markets of the Central Asian Republics. In Iran’s case, Kabul’s modernisation offers an all too rare opportunity to export some of its heavily embargoed oil as well as providing an ideal staging point for Tehran’s own economic expansion throughout the CARs. Afghanistan is therefore a highly desirable and lucrative market – one of the few that has a continued to grow exponentially despite the global economic downturn (11% GDP growth in 2012).
Of course the modern ‘Great Game’, much like its historic antecedent, is an incredibly complex series of alliances, support networks and realpolitik. As a result, deconstructing each actor’s role and interests is vitally important if one is to try and reach macro level conclusions.
As the end of NATO-ISAF operations in Afghanistan draws ever-nearer, the important role played by underlying regional power dynamics in defining the future of the region is becoming increasingly clear. Whilst existing diplomatic or military ties are now being challenged and redefined throughout the wider Asian political arena, it is the new set of relationships between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran that is the most interesting in terms of its potential for wider geopolitical impact.
One of the most widely reported stories on this subject has been that of the Indo-Afghan-Iranian rapprochement and the subsequent agreements regarding the extension of trade routes from Eastern Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Relying on an Indian investment, these improvements would see rail assets extended from the main trunk of the Trans-Iranian Railway to link up the port facilities with the border town of Bam. From here, freight for Afghanistan would transfer to road transport, taking the Indian built road to join up with Afghanistan’s ‘garland highway’ that links all of the country’s major cities.
It is perhaps the most hackneyed phrase to come out of post-revolutionary Libya: there exists a law of unintended consequences, and the mission to oust maniacal dictator Muammar Gaddafi has resulted in such. Between talk of the role the 2011 uprising has had on what is left of the Malian state, to the impact of the Colonel’s removal on the thousands of returning Chadian mercenaries south of the border, international observers have watched with a keen eye the domino effect that Libya’s democratic transition has produced in the region.
If these scenarios have proven worrisome, it is the proliferation of weapons that has caused the greatest fear for intelligence officials. Arms, which were once set aside for the destruction of the Gaddafi regime, are now lining the arsenals of militant groups, some of which seek to destroy the very same states that helped their cause. Adding to the mixed bag of anxiety, are reports this week which allege that arms shipments from Qatar, which had been given the blessing of the United States, are now in the hands of rather unsavoury characters, including the notorious Abdul Hakim Belhadj. If these reports are accurate, then questions remain: To what extent has Qatar been cosying up to Islamist figureheads like Belhadj, a man some believe may have been connected to the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi? And what, exactly, are Qatar’s goals for Libya?
The unveiling of India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy this summer, along with Washington’s ‘New Silk Road’ and Chinese engagement in the region, suggests that Central Asia may be moving towards greater integration into the global economy. As ISAF prepares to leave Afghanistan in 2014, are there grounds for hope that the notoriously contested region will see co-operative and economically fruitful relations between the regional heavyweights?
As ever, the success of these great powers’ policy is inextricably linked to Afghanistan. If the US can identify an exit strategy that guarantees the integrity of the country, at least in the short-term, then a fertile environment for large infrastructure projects may take hold. Unless such stability in Afghanistan is achieved then any progress towards integrating the fragile Central Asian states into the global economy will be precluded. A prolonged internecine war in Afghanistan would destroy the viability of these projects, as well as change the terms of the game into those of a fiercely competitive nature. Only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which have existing, though limited, access to energy markets abroad, would be insulated.
It was reported on 07 March 2012, that six British soldiers were killed after the Warrior armoured vehicle in which they were travelling was hit by an explosion. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks, undermining assertions that there was cause for optimism about the country’s future. Here we examine the impact of the “inappropriate disposal” of copies of the Koran, which has prompted a wave of violent demonstrations and retaliatory acts; the power of the perception of events in Afghanistan over the reality, and the prospects not only for future co-operation between NATO forces and the Afghan National Security Forces, but ultimately, for “lasting security”.
In recent months, with Taliban forces having suffered a series of blows following increased ISAF operations facilitated by the surge of US troops stationed in the country, and al Qaeda believed to have been reduced to a mere 100 members based in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network has become increasingly prominent. The group, which has been described by the US as the top threat to security in Afghanistan, is not a new entity, but the reason it has not attracted attention until relatively recently appears simply to be that previously the group was hidden amongst the plethora of other militants in the country, but, as these forces have suffered a series of blows the Haqqani Network and its role in the ongoing conflict has become increasingly visible. (Please note, this is not to dismiss the fact that the Taliban remain a credible and resilient threat, as, although it is assessed to have turned away from more direct attacks on ISAF forces, it is instead relying on IED attacks and assassination which, whilst they require minimal manpower have the potential to provide maximum impact). Here we look more at the origins of the group and the efforts being taken to undermine it.