I recently read an article (in Forbes, no less) entitled “Five Signs Afghanistan is Becoming an American Success Story”, written by Loren Thompson. It argued that while Afghanistan has been a hard place to stabilise, the steadfastness shown by the US (and to a lesser extent its coalition partners) has provided numerous signs that they have “succeeded in making Afghanistan a more peaceful, progressive place”. Thompson pointed out several of these signs, including the good performance of its military/police forces and its hugely improved economy. He continues this rose-tinted view by stating that the trends in country are favourable, and that if only the US can deliver on its remaining funding commitments then they can “keep Afghanistan in the win column”. I began wondering fairly early on in this article whether Thompson was observing the same Afghanistan as I was; does it perhaps have a more amiable doppelganger of which I am unaware? If this was an isolated incident I would undoubtedly have paid little attention, possibly muttering to myself but nonetheless moving on with my life. However, this has been just one of a number of recent occasions in which I have read accounts of the ‘Afghan success story’ that seem at odds with the reality.
On 05 April 2014, Afghanistan will go to the polls, to hold elections for a new president and over 400 provincial councillors. This will be the fifth national election held since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, but will be the first to be held on a constitutionally established election schedule, and also the first to be overseen by a permanent and independent entity, the IECC, rather than the controversial temporary bodies set up to monitor previous votes. Without a doubt, this upcoming election is an important moment in Afghanistan’s modern history, particularly in relation to its often problematic, decade-long democratic transition. A successful election that establishes a legitimate government would deal a substantial blow to the aspirations of Afghanistan’s militant groups. However, a failed election, combined with a coordinated push by Taliban forces, could provide an impetus and a rallying cry to these same extremist groups, potentially reinvigorating the insurgency that has caused so much bloodshed over the past decade. Although the elections could be crucial to the future stability of Afghanistan, the process is likely to be far from smooth, as there are a number of important obstacles that could significantly impact the chances of a successful outcome.
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.