EDITORIAL: A regional approach to Afghanistan
Foreign ministers of China, Russia and India, holding their 9th meeting in Bangalore in India, have jointly urged the international community not to let the focus slip from their mission in Afghanistan. They also jointly condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and reiterated that there could be no justification for any act of terrorism anywhere”.
The three countries spoke of “the commitment of restoring peace and stability and building a democratic, pluralistic and prosperous Afghanistan”. In the joint statement, China joined the other two countries in condemning the “recent terror attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul”. The context of the meeting was also found in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which was “steadily becoming an important factor of emerging architecture of security, economy, culture, people-to-people contacts and cooperation in Asia”.
The meeting was “sanitised” for Pakistan by the presence of China, and one can assume that Pakistan will not be in hostile company if it compared notes with other member and observer states of the SCO on what the neighbours of Afghanistan can do to ease the next stage of development in Afghanistan. The last time Afghanistan plunged into a Hobbesian “state of nature” its neighbours worked at cross-purposes and each suffered in varying degrees.
During the 1990s, the vacuum left behind by the departure of the “victorious” United States was filled by the clashing interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Each thought of securing its own advantage there and all of them ended up less secure than they were before. Iran tried to secure its eastern border and protect the religious and linguistic minorities linked to it; Pakistan sought “strategic depth” against India by backing the “majority” Pashtuns although they made up only 43 percent of the Afghan population.
India, a SAARC neighbour, was unceremoniously ousted from Kabul and later its passenger aircraft was hijacked and landed in Kandahar. China suffered infiltration by Uighur terrorists trained in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan where Pakistan had lost its writ of the state. Russia suffered after the Chechens joined the “warriors” being trained by Al Qaeda in these badlands. Most of all, Pakistan suffered as it lost chunks of territories to warlords owing allegiance to Al Qaeda. Turkey has become involved too because of its ethnic connections and as a part of its Central Asia policy.
Many critics in Pakistan think that peace will return to Afghanistan and Pakistan if the US-NATO forces leave Afghanistan. They also link “normalisation” of Pakistan’s internal situation to this grand exit. There are others who simply want to relish the “defeat” of the Americans in Afghanistan without paying regard to what will happen in Afghanistan and the region this time around. It is quite obvious that if the neighbours pursue their separate strategies they will only end up hurting each other.
Pakistan will always have a lion’s share in any collective approach to Afghanistan, but it will become effective only in coordination with the other neighbours. Lessons of the past will inform Pakistan’s new approach of keeping in lockstep with the SCO partners with more money and resources to look after the people of Afghanistan. It is friendly towards China, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan and Turkey but still at odds with India. Given the shifting focus of the SCO, this cannot go on. Pakistan and India remain the odd couple out of sync with the others.
The Bangalore emphasis on “pluralism” in Afghanistan points to the protection of the nationalities comprising the Northern Alliance. It is only after the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that the world was forced to side with the Northern alliance. Pakistan joined in because of its nexus with the Pashtuns but it was never ideologically opposed to the Northern Alliance. Pakistan was not willing to fight any covert sectarian war with Iran; it was forced into it by the tensions developing in the Gulf after 1980.
Pakistan has an entrée in the SCO. It has China there as its friend. The only problem country is India with which it is trying to get into a “normalising” dialogue. In America too some sensible critics of Washington’s policy want a “regional” approach to Afghanistan to replace the armies of reluctant NATO states cowed by increasingly threatening gallup polls at home. *