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As US pulls back, regional powers look to play larger role in Afghanistan

As the NATO coalition packs up in Afghanistan, regional powers have stepped up efforts to protect their interests there. Though they all have a stake in a truly stable Afghanistan, it’s an open question whether they will be able to put aside their rivalries and work toward achieving that goal.

Clues can be found in their efforts so far. Analysts say that on both security and economic issues, Afghanistan’s neighbors will likely pursue strategies of engagement and investment that avoid picking sides or tying agendas to any one faction in the country’s complicated internal politics.

Until now, the large presence of the United States and its allies, which have invested heavily in fighting the insurgency and Islamic terrorist networks, allowed regional powers to pursue their initiatives at relatively low cost and effort. Countries such as India and Iran — and even major powers such as Russia and China — have kept a low profile.

As the U.S. troops are set to withdraw no later than the end of 2016, however, it may be time for those countries to step up to the plate.

Afghanistan’s post-NATO prospects have been clouded most recently by the controversy over the vote for a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who has headed the country since 2004. It will be up to the new leader to sign a security agreement that would allow a contingent of U.S. forces to remain after combat troops leave. One of the two candidates is now alleging massive fraud, calling into question the election’s legitimacy. The insurgency, meanwhile, is far from defeated.

“None of the countries in the region want to see Afghanistan descend into chaos,” said Michael Keating, a researcher with the U.K.-based Chatham House and a former United Nations official in Afghanistan. “All of them want a stable Afghanistan.”

Security interests

While the NATO coalition waged a protracted war against Taliban insurgents and trained the Afghan security forces, much of the involvement by regional players was focused on economic aid and investment. That is changing as the security situation remains unresolved on the eve of NATO’s withdrawal.

“If the Afghan political system sustains itself in the coming years and the country gradually moves towards stability by the time all foreign troops leave the country, regional powers will most likely play a stabilizing role by assisting the Afghan government,” said Ahmad Majidyar, an analysts for the American Enterprise Institute. “However, if the country lapses back into chaos and anarchy after the foreign troops’ withdrawal, similar to the 1990s, regional countries may yet again turn the country into a proxy battlefield by supporting different factions for influence.”

The historical rivalry between Pakistan and India is one of the major potential stumbling blocks. For decades Pakistan has been accused of interfering in Afghan politics, including tolerating or supporting the Afghan Taliban and terrorist groups as a way to protect itself and prevent Indian influence.

“The Pakistani Army, which is in charge of the country’s policies in Afghanistan and India, sees domestic terrorism as a manageable crisis rather than an existential threat,” said Majidyar. “The army’s perceived key enemy remains India.”

Afghan officials, including Karzai, have not been shy about linking high-profile attacks to Pakistan or complaining about ongoing border disputes that have sometimes turned deadly. For their part, Pakistani have long been wary of increased Indian influence in its western neighbor.

For years, Pakistan’s big fear was that it might be surrounded someday by a hostile India to the east and a pro-India Afghanistan to the west.

While Indian government facilities around the country have been repeatedly attacked by insurgents — there were two attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009 that killed 75 people — New Delhi has fostered closer ties to the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, in part to prevent Afghanistan from falling under too much Pakistani influence.

India has pumped millions of dollars into Afghanistan, but NATO’s withdrawal has led it to deepen military ties with the government. India agreed to pay Russia to supply weapons to the Afghan government, a deal that could potentially reduce the degree to which the Afghan military relies U.S. funding.

The Afghan government has often stated that it values closer ties to India, especially to offset Pakistan’s formerly deep ties to the Taliban. “An attack on the interests of the Republic of India is in fact an attack on Afghan interests,” said Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Ershad Ahmadi during a meeting with the Indian foreign secretary on May 31.

“The Afghan government is perhaps India’s closest friend in the region, and New Delhi will not let Islamabad dominate Afghanistan again,” Majidyar asserted.

Keating acknowledged that the Pakistan-India rift holds the most peril for Afghanistan if it gets caught in the middle. But, he said, he sees a glimmer of hope in recent trends. “Pakistan used to be accused of keeping Afghanistan unstable, but now they have a strong interest in stability because they have their own problems,” he said. “Their ability to deal with their own problems (is) not going to be helped by an unstable Afghanistan.”

Like India, China has long been interested in the economic possibilities in Afghanistan. But Beijing, too, is showing a renewed interest in the security situation, analysts say, since Uighur separatists were accused of killing more than 70 people in attacks in western China earlier this year. Chinese officials fear a security vacuum in neighboring Afghanistan could allow the militants to step up their campaign

In the West, Iran has no interest in seeing the Taliban return to power. But that hasn’t stopped it from using the war there to irritate the United States. “Tehran’s measured assistance to some Taliban groups over the past decade has not been aimed at toppling the Kabul government or helping a Taliban comeback; it’s been primarily to cause a headache for the Americans and use this leverage against a potential American or Israeli military attack on its nuclear assets,” Majidyar said.

A combination of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a relative thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington will likely lead to less support for militant groups, he predicted. Still, along the Afghan border with Iran, there remains skepticism. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Iran has been recruiting and paying Afghan refugees to fight for the government regime in Syria’s civil war (a charge the Iranians deny), potentially placing Afghans once again at the center of what has often become a proxy war.

With its history of bloody involvement in Afghanistan, Russia isn’t likely to make much of a military push in the coming years.  But that doesn’t mean they’ll sit on the sidelines.

While Russian officials have an eye on terrorist threats, they told Stars and Stripes late last year that they still expect the U.S. to be involved in counterterrorism for years to come. The tidal wave of illegal drugs pouring out of Afghanistan and into countries like Russia is a cause for deep concern in Moscow.

Afghanistan’s production of drugs such as opium and hashish has continued to hit record levels during the NATO occupation. That has Russia, which is home to some 1.8 million injection drug users, worried that the problem will get only worse.

So far Russia and the U.S. have not been able to agree on broad drug-control programs, but there has been some cooperation. In any case, analysts warn that for Russia, like other countries, staying out of the complicated domestic politics in Afghanistan will likely be the best policy.

“It would be dangerous and pointless for Russia to get involved in Afghanistan’s internal power struggle,” researchers with the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote in a report released in May. “Moscow can work with any potential leaders in Kabul and maintain ties with any regional or ethnic groups as long as they do not engage in activities directed against the Russian Federation.”

Economic interests

Rampant corruption, dangerous operating conditions, and poor infrastructure are only a few of the issues that make Afghanistan less than ideal for major economic investment. And economic interests still tend to take a backseat to security fears.

The challenge of political corruption has been highlighted by the drawn-out presidential election, which managed to go forward despite Taliban threats but has since become bogged down with complaints of widespread fraud.

Regional powers have not shied away completely from trying to provide aid as well as more opportunities for their own companies in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there has been marked improvement in much of the economy, especially in larger cities. Whether that continues after the international coalition departs, remains to be seen.

In keeping with what it sees as a close relationship, India has invested more than $2 billion in Afghan projects such as roads and power infrastructure. It expected to continue to play a major economic role.

China is one country that has long focused mostly on economic issues in Afghanistan. It is stepping in to organize a “Heart of Asia” conference on Afghanistan in August, to which regional leaders are expected to be invited. China has spent about $250 million in aid since 2001 and has multibillion deals for oil drilling and copper mining projects.

Russia has also made business deals, but on a smaller scale, selling helicopters to Afghanistan for use by its security forces. But Stepan Anikeev, the spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Kabul, said his country wants to “enlarge our role in the region.”

To that end Russia is pouring millions of dollars into new economic investment, many that involve reviving projects from the Soviet era. The timing of some of the most significant investment efforts came right as the U.S. announced its withdrawal in 2012.

But uncertainty over the future of the security situation in Afghanistan has led to slump in economic growth, according to the World Bank. It predicts that will last through this year as security concerns remain. “A smooth political and security transition would help restore confidence in the economy and enable a pickup in growth in 2015,” the institution noted in a summary of its program in Afghanistan.

Still, analysts say that the strong incentives most countries have for a stable and relatively secure Afghanistan could provide powerful tools if Afghan officials take advantage of them.

“You can’t change decades of mutual suspicion overnight and, you can’t wave away the tension between India and Pakistan,” Keating said. “But if the incoming president of Afghanistan plays his cards smartly he should be able to exploit the fact that all the neighbors want stability.”

smith.josh@stripes.com 
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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