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Victor Korgun

Doctor of History, Head of the Afghanistan Sector of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor

The most important question is who power in Afghanistan will belong to after the withdrawal of the coalition forces. Today’s government with its overcentralized power structure has little chance to survive: it seems that wider range of various political forces including the Taliban and its allies will have a share in it.

Current withdrawal of the U.S. and its NATO allies' forces from Afghanistan is complicated by a number of factors, which raise some questions that have no adequate answers. This circumstance leads to uncertainty of both the transition process and the situation in Afghanistan and around it.

The most important question is who power in Afghanistan will belong to after the withdrawal of the coalition forces. Today’s government with its overcentralized power structure has little chance to survive: it seems that wider range of various political forces including the Taliban and its allies will have a share in it.

Now all the actors on the Afghan political scene recognize that negotiations with insurgents and their integration in the political process are extremely necessary. For that the Taliban has to meet three conditions: they must renounce violence, break ties with al-Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution. Still it is unclear if the Afghan government is able to invite the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other groups of extremists to take part in negotiations. The September 20, 2011 assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Chairman of the High Peace Council, calls it into question. Even if they sit down at the negotiating table, it also seems unclear whether they will be ready to sign an agreement that would satisfy the U.S.A. and the Afghan government given the fact that the insurgents believe they will outlive NATO. It can’t be ruled out as is the possibility that the insurgents may use the talks to their own advantage and violate an agreement any moment convenient for them to do it.

That is why it seems hardly probable that negotiations will produce a strong agreement acceptable to the Taliban which would exclude the risk of their takeover after the U.S. forces withdrawal, the division of the country, creation of some new form of Northern Alliance and a civil conflict. It is equally unlikely that the Taliban will accommodate such values as respect for human rights and effective democracy that the outside world has been trying to bring to Afghanistan.

As to the current talks taking place in Qatar, they do not have any significance since the chief player on the Afghan political field – the Afghan government does not take part in them. Moreover, these talks are irregular and under a constant threat of being easily disrupted, as it happened recently when the Taliban suddenly refused to continue the dialogue with the U.S. The Taliban does not seek to make decisions acceptable to Hamid Karzai and his Western partners, since the time is on their side. The insurgents may come to treat talks as a delaying tactic, or a way to win the war by political means, because they do not realize that they can be defeated and have all the reason to believe that the only thing they have to do is to outplay NATO in a battle of political attrition.

Besides, these talks need to include one more participant – Pakistan, on whose efforts the outcome of the talks would largely depend. By the autumn 2011 already sour relations between the U.S. and Pakistan had further deteriorated and became nearly hostile after the U.S. troops had assassinated bin Laden and 24 Pakistani soldiers had been killed by U.S. forces on the Afghan Pakistani border in November 26. The deterioration in U.S. - Pakistani relations forced Pakistan to expel U.S. advisors, shut down the U.S. unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) base in Pakistan, and limit flights of these vehicles over this country.

Nowadays the Pakistani establishment does not show any sign of restoring even a minimal level of cooperation with the U.S. Under these circumstances, Pakistan almost closed NATO supply routes passing through its territory.

Islamabad has a reason to believe that after the withdrawal of the coalition forces there will emerge a sort of power vacuum, which would give it a chance to take an active part in creating a new Kabul regime, remembering that in 2014 a new president of Afghanistan will be elected. It can’t be ruled out that he may turn out to be a Pakistani protégé. Pakistan in its turn will seek influence over, at least, the Pashtun areas and will use Afghanistan to provide strategic depth against India.

Another factor that has an impact on the process of NATO withdrawal is the position of neighboring countries – Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and regional powers – Russia, Turkey, India and Saudi Arabia. In the context of the situation in Afghanistan, they have many common goals – they seek to stop hostilities and military presence of foreign countries, to provide security and stability, to fight drug-trafficking and to secure national unity of Afghanistan. However, each country pursues its own interests and intentions which are not always in line with national interests of Afghanistan.

One of the countries playing a key role on the Afghan field is Iran, whose approach towards its neighbor proves to be ambivalent. On the one hand, it renders economic assistance (since 2002 – nearly $1 b.), mainly to the populace of western provinces and to Hazara people residing in the central part of the country. On the other hand, Iran takes a tough stance in pushing out Afghan refugees (their number exceeds 1 million people) from its territory and сovertly supports various groups of insurgents striving to undermine the U.S.-led international coalition’s position. Iran cooperates with Pakistan and India as well as with Turkey in the framework of various agreements on the settlement of the Afghan problem. It participates in the SCO as an observer and maintains close contacts with Russia.

As to the position of China, it sees the economic cooperation in the region as its main priority. Still its role in Afghanistan is confined to some small projects. A big project of copper deposit procession in Ainak to the south of Kabul looks as an exception. Generally, China is more interested in Pakistan as a partner and ally that provides strategic depth against India. In its Asian politics, Islamabad, in its turn, heavily relies on Beijing. In 2011 Pakistan reportedly asked China to “take upon” the U.S. role in Afghanistan as well as sought major increases in Chinese aid and support to allow Pakistan to reduce its dependence on US aid. Pakistan also has made a point in 2011 describing China as an “all weather” friend compared to the U.S., which it sees as untrustworthy, abandoning the region again. According to press reports, during the visit to Kabul in April 2011 Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US had let them both down and that they had to turn to China.

Beijing seeks a stable Afghanistan to minimize the need for a long- term U.S. presence on China's western border. It continues to seek improved relations with, and stability and security for, Afghanistan. Generally, Afghanistan finds itself on the periphery of Chinese political interests. Nevertheless, as a leader of SCO, Beijing will play a growing role in Afghanistan after NATO withdrawal.

The Northern neighbors of Afghanistan maintain good relations with it and render limited economic assistance in accordance with their possibilities, mainly in terms energy resources supply and communications development. Each needs security along its border with Afghanistan, and each wants to stop the inflow of Afghan drugs onto its territory. In practice, however, the near and mid-term options are limited at best.

That said during the withdrawal of the coalition forces the role of Central Asian countries is significantly increasing in the first place in the capacity of transit area for NATO forces. Nevertheless each of them pursues its own goals though they are members of a number of regional organizations. They play host to the NATO Northern Distribution Network, which is an important advantage to Russia and its allies, who provided military bases as well as multiple ground and air transportation routes into and out of Afghanistan for U.S. military aircrafts. Besides, Uzbekistan has recently constructed a 75 km-long railroad from the border town of Hairatan to the Northern Afghan capital Mazar-i-Sharif, which is supposed to be actively used by NATO forces pulling out of Afghanistan.

In the near term, while NATO troops are leaving Afghanistan, Central Asian countries along with Russia and China will have to elaborate a strategy of resilience to political and ideological expansion of terrorism and religious extremism in order to maintain security in the region, taking into account potential increase of the Taliban and their allies’ role in these countries (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, “Hezb ut-tahrir” and so on).

Another problem that should make NATO anxious is that neither the U.S. nor its allies have a clear strategy of power transfer in to local authorities in Afghanistan. This is not only about tactics and exit strategy from Afghanistan but about something more significant – to provide conditions that will allow Afghanistan to remain a stable and secure state after 2014. So far, no there have been no signs evidencing that it is feasible. Currently the U.S. and its allies have no idea of what to do in Pakistan, Central Asia and Southern Asian states after 2014.

After all, the success of transition will depend on the Afghan government strategy that provides for its responsibility for achieving and maintaining security and stability. There has been made some progress in creating the Afghan army, but without a well-functioning state the Afghan National Security Forces could collapse. Moreover, during the transition Afghanistan and the Afghan government may encounter a deep economic recession when the international financing is fundamentally cut.

Judging by the current situation the Afghan government and its Western partners in the course of this process will face a number of difficult problems and challenges that won’t have practical solutions.

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