Russia amid changing perspective of Afghanistan
The changing strategic realities after the gradual international pullout from Afghanistan will require an entirely new set of approach for the sustainability of non-extremist governance and stability of social fabric. Amid, such an unpredictable future of war-game stage of Central and South Asia, Russia is one of potential players that can come forward to discuss new matrix of long-term building of state structure in Afghanistan. This requires an out of traditional box of security engagement paradigm and demands an integrated approach for the broader re-coordination of diversified interests.
Afghanistan has been the centre of conflicts among world powers since at least lat two centuries, and if seen in the perspective of global security and Asian composite, it has been a major centre of international disorder causing political-strategic upheavals on the world stage. Being located at an incredible strategic place, it has gone through the various waves of destructions, on the debris of which world now is attempting the reconstruction that suits the various interests.
Since the world power have decided a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the issue is gaining further importance as almost whole developed and developing world has engaged their stakes into the war torn country. In these highly crucial moments for Afghanistan, the neighboring world powers are pushing forward for copping the new emerging challenges concerning their interests that are associated with the stability in Afghanistan. The history attached to the Afghan war theatre is highly discussed globally; hence, it is important to think now about post ISAF pullout.
All roads cross through Afghanistan
Afghanistan is the strategic heart of Asia, a kind of Suez Canal that can potentially connect almost all economic regions of the continent. This is the main reason along with so many others that international interests have been attempting and struggling for their presence and outreach there. It is also one of the important most sources of the much hounded energy resources.
Russia – Afghanistan relations have remained on the positive note since the period of Tzar, which further developed into better ties after the October revolution. Being a historical partner of Afghanistan, writes Monika Pawar in her article ‘Russia’s Afghan Strategy: What are its Interests?’ “Russia will have to keep a check on formidable economic rivals in Afghanistan like (the one) China.” It has to deal with four matrixes of regional interests simultaneously: Pakistan and its backing by the Arab Salafism; Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO); India-Iran-Tajikistan trimetric and the West. It is the matter of higher playing field for Russia that in the context of American notion of the Greater Central-and-South Asia, how its re-coordinates its interests in a manner that interests of majority stakeholders are not challenged. Besides, what possible role it could play in the state formation and development of Afghanistan and stability of Afghan people would materially mean a lot in terms of strengthening sustainable stability in Afghanistan as well as in the region.
The strategic niche of the Russia and the Central Asian States is interdependent; therefore, their multilateral and collective engagement for the interests cannot be avoided. There are at least four key cornerstones of Eurasian concerns about the post international pullout scenario, which include possibility of Taliban takeover of Kabul may reduce the presence of Northern Alliance in the Afghan affairs that ultimately would lead Eurasian countries to have an easy access to the Indian Ocean through Iran. Besides, there is an undeniable security concerns regarding the infiltration of Islamist militants in the Eurasia. The most important would be the thin chances for access to the natural resources in the Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan. In addition, the highly important one is the narcotics supply. The civil war or dominating armed conflicts are not in the favor of Russia, Central Asia and the West.
According to Ekaterina Stepanova’s research work, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that in 2006 the share of Afghan opiates passing through the Northern route was less than 15 percent of the total, while more traditional routes were more heavily utilized (53 percent through Iran and 33 percent through Pakistan). The share of heroin in Russia’s opiate consumption has also marginally declined.
Afghanistan is of key significance to Russia’s wider Central Asian policy and its claim to a great power status, writes Monika Pawar. “Moreover, the socio-cultural and ethno-linguistic nexus between non-Pashtun Afghanistan and the Central Asian Countries that creates friendly cushion for Russia and its allied in Central Asia in Afghanistan. The support of Central Asian countries and Russia to the Northern Alliance, an alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen against the Taliban, is borne out of this socio-cultural affinity.
It is therefore a greater opportunity for Russia to further its and allies strategic goals in Afghanistan, as the new Afghan situation is much different than that of during Soviet year, not only in terms of global fabric of politics but also in the context of Afghanistan’s internal realities and demographic tilts.”
One of the major and bold strategic steps by Russia was opening the transportation rout for NATO after July 2009, when Pakistan asserted its strategic importance by disallowing NATO supply from its territory. This would ultimately open up a new chapter of Russian foreign policy approach towards the West.
Russia has also been focusing the strengthening of the security system. According to an analytical write up of Andrei Akulov it is strengthening the “security system in the strategic southern area, including its military component, emphasizing the need for close cooperation with fellow members of regional security alliances.” On the other hand, Russian approach regarding enhanced role of United Nations in Afghanistan after ISAF pullout has also a shared context with the rest of stakeholders. It is not doubt; Russia should do every possible effort to avert possible instability at its borders in the changing scene of the game.
Afghanistan needs a collective or an integrated approach by almost all stakeholders. While considering in the Russian or Eurasian context, it becomes essentials that how Russia and the Central Asia manage together a viable engagement with the other competing interests to carry forward the continuous and in-depth reconstruction of not only physical landscape of Afghanistan but essentially the state-building and specifically the sociologically an ethno-linguistic reconstruction. This can only be possible through the developing a consensus among and between regional and international stakeholders. This the point, where Russia can become a real sense bridge between the West and the Asian actors that have avoidable differences, and couch-able competition. This primarily will require understanding that Afghanistan is a demographic entity in its own.
Besides, the fallacies like that almost all Pashtun are pro-Pakistan or Pakistan friendly Taliban needs to be washed away. This Afghan transition could be an ideal moment for connecting the pieces in Afghanistan vertically and horizontally. Russia has created a new set of the relations with Europe and North America by cushioning route facilitation for NATO and other similar initiatives; it already enjoys the historical friendly relations with India, which itself is an old ally of Iran and has deeper engagement with Tajikistan; and finally has no adverse relations with China. Therefore it may be in the greater interests of Russia to engage with all international stakeholders particularly US and India (and China as well) for the continuous reconstruction of Afghanistan from the state, society and development point of view and ensure the strategic sidelining of Taliban and the similar rouge elements from Afghan scene.
It is already too late. The downpour of global monitory resources in Afghanistan has failed to prove as a stability-creating agent. It neither has helped resolve the Afghan issue, nor has channeled up the new development flow. At least there have been no remarkable gain in the minimizing the size of populace that lives bellow the line of poverty in millions. Such a huge investment of trillions of dollars could have been utilized for the eradication of poverty that is mother of all terrorism in the world.
Much has been discussed about Afghanistan in the terms of various interest groups. This the time when a new discussion and decisions needs to be taken for the viable federal statehood in Afghanistan that accommodates ethno-linguistic and sectarian plurality. Until and unless appropriately consensual three-tier mechanism of federal state structure is not created on the ethno-linguistic line and Afghan people at various tiers are not being given the representation after the due and necessary empowerment, the threats of instability and destabilization would always loom large over the region.
Since majority of the Afghanistan population is liberal or secular, there is a need to find missing links where this fabric is challenged by the extremists and destabilizing factors. It is no doubt a global failure that it has not started the reconstruction of Afghanistan and its state from ethno-social perspective, which unfortunately does not devise the balanced demographic chemistry of a viable and sustainable statehood. Besides, it is important to focus on the role of United Nations in such kind of global interventions. The issue of Afghanistan has many aspects but essentially, from the structural point of view it is the issue of appropriate ethnic accommodation in the state field there.
A similar situation is also prevailing in Pakistan, where dominancy of ethnic Punjabi in association with Urdu-speaking privileged community has perverted society in name of Islamization so that Punjab may carry on its colonization of Sindh, Baluchistan, and KP in Pakistan. It is also important to note here that in so many manners, if the chemistry of statecraft Pakistan is not changed, the issue of Afghanistan will never get resolved. Mostly because, the exclusive and non-representative security establishment of Pakistan devises it’s foreign policy, which ultimately is dominated by ethnic Punjabis and their junior partner Urdu speaking bureaucracy. Therefore, it is also essential to find the Afghan destabilization strings within the single ethnic dominated and non-pluralistic state chemistry in Pakistan. In the long term perspective, it is therefore would become unavoidable that after an optimum level stability in Afghanistan, a much needed state-chemistry change of Pakistan will also be needed. Until and unless Pakistan is not made free from ethnic Punjabi-cum Urdu and Salafi minority dominancy, there are no signs of major policy change of Pakistan towards the stability of Central-South Asian region.
The author is Pakistan born researcher, analyst and activist living in exile.
He is affiliated research scholar with Central Department of Political Science, Tribhuvan University, Nepal and IASE (D) University, India. Twitter: @shahzulf