As the date for the withdrawal of US and NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan fast approaches plans for what shape this 2014 Project should take have intensified on several levels: an intra-Afghan level, a bilateral Pakistan-Afghanistan level, and a regional level.
In 2014 the primary playing stage in the West Asia region will remain Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US and NATO coalition forces from the country will be preceded by two significant political events within Afghanistan: presidential elections (April 2014) and provincial council elections (Autumn 2014). The US/NATO scenario envisages these elections taking place in the presence of a significant foreign military contingent. Only afterwards will NATO and ISAF troops partially withdraw from Afghanistan.
At the end of November 2013 the local Afghan Loya Jirga (Council of Elders) supported the US/NATO proposal to extend the tenure of military contingents and US military bases in the country past 2014. But the question of the legitimacy of foreign troops in Afghan territory remains unresolved. The president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai refuses at the present time to sign the Afghan-American document known as the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Why? There are several possible answers. Let us first consider the regional factor.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India are currently weighing the question of whether centripetal forces will prevail in the region (despite numerous contradictions from all sides) or whether external influence will remain dominant. Therefore the actions of these countries are dictated by the necessity of protecting national interests and, correspondingly, of defending their place on the political map of the region after 2014.
In search of an answer as to what should be done with the Bilateral Security Agreement Karzai paid visits to the capitals of neighbouring countries – Tehran, New Delhi and Islamabad. The negative response from Tehran was neutralized by the positive support of New Delhi. All that remained was ascertaining Islamabad’s approach to the issue.
In 2013 Pakistan-Afghanistan relations received a new impetus for development. This was primarily connected with a non-related event: in May of this year, as a result of general parliamentary elections, the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power in Islamabad. The new cabinet made the decision to raise Pakistan-Afghanistan relations to a new level. This resulted in an acceleration of diplomatic traffic on a bilateral, as well as an international, level. In August 2013 Karzai arrived in Islamabad. According to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry the current leadership of Pakistan, as had the former, corroborated the desire of seeing a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan. On October 29, 2013 a meeting took place between the leaders of the two countries in London within the framework of a trilateral summit between Afghanistan, Great Britain and Pakistan. A month later, on November 19-21, 2013 Nawaz Sharif received a delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council headed by Chairman Salahuddin Rabbani. As stated in a press release from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, “Bilateral efforts are aimed at promoting the processes of peace and reconciliation within Afghanistan”. On November 30, 2013 Nawaz Sharif responded with a visit to Kabul.
Islamabad/Kabul relations are complex, with a thread of conflict weaving far back through history. The contradictions of past years are aggravated by contemporary challenges. But the two parties are in agreement on one thing, at least: living in harmony with each other – while continuing to uphold national interests – is highly attractive. Such was the leitmotif of the recent one-day visit of the Pakistani prime minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif to Afghanistan. Skipping ahead, it must be emphasized that the prime minister’s arrival date in Kabul was no accident; it was predetermined by the trajectory of the military component of the negotiations. The main items on the agenda were as follows: economic and trade relations, settlement of border disputes, Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban and the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, regional development issues in Project 2014, etc.
Let us return, however, to the main topic of this article: Project 2014 itself. The Project anticipates the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the US, implying the continued presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Islamabad has diplomatically expressed its support for the peace and reconciliation processes in the neighbouring country. However, it negatively views the deployment of foreign military forces on Afghan soil for, at minimum, another 10 years. Drawing on materials from the Pakistani press, we can explain its position.
Firstly, “Foreign troops present one of the main obstacles hindering negotiations with the Taliban, in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan”, stated the former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah Mumand. “When foreign troops withdraw from the country, Afghanistan will stand on its own two feet and will be an independent country, and relations between the countries will improve.” “Militants have stated that they will continue to fight until all foreign troops leave.”
The primary demand of the Afghan Taliban since October 2001 has been the liberation of their country from foreign occupation troops. The Taliban refuse any official negotiations with representatives of Karzai’s government, setting as a precondition the withdrawal of US and ISAF troops.
The Taliban Movement of Pakistan is inextricably linked with the Afghan Taliban. The region in general is in the process of centralization and of strengthening the verticals of power within the Taliban Movement. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan after 2014 means the continuance of hostilities by both Afghan and Pakistani insurgents (members of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan are often referred to as insurgents). The consequence will be clashes between Talibs and the federal army which will then result in terrorist attacks, innocent victims, refugees, destruction of social infrastructure, the on-going struggle with extremism and terrorism, etc.
Secondly, the continuance of foreign troops in Afghanistan will only augment the flow of illegal border crossings along the entire Pakistan-Afghanistan border (a distance of 2,500 kilometres), increase the volume of drug trafficking and, consequently, complicate the border control process.
Thirdly, the Bilateral Security Agreement is important for Washington since, as stated by Islamabad, “The US wants the right to conduct operations against Pakistan after 2014… the Americans are seeking a guarantee from Pakistan of non-intervention by a third-party power, but negotiations have come up dry”. Islamabad rightly fears the invasion of its territory by foreign troops as, pursuant to a resolution of the UN Security Council, US troops in Afghanistan have the right “…to pursue the enemy [namely the Taliban Movement of Pakistan] to its location”, i.e. areas of inner Pakistan.
Kabul and Islamabad are aware that ratifying the agreement between Washington and Kabul on the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan will legitimize the US/NATO war in the country for the next 10 years as well as further consolidate Western military power in the West Asia region. At the same time, one gets the impression that an agreement on the future division of power between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban has already been reached. Given the recent changes in command of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, Pakistani militants will continue to coordinate their actions with the Afghan Taliban.
Natalya Zamaraeva, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow at the Pakistan Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the New Eastern Outlook online magazine.