The delay in signing of the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement now appears to be accompanied by another imbroglio. Not only is there no security agreement in place, the political transition is also mired in complication. Abdullah Abdullah, the winner of the first round, refused to accept the preliminary election results announced on July 7 due to allegations of fraud. The initial results indicated his opponent Ashraf Ghani to be the potential winner of the runoff with 56 percent of the vote.
The failure to successfully complete security and political transition in Afghanistan poses grave consequences for the nation and the region.
While parallels to the present predicament of Iraq are being vehemently denied, if the threats are not managed, Afghanistan is fast-forwarding to circumstances similar to Iraq.
As oppose to mitigating the real risks, the international stakeholders seem to be in either a state of denial or indifferent. According to media reports, Secretary of State John Kerry is planning to make a stopover in Kabul on his way back from the sixth round of US-China Strategic and Economic dialogue held in Beijing.
If there is such a colossal failure in Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the brunt and India, Pakistan ties are likely to be impacted as well. The energy and trade initiatives for regional integration will also be hit. Most importantly, Pakistan writ in FATA will become the most important component in the future.
Failure of Political and Security Transition
First of all, there has to be a realization that we are not talking about a hypothetical possibility of acute risks coming true in Afghanistan; the country is actually on the verge of them materializing.
Lack of smooth political transition most likely means the security agreement will also remain in limbo, while causing the suspension of foreign support Afghanistan desperately needs. President Obama and Secretary Kerry warned the Afghan leaders again this week of this potential outcome i.e., if any of the candidates resort to extra constitutional steps. Although, in the back of their mind they must be aware of what the ceasing of economic and military support will mean, with lessons of Iraq abundantly clear.
The polarization stemming from the potential collapse of the political and security transition will impact the nascent Afghan military and security forces also, creating morale problems and splintering it along ethnic and tribal lines. In these circumstances, Taliban will capitalize and gain more ground. If the situation persists, the present dysfunction in Afghanistan will not bode well for the Afghan led reconciliation, which is likely to be doomed particularly if the Taliban gain the decisive upper hand.
What it Means for India, Pakistan
These eventualities are sure to be worrying both India and Pakistan. Failure to attain a smooth transfer of power in Afghanistan will cause India to increase its security involvement, which in turn can aggravate ties with Pakistan. Moreover, the continuing political and security quagmire in Afghanistan will scuttle the regional energy and trade integration initiatives, with existing investment from China and India at stake.
Pakistan’s ongoing and long awaited North Waziristan operation also needs to be reviewed in the context of the unfolding events in Afghanistan.
PoliTact had accurately projected in February why Pakistan may finally have to conduct the North Waziristan operation. One of the reason was dealing with TTP; a group most out of place if Afghan reconciliation were to progress. The Afghan Taliban are unlikely to be pressed to politically reconcile in the absence of this pressure. The Good and Bad Taliban are connected at the hip and thus requiring equal pressure, especially at this juncture.
Objectives of Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb Operation
In view of the developments in the Middle East, two additional factors may have been added into Pakistan’s calculation.
One of them has to do with the magnitude of the threat non-state actors now pose to the nation-states in the Middle East. A number of Pakistan experts, such as Ahmed Rashid and Zahid Hussain, have recently attempted to compare and contrast IS and Taliban, based on if they have local or regional and global aspirations. Regardless, the Taliban are likely to be emboldened by the successes of IS. It does appear to be occurring in the case of al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria. More important is what the AQ and Associated are becoming not what they were. Thus Pakistan has every reason to worry from any consolidation of Afghan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Arab, China and Central Asian focused extremists, in its backyard.
The second worry is connected with the emerging paralysis in Afghanistan. If the country does fail to complete a political and security transition, FATA and Balochistan can become even more significant. In Iraq and Syria, areas with weak state presence have quickly converted in to strongholds for the non-state actors that are spread across borders, and have morphed with ethnic and nationalistic drives.
Thus, Pakistan has two urgent motives for why it needs to exert its writ in FATA now: to facilitate Afghan reconciliation, if that happens, and secondly to prevent any consolidation of non-state actors in its minimally governed areas. There is little tolerance for fresh attacks originating from this region and targeting China, India, Iran, Europe or US.
Pushing the non-state actors out of its territory into Afghanistan, and then pressing Afghan’s to deal with them, is perhaps the primary goal of the new Pakistan’s counter terror strategy. This would have to be accompanied by vigilance in cities like Karachi and Lahore, to prevent backlash and to flush the extremists out from there.
However, this approach only works with a successful political and security transition in Afghanistan. In case that does not happen, Pakistan will have to instead protect itself from the spill over from Afghanistan side, where the Good and Bad Taliban may have taken refuge. This will require full Pakistani control of FATA.
How Will NATO and US Respond
Then there is the question of how would NATO and the US react to the incomplete political and security transition in Afghanistan. Iraq perhaps provides the best example.
If Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are unable to resolve the impasse, Karzai will benefit by default. NATO and US will in this case impress upon him to help reconcile the political differences, just as they have on Nouri al-Maliki, and the military help (air support) against Taliban will be linked to that. If this occurs, Karzai could very well approach India and Russia for its immediate defense needs. And it will again become the game of if Karzai needs the West, or the opposite.
Even if US and NATO do provide military assistance in the future, it will be in the form of training and capability building, except Special Forces no directly troops on the ground type involvement will take place. During his visit to the US this week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made this clear; the organization will not get directly involved in Iraq. He added that at the upcoming Wales NATO Summit a Defense Capability Support Initiative is being created to support allies. This appears to be mirroring to the $5 billion Counter Terrorism Partnerships Fund announced by President Obama in his West Point speech in May.
The question is: what happens if the allies fail to turn the tide against non-state actors, will NATO let these states fail? In Iraq, while the US was debating providing air support, the Russian Sukhoi fighter jets had already arrived to be operated by the Iraqi pilots.
A resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, Faysal Itani, puts the Middle East quagmire and the ground reality pretty succinctly in a recent report:
“When assessing the field of candidates, the United States must also place rebel actions, statements, and beliefs in Syria’s wider social and political contexts. Not all moderate Syrians are secular; not all devout Syrians are Islamists; and not all Islamists pose a threat to the United States.”
The fact is that liberal space is shrinking while religious conservatism and ethnic nationalism is rising across the region. It is essential to objectively figure out what is causing this, and where are the matters heading, before any meaningful reversal of the pattern can occur. Further complicating the matter is the mixing up of the campaign against extremists with the regional and global power struggles.