As the international war in Afghanistan and campaign against terrorism in the region enter critical juncture, a common regional response to extremism and terrorism becomes absolutely essential. Extremism and terrorism pose a common threat to peace and security in South and Central Asia, especially Afghanistan and its immediate and proximate neighbours. In an era of globalization, terrorism knows no frontiers. Extremism in one country may have terrorist fallout in another. No counter-terrorism effort by a single country will succeed unless all other countries in the region join hands in this effort. Terrorism thrives on existing regional conflicts, reinforcing these conflicts and creating new conflicts.
Consequently, in the absence of an effective regional response to terrorism, countries of a conflict-prone region such as South Asia keep playing into the hands of terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and its regional and local affiliates. The initiative remains largely in the hands of non-state actors, with the state parties mostly reacting to organized acts of non-state terrorism—with no end in sight to this menace. Coupled with this fundamental problem are uncertainties and implications associated with the presence of international forces in the region or their eventual withdrawal.
Afghanistan and the region are once again faced with the same challenge and opportunity as they confronted on the eve of the Soviet pullout over 20 years ago. The process of death and destruction caused by extremism and terrorism since then has been so devastating that none of the countries, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan as its foremost victims, can afford the repeat of the same deadly situation, marked by upsurge in militancy, regional proxy war and international intervention.
The current international approach to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan and deal with its regional consequences seems to show dichotomous trends, ranging from intensifying the war in coming months through the surge of foreign troops in Afghanistan to integrating the forces of insurgency and reconciling with insurgents willing to renounce violence and join the political process. Pakistan is continuing its own counter-insurgency campaign, which has achieved considerable success in the past one year.
Meanwhile, a couple of regional initiatives for resolving the Afghan conflict and combating terrorism in the region have already been proposed, including the US-proposed formation of a UN Contact Group on Afghanistan (including Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and Central Asian states), and the British-proposed Regional Stability Council (consisting of China, Russia and India).
Moreover, in January, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran met in Islamabad, and agreed to take several cooperative steps to combat extremism and terrorism together. The Islamabad was a reflection of the pivotal interest of Afghanistan and its two most important neighbours to come up with a united response to a common danger.
In addition to Iran and Pakistan, Afghanistan has three Central Asian neighbours: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Turkmenistan practices neutrality in its foreign policy. The other two Central Asian states have sponsored their respective ethnic groups in Afghanistan—namely, Uzbek forces led by Rashid Dostum and Tajik forces led by late Ahmad Shah Massoud—which were both part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. In any regional solution to Afghan conflict, the role of Pakistan as the most important neioghbour of Afghanistan, followed by Iran and then the other two active Central Asian states cannot be ignored.
As for involving China, Russia and India, they do not share any border with Afghanistan, even though China because of regional proximity has been directly affected by extremist threat from Afghanistan (in the form of radicalized factions within the ethnic-Turkic Uyigur population in Xinjiang province bordering Pakistan’s northern areas.) So, China’s case for inclusion in any regional framework for Afghan settlement can be justified.
What is hard to justify is to give Russia and India primary roles in such a regional security framework for Afghanistan. So, even if the proposed initiative of Regional Stability Council has British or American backing, its very logic is questionable if we keep the history of Afghan warfare of the last thirty years in mind, especially the first 10 years of jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. During this period, there was an Indo-Soviet nexus in support of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which continued even after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989—as India supported the communist regime of Dr Najibulah until its fall in 1992.
Now when India and Russia are consolidating their strategic partnership, as clear from the recent visit to New Delhi by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—Pakistan’s worries about the negative fallout of the Indo-Russian nexus in Afghanistan have accentuated. The Russians have not forgotten the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the crucial role Pakistan played in that. The Indians are out to avenge Pakistan for the 90s’ bloodbath in disputed Kashmir. And yet we have the United States and Great Britain having no problem in seeking a regional solution to Afghan conflict from powerful regional countries sharing neither ethnicity, nor history or even geography with the Afghans.
Obviously, because of their historic ties with China, Pakistanis may not object to an enhanced Chinese role in Afghan settlement. However, historical experience at the hands of Indians and Russians in Afghanistan convinces Islamabad that New Delhi and Moscow are up to the same nasty business in the war-torn country—with potentially horrendous consequences—as was the case during its Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and Indo-Pak proxy war in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
No doubt Afghanistan and Pakistan have started to collaborate at a number of trilateral forums, such as their regional summit along with Iran in Islamabad. Moreover, interaction between their leaders at the bilateral level has also intensified in recent months. The recent visit by President Hamid Karzai is a manifestation of the meaningfully cooperative ties between the two countries who in not-too-distant a past used to accuse each other of supporting terrorism.
Shared ethnicity, history and geography are key factors necessitating that Pakistan should intensify its cooperation with Afghanistan. More than any other country in the region, it is Pakistan that has suffered the most from the consequences of successive wars in Afghanistan and the accompanying waves of extremism and terrorism in the region. It cannot afford to suffer the same fate in future. So, it is important that Islamabad must render as much help as possible in any regional attempt to politically resolve the Afghan conflict in coming months.
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