Afghanistan and its neighbors - An ever dangerous neighborhood
The fate of Afghanistan and the success of U.S. and coalition efforts to stabilize Afghanistan will in large measure be affected by the current and future policies pursued by its varied proximate and distal neighbors. Most analyses of Afghanistan have focused on its internal dimensions or the policies pursued by U.S. and coalition partners. To date, there have been few analyses that situate Afghanistan's future within the context of its region and the key players in this region. This is unfortunate because many states, including Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics, have an important ability to influence positively and negatively the course of developments in Afghanistan.
To address this analytical gap, the United States Institute of Peace, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention requested Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum to evaluate the courses of action Afghanistan's key neighbors are likely to take and assess their importance for Afghanistan's evolution toward a stable and robust state.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003. He is currently a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
- Predatory neighbors have been a fact of life for the Afghan state throughout most of its history. In defense, Afghans have chosen both isolation and resistance. Today, openness and cooperation with regional powers offer the best prospects for security and economic progress for Afghanistan.
- Conversely, the region's political stability and economic potential are broadly influenced by the ability of post-conflict Afghanistan to succeed in its recovery. . The region's opportunistic states are liable to revive their interventions in Afghanistan in the event of a faltering Kabul government or an international community that reneges on its commitments to help secure and rebuild the country. Already there are some indications that the forbearance shown by neighbors in recent years may be flagging.
- Pakistan and Iran offer Afghanistan its most imposing and critical regional bilateral relationships. Whether they cooperate or create obstacles for Afghanistan's recovery is greatly influenced by American strategic policies in the region.
- There is widespread belief among Afghans and others in the region that U.S. interest in the country will fade quickly once its major objectives in the region are realized. While an arguable expectation, perceptions alone are enough for many Afghan and regional power brokers to begin to hedge their bets in supporting the Karzai regime. . Afghanistan's emergence as a regional crossroads for trade and resource sharing in a post-Taliban era remains a distant though hopeful prospect. Endemic economic and physical constraints and retrogressive political developments block progress toward the region forming a vital new economic entity.
Landlocked and resource poor, Afghanistan is at risk of unwelcome external influences, its sovereignty and traditions vulnerable. The competition among external powers has at times enabled the country to enjoy their beneficence. More often, it has suffered at their hands. For more than a century, Afghanistan served as the classic buffer state between the British and Czarist empires. During the Cold War it was first neutral ground and then contested terrain between Soviet and surrogate American power. Under the yoke of the Soviet Union's occupation during the 1980s, at least one-third of the population went into exile and most of the contested countryside lay in waste. The state itself suffered near disintegration in a following decade of civil war sponsored in part by regional powers. By the late 1990s, Afghanistan hosted the opening salvos in a war between radical Islamists and their designated, mostly Western enemies. A post-Taliban Afghanistan, still not free from conflict, extracts benefits for its recovery from international patrons and hopes for the forbearance of traditionally predatory regional states.
Framing the discussions in this study is the assertion that Afghanistan's future and that of the regional states are closely bound. Constructive partnerships involving Afghans and their neighbors are essential to regional stability. Just as the capacity of Afghanistan to overcome its political and economic deficits will have deep bearing on the region's security and development, the domestic stability and foreign policies of the neighboring states will affect the prospects for progress in Afghanistan. Many Afghans insist that outside forces drive the current insurgency in the country, while for the regional players Afghanistan remains a potential source of instability through the export of arms, drugs, and ideology. The study posits that over much of the last four years Afghanistan's neighbors have assessed that support for a stable, independent, and economically strengthening Afghan state is preferable to any achievable alternatives. None have directly opposed the internationally approved Hamid Karzai as president or seriously tried to manipulate Afghan domestic politics. All have pledged, moreover, some measure of development assistance. Undoubtedly, the presence of foreign military forces and international attention has contributed to their restrained policies.
The strategic approaches to Afghanistan by its neighbors are, however, always subject to readjustment. No regional state is prepared to allow another to gain a preponderance of influence in Afghanistan. Moreover, each retains links to client networks that are capable of fractionalizing and incapacitating an emerging Afghanistan. States in the neighborhood may well sponsor destabilizing forces in the event that Kabul governments fail over time to extend their authority and tangibly improve people's lives, or should Afghanistan's international benefactors lose their patience and interest. More immediately, as described below, political currents in several regional countries may be overtaking the economic forces on which more optimistic projections for regional cooperation have been based. Poorly considered policies by international aid givers and the Kabul government have in some cases helped to increase suspicions and tensions with neighbors. This study first examines how Afghanistan has historically engaged and been impacted by neighboring states and other foreign stakeholders. The section looks at the way the country has at different times tried both to insulate itself and attract benefactors. A second section focuses on the dynamics of contemporary political and economic relations among countries of the region. It considers how as a regional fulcrum Afghanistan is leveraged by external powers pursuing competing interests. The two sections that follow focus on Pakistan and Iran, countries providing Afghanistan's most imposing and critical regional bilateral relationships. For each country, the study describes motives and forces driving policies that have been at times obstructionist and at others constructive. A fifth section looks more briefly at the stakes and changing parameters of engagement for each of the other countries bordering Afghanistan as well as noncontiguous Russia and India. The study concludes with an examination of the broader international community's contributions to the shaping of regional security. The section looks as well at how the international community can help create the opportunities and conditions that could foster cooperation in the region and safeguard against future instability. It also assesses briefly U.S. priorities and policies in the region and their bearing on the Afghan project of state building.
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