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The Complicated Future of Central and South Asia

The United States has occupied Afghanistan for more than 15 years, spent trillions of dollars, and lost thousands of lives, but the Central Asian nation remains incapable of guaranteeing its own security. America does not have the resources to continually prop up Afghanistan, either. Like the United States, the governments of Central Asia are also invested in the continued stability of Afghanistan, but with the Taliban and other threats looming, how will they ensure stability in the region? Given the multitude of security challenges the region faces, Afghanistan and its neighbors are at a crossroads.

The lack of certainty about Afghanistan’s future was on full display at the recent Asian Peace Summit, which brought together the top ministers from China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and other Central Asian states. Also known as the The Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process, the annual summit was coordinated to help devise solutions to regional challenges. When the conference convened for its sixth meeting last December, this time in Amritsar, India, the most important discussion topic was security. The participants paid special attention to the roles that India and Pakistan will play in shaping Afghanistan’s future. Over the next few decades, it will primarily be these two countries that determine the trajectory of the region through their work in Afghanistan, although countless other countries and non-state actors have skin in the game, too.

“Afghanistan has experienced a slow and continual deterioration of security since 2005,” said Naysan Adlparvar, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Macmillan Center in an interview with The Politic. “Many of the changes made in Afghanistan were not sufficiently sustainable. Now, the future prospects of the country are largely dependent on the current Afghan administration.”

Terrorism and ethnic violence are perhaps the two most significant forces holding Central Asia back from achieving advanced development. With a combined population of around 3.2 billion people, the Peace Summit countries contain nearly half of the world’s population. Though economic indicators such as GDP per capita reflect widespread poverty in the region, the area  has vast economic potential. Before this can be realized, however, the region must stop the seemingly unending violence that has rendered many of its countries isolated from foreign partners and created a climate of fear for many citizens.

Central Asia has taken on even greater relevance under the new administration.  President Trump recently announced his intention to increase the American presence in countries where terrorism is a major threat, including Afghanistan, where several thousand troops are already deployed. Afghanistan remains not only the most prominent country in the regional effort against terrorism, but also the most strategically important.

The NATO coalition officially ended its combat operations in Afghanistan in December 2014, when it passed control of its bases and command to the Afghan National Army (ANA). Since then, along with the Afghan National Police (ANP), the ANA has attempted to preserve domestic stability. Unfortunately, due to a myriad of issues including a lack of funding, a mixture of different, often rivalrous militias, and a high level of corruption, the situation has gotten progressively worse, effectively nullifying gains made by Western forces.

Afghanistan is no longer considered safe enough for most researchers and aid workers. In fact, Jason Lyall, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Political Violence Field Lab at Yale University, was forced to leave the country and perform research in Jordan because of insufficient security. Even diplomatic agents, such as employees at the American Embassy in Kabul, refuse to make the short drive from the airport to their complex, instead opting to fly by helicopter for fear of being attacked.

A large amount of the responsibility for the decline in Afghan stability rests on the shoulders of the Pakistani government. The leading intelligence agency in Pakistan, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), actively supported extremist cells in Afghanistan and India until 2004, and many employees from that era remain today. Indeed, the U.S. State Department estimated that between 20-40% of the Taliban’s fighting force during the Afghan Civil War was made up of Pakistanis. Many intelligence analysts believe the ISI continues to providing institutional assistance to terrorist groups, including funding, equipment, training and intelligence. More recent instances of alleged ISI coordination with terrorists include the November 2008 attacks in India and numerous assassination attempts on Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan.

After Ashraf Ghani was elected President of Afghanistan in 2014, he and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempted to repair the damaged relationship between their countries. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain; relations between the neighbors have deteriorated further, culminating in Sharif’s February closing of several key border crossings after a series of attacks that resulted in over 130 deaths. While those have since been reopened, the border enforcement officers on both sides have been directed to uphold stringent standards in their practice. Between its covert provision of institutional support for terrorism and its open animosity toward Afghan leaders, Pakistan has played a major role in destabilizing Afghanistan.

Because it lacks the funding and control to maintain security and continue to develop in the face of these threats, Afghanistan has been forced to look to regional partners for assistance. India has played a major supporting role: in the last few years alone, it has financed infrastructure projects like dams and ports, helped open a new Afghan parliament building, and provided monetary and technical aid to the Afghan Air Force (AAF). India has also funneled public and private investment to a joint port project with Afghanistan in Iran, which is designed to wrest economic influence from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, backed by China. Bilateral talks at the Peace Summit further strengthened those ties. Moving forward, cooperation between India and Afghanistan will increase, as both benefit from mutual defense agreements, shared economic development, and the marginalization of their chief rival, Pakistan.

World powers such as Russia and China have also increased their involvement in Central Asia. Both countries have deployed operatives on the ground in advisory and intelligence roles.

“Afghanistan is no longer just a U.S. battle space. Russia in particular is a rather complex actor,” said Lyall. “It has legitimate security interests in the region, mainly because of a small but not insignificant flow of fighters from Afghanistan to the Caucasus. As well, most drugs that enter Russia originate in Afghanistan and are smuggled via Tajikistan.”

However, Russia is not working entirely toward stability. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is simultaneously looking to establish peace and undermine American authority in Asia, which is directly tied to the success of its ongoing military operation. Lyall told The Politic that Russia is “stirring the pot to achieve its ideal post-American” outcome: a stable government with a strong northern border but an unsecure South to stall its Western enemies’ militaries.

Another key factor that complicates the situation is Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic composition. The Pashtuns, Sunnis who reside predominantly in the South and Southeast but also in Kabul, make up around 45% of the country and generally occupy the most powerful government positions, such as Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The last two leaders of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani (the current president), are both Pashtuns. The Tajiks, the second-largest bloc, occupy the region north of the capital and have relationships with the people and culture of Tajikistan. At around 20% of the national population, the Tajiks also hold a substantial number of government positions. The Hazara, a smaller, mainly Shia group, have ties to Iranian culture and reside in the central and western regions of the country. Historically, the Hazara have faced persecution and a disproportional amount of violent extremism.

Finally, the numerous terrorist groups actually present in Afghanistan will play a crucial role in determining the nation’s path. Among these are the Taliban, who governed Afghanistan from 1996-2001 and are the “dominant player,” according to Lyall. The Taliban preach a nationalist Islamist agenda, focusing their resources on domestic projects rather than international jihad.

Because of its prominence in the media and their increased activity in recent years, the Taliban’s leadership has a very turnover rate, which causes trouble organizing across provinces and the Pakistani border. In fact, many local Taliban commanders are college-age men of around 20. Nonetheless, Lyall said, “The Taliban are still known as a brutal and capable entity with a fair amount of support among Pashtuns.”

The other main terrorist group in Afghanistan is the Haqqani network, a close affiliate of the Taliban. Lyall described the Haqqani as “a corrupt network of criminals who specialize in suicide bombings” and have documented ties to Pakistan. Though they are independent, the Haqqani network has been influenced by the ISI in the past and often collaborates with the Pakistani government in exchange for weapons and technical training.

ISIL has made its way to Afghanistan, as well, and it controls considerable amounts of territory in some Afghan districts. Unlike the Taliban and the Haqqani, ISIL rules more by fear than by persuasion and has a strong interest in international expansion. The possibility that ISIL may export its terrorism or attempt to expand further has been cause for major concern among American military officials, who responded to the Afghan ISIL presence with a series of airstrikes.

Given the multiplicity of ethnic, religious, and international interests of the groups operating within Afghanistan, it is clear why the government has struggled to maintain a united front against the insurgency.

Abdul Moiz Munir, an 18-year-old student at Aitchison College in Lahore, has experienced the instability and attacks in Central Asia firsthand from the Pakistani perspective.

“The direct consequence is desensitization to loss of human life and feelings of general animosity towards government, refugees, police and security agencies, and even, in case of Line of Control attacks, India. And there is horror and terror obviously for that moment you’re faced with the situation.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Munir’s comments is the level of exasperation and animosity felt by the people of the region. Every attack breeds more frustration, which contributes to the divides that exist between groups that would be better served if they worked together.

Overall, Afghanistan’s outlook seems quite bleak. Neither of the experts I consulted was optimistic about Afghanistan’s chances of overcoming the major challenges it faces in the foreseeable future.

“The situation in Afghanistan will never be solved until there are political solutions involving Pakistan,” commented Adlparvar. “The reduction of tensions and more trade with Pakistan would go a long way toward development.”

He also noted that foreign interference, from drone strikes to full-scale invasions, often compounds the security problem in Central Asia.

“When [the United States] kills one terrorist with a raid or a drone, it could potentially create three or four new ones. There are family members and friends that have to be considered.”

In practice, however, the palpable and unabashed enmity between India and Pakistan makes it hard to believe any sort of cooperative solution will appear soon, and the current American administration seems unlikely to halt military operations in the Middle East.

Lyall was hesitant to put a timeframe on Afghan peace but suggested it could take decades.

“I don’t think there is a military solution, particularly not with just 5,000 troops” he said, “but I expect that in 10 years there will still be an American presence in Afghanistan, especially because of the dysfunctional government and fraudulent election system. It might be best for the U.S. to take a backseat and allow the Afghans to determine the future of the country.”

Achieving peace in Central Asia is a noble and important goal, but one that will probably not be attained in the immediate future. It has been almost 40 years since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 16 since the American-led campaign, and six since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the September 11 bombings, but little progress, if any, has really been made. If anything, the experience foreign countries have had interfering in Middle Eastern affairs should serve as a lesson: there is more to peace-building than just military might.