Defining the future US policy towards the region
For the world at large, Iran’s nuclear deal made the obvious headlines this past weekend. For Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India and the Central Asia no less significant was the news of an Afghan Loya Jirga’s endorsement of bilateral security agreement with the United States, accompanied as it was with President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the pact before April 2014 presidential election.
The evolving developments in the neighbouring countries have thrown up a twofold proposition: How the US stance on the question of another five months waiting for formal conclusion of BSA impacts the ensuing environment. And if and how, Iran nuclear deal may aid search for stability in the region that has been at the heart of the 9/11-triggered conflict.
On the surface, the two events might appear unrelated. But taken together for President Barack Obama they offer a huge opportunity in terms of defining his legacy as well as the future US policy towards the region. If the BSA goes forward, the second phase of US presence in Afghanistan, beginning January 1, 2015, will give Washington military bases and an influential voice in the vital region housing three nuclear neighbors China, India and Pakistan as well as oil-rich Iran and energy-resourceful Central Asia.
Contrastingly with Washington’s abrupt abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the end of Soviet withdrawal in 1989 – a move that plunged the region into chaos and subsequently resulted in the emergence of the Taliban – the Obama Administration has been trying to craft a responsible transition in the Afghan minefield that has starkly defined aspects of US foreign and security policy implementation.
The Iranian deal, aimed at halting Teheran’s nuclear weapons programme in exchange for concessions on sanctions and international isolation, may well be described as the unlikeliest of all successes for President Obama since the new direct US push on the complex issue had started just recently.
Obama’s Iran diplomatic upswing has partly been the result of direct US engagement with the new President Hassan Rouhani in what amounted to a parallel path to the world powers (Washington inclusive) long-running attempts at shepherding Iran back from the nuclear brink.
Undoubtedly, change of guard in Teheran and the weight of stifling sanctions were some of the key drivers behind Iranian nuclear policy decision. Paradoxically, Teheran has been opposing the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement as it fears foreign interference and encirclement. If or how much Washington’s resolve to a post-2014 engagement with Afghanistan affected Iranian policy recalibration remains unclear.
On Sunday, as if choreographed to bolster the Obama Administration with a renewed sense of achievement – in the face of health care law controversy and never-ending Capitol Hill battles with Republicans – an Afghan Loya Jirga endorsed their country having a security framework with the US.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s declaration to hold off formal signing of the accord until April next year’s presidential poll appears to be, more than anything else, an attempt to keep himself politically relevant to the make-or-break opportunity for his strife-hit country and not be seen as doing Washington’s bidding.
But if Karzai continues to stick to the time of his choosing for an Afghan signature on the pact, it might frustrate the Obama Administration, and make allocation of more money to Afghanistan a hard-sell in the Congress, as other hotspots also draw attention.
In the two-hour meeting with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the Afghan president went a few steps further in stipulating formal ratification of the treaty with Washington’s help in peace process and return of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo prison. The gulf between Karzai’s recalcitrance and US insistence on the earliest signing of the agreement made the White House raise the possibility of the so-called “zero option,” meaning no post-2014 US troops in the country.
Analysts point out that the intervening period between now and signing of the BSA after April 5, might make the deal a political football in the charged campaigns as rival candidates would invariably debate its merits and demerits.
Meanwhile, Islamabad has shown a visible commitment to support the impending drawdown of America and NATO forces from Afghanistan as well as help its western landlocked neighbor move forward as a united and stable country since a peaceful Afghanistan augurs well for attempts to stabilize the Pakistani tribal areas. Pakistan has also released some high-level Afghan Taliban to spur the stalled reconciliation process ahead of PM Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Kabul.
The Pakistani contribution to peace, set to continue under Sharif’s national security team including next Army Chief Gen. Raheel Shairf, could greatly help Obama achieve a successful transition in Afghanistan, though it is hard to predict exactly how internal Afghan political and security dynamics play out in the upcoming months. Minus a Taliban reconciliation deal, the US risks getting embroiled in a prolonged fight as the BSA very much gives it the right to combat operations.
At a broader international level, with one diplomatic stroke, the Obama White House is now in a position to push more powerfully for an acceptable Middle Eastern solution as despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s high-pitched opposition the Iran deal has given Washington additional clout on the world stage.
As noted in a New York Times report, the Iran “diplomatic accord — even if it is a tactical, transitory one — opens the door to a range of geopolitical possibilities available to no American leader since Jimmy Carter.”
For energy-starved Pakistan, the Iran deal, upon its conclusion, would free up prospects of fast-paced progress on the gas pipeline project, which may now be revived as Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline as planned originally.
Islamabad has been steadfastly working on the pipeline in the face of US’ Iran-related sanctions threat. New Delhi, on the other hand, wilted under Washington’s pressure and backed out of the Iranian pipeline project, a stance that has now boxed it in a tough diplomatic spot. The Iran gas pipeline may also affect the future of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
With regard to post-2014 American military presence in Afghanistan – primarily envisioned as training and counterterrorism help – if managed judiciously, and coupled with improvement in US-Iran relations, has the potential to induce neighboring countries into playing their respective roles more constructively and in a spirit of competition to rebuild Afghanistan. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are seen as forming a vital bridge among countries like China, India, the Gulf States and Central Asia that need to crisscross the two neighbors for inter-regional energy and trade corridors.
However, given the Afghan ethnic fault lines, the neighbouring countries will have to resist the temptation to get involved in any new entanglement as witnessed in the 1990s conflict between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. In this respect, Afghans stand to benefit enormously if the April 5, 2014 presidential election and 2015 parliamentary polls come up with an inclusive Afghan government.
But the Obama Administration will also need to tread effectively in view of regional sensitivities, especially in the Pakistan-India equation. Despite noises made about the US policy of de-hyphenation towards Islamabad and New Delhi in recent years, Washington would not be able to extricate itself completely from the US-Pakistan-India triangle, as American encouragement remains important to resolution of disputes between the two nuclear neighbours, particularly the Kashmir issue, and the use of Afghan soil. Stephen Cohen, a distinguished expert on South Asia, criticized Washington for ambiguities in its policy of de-hyphenation and argued in his latest book “Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum,” that selective engagement on regional issues is called for.
In addition to Pakistan, which remains Kabul’s trade window to the world, Iran, India and Russia could also be important players in economic development of the region.
The Iran deal, which will remain work in progress in the next six months over some tough concessions and compromises, would also mean Washington devoting more diplomatic and political resources to the region that might involve initiatives to engage Iran in public diplomacy.
Significantly, with Iran deal, the US has also futuristically opened the possibility of greater American regional access through the country. America’s focus on the region may also be important in the context of its Asia pivot.
Obama, whose over-reliance on drones in eliminating terrorist threats on foreign soils, had until recently led some critics to term unmanned operations as legacy of his two-term presidency, has scored a major success with the diplomatic détente with Iran. Along with end to Iraq war and elimination of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal may help make amends for his administration’s lack of progress on some of the much-trumpeted domestic issues.
At the same time, a post-2014 US presence in Afghanistan will land Obama at a historic South Asia-Central Asia crossroads, if the Iranian deal also proceeds successfully. A key determinant will be whether the US-China equation in the region revolves around a competitive spirit or rivalry. A reckless power game between other regional powers will also spell serious repercussions, particularly if Afghanistan has no reconciliation. Washington’s conduct of its diplomatic, economic and security relationship with Afghanistan, Pakistan and each of the other countries in the region, if carried forward astutely, could extend the US’ influence in the region that remains beset with political land mines and simultaneously strewn with promising Silk Road economic prospects.
Ali Imran is a Washington-based journalist.