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Reimagining U.S. Engagements in South Asia

The United States and the Taliban are engaged in fraught negotiations to finally enable the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban are supposed to commit to two things: preventing transnational terrorist actors such as al Qaeda from having access to their territory, and taking part in a power-sharing government.  However, bringing the Taliban in to negotiate with the internally divided Afghan government remains a major challenge. Even if the Taliban themselves somehow agree to a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government, it is unclear how the Taliban will be able to rein in the growing influence and increasing presence of the ISIS across Afghanistan.

What’s at Stake

After 18 years of conflict costing billions of dollars per annum, there is dwindling appetite in the U.S. for its continued presence in Afghanistan. There is also not much to show in terms of the Afghan government’s ability to consolidate control and to provide security and basic services to the Afghan people. In the first quarter of 2019, the number of civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces (305 deaths and 303 injured) surpassed those resulting from anti-government violence. Public sympathies within the country also seem divided, which is especially troubling considering the resources spent on attempts to stabilize Afghanistan over nearly two decades.

Despite these disheartening realities, the ongoing U.S. peace negotiations must secure more than a face-saving measure to conclude a costly American military intervention. The risks associated with a complete U.S. withdrawal under the current circumstances remain serious, given that the ISIS now has a major presence in Afghanistan. Abandoning the fledgling Afghan government to contend with the Taliban, Islamic State and other radicalized actors without a central command, or a desire to negotiate, would make long-term stabilization unlikely.  Another civil war in Afghanistan would again allow terrorist groups with global reach to further consolidate their position in the region.

Moreover, another Afghan civil war would reignite regional tensions by embroiling Iran, Pakistan, and India in a proxy conflict. There is growing fear of not only the Hazara, but also Tajik and Uzbek militias rearming themselves in anticipation of the collapse of the regime in Kabul, and fear of reprisal from mostly Pashtun Taliban. An ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan is clearly not the solution. Yet to avert some of the potential adverse implications of its impending withdrawal, the United States needs to rethink its ongoing engagements with Afghanistan and some of its neighbors.

Considering Regional Players

U.S. negotiators have managed to develop consensus with Russia and China on the need to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban. Whether this consensus will persist once the fine print of the eventual peace deal is revealed remains unknown. While encouraging Indian engagement with Afghanistan, the United States is less comfortable with the Indian and Iranian convergence of interests in Afghanistan. Over the past several years, the U.S. has broadened its own economic and geostrategic cooperation with India. The current U.S. administration has unequivocally encouraged India to play a greater role in the economic rehabilitation and development of Afghanistan.

On the flip side, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has become increasingly myopic. Besides a brief period under the Kerry-Lugar bill, which ambitiously aimed to expand the scope of U.S. engagements with the civilian government of Pakistan, relations between the two countries remain transactional. The “Af-Pak” hyphenation, started in the Obama Administration, unfortunately confined U.S. policymakers to a view of Pakistan solely through the prism of security in Afghanistan. These policymakers did not pay much attention to either Pakistan’s fears of growing Indian influence in Afghanistan or implications of the strengthening Indian-Iranian alliance in Afghanistan.

While Pakistan is reluctantly facilitating talks between the Taliban and U.S. negotiators, it is wary that its relevance will quickly fade once the U.S. physically pulls out of Afghanistan. In the meantime, given its own tensions with the United States and irked by the growing relationship between New Delhi and Washington, Pakistan welcomed Beijing’s $62 billion investment as part of the One Belt One Road Initiative. Pakistan is also aware that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could create another refugee crisis and cause further destabilization along the porous and restive Afghan-Pakistani border. Moreover, Pakistan fears that India could use Afghan soil in response to Islamabad’s support for the Kashmiri insurgency and that Afghanistan is reluctant to acknowledge the Durand Line as the Afghan-Pakistani border.

A New U.S. Approach

For the U.S. to consider these developments as a zero-sum game, however, merely exacerbates regional rivalries. It further complicates the goal of stabilizing Afghanistan and weakens U.S. capacity to use maximum pressure on Iran. Conversely, there are immense benefits for a greater U.S. involvement in facilitating regional integration efforts. U.S. endorsement of the 2015 Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project remains a major factor for this otherwise unlikely initiative’s longevity.

Despite its antagonism toward Iran, the U.S. has a turn-the-other cheek policy allowing India to cooperate with Iran on the Chabahar port project. Currently, the Chabahar project allows India to trade with Afghanistan while bypassing Pakistan. China has repeatedly expressed the desire to be involved with Chabahar, and to even extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, possibly via a highway connecting Peshawar to the Afghan city of Jalalabad. A U.S. nod to that venture and encouragement for TAPI to link up with the CPEC could do much to overcome the mutual suspicions which plague such projects.

The U.S. cannot solve the protracted conflict between India and Pakistan, but it can help facilitate the countries’ cooperation on energy and trade projects involving Afghanistan. Chabahar and the Belt and Road Initiative may not provide direct dividends to the United States, but they would help align currently divergent regional interests and enable Afghanistan to develop more sustainable sources of revenue to finance its long-term security and governance needs. Another area where U.S. policymakers need to pay more attention is supporting economic activity in Pakistan’s tribal areas and helping boost their bilateral trade with Afghan cities across the border. Doing so would go a long way in quelling current bilateral suspicions while providing fighters with a different life and helping curb the opium menace.

It is these varied possibilities of regional integration that the U.S. needs to lend greater support to, or else securing peace in Afghanistan may remain an elusive goal.

Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali teaches anthropology, international development and human security courses at Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and George Washington universities. Dr. Ali is also a research consultant and academic with two decades of experience working in a “developing countries” context. He provides expert testimony for South Asian asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and the United States, and he writes a weekly column for the Express Tribune (an affiliate of The New York Times in Pakistan). The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.