Any discourse pertaining to security in the world cannot escape a reference to developments in Afghanistan, particularly when it is about security in Asia. The country’s geostrategic location and developments over the last four decades have had explicit and implicit roles in the security of the superpowers and small countries around the world. The cascade and intertwined events, which started with the invasion of Afghanistan by the former USSR, continue to influence strategic calculations of state and non-state actors at the regional and international levels. The recently inked peace deal between the Taliban and the United States has opened a new chapter in the aforementioned events placing the security of Afghanistan, the region, and the world on another fork. While a stable and secure Afghanistan would fundamentally change the living conditions for Afghans and other people in the region at large, it cannot be stated, with a high level of confidence, whether peace in Afghanistan will translate to underpinning security for major regional powers, such as India and China.
The invasion of Afghanistan by the former USSR caused over a million casualties in Afghanistan and tens of thousands for the Soviets. The resistance of Afghans to defend their country, eventually, caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also led to the collapse of the state in Afghanistan. A development that further exacerbated the miseries of the Afghan people. The country plunged further into chaos and infighting between the different militias that had resisted foreign occupation and were now fighting over public goods. Consequently, millions of more Afghans became refugees or were displaced internally.
During the Soviet occupation, variables developed that caused further security concerns not only for Afghanistan but for the entire world. The emergence of the Al-Qaeda network and performance of the Taliban movement caused dramatic developments in the world that all nations are affected by now and will be for many decades to come. The tragic events of 9/11 in the United States (US) and the consequential invasion of Afghanistan by the US-led NATO forces, fundamentally changed the discourse about international security within academia and practitioners of security policies. Nation-states adopted unprecedented policies affecting trade, immigration, financial transactions, health, perspectives, and treatment of values such as human rights and civil liberties at the national and international levels. Boundaries between national and international sovereignties blurred.
Even among terrorist groups, translational presence became widespread. Al-Qaeda supported and inspired its identical groups in East Asia, mainly in Indonesia and the Philippines, which created security challenges for the host countries as well as for their surrounding countries. More notably, Al-Qaeda and ISIS established their operation branches dedicated to the Indian subcontinent.
At the same time, as the rule of law dwindled in rural Afghanistan, subsequent to the Soviet invasion and later years of chaos, Afghanistan became the biggest producer of opiates in the world. The opium and heroin from Afghanistan are available on the streets of Dushanbe, Tokyo, New Delhi, Moscow, Beijing, and London alike. This increasingly became a regional and global concern, establishing that whatever happens in Afghanistan affects not just the region but the world. Moreover, that threat may not be limited to security concerns alone.
India and China have always been concerned about the expansion of instability from Afghanistan to their societies. Pakistan, a patron of proxies in Afghanistan, has been suffering from instability due to the presence of extremist groups within its own territory; the groups inspired by precisely the same Afghan groups that Pakistan had helped in their creation in order to further its geopolitical interests in Afghanistan as well as against its arch-enemy, India. Pakistan-based anti-India non-state actors had active training camps, along with the al-Qaeda operatives, in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
Afghanistan is directly relevant to the security of India. A significant factor in the previous two decades, in addition to the liberalization of financial and economic policies, is the absence of significant security incidents of the scale of Kargil, which has helped India to achieve milestones and unprecedented results in terms of improving the welfare of its citizens. One billion persons were uplifted from under the poverty line in India within one decade, from 2004 to 2014. Since the focus of Pakistan-based militant groups was mainly centered on Afghanistan and their support for the Taliban in fighting NATO and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), they had fewer opportunities, therefore, to create significant insecurity incidents in India. At the same time, NATO and ANSF have prevented Pakistan-based groups and al-Qaeda affiliates from establishing and maintaining their training camps on Afghan soil in the previous two decades.
The dual nature of both peace and insecurity in Afghanistan has made it extremely difficult for security strategists to decide whether a stable or an unstable Afghanistan serves their strategic interests better. A stable Afghanistan will deprive groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS from a conducive environment, who, in turn, would most probably choose unstable regions in other parts of the world, including in India, or to a lesser extent in China, for themselves to use as sanctuaries. Equally possible, they might shift their bases to the Arab world.
Whereas, an unstable and under-resourced Afghanistan, particularly after the withdrawal of NATO forces, would definitely turn Afghanistan into a jumping board for al-Qaeda and other similar groups like ISIS. After the departure of NATO forces, Afghanistan cannot serve as the main ground for their activities. Policies of significant powers do affect the output and outcome of future developments; so do decisions by none-state actors. Groups like al-Qaeda might have found stronger zeal in themselves, subsequent to their experience of fighting the two superpowers in the territory of Afghanistan, to implement their acquired knowledge and expertise against regional powers. The post-NATO Afghanistan will provide the regional terrorist groups in the country to renegotiate their position and power, posing further impediments to regional countries like India.
*** The author is an Ontario-based independent researcher of geopolitics in Central and South Asia. Recipient of Fulbright Scholarship from the US State Department. An alumnus of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. Former Afghanistan Correspondent of Agence France Press (AFP) ***