Event ReportsPublished on May 25, 2013
The security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and there is an overall sense of anxiety about a possible economic collapse and a Taliban takeover. The role of Pakistan and China will add to India's challenging task to ensure stability in Afghanistan in the next few years.
Afghanistan: Anxiety over possible economic collapse and Taliban take-over
vents unfolding in Afghanistan in the run-up to the December 2014 drawdown will present serious challenges to India in terms of security and regional stability. The security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and there is an overall sense of anxiety about a possible economic collapse and a Taliban takeover. The role of Pakistan and China will add to India’s challenging task to ensure stability in Afghanistan in the next few years. These were some of the key conclusions that emerged at a lecture discussion on "The future of Afghanistan post 2014 and implications for India" organised at the Kolkata chapter of Observer Research Foundation on May 25, 2013.

Initiating the discussion, Wilson John, Senior Fellow, ORF, said Afghanistan, in essence, faced three key challenges -political, economic and security. All of these challenges, he argued, were closely inter-related and could not be understood and analysed in isolation. The political challenge essentially has three challenges -the nature of the Afghan state, the April 2014 elections and the role of President Hamid Karzai and the reconciliation process.

The state has always been a highly centralised one, fiercely controlled from Kabul with the peripheral provinces and other areas controlled, in the earlier years, by a combination of mullahs (clerics) and maliks (agents of the state) and then by governors and warlords, the former appointed by Kabul and the latter enjoying the federal government’s patronage. This nature of the state and governance remains relevant even today with hardly any change in the manner in which the elected government in Kabul dispenses governance.

Mr. John pointed out that whenever there was an attempt to reform the political framework of the state, it attracted vehement opposition from the people. There is no argument that Afghanistan can only meet the challenges of governance in a new world with robust political reforms, including decentralization of power and granting of autonomy to provincial administrations. But it was a goal, according to Mr John, which could be achieved through a slow and determined process of political reforms. First step towards such a reform would be a fair and transparent elections next year. There are serious doubts about the electoral process, given the past experience of fraudulent and rigged elections in 2004 and 2009. President Karzai’s own ambivalence on the subject has added to the uncertainly. Karzai for instance has not categorically stated that he would step down in April 2014. This has sparked of a slew of conspiracy theories which suggest Karzai holding on to power through unfair means.

The reconciliation process or the dialogue with the Taliban is another subject of much debate and uncertainty. Political stability rests, besides a legitimate election, on the role played by the Taliban. There has been a dialogue going on with the Taliban leadership for reconciliation since 2005 without much headway. The US-led reconciliation process was aimed at coaxing the Taliban to participate in the political process and give up violence. The Taliban wants a new Constitution to work with. Karzai wants the Taliban to contest the elections if possible and declare ceasefire. Pakistan, which is a key negotiator in the process, wants to ensure a "friendly government" in Kabul. There is therefore no dearth of dialogue with the Taliban but each of the participants have conflicting goals or objectives, raising serious doubts about the final outcome of the process.

Mr John dealt in detail issues like the economic outlook, the security challenges and the role played by the US, Pakistan and China and its consequences for India after 2014.

The first discussant chose to focus on three specific issues -- The question of return of Taliban, Pakistan’s role and China’s influence. He said even if the Taliban were to return to power, in some form or the other, there was no likelihood of recurrence of 1990’s situation. He said it will by no means be a smooth take-over. He argued that the Taliban would face strong resistance from non-Pashtun groups, especially the Tajiks. This could mean the beginning of a protracted strife and a possible breakup with some parts remaining under the control of the Taliban while others dominated by non-Taliban groups. Referring to the question of good or bad Taliban, He said it would be more useful to make a distinction between the first generation and second generation of the Taliban. In his opinion, what separates the new generation from the older one is its tactical positioning on issues of women and tolerance of other ethnic groups.

Referring to Pakistan’s role, he questioned the extent of leverage Pakistan had over the Taliban. He recalled how Pakistan earlier had been embarrassed by the Taliban. Post 2001, the Taliban’s trust in ISI stands largely eroded. Pakistan on its part always had a problem in getting the Taliban leadership to toe its line. He said it was certain that the spill-over effect of the Taliban insurgency would be first felt by Pakistan before it makes its way through to India.

On China, he said, it always maintained a dialogue with the Taliban through Islamabad and the tacit understanding between the two countries had strengthened in the recent times. He pointed out India and China could, however, find a common cause in the possible terrorist spill-over from Afghanistan and vital economic stakes both the countries have in Afghanistan.

The second discussant chose to dwell on the civilian dimension, international actors and the nature of Chinese commitments. He pointed out that in past 12-13 years, there had been a phenomenal growth of civil society organisations which may be of less significance today, but they offer a way to strengthen the country’s political process. India, from a strategic point of view, must invest in these institutions as they are already backed up by reminiscent American presence. He said the Indian government must allow more space for free play to its private sector and ought to make a shift in its approach from supervisor/guardian (as in prior to 1991) to one of a supporter, in this regard.

The foundation of future Afghanistan depends on a sound aid structure. In fact, in the next two to three years, Afghanistan will have to counter a major challenge in seeking aid in an economically unstable world. He reminded that today the stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future could not be restricted to the US, China. A proliferation of stakeholders has taken place. The entire Central Asia needs to be accommodated in this gamut of actors. Although there are many ageing regimes in Central Asia but by employing the energy resource card, the once Russian federation may emerge as a key stakeholder in association with civil organisations in Afghanistan.

On China’s commitments, he analysed how closely economic and political interests of China are tied up as in Upper Myanmar or Kunming district. He further stated that China more than once demonstrated the fact that the country vehemently defended her economic interest. China has to deal with a lot more subtle problems in Afghanistan and it cannot use its whip over Afghanistan in nthe ame of Islamic fundamentalism as it does over Uighurs in Xinjiang or Arakan Muslims in Myanmar.

The meeting was chaired by Mr Ashok Dhar, Distinguished Fellow, ORF while Prof. Rakahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF Kolkata chapter, introduced the speakers. It was attended by some of the well known academics and experts in the city--Prof. Partha Pratim Basu, International Relations, Jadavpur University, Prof. Hari Vasudevan, Director, China Centre, University of Calcutta, Dr Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury, Vice-Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, Prof. Rabindra Sen and Prof Tridib Chakroborty, Jadavpur University, Prof. Binoda Mishra, Director, Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development, and Dr Arpita Basu Roy, Fellow, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata.

(This report is prepared by Swagata Saha and Pratnashree Basu, Research Assistants, Observer Research Foundation Kolkata chapter)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.