By: Imran Malik
The Afghanistan-Pakistan Region (APR), a subset of the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR), is undergoing a colossal paradigm shift. Massive changes are afoot which will redefine the domestic politics of Afghanistan and transform the geopolitical contours of the SCAR-APR. The Afghan endgame is now precipitating significant realignments and repositioning by major powers, at the regional level and beyond.
More specifically, Iran, Afghanistan, CARS and Pakistan, are being interwoven into a very viable contiguous, interconnected and economically interdependent bloc within the ambit of the BRI-CPEC.
The US is set to egress from Afghanistan, regardless of who the next POTUS is. This will leave the US without any meaningful footprint in the whole of mainland Asia. It is in obvious decline. Its sphere of influence is contracting substantially. It is currently focussed on Asia’s fringes—in the West Asia/Arabian Peninsula and in the Far East/Pacific Ocean-South China Sea Region. It is pursuing the recognition of Israel by the Arabs and the retention of a free and open Indo-Pacific region with far more zeal than reinforcing its costly strategic failures in Afghanistan. China will readily fill the resultant vacuum.
China’s BRI-CPEC will enhance its sphere of influence, create interconnectivity and promote mutual economic interdependence, especially in the SCAR-APR. Afghanistan is likely to be subsumed into it swiftly. Iran, Afghanistan, CARs and Pakistan will be integrated into the BRI-CPEC network, wholesomely. Interconnectivity will emerge through a series of sea (Iran, Pakistan), air and land infrastructure projects. Economic interdependence will come forth through East-West and North-South trade corridors, including oil and gas pipelines, traversing this sub-region.
Russia too is likely to get further engaged with this sub-region. Using the CARs and Afghanistan as a conduit, it can gain access to the ports on the Makran Coast and the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean region. It is already well established with Iran, will definitely re-engage Afghanistan and is investing in Pakistan (CPEC-?) as well. It has a profound strategic interest in this sub-region.
India is the biggest loser in the Afghan endgame. It has been summarily ousted from Iran by China, outmanoeuvred by Pakistan in Afghanistan and stands literally isolated in South Asia, too. It has been thoroughly outflanked in this emerging strategic environment, despite some rather surprisingly indifferent support from the US. It has steadfastly refused to talk to the Afghan Taliban but now finds itself at the brink of an embarrassing come-down. India can only play the role of a spoiler in the current milieu. That however, will place it in direct confrontation with US interests which lie in egressing from the region, peacefully. India has very limited options in the SCAR-APR at the moment. To partake of this potential economic windfall, India will have to choose between the two mutually exclusive options, SCO-BRICS or the US-QUAD Strategic Dialogue (Asian NATO?)! It can no longer run with the hare and hunt with the hound anymore, strategic autonomy notwithstanding! Whatever PM Modi decides, it will have a defining impact on India’s fast tanking economy and the evolving strategic environment in the region and beyond.
Iran is negotiating a massive US $400 billion investment in its economy with China. Post US withdrawal, it will definitely play a more proactive role in Afghanistan and the sub-region. It will become a very prominent part of the BRI-CPEC. Interconnectivity within the sub-region will help it move out of international isolation and overcome some of its economic travails caused by President Trump’s policies. Iranian oil and gas pipelines through the sub-region to China (and India?) are a distinct possibility. Iran’s relations with India, however, will be the unknown factor which could cause serious fissures in this emerging bloc.
Afghanistan is going through what might be termed as a re-birth of sorts. It is seeking innovative paradigms to re-define its future, both within and without. It must adopt a creative, imaginative and stridently independent approach towards Pakistan, free of all malign Indian influences. The Afghan Taliban and the NUG leadership must be allowed sufficient time and leeway to arrive at an Afghan solution to this essentially Afghan conundrum by themselves. They have the wisdom and capacity to resolve all issues of peace, harmony and governance between themselves. The Afghan Government must deny all terrorist groups, sponsored (by India) or otherwise, any ungoverned spaces for their malicious purposes. They must be eliminated through joint Pak-Afghan operations, if necessary. Afghanistan is located at the confluence of the three Asias—West, South and Central, making it inevitable for BRI-CPEC’s regional success.
Pakistan has the cardinal role to perform here. Foremost, it must help the US extricate itself from this disastrous, unwinnable, costly Afghan war. Pakistan and Afghanistan, conjoined twins per se, must now move towards a mutually beneficial, peaceful and prosperous future for their peoples. They must maintain very strong bilateral political, diplomatic, trade, economic, military and people-to-people ties. Visa regimes are already being liberalised. Afghan transit trade through Pakistan must be streamlined and facilitated.
Ominously, this sub-region carries within itself the nucleus of a far more potent alignment, viz China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey—CRIPT, as a subset of the SCO. Once materialised, it will sound the death knell for global unipolarity.
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