Af-Pak: the challenge of stability and the role of Russia

14:26 08.04.2014 • Francesco Brunello Zanitti , Scientific Director of IsAG - Institute for Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (Italy)

The main core of the book Af-Pak: the challenge of stability (Francesco Brunello Zanitti, Af-Pak: la sfida della stabilità, Fuoco Edizioni/IsAG, Rome 2014) is the presentation of future hypothetical scenarios of Afghanistan and Pakistan, considering ISAF’s withdrawal expected by the end of 2014. For many historical, geographical, cultural and economic reasons, Russia and Central Asian countries have many interests related to region’s changes in next years.

This analysis, presenting historical and political reasons of existent difficult situation, tried to analyze different themes linked to various actors involved in Afghan theatre. For this reason, it’s important to underline Russian involvement, in order to understand how Moscow could represent an influent actor in the area, bearer of stability in a region affected by many problems.

From an ethnographical point of view, Afghanistan is strictly connected to Central Asian Republics, just considering Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen minorities that are sited in Northern provinces. These ethnical groups were especially important during Afghan Civil War (1992-96), which ended with the conquest of Kabul by Taliban. Tajik resistance, for example, was gathered with other northern ethnical groups (Uzbeks, Turkmens and Hazaras) in the so-called Northern Alliance (United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan), which had the external support of Russia, India and Iran.

Afghan present situation, after almost thirteen years from Western military intervention, is far to be considered stable; it’s instead characterized by a set of critical factors, which involved also Pakistan, a nuclear State. Russia’s core interest, shared with other countries like China, India and United States, is that a situation of concrete stability prevails in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In order to achieve this condition, it would be necessary a difficult, but desirable, cooperation, first of all at regional level, which could be also extended to an international one. This collaboration is a complex factor because there are opposing interests, and actors involved will try to influence the region, which occupy a strategically position in Asia. Ultimately, Af-Pak will be characterized, as well as by internal competition between many political and religious forces, by these kinds of contraposition: U.S.-China, Russia-NATO, India-Pakistan, Iran-Saudi Arabia.

Stability is however a necessary condition for the area, above all for regional actors (Central Asian Republics) and emerging countries (particularly Russia, China and India). This favorable situation is necessary for many reasons, first of all in order to facilitate prosperity in an important portion of Asia, because Afghanistan is often described as the “Asian heart”. Af-Pak represents an area of connection amid Central and South Asia, between Russia, Central Asian Republics and India, as well a point of contact among Middle East and East Asia, a bond between China and Iranian territories. It should be therefore necessary to favor area’s stability to ensure region’s security at eve of the so-called “Asian Century”. The latter could remain only an unrealistic theory, if Afghan future will be characterized by a condition of great volatility.

Commercial and energetic projects involving Af-Pak

Russia, but also many countries of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan) are involved in many hypothetical projects of gas and oil pipelines, as well in commercial connections that could integrate regions characterized by huge quantities of raw materials with territories where necessity of the latters is growing. Without forget reversed path that for example Indian or Chinese goods could do, steered to Russia or Europe.

Russia supported in the past the realization of IP (Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline) and TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India gas pipeline). Another project that involves Af-Pak, a more recent proposal, refers to a pipeline that could start from oil deposits of Shymkent (Kazakhstan), ending in India and crossing Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This plan, an Indian initiative, could also see future involvement of Russia. Nevertheless, Moscow and New Delhi are already associated in a commercial deal that includes also Iran, the so-called North-South Transport Corridor, which contemplates the passage of Indian goods through Arabian Sea to Iran, where, crossing Caspian Sea, they can be transported to South Russia and possibly to Europe. This project could also see the future interest of Afghanistan, looking at this initiative as another path for stabilization and economic integration of the region.

From an Indian point of view, natural passage for trade with Kabul, Central Asian Republics and Russia, should be represented by Pakistan’s territories. At this level, there are clearly political problems, which prevent a serene commercial relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Projects related to regional cooperation on energetic field and trade could join India and Pakistan on the same page, reinforcing the stabilization of the region ina medium-long term perspective. Even if this possibility is presently far from reality, Russia could however facilitate Indo-Pakistani approach, given Moscow’s good relationships with both countries.


Challenges from Af-Pak region: a common threat for Central Asian Republics, Russia and NATO

A hypothetical situation without stability and security in Afghanistan after 2014 will cause severe costs above all for Central Asian countries conterminous, but also for Russia. The reinforcement of radical Islam militancy and drug trafficking could be the most important problems of the region, which has already to face huge corruption, ethnical tensions, human trafficking and competition for the control of water resources. Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen ethnic minoritiescould have negative consequencesin the case of Taliban political resurgence, which however should interestPashtun areas.

Considering a geographical point of view, Central Asian Republics are located in a fundamental strategically position and they will be the focus of future competition between United States, Russia and China. If the Afghan situation is going to worsen, countries like Kirghizstan and Tajikistan could increase their cooperation with Moscow, given the contemporary withdrawal of Washington from the area. It should be mentioned also trade linkages between China and Central Asian Republics, which are going to implement Beijing’s role in the area; relationships reinforced during the last decades are especially evident with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan: this situation could furthermore favor a Chinese-Russian teamwork in Central Asia, which could be extended hypothetically to Afghanistan. In this sense, it’s possible a regional cooperation, including China, Russia and Central Asian Republics in order to face common threats concerning security, in particular through organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). An interesting factor that should not be underestimated is the future complete adhesion of India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan as effective members of SCO. This hypothesis, which has an important political value, has been under discussion in the last years.

In the past fifteen years Russia’s presence in South Asia has taken place through traditional, historical and solid alliance with India, a partner in military and energetic fields, and gradual improvement of relations with Pakistan. Russia could also be an important actor in future stabilization of Afghanistan, given its cooperation with regional partners and its active role in the execution of projects interrelated to exploitation of natural resources.

United States and NATO allies could also be a source of stability with regional partners and prevent common dangers, like Islamic radicalism, human and drug trafficking. However, U.S. future in the region is complex, bearing in mind Washington pivot to Asia and the interest to avoid Chinese ascendancy in the Pacific: it’s possible that U.S. will concentrate more resources in other regional theatres.

In any case, Afghanistan remains a vital concern for U.S.; Washington is discussing with NATO allies and Afghan authorities terms and conditions of a new mission, the so-called Resolute Support Mission in order to carry forward original objectives of ISAF’s mission. In this context, Central Asian countries represent an important alternative to Pakistan’s unstable territory (just considering FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan provinces) for troops withdrawal, logistical support and supplies to be sent to Afghanistan. Routes crossing Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and South Russia, directed to Europe, though more costly compared to links through Pakistan, characterize the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN). This is a future option for Washington’s interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia, a possible exemplification of NATO-Russia cooperation, even if it’s unlikely, as the latter is now facing a problematic phase due to Ukrainian crisis. A further problematic aspect is U.S. intention to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan after 2014, a measure related to cited Resolute Support Mission. On the other hand, this perspective is not supported by all region’s countries, in particular by Iran and Pakistan. Anyhow, a common point of future collaboration between NATO, Russia, China and India could be the shared struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and drug trafficking.

U.S. decision to favor Afghan internal reconciliation and direct negotiations with Taliban, through Pakistan support, could however be evaluated as a negative action from Russian, Chinese and Indian point of view. Concerns of a new “talebanization” of Afghanistan could be a direct threat to internal security of these countries.

Dialogue with Taliban is considered by Washington as a political solution in order to prevent a large-scale military confrontation and favor stability in the country, involving different ethnics and religious groups in theinternal reconciliation process. This solution could be however disadvantageous especially for Russian and Indian interests, given the linkages between Taliban groups and Radical Islam. Russia and India were in the past hit by Islamic fundamentalism directly in their territory, if Kashmir and Caucasus are considered. Radical Islam, which acts in Asia, has its support bases in Af-Pak territories, especially in the area divided by Durand Line. It’s evident that Taliban resurgence at a political level could be a problematic aspect for the region if it will become again a source for internal conflict between different ethnic groups. Taliban extremists could be a force that favors internal civil war and a source of implementation, as in the past, of a fanatical vision of Islam.


The alternative represented by Russia-India-China dialogue on Afghanistan

In order to prevent a scenario characterized by instability, civil war and terrorism, it’s necessary a cooperation between different regional and global actors. International Community should also help Afghan government to continue the formation and equipment of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Furthermore, there is a possible alternative to Western presence in Afghanistan in order to favor Afghanistan’s stability: a hypothetical improvement of Indian-Chinese relationship could create good conditions for a New Delhi-Beijing dialogue on Afghanistan, which could be extended to Russia, already partner of the two Asian giants in BRICS economic forum.

2012 was an extremely positive year for normalization of Indian-Chinese relationship. However, huge contrasts remain. For instance, questions related to disputes of the shared border, a factor emerged clearly in April 2013, when some accidents close to the border between Aksai Chin and Ladakh occurred; Chinese suspects on Indian indirect support to Tibetan independentism and attempts to containment from Indian-U.S. alliance; Indian fears about Sino-Pakistani alliance and Chinese support to Islamabad’s nuclear program; competition in different areas of Asia, in Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea. However, assumptions for an improvement of Indian-Chinese relations are evident. Indian territory is one of the most important markets for Chinese goods; trade is constantly growing; scientific and university cooperation is gradually increasing; it’s already existing a dialogue on Central Asia and Africa. Indian and Chinese leaderships agree that the two countries could have more points of agreement that disagreement, considering the new multipolar global system in the making. In this sense, the common participation at BRICS forum, along with Russia, Brazil and South Africa, is a concrete example that explains this new approach.

Russia, China and India could be therefore actors of stability in Afghanistan, given the common interest to prevent the radicalization of the area. China and India could draw common advantages from the stabilization of Af-Pak, derived from competitive projects like Eurasian Economic Union, favored by Russia, and the New Silk Road, preferred by United States. Besides, though India and China are worried about Afghan security after Western withdrawal, they don’t support a vast military commitment and a long-term presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

There are therefore many points of convergence about Afghanistan, even if a tangible Indo-Chinese dialogue on Afghanistan seems to be premature. Competition is relevant, especially for the exploitation of natural resources, where India appears in a disadvantage phase, unlike China. New Delhi doesn’t have direct road and railway linkages with Afghanistan and this condition likely will persist in next years. Beijing has a more solid regional politics, an advantage in comparison with India, as for instance better relations established during the years with Pakistan and Iran demonstrate.

Chinese concerns are mainly two: first of all, a Washington-led Afghanistan stabilization could favor an U.S. long term presence in Central Asia, which could be perceived by Chinese authorities as a form of Beijing rising influence’s containment; the second one is connected to complete destabilization of Afghanistan after NATO’s withdrawal, which could become again a source for Islamic radicalism and drugs trafficking, a situation that could cause serious apprehensions for Chinese security along borders with Central Asia. In this sense, it’s a Beijing interest to act in Afghanistan, along with other countries, in order to avoid a complete failure of International Community on Afghan issues. India could be an effective ally of China for Afghan future, given the common interests related to security and stabilization of Asia. Indo-Chinese cooperation on Afghan future could be also a fundamental aspect for the “normalization” of New Delhi-Beijing relationship. This collaboration could furthermore be extended to Russia: a Beijing-Moscow-New Delhi dialogue over Afghanistan could be an alternative to Western influence. However, notwithstanding different interests, many of these are shared by these countries: stability, security, economic growth and Afghanistan’s inclusion in a regional system of cooperation. This kind of collaboration could also be seen as an agent of “normalization” of India-Pakistan relationship, given Russian positive attitude with both Southern Asian countries.


Considering this complicated context, there are many concerns shared by different countries. Kabul’s authorities are worried about a return of Taliban’s violence and a hypothetical civil war after the end of ISAF mission. Pakistan is concerned about Indian growing influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, while International Community is troubled of Pakistan’s nuclear installations. New Delhi considers Islamabad an agent of instability in Afghanistan’s territory and it’s worried about a resurgence of religious radicalism and its consequences especially for Kashmir. Russia and China along with Central Asian countries share some Indian fears, considering Islamic extremists, but they also observe with apprehension at drug trafficking, competition for natural resources and ethnic tensions. Iran supports Shiite communities’ instances and International Community is worried about the threat of an inter-religion clash extended from North Africa to Afghanistan, while Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries are concerned about Tehran’s growing influence in Middle East and Central Asia. Western countries, NATO and United States perceive that all good things made during the last decade in Afghanistan, democratization and improvements related to security, could be discouraged by a new phase of violence.

Afghanistan after 2014 presents therefore many issues and it’s a source of concern. However, time is not over and if different actors involved want to really prevent a future of instability, they should act concretely, working possibly in cooperation and through diverse International Organizations, in order to solve some problems and to fulfill Afghan people necessities.


Francesco Brunello Zanitti, MA in Contemporary History (University of Trieste), is PhD Research Scholar at Arts and Social Sciences College of Osmania University, Hyderabad (India). Expert of Indian foreign and internal politics, he is Scientific Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliarie – IsAG, Rome), whose he’s also Southern Asia Research Program’s Director. Member of Editorial Committee of “Geopolitica” (IsAG’s journal), his articles were published on “Asia Times Online” and “International Journal of Contemporary Issues” (India). "Af-Pak: la sfida della stabilità" is his second book.



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