Social instability in the Pakistan-Afghan region can be expected to rise this year: Washington’s military intervention may have provoked instability by radicalizing the population and intensifying its burdens, but a U.S. withdrawal without effective response to the region’s massive social and political problems will leave a vacuum that will do the same, especially since the Washington-Tel Aviv War Party will continue fishing in troubled Baluchi waters, with an eye on Iran.
Two posts this week by Juan Cole, one on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and one on Pakistan’s Sunni-Shi’i conflict, deserve to be read together, for each addresses one part of a massive vortex of social and political instability that has simultaneously been aggravated and ignored while all sides focused on the frequently counter-productive military contest. Western boots on Muslim ground constitute a prime factor intensifying conflict, but their removal does not necessarily improve the situation. If a broad international social reconstruction program under moderate Muslim auspices had been designed to fill the vacuum that will be left by the departing U.S. military, that departure would be a major step toward restoring regional peace, but a superficial and short-sighted U.S. military intervention over the past 15 years will apparently end without Washington having learned the lesson that impoverished, fractured Muslim societies cannot be bombed into tranquil middle-class democracies.
It could have been different. A Washington sincerely searching for a positive-sum solution to the broad U.S. conflict with politically active Islam might have been able to conceive of a deal with Tehran that would include supporting the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline and Iranian support for a political compromise in Afghanistan. U.S. support for Ankara’s efforts to find a nuclear compromise between Washington and Tehran and U.S. encouragement for a combined Iranian and Turkish program to stabilize Afghan society might have opened regional diplomatic doors to some truly creative thinking leading to a negotiated outcome that all sides might have come to perceive as having attractive benefits.
Instead, ominous political thunderclouds are becoming visible on the regional horizon:
The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan invites a full-scale Taliban effort to take power violently;
Such a move by the Taliban will almost inevitably suck in Pakistan because the political vacuum in an ineptly governed Afghanistan is matched by Islamabad’s continuing failure to offer the people of its border regions an attractive array of social services, security, political inclusion, and economic opportunities;
Making things even worse, Washington not only seems likely to continue undermining the Pakistani economy by opposing the much-needed Iranian gas pipeline but to exploit and/or tolerate Israeli exploitation of Baluchi unrest–thus placing the destabilization of Iran ahead of the stabilization of Pakistan.
One could imagine endless disaster scenarios; the point, however, is not in the details but in the underlying dynamics, whose contradictions are intensifying. No common principles govern regional behavior; no shared goals exist; the political contest is seen as zero-sum; opportunities for positive-sum deals on economic development, nuclear policy, combating illegal narcotics are overlooked; political forces too strong to be ignored are marginalized; adversaries are reviled. With all sides demanding justice for themselves, revenge, empowerment, non-existent resources, the exclusion of adversaries, and security at the expense of adversaries, violence remains the conflict resolution method of choice…and now all these inter-connected dynamics will propel a system characterized primarily by a vacuum of power and capacity to accomplish anything constructive.
A regional deal on the principle that Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran all should have stability, economic growth, peaceful regime change from within, and security from foreign attack might be attainable at this delicate time. Unfortunately, it is hard to identify any major actor that takes such an outcome seriously. The idea that the destabilization of Iran can be accompanied by the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in contrast, seems no more than the wishful thinking of outdated empire-builders. Far more likely is the intensification of instability throughout the region.
Iranian Influence in Afghanistan.
The question is not “if” Iranian influence in Afghanistan will rise as the U.S. withdraws, but the nature of that influence. For example, will Iran prefer to foment instability by promoting Shi-i – Sunni conflict or promote peace on its border by stressing pan-Islamic cooperation? Can the U.S. persuade Iran to be satisfied with cautious expansion of its influence as a bilateral Iranian-Afghan issue or will Iran try to use its growing influence in Afghanistan to harm U.S. interests?
Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan: Conflict or Cooperation?
Pan-Islamic feeling, economics, fear of illegal narcotics, and a desire for calm borders argue for cooperation. U.S., Israeli, Saudi, and perhaps Indian pressure as well as Sunni-Shi’i distrust promote conflict. Can the three find common ground?